Rosh Hashanah synagogue services: meaningful or just a marathon?

Click photo to download. Caption: Selichot (forgiveness) prayers at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 31, 2013, prior to Rosh Hashanah that year. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

There are four sounds that the shofar makes on Rosh Hashanah. The tekiah is a basic note of moderate length. Shevarim breaks the tekiah into three short notes. Teruah breaks the tekiah into nine smaller notes. Tekiah gedola takes the standard tekiah and makes it three times as long.

Synagogue services, too, have varying lengths. There are short services, such as the evening service on Rosh Hashanah, and even shorter ones like the weekday afternoon service (mincha). In fact, mincha can be so short that Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg of Temple Beth El in Birmingham, Ala., has seen Israeli bus drivers “jump off the bus, daven (pray), and jump back on the bus without losing much time on their route.” 

The same can’t be said for shacharit (morning service) and mussaf (additional service) on Rosh Hashanah—far from it.

“The Rosh Hashanah morning service is designed like the tekiah gedola,” Konigsburg tells JNS.org. “The theme of the day is the coronation of God as ruler of the universe. A coronation is filled with pomp and ceremony, and that is what the Rosh Hashanah service is all about.”

It sounds nice in theory, but realistically, how many Rosh Hashanah services have you spent in the hallway chatting with your friends? Or maybe you’ve even done it quietly in the back of the sanctuary, bemoaning the length of the rabbi’s speech or the operatic performance of the cantor, which to you has little meaning or attraction.

“I understand having kavanah (proper intention) on Rosh Hashanah, but to elongate something that normally goes 25-30 minutes to an hour seems pointless,” laments Gabriel Lewin of Pikesville, Md. “And while I appreciate the need for shuls to raise money and to sell off honors, like getting an aliyah [to the Torah], the problem is it turns into 35 minutes of grandstanding… and it also wastes a lot of time that could have been spent doing something more kadosh (holy).” 

Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg (pictured) of Temple Beth El in Birmingham, Ala., says, “The real problem with all services is not that they are too long, it is that people are not engaged by the service.” Credit: Provided photo. 

Lewin said he doesn’t like the lengthy mishaberachs, blessings that are added during the Torah reading. Though he’s a chazzan himself, Lewin said he finds fault in cantors who “like to hear themselves sing” and turn the prayers into a performance.

Hannah Heller, also of Pikesville, says she remembers being “frustrated as a child in shul when davening seemed endless and the people talking was such a distraction that I wondered why I had to be there all those hours.”

Today, Heller said she still finds Rosh Hashanah services to be long, but they are also very meaningful for her. It was a matter of finding the right synagogue in Netivot Shalom, a modern Orthodox establishment where, according to its website, “everyone has a voice.”

“Those who lead the davening do a lot of catchy, popular tunes and people are encouraged to sing along,” says Heller, noting that the tunes make her a part of the service. 

Heller says the speeches at Netivot Shalom are kept to a minimum and given not only by the rabbi, but also by members of the congregation. And while a lot of traditional singing takes place, “the person who leads davening avoids making it a cantorial performance and, instead, makes more of an effort to include everyone and help them feel that the prayers are relevant to each of us. … If congregants feel involved, they will be far more interested in davening and less concerned with watching the clock.”

Heller also finds that being prepared can make a difference. She brings—and the synagogue provides—Jewish books in English for moments when the liturgy is too heavy or she is struggling to stay focused. One book she recommends is “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit,” by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, but she notes that there are many others for that situation.

In addition, Heller recommends that synagogues offer pre-holiday primers to assist congregants in understanding the prayers. She says recording tunes for participants to learn in advance can be helpful, too.

“The real problem with all services is not that they are too long, it is that people are not engaged by the service,” says Konigsburg. “An opera is very long with lots of singing, unless you have read in advance the story and know what musical highlights to pay attention to. When we understand the service and are engaged by it, we don’t really consider the passage of time. When we don’t understand the music or the words, then yes, it seems to drag on and on.”

Konigsburg says that rabbis and cantors can work hard to engage their members, but ultimately, “each of us is responsible for our own spirituality.”

Lewin realized that lesson not too long ago and decided to find a synagogue that was a better fit. Now, he prays in a service at a private home with 40 or 50 like-minded individuals instead of a larger Baltimore shul.

“You have to know yourself,” says Lewin, noting that one should not reflexively attend the synagogue his family went to and assume it will somehow meet his needs. “Don’t be afraid to go somewhere else. Be honest about what you want and find it. In big cities, it all exists.”

Andrew Lavin attends Temple Beth Israel in Port Washington, N.Y. He says he also used to find the length of the High Holiday prayer experience challenging, but as he has gotten older, he finds synagogue to be “one of the few places in the world where I can get peace and quiet and solitude and get into my own thoughts.”

Lavin, however, says he does not judge others who feel differently.

“No one says you have to get there at the beginning of the service,” he says. “I think you should go the length you want and feel comfortable with that. If you can be spiritually fulfilled in just a few hours, then that’s good. … It’s a new year, so let go of the meshugas (craziness) and be hopeful for the future.”

Konigsburg says, “The Rosh Hashanah service is not a marathon, but an appropriate entrance to a Jewish New Year.”

Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Reach her at maayanjaffe@icloud.com or follow her on Twitter, @MaayanJaffe.

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Posted on July 22, 2014 and filed under High Holidays, Special Sections.