Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

This year, preparations for the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) are different. We won’t be able to hold the beloved prayers b’rov am (in large groups) and comfortably as we were accustomed to, instead, we will have to split into medium and small-sized minyanim (quorums) in different places. But this should not get us down, for this also holds a great tikun (correction). This is an opportunity for us to return to the roots of what we do, and emphasize the essentials.

Instead of relying on sermons and long public prayers, every individual and every family, from all they have learned and understood, will channel the contents of the sacred day into the order of their own lives. Individual responsibility will uplift and empower.

Organization within the Community

Incidentally, issurei Shabbat (Shabbat prohibitions) also form specific family and neighborhood areas, and strengthen them. If it was permissible to go outside the Shabbat techum (boundary), to travel and use electrical appliances - rather than having tens of thousands of synagogues, each with tens and hundreds of worshipers, large crowds would gather in huge halls and stadiums, only hazzanim (cantors) with the most beautiful voices would be appointed, and only those with the best rhetorical ability would give the sermons.

The prayers and sermons would be impressive, but the intimate connection created in each community between the gabbaim, the hazzanim, rabbis, speakers and the public would be lost. Thanks to the Shabbat prohibitions, numerous communities are organized – not too small, but also not too large – many talents come to fruition, and the world is enriched with countless varieties of Torah, song, and organization, and a diversity of communities in which countless interpersonal connections are formed.

As a result of the Corona restrictions, additional talents will flourish and be revealed. Instead of one hazzan and one shofar-blower, five will arise. People normally lost in the crowd will now participate in organizing balcony minyans, and find they are able to lead a prayer and bring together neighbors who, until now, usually did not come to synagogue. The blessing that can grow from this is unimaginable, and will continue even after we return to the large synagogues, and even when we are privileged to ascend en-masse for the Three Regalim (Pilgrimage Festivals) to the Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple).

Focus on the Essential

Since in most minyans, prayer-time will have to be reduced, b’nei Torah (those who lead their lives according to Torah) in each minyan will have to decide what to forgo, and in consequence, the essence of prayer will be emphasized. From this, too, a blessing will grow, for sometimes, because of all the additional piyyutim (liturigical poems), the focal point is forgotten.

The free time will allow many families to add Torah study, and great blessing will stem from this as well, in the consolidation of the family, influence of parents on their children, and in the strengthening of the status of Torah study.

On the approaching Chagim and Shabbatot, may they be for a blessing, it would be good for every family to get used to devoting a considerable amount of time to Torah study, in accordance with the words of our Sages who instructed dedicating half of Shabbat to Torah, and half to eating fine meals and additional rest. The convergence that Corona imposes on us, affords us an opportunity to establish Shabbat as a day for a great deal of Torah study, from which blessing will flow into the six working days. To this end, each family should determine in its home an appropriate place and time where members of the household can study without distractions.

Guidance for Courtyard and Balcony Minyans

More than a month ago, I received a request to compile an abbreviated order of prayer for the courtyard and balcony minyans. I chose not to, because I thought it was impossible to determine one order for all different types of minyans. On the contrary, it would be preferable that the b’nei Torah in each minyan plan the order according to what is right and appropriate for their own minyan.

Nevertheless, I will review the general principles, so as to help the various minyans tailor their approach.

When it is necessary to shorten, the essence of prayers should be kept, specifically: Pesukei D’zimra, the blessings of Kriyat Shema, the Amidah prayer without the piyyutim, the reading of the Torah, the blowing of the shofar, and the Mussaf prayer without piyyutim.

When there are participants who are not accustomed to praying, it is best to start prayers with Birchot HaShachar, and say them aloud and clearly, so that all listening can understand them, and answer amen.

When necessary, it is preferable to shorten Pesukei D’zimra in order to include all those praying on the various balconies in Birchot HaShachar. And even this, at the discretion of the minyan leaders. When it is necessary to shorten Pesukei D’zimra, one must be careful to say 'Baruch She’amar', 'Tehila l’David' and all the Hallelujahs, and 'Nishmat' until 'Yishtabach'.

Every courtyard or balcony minyan should give advance notice of the prayer arrangements, especially when there are men or women among those davening who are not accustomed to praying.

When Should Chazarat HaShatz be Waived

When there is a limited number of people in the minyan, and there is a reasonable chance that at times there will not be ten men answering, it is proper not to recite Chazarat HaShatz (the repetition of the silent prayer by the leader, the Shaliach Tzibur). If all those praying know how to daven, the hazzan should say the first three blessings aloud, and those davening should say them together with him in a whisper, and when they come to Kedusha, they should answer after him. Following this, everyone should continue praying in a whisper. If there is a Kohen, then, when the hazzan reaches the blessing 'Ratzeh', he should say the prayer aloud, so that the Kohen can duchen (say the Priestly Blessing) at the end of Modim. To do this, the Kohen must pray in the place where he will duchen, and when it’s time to recite the bracha, he should turn around and bless the worshippers.

In a limited minyan that has men or women worshipers who do not know how to pray, and wish to join the prayers by listening - it is preferable for the hazzan to say the entire prayer they are praying aloud. Those who know how to daven should say the prayer with him in a whisper, and those who are not accustomed to praying should listen, and by doing so, fulfill their obligation in the mitzvah of prayer, striving to answer amen at the end of each blessing.

In such a situation, it is important for the hazzan to say the words clearly and with emphasis – even at the expense of the singing and the melody – so that the prayer is well understood by those listening.

Definition of a Minyan

The requirement for a minyan is that there be ten men who see each other, and hear the hazzan. The minyan is also ‘kosher’ even when each of the participants is seen by the majority of the minyan, and everyone hears the hazzan.

L’chatchila (ideally), there should be ten men in one area, similar to a synagogue with all its divisions and sections, or one street or one yard, that are not divided by a fence. Then, additional people who are in other domains, such as in other yards, on balconies, or inside houses - if they see and hear them, fully join the minyan. And those who hear the minyan but do not see the members of the minyan, can fulfill their obligation by listening, and have a mitzvah by answering amen, but are not full partners in the minyan.

When the minyan is made up of people who are in different spaces, such as some on balconies, some on the street, and some inside a yard surrounded by a fence - even though they see and hear each other, some poskim are of the opinion they are not joined in a minyan. And although according to halakha, since they see each other they are considered joined, out of concern of the machmirim (stringent poskim), there is room to consider forgoing Chazarat HaShatz. However, regarding the rest of the prayers and recitations of Kaddish, there is no concern of bracha l’vatala (reciting a blessing in vain).

With regard to shofar blowing, there is no need for a minyan, and therefore anyone who hears the shofar blasts, even if there is a partition between himself and the shofar-blower, merits fulfilling the mitzvah, provided he has intention to fulfill the mitzvah.

Soul-Searching as Opposed to Accepting the Kingdom of God

Every year we are privileged to reach the Days of Awe, when we must make an annual cheshbon nefesh (introspective reckoning), and do teshuva (repent) for all our sins.

Ostensibly, if the main goal is to arrange a cheshbon nefesh, our Sages should have devised for us an orderly, annual inventory list which we could go through during Rosh Hashanah.

-The first section would be dedicated to Torah study, with subsections on diligence, concentration, hearing lessons, giving classes, studying halakha, machshava (philosophic thought), Tanakh, and mussar (ethics), etc.;

-Section two would involve examining our behavior in the field of family matters, with subsections on faithful, loving, and joyful marital relationships, honoring parents, educating children, relations with siblings and other family members;

-The third section would cover work, including subsections on diligence, work ethics, honesty, etc.;

-Section four would be on the relationship between man and his fellow neighbor, including subsections on respect for others, helping people, tzedaka (charity) for the poor, neighborliness, loshon ha’ra (slander), etc.;

-There would be a section on Shabbatot and Chagim, with subsections on oneg (pleasure) and simcha (joy) on a personal, and family level,

-One on setting fixed times for Torah study, prayers, etc.;

-A chapter on tzedaka and maaser kesafim (money tithes), as well as sections on all areas of life and mitzvot not mentioned above.

But amazingly, although the cheshbon nefesh mentioned is extremely important, instead of arranging an annual inventory list for us, our Sages determined that one should engage in Malchut Hashem (the kingdom of God), and pray for its revelation in the world by way of Israel’s redemption, the Ingathering of the Exiles, the building of Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, and the Beit HaMikdash. A halakha that expresses the essence of these days is that the main variation in the prayers of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) is that in the bracha of Kedusha, we conclude ‘ha’Melech ha’Kadosh’ (the King, the Holy One), instead of 'ha’El ha’Kadosh’ (the Almighty, the Holy One), and whoever made a mistake must return and start from the beginning.

Belief in God

In doing so, we learn an important foundation: Beyond all the mitzvot, all of which are precious and sacred, the most important thing is to return to the source, to the great vision of revealing the word of God and His blessing in the world. To remember that the purpose of the creation of the world is to bestow good, and as it is said in the six days of Creation, that all God created is good, and even very good.

Accepting Malchut Hashem during the Yamim Noraim is to accept the obligatory and exalted yoke, express the image of God within us, and to act according to the guidance of Torah so as to reveal God's values ​​in the world, in order to make it better, and more blessed.

The more we are able to internalize the value of Malchut Hashem, the more all our plans and actions will be uplifted and set straight – in fixing times for Torah study, in family ties, and in correcting relationships between man and his fellow neighbor. As a result, we will continue to advance in the proper understanding, deepening, and accuracy of all the mitzvot and deeds.

Festivity and Joy on Rosh Hashanah

In order to internalize this great value, we were commanded to open the year on a festive day, so that out of joy, we receive the yoke of His kingdom in awe and love, rejoice in the goodness of God, in His Torah and mitzvot, and pray for Israel’s redemption.

In light of this uplifting, overall outlook, we will make the annual cheshbon nefesh during Aseret Yemay Teshuva (The Ten Days of Repentance), confess all our sins, plan our days better, and merit a good and blessed year.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.