THOUGHTS ON CONGREGATONAL “PARTICIPATION”
IN THE REPETITION OF THE AMIDAH
The Amidah is the central section of the traditional prayer service. It consists of 19 separate prayers or B’rachot on ordinary weekdays, seven on Shabbat or a Holiday and what feels like 15 or 20 million on the High Holidays, especially Rosh Hashana Musaf. The general traditional format is for the congregation to recite the entire Amidah quietly and then for the Cantor, or whoever is leading the service, to repeat the whole Amidah aloud. When this is done the leader is serving as the Shaliach Tzibbor, representative, of the congregation. I suspect that the custom arose in an era when there were no printed prayerbooks and much of the community was unable to recite the prayers on their own. Thus, the leader was saying the prayers on behalf of the congregation and by saying “Amen” the congregants are able, symbolically, to make the prayer their own. In allowing, in this way, the less knowledgeable to be part of the prayer service this custom provides a beautiful benefit.
Why, then, are there two conspicuous places where the leader’s prayer is not his or hers alone but there are also two instances of mandated participation by the congregation beyond simply saying “Amen”? The two moments to which I am referring are the “KIDDUSHAH”, the third prayer of the Amidah and the “MODIM”, the next to last. The answer, for me, lies in the nature of these two statements.
The KIDDUSHAH is a statement of and testimony to God’s holiness. The communal nature of Keddushah and that it is “testimony” is what make it require a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish adults. The root word means holy, or separate in a special way. The responses are short and easily learned. By answering “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts…” and “Blessed is the Glory of the Lord in God’s place” (which is everywhere, but is this case the reference may well be to God’s heavenly abode) and “God will reign forever, your God oh, Zion, throughout all generations, forever, Halleluyah” the congregant can provide his or her own testimonial statement of faith and belief. It is also important for the Shaliach Tzibbor to be heard by the congregation to be making the same statements. That is why he or she will repeat the three lines after the congregation rather than a simultaneous recital. This way he or she can make their own statement of belief of and connection with God’s holiness. The end result is that the entire congregation will, as a collective community testify to the very important articles of our faith, God’s holiness and Sovereignty.
The MODIM prayer as presented in most, if not all, prayerbooks, has a whole paragraph for the congregant to say privately, interrupting the leader’s chanting. This prayer, as I understand it, is the point where beyond praising or portioning God, we are saying “thank you”. Now it seems to me that, though not preferable, I can send an emissary to tell God I think God is great, or that I need something. Sending a representative to tell God that I am grateful does not work. I would suggest that ti is even unseemly. Expressions of gratitude are very personal and need to be voiced personally and individually to be understood as authentic and sincere.
I imagine there are many in our community who had already learned these ideas or figured them out for themselves. For those among us who had not, I urge you first, to think about what we are doing in shul and don’t just “go with the flow” by rote and second, if you have a question, ask it. I like to says that the only stupid question is the one I choose not to ask. Understanding what is going on can only make the experience more meaningful and spiritually rewarding.
Note: I almost always write these essays on my own. The nature of this one led me to believe that I needed to check for liturgical and conceptual accuracy. I am grateful to Rabbi Wise for his input and guidance.