Streamlining Services: What Can we Learn from High Holidays 5781?

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 Moshe Kurtz


Virtually every American Modern Orthodox congregation omitted something from their typical High Holidays liturgy this year. What would have been a four hour Rosh Hashanah morning service for many was trimmed down to a meager two and a half hours. More than one congregant has already remarked to me that they would be willing to pay twice the amount for their seats if they are guaranteed the same experience next year. While he may have expressed that sentiment tongue in cheek, I believe that there are many of us – congregants and rabbis included – who have begun to contemplate if we need to return to a complete four hour service. As the musician Arthur Fields put it in 1919: “How ya gonna keep’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

My goal is not to dictate policy to any particular synagogue. Rather, my hope is to provide halakhic sources in the efforts of generating a healthy discussion about how to make services efficacious and efficient. Unfortunately, the conversation about streamlining services is many times stunted. It is easy to halt such a conversation if we imagine that the only people who care about the timing of services are the people slipping out to kiddush club or the nudniks holding audible conversations in the back of the sanctuary. Because of this perception, many genuine synagogue-goers who come primarily to pray are beset with guilt for wishing that services be run more expeditiously. My goal is to show that there is little reason to feel ashamed, as many of our great rabbinic leaders shared a similar sentiment.

On August 30, 2020, R. Hershel Schachter published a responsum (Piskei Corona #50: Inyanei Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) in which he advised that piyyutim (poetic liturgical additions) may be omitted since they only bear the status of a minhag (custom). R. Asher Weiss (Minhat Asher, Responsa for Coronavirus, 3rd Edition, no. 4) administered a similar ruling, though he advocated for maintaining sentimentally significant piyyutim such as Unetaneh Tokef.[1] Rabbis Schachter and Weiss were not the first to suggest this, as R. Akiva Eiger, who is cited as precedent, provided a similar dispensation for omitting piyyutim during a cholera outbreak in the early 19th century:

All synagogues, including both the men’s and women’s section, should fill to only half of their seating capacity such that every other seat is empty. To allow for equal access during the high holidays, half the congregants will attend for the two days of Rosh Hashanah while the other half will attend for Yom Kippur, with the specific holiday being determined by lottery. A military guard should be posted at the synagogue entrance to maintain orderly seating .The length of the service for Rosh Hashanah should not exceed five hours,[2] each oleh to the Torah will be limited to one mi-shebeirakh, piyyutim should be omitted, and the cantor should not prolong the prayers with melodies or musical flourishes.[3]

While these authorities’ willingness to omit parts of the traditional liturgy indicates a degree of flexibility, there still remains an intrinsic limitation within such an approach: The implication of their respective responsa indicates that the normative Ashkenazic community would be required to recite its standard piyyutim when there is no longer a sha’at ha-dehak (extenuating circumstances).[4]

This should not come as a surprise, since the innovation of piyyutim known as krovetz have enjoyed support from foundational halakhic authorities, most notably Rabbeinu Tam and Ra’avad (cited in Tur Orah Hayyim 68), Rosh (Berakhot 5:21)[5] and Maharil (cited in Rema Orah Hayyim 68:1). Additionally, R. Elazar Fleckeles, is often invoked for providing an impassioned approbation of piyyutim within the very first responsum of his work Teshuvah me-Ahavah (no. 1).

Although there were certainly authorities who approved of the incorporation of piyyutim, this practice was not without halakhic controversy. Tur (ad loc.) cites Ramah and Rambam both of whom oppose additions to the accepted procedure of prayers on the basis of Berakhot 11a.[6] Along the same lines, Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 68:1) rules that one may not insert piyyutim into the Blessings of Shema since it would constitute a disruption to the standardized formula.[7] While Rema (ibid) is more accommodating, he writes that “one who is lenient and does not recite them [piyyutim] has not lost out.”

Even if one manages to circumvent the issue of disrupting the standardized formula recorded by Shulhan Arukh, there are additional issues that need to be reckoned with.[8] Pri Hadash (Orah Hayyim Siman 112) based on the Talmud (Berakhot 21a), mounts a fierce opposition to adding piyyutim, at least during weekly Shabbat services:

Nowadays, in our multitude of sins, we squander our time with piyyutim. And due to their great length, everyone stops to talk with anyone who is within their vicinity. But why do we act more righteous than the sages of the Talmud, and instead of taking their message and common sense when they say in Berakhot (21a) that in truth a person is supposed to pray all eighteen blessings [of the Shemoneh Esrei] but ‘the Rabbis did not want to burden him [with reciting so many blessings] out of honor for [resting on] the Sabbath’…And behold, now there are many ignoramuses who could not care less for the words of our Sages and instead seek to impose a burden on both themselves and others [by adding piyyutim i.e. extra prayers] – these people ought to pray all eighteen blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei on the Sabbath!

And I call upon heaven and earth as my witnesses! For there are a number of cities which I have passed through which recite Shema after a fourth of the day has passed and tefilat ha-shakhar after a third of the day has passed. Behold! They began by degrading the reading of Shema, which is a Biblical commandment that cannot be made up. They have since heaped evil upon evil and have neglected Shemoneh Esrei which is Rabbinically mandated…

According to Pri Hadash, not only is it not pious to append piyyutim to the liturgy, but it takes a degree of hubris! We are not more righteous than the Sages of the Talmud that we should add on to what they have already deemed fit. Therefore, Pri Hadash concludes “that which R. Elazar HaKalir [one of the great paytanim] composed was designated for his generation alone and not for the generations that ensued…Therefore, all who heed my voice and curtail as many piyyutim as possible will extend the longevity and pleasantness of his days.”

In a similarly heated fashion, R. Yaakov Emden (Responsa She’eilat Ya’avetz, Vol. 1 Siman 64) penned a scathing rebuke in which he condemns the addition of mi she-beirakh prayers on Shabbat, even for the moderately ill:

…According to the Talmud Yerushalmi that is cited by the Tur (Orah Hayyim 188), in principle we should not say the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) [on the Sabbath, since it makes a request of God], but we continue to do so because the it has been formalized into the text by the Rabbis…The reason that there is an imperative to refrain from making requests of God on Shabbos is because of the injunction “that your speech on Shabbos should not be the same as during the week”…This applies as long as someone is in serious danger; anyone who is not in danger should instead have faith in the merit of Shabbos rather than beseech God the way that they would during the week…Along a similar line of reasoning, in principle we should pray all eighteen blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei on Shabbat, but the Rabbis curtailed it to only seven blessings because of tirha de-tzibbura – meaning, we are commanded to enjoy (l-aneig) ourselves during the Sabbath, therefore it is inappropriate to spend extra time on making requests of God like we would do during the week…This injunction applies whether the mi she-beirakh request is made for an individual or even for the general public…Therefore, this practice of making extra requests on Shabbat is erroneous and has nothing for them to rely on. The people practicing this are doing it for their own [selfish] benefit and gratification! …Certainly, a mi she-beirakh for every individual that wishes to have one is inappropriate and constitutes a major violation of tirha de-tzibbura. Nowadays, they extend services so long that it takes until midday (hatzot) to conclude! Shame to the proponents of this practice – I would put an end to this, if only I had the power.

Between Pri Hadash and R. Yaakov Emden, we are presented with three issues when it comes to incorporating liturgy beyond the formulae of the Talmudic sages such as piyyutim or mi she-beirakhs:

1) Technical: By adding time to services, a congregation runs the risk of missing the appointed time for reciting Shema and Shemoneh Esrei.

2) Fundamental: It is presumptuous to add to what the Sages have already determined adequate.

3) Fundamental: The additional time spent on these prayers constitutes a tirha de-tzibbura, an imposition on the congregation. This imposition is not simply problematic since it does not honor kavod ha-tzibbur (dignity of the congregation), but it also infringes on oneg shabbat, the enjoyment of the Sabbath. Therefore, Mishnah Berurah (53:36) based on Yam shel Shlomo (no. 50) rules, that while a congregation may generally forgo an imposition on their time, a prayer leader would not be permitted to excessively extend services on Shabbat and Holidays even with the congregation’s consent. The reason that the congregation cannot waive their own tirha de-tzibbura in this instance is because the honor of the Shabbat and Holiday are also at stake.[9]

If we read Pri Hadash and R. Yaakov Emden on a superficial level, we might erroneously walk away thinking that it is imperative to make prayer services as swift as possible on Shabbat. However, R. Ben-Zion Uziel (Mishpetei Uziel Vol. 3, Orah Hayyim no. 7)  clarifies that there is a critical distinction between the quantity of prayers versus the quality of prayer:

In my humble opinion, the Rema only spoke [out against lengthening services] in a case where they added on [extraneous] beseechments that relate to the theme of the [mandatory] blessings or with adding words into the formulation of the blessings. This is what Mahatzit ha-Shekel means when he comments “and [Rema wrote this] because it [these extra prayers] take up large swaths of time thereby causing tirha de-tzibbura. However, if they are extending the length of services so that the congregants will have adequate time to pray in a meticulous manner, it is in fact a mitzvah to wait for them so that they do not have to miss answering to Kedushah with the congregation. And this is reasonable, after all, do you think that because some of us want to rush through services with insufficient concentration and inaccurate pronunciation that it should be to the detriment of those who wish to pray in a plausibly appropriate manner?

There is a difference between additional prayers and obligatory prayers. While many of the aforementioned authorities were opposed to incorporating piyyutim, mi she-beirakhs, and other non-essential prayers, even they would likely concede that a synagogue is required to allot a reasonable amount of time to recite obligatory prayers, such as Shemoneh Esrei, with sufficient kavanah (concentration). As R. Binyomin Zilber (Az Nidabru Vol. 2, 79:3) aptly puts it: The prayer leader is called the “shaliah tzibbur” (the representative of the congregation) not the“shaliah shel yehidim” (the representative of a few individuals). While a congregation may choose to omit non-essential liturgy, it is imperative that it still provides sufficient time for the majority of the congregants to recite the core prayers with adequate kavanah.

On the topic of the prayer leader, we should note that even if a congregation opts to streamline the text of its services, it is of little avail if the appointed prayer leader decides to lengthen each prayer with excessively drawn out melodies. Ri Migash, in his responsa (no. 108), addresses the case of a prayer leader who chooses to take his time. He writes that the prayer leader should act with “derekh eretz u-mussar” (common decency) by not causing the congregation to wait for him. Clearly it is not etiquette for a prayer leader to opt by his own initiative to extend services beyond the congregation’s preference. Rashba, in his responsa (Vol. 1 Siman 215),[10] goes a step further by strongly condemning prayer leaders who make services longer than necessary for the sake of displaying their voice and receiving accolades:

And it was taught in a baraita that we do not stand in prayer from a place of conversation nor from a place of frivolity nor from a place of lightheadedness and nor from a place of inane words. Therefore, if the prayer leader’s intention is to make his voice heard and take joy in the fact that the congregants praise his voice, that is abhorrent. And it is a scenario like this that the verse refers to when it states in Isaiah (12:8), “…she lifted her voice upon me, therefore I despised her.” In any case, it is inappropriate to lengthen the prayer services since in many places we are instructed to curtail out of concern for tirha de-tzibbura. For example, R. Yehuda recorded that the custom of R. Akiva was to shorten his prayer time when he prayed with the congregation…[11]

While it is difficult to quantify what constitutes shlepping (dragging along), it is clear from Rashba that the prayer leader needs to move at a pace which keeps the needs of the congregation as his top priority. To accomplish this, there are congregations who post a schedule detailing which section the prayer leader should be up to at specific times.[12]

Prior to Rosh Hashanah, I drafted a guide for my synagogue, in which I have a rabbinic role, which outlined precisely what we would be skipping and how long each section of services should take. Many of our seasoned prayer leaders were aghast when I instructed them to omit almost every piyyut. How could we expect our congregants to feel connected to God in the absence of the hymns and melodies that have become a part and parcel of our High Holiday experience? How could we expect that our prayers should be accepted by God if we spend less time in synagogue than any other year? The answer, I shared, is that less is sometimes more: ke-shem shekibalti sekhar al ha-drishah kakh ani mekabel sekhar al ha-perishah – just as God rewards me for expounding so too He rewards me for refraining (Kiddushin 57a). When it comes to additional prayers, it is preferable to pray a little with proper concentration than a multitude without (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 1:4). This was not only relevant for our recent holiday season, but rings true for how we pray in all contexts. If we add too much to services and are not cognizant of the nature of our congregations, we run the risk of reaching a point of diminishing returns. While there are many of us, myself included, who benefit from the poignant tunes and connect to God through heartfelt song, eventually we arrive at a point where the specter of remaining one more hour in synagogue becomes daunting to the point of distraction. It is this very concern that, perhaps, led Tur (ibid.) to conclude: “Nonetheless, it is preferable to omit [piyyutim] for anyone who is able to do so. For it is the cause of people chattering empty and meaningless speech [during services].”

At any rate, it is clear that many great Rabbinic giants such as Rashba, Pri Hadash, R. Emden, and many others felt the same way that many of us do. If we do all that we can to concentrate during services and genuinely attempt to communicate with God, then there is little more that can be asked from us. I do not presume to recommend what should remain from High Holidays 5781 and what should revert back to High Holidays 5780.[13] Though, I can suggest that any rabbi who wishes to remove piyyutim and melodies from his synagogue’s liturgy should also be prepared to trim down his sermon to achieve the same goal.

There is a legitimate conversation to be had about streamlining services in the years to come. Whatever the decision, it must be done with sensitivity to tradition and the character of the particular congregation. I hope that the material I provided will serve as a basis for a genuine, respectful, and source-based discourse.

[1] See also Responsa Zekher Yehosef (Orah Hayyim Vol. 4, no. 213), which is cited in support for the position of omiting piyyutim.

[2] It is intriguing to note that an abridged Rosh Hashanah service for Rabbi Akiva Eiger would still take five hours.

[3] Translation is made accessible by Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman in his article, “From Cholera to Coronavirus: Recurring Pandemics, Recurring Rabbinic Responses”, Tradition Online. Source: Natan Gestetner, Pesakim ve-Takanot Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Jerusalem, 5731), letter 20, 70ff.

[4] This is well documented in the Tur and Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 68). See also Ma’aseh Rav (no. 127).

[5] However Jacob ben Asher (author of Tur), reports that his father Asher ben Jehiel who is the author of Rosh, disagreed with Rabbeinu Tam’s support for this practice. This creates doubt as to whether one can count Rosh among the supporters of piyyutim.

[6] The same fundamental dispute manifests itself between R. Yosef Karo and Rema in Orah Hayyim (112:2).

[7] Cf. Shibolei ha-Leket (no. 28).

[8] See Mishnah Berurah’s (68:1) interpretation of the Talmud in Tractate Berakhot (11a) and his presentation of Kesef Mishnah (Laws of Blessings 1:7).

[9] Cf. Beur Halakhah (529:1 s.v. Keitzad) where he implies that this issue is rooted in the nature of Yom Tov as opposed to there being an intrinsic necessity to expedite prayer services.

[10] Cf. Responsa of Rashba (1:115) where he further elaborates on the importance of mitigating tirha de-tzibbura.

[11] This ruling is codified in Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 53:11).

[12] Oreah Ne’eman (Vol. 3, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 124:1).

[13] There is a legitimate caveat when it comes to changing a congregation’s prior customs. Even if a synagogue unanimously reaches the conclusion that it would benefit from decreasing its piyyutim, they will still need to reckon with the laws of abrogating a communal custom. Moreover, while some piyyutim have been accepted as optional (evidenced by their varying prominence in different mahzorim), piyyutim such as Unetaneh Tokef appear to be universally accepted within the Ashkenazic community. However, see Sedei Hemed (Vol. 4, Sec. The Synagogue, no. 37) where he revoked a communal custom that caused an untenable imposition on his congregation. I hope to elaborate on this source in a future essay.

Moshe Kurtz serves as the Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT. He is the author of Challenging Assumptions (Mosaica Press, 2023), which addresses issues pertaining to American Jewry and the synagogue from a traditional, halakhic standpoint. For speaking requests or general inquiries, you may email: