From Polemic to Pandemic: The Past, Present, and Future of Hazarat ha-Shatz

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Yosie Levine


Nineteenth-century reformers and their opponents did battle over whether the institution of hazarat ha-shatz, the repetition of the silent devotion, ought to be eliminated from the daily liturgy. Reformers noted that as early as the twelfth century, Maimonides had issued a ruling that pierced the patina of indispensability surrounding hazarat ha-shatz. Once the reformers seized upon that ruling to further their liberal agenda, the traditionalists felt compelled to circumscribe it and deem it outmoded. Some 200 years later, echoes of that debate may still hold sway as communities consider post-pandemic halakhic practice.

Whether earlier or later, there was hardly a shul in the world that was not forced by the pandemic to shutter its doors. When those shuls eventually reopened, abbreviated services became the norm. With so much uncertainty about coronavirus – and fears stoked by early reports of choir practices that doubled as super-spreader events – synagogues across the globe found themselves opening up questions about which parts of the siddur were essential and which were discretionary.

At or near the top of most omission lists was hazarat ha-shatz. After all, there was a ready substitute. If the rapidly setting sun leaves no time for the full hazarat ha-shatz, R. Mordekhai Jaffe and R. Moses Isserles (based on the position of R. Hai Gaon) agree that a heikha kedushah[1] can be substituted. That is, under extenuating conditions, the members of a minyan can simply say the first three berakhot (blessings) together with the hazan, recite kedushah, and say the balance of Shemoneh Esrei quietly. If a little tardiness could be considered an exigent circumstance, surely a global pandemic could.

With the country’s gradual return to normalcy came the return to the kinds of services to which we had been accustomed in pre-COVID times. Many people longed to reclaim something of what they had lost. They missed communal singing. They missed the chance to be called up to the Torah. Some even said they missed the sermon. But few and far between were those synagogue members who clamored to bring back hazarat ha-shatz. The genie had been let out of the bottle. The heikha kedushah model not only proved more efficient; it also eliminated a portion of the service notoriously given to distraction. Many well-intentioned shul-goers were left to wonder why synagogues were reverting back to an institution that could justifiably be abandoned.

After all, those who prefer the single-amidah model can lay claim to a venerable champion. In twelfth-century Egypt, Maimonides advised against the recitation of the traditional hazarat ha-shatz on Shabbat and holidays when large crowds gathered in the synagogue. What function did the repetition serve when so many people were busy talking to one another, stepping out of the sanctuary and paying little attention to the service? Instead, Maimonides counselled that the cantor simply recite Shemoneh Esrei aloud and the individuals assembled follow quietly in an undertone (Responsa Maimonides 256).

When Spanish exiles found refuge on Egyptian soil some three hundred years later, they were surprised to discover Maimonides’s single-amidah model in wide use. In 1539, a controversy erupted between a community loyal to Maimonides’s ruling and a group beholden to the Talmudic tradition insisting that the silent amidah be followed by hazarat ha-shatz. Asked to render a ruling on the matter, R. David ibn Zimra (1479-1573) expressed a strong preference for the Talmudic model, but conceded that the avoidance of communal discord should take precedence (Responsa Radvaz 4:94).

Not long before, R. Solomon ben Simon Duran (c. 1400-1467), lamenting the behavior of worshippers in his community, confessed that he envied those who relied upon Maimonides’s responsum. “If only my father, Tashbetz, would have agreed with me during his lifetime, I would have adopted the practice” (Responsa Rashbash 56).

Indeed, Maimonides’s model was not limited to the Jews of North Africa. R. Hayyim Benveniste (1603-1673) took up a similar position. The rabbi of Izmir, he suggested having the cantor recite the first and last three berakhot aloud along with the congregation while the intervening section was recited silently (Kenesset ha-Gedolah Orah Hayyim 101). Yemenite communities have for generations employed the single-amidah model, while Spanish-Portuguese communities use it for Mussaf on Shabbat. Among Syrians or certain Sephardic communities, a congregation may decide to forgo hazarat ha-shatz if the number of attendees is limited and there may be too few respondents (Yalkut Yosef, Netilat Yadayim 232:1). And it is not uncommon for haredi Yeshivot to default to a heikha kedushah at Minhah in the service of creating more time for Torah study.

And yet, absent exigent circumstances, Ashkenazic synagogue communities in the Orthodox orbit almost universally insist on hazarat ha-shatz, notwithstanding the fact that the logic of Maimonides’s ruling is by no means limited to Sephardic communities. Perhaps in some communities conditions have improved since Maimonides’s time. But his description of synagogue behavior in twelfth century Cairo could easily be applied to not a few Orthodox shuls of the twenty-first century. To those who would question the wisdom of retaining a practice whose elimination might not only be seen as justified, but welcome, what is the basis for rabbinic opposition?

To be sure, poskim (halakhic authorities) have voiced further pragmatic concerns about the elimination of hazarat ha-shatz. Would it not spell, too, the end of kedushah, the priestly blessing, and other additions reserved exclusively for the cantor’s repetition? But these concerns can largely be addressed by Maimonides’s model wherein everyone follows the lead of the cantor who recites the entirety of the amidah aloud.

Wherefore, then, the staying power of this practice? For one, the inertial force of perpetuating a widespread liturgical practice is a powerful one. The original idea behind hazarat ha-shatz was for the benefit of the unlettered or uninitiated Jew. Were he to walk into the synagogue without the first clue as to how to acquit himself of his obligation to pray, he could rely on the cantor as his proxy (Rosh Hashanah 34b). R. Joseph Karo writes explicitly (Beit Yosef and Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 124) that while the rationale that originally precipitated the need for hazarat ha-shatz may generally be said to no longer pertain, the possibility – however remote – that it could be relevant in particular instances is sufficient to warrant the practice’s preservation.

But beyond these concerns, at least three important additional arguments may be advanced in favor of retaining hazarat ha-shatz.

First, for the mystically-inclined, hazarat ha-shatz is said to hold a special significance. R. Yaakov Hayyim Sofer (1870-1939), the famed Baghdadi posek, was adamant that it be preserved. Both the silent and communal recitations are necessary, he insisted, and the latter is even more spiritually elevated than the former (Kaf ha-Hayyim 124:3). And according to the Vilna Gaon, it is uniquely during hazarat ha-shatz that the names of God are unified (Siddur ha-Gra p. 99).

For those who incline toward rationalism, R. David Tzvi Hoffman offers an important conceptual observation. Communal prayer, he contends, serves two functions: “Inasmuch as prayer is meant to stand in place of sacrifice, one might compare the silent amidah to the humble sacrifice of the individual, while the hazarat ha-shatz stands for the sacrifice of the entire community” (Responsa Melamed le-Ho’il 1:12). The one cannot simply be substituted for the other.

A similar notion was later developed by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who identified this second aspect as tefillat ha-tzibbur, a public prayer offered up by an agent on behalf of the congregation he represents. As such, it was R. Soloveitchik’s position that each member of the congregation stand in rapt attention during hazarat ha-shatz.

Finally, it is conceivable that hesitancy among Ashkenazic poskim to adopt Maimonides’s model – at least in the course of the last 200 years – may be a relic of an early nineteenth-century polemic. The Hamburg Temple built in 1818 and the wholesale changes to the liturgy that accompanied it occasioned vehement objection by the traditionalist rabbinic camp. Enlisted by reformers to defend these changes on the basis of classical Jewish sources was one Eliezer Liebermann. He not only solicited responsa from learned rabbis of his day, but also published his own tract, Or Nogah, in defense of the new liturgy.

In his lengthy list of innovations requiring justification, second only to the decision to pray in the vernacular was the reformers’ decision to eliminate hazarat ha-shatz. Liebermann cited liberally from Maimonides’s responsum in defense of the decision to omit this prayer (Or Nogah, 12-13), triggering vociferous responses from R. Akiva Eiger and others in the traditionalist camp. They countered either that Maimonides’s responsum was a concession rather than a solution to be used in the first instance, or that its application was limited to the particular time and place in which it was issued. R. Moses Sofer was quick to point out that the practice had been banned by authorities in sixteenth-century Safed, rendering it irrelevant as a precedent for Ashkenazim (Responsa Hatam Sofer Vol. 6, Likkutim 89).

In its own context, the traditionalist response to Liebermann’s arguments did little to arrest the progress of the reformers. The lines in the sand had already been drawn. But in the wider context, the polemic may have exacted a toll on the traditionalists’ own capacity to tinker with the liturgy. Once they had appropriated Maimonides’s responsum to advance their project of streamlining the service, it was hardly possible for those in the Orthodox camp to do the same.

Not only was this a common result of the nineteenth-century polemics, but there is substantial halakhic basis for the actions of reformers generating a more conservative response from poskim where appropriate. Long before, Rashi identified the phenomenon of practices disqualified by virtue of foreign appropriation. Commenting on the biblical prohibition against erecting stone monuments, Rashi identifies a kind of cultural evolution. The same instrument once used religiously by the Patriarchs later became verboten. That the Canaanites were wont to employ stone monuments in the service of paganism rendered the same stones categorically unsuitable to the descendants of those Patriarchs (Commentary to Deut. 24:16).

It would not be too much to claim that a parallel phenomenon was at work in the nineteenth century. Having been weaponized by reformers in their own defense, the idea of adopting a single amidah was bound to be vigorously opposed by the champions of traditionalism.

And so it was. As an excerpt from a rabbinic exchange in 1879 makes clear, poskim took heed of the changing communal landscape when considering how to treat hazarat ha-shatz in the post-polemic era. Writing from Lübeck to his teacher, R. Azriel Hildesheimer, R. Salomon Carlebach (1845-1919) faced the prospect of a minyan with an insufficient number of respondents to warrant hazarat ha-shatz. After entertaining the solution of adopting the single-amidah model on Shabbat morning, he confessed his uneasiness about the decision. He worried that such an innovation would lead to the wholesale elimination of hazarat ha-shatz, a precedent already set by “many communities that have abandoned our ancient customs” (Responsa R. Azriel Hildesheimer Vol. 1 Orah Hayyim 11). While R. Hildesheimer empathized with the quandary, he too was reluctant to advise adopting the single-amidah model. It had become a proverbial stone monument, disqualified not by its essence, but by its users. 

Would the fate of the post-pandemic hazarat ha-shatz have been different had it not served as a foot soldier in the battles of the early nineteenth century? It is impossible to know for sure. While one can only speculate, inertia is a powerful force, and rarely are the rabbis quick to overturn practices that have become entrenched over the course of centuries. But polemics have a way of foreclosing debate about otherwise debatable topics. None of this is to say that Maimonides’s model – or a variant thereof – could not one day return. It just seems unlikely that that day will be today.

[1] The term derives from the Yiddish word hoykh, meaning high or loud. Rather than beginning with the silent amidah, the cantor begins his recitation aloud.

Yosie Levine is the rabbi of The Jewish Center in New York City. He holds a doctorate in early modern Jewish history from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School.