Tirha de-Tsibbura and the Modern Synagogue

For centuries, if not millennia, the synagogue, as the locus of Jewish communal prayer, has served as the primary focal point of Jewish communal and religious activity. Communal prayer brings together Jews of all different ages, religious backgrounds, and professions to unite with the common goal of fulfilling their religious duty to pray. Needless to say, because communal prayer makes up such a large part of the religious experience of observant Jews, their experiences with communal prayer can have a large impact on their attitude towards Judaism as a whole. As such, one would expect that a concerted effort would be made on the part of Jewish communal leadership to ensure that the synagogue experience is an overall positive one. Unfortunately, however, this is simply not the case. Contemporary synagogues across the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism have been inundated with numerous practices which undoubtedly fall under the category referred to in classical rabbinic parlance as “tirha de-tsibbura,” or “burden upon the congregation.”[i] It is my intention in this article to make readers aware of the more prominent manifestations of tirha de-tsibbura in our synagogues and to provide suggestions as to how congregations should go about addressing this problem in order to make the experience of communal prayer more pleasant to the modern synagogue attendee.

I should note that I make my case not as a halakhist or expert of any sort, but rather as a consumer of the synagogue service who has observed, experienced, and engaged in many discussions about the practices spoken about in this article. Although there will undoubtedly be those (perhaps even entire communities) who feel that this article, or large parts of it, does not represent their personal feelings about the issue, it is my unscientific observation that many of the practices to be mentioned in this article are commonly perceived by congregants as being burdensome. Of course, it is the job of every community leader to decide what the needs of his or her community are, but it is my hope that this article can serve as a starting point for discussions between community leaders and their congregants to address the issues of tirha de-tsibbura.

It must be mentioned that tirha de-tsibbura is not merely a pragmatic consideration or a meta-halakhic concern; it is a real halakhic value which appears in numerous places in halakhic responsa literature.[ii] Nevertheless, the majority of the issues I will be discussing in this article do not come directly from halakhic responsa, as there simply is not enough literature on the subject to fully cover every aspect of tirha de-tsibbura as it applies to the modern synagogue. As such, this article will not focus on specific halakhic responses to particular synagogue practices, but will rather take a common-sense approach to indentify practices which clearly fall under the category of tirha de-tsibbura.

The first category of issues I will address does not involve the prayer service per se, but rather the physical environment of the synagogue.  Ideally, a synagogue should be well-lit, have proper climate-control, and should hold sufficient space and seats for all those who pray therein. Although all of these things are subject to constraints due to the financial resources of the community, it often appears as though the “comfort factor” is simply not considered by those who are charged with making administrative decisions about the synagogue. I have been in many synagogues, even synagogues which clearly had a strong financial base, where the lighting is woefully inadequate, the temperature is unbearably hot or cold, or where a large number of congregants is squeezed into a small side room for minhah and ma’ariv despite the fact that the synagogue has a main sanctuary that seats hundreds of people only a few feet away.  It is also necessary for a synagogue to be properly cleaned on a regular basis; for people with allergies, it can be nothing short of torture to have to pray in a synagogue full of dust and mold. A little bit of foresight and consideration for the comfort of the congregation can easily diminish the tirha de-tsibbura engendered by having an uncomfortable physical environment.

A second major source of tirha de-tsibbura to be found in our synagogues comes from the congregants themselves. The most common problem caused by congregants, of course, is the frequent disruption of prayer services that occurs when congregants converse during the synagogue. Unlike some of the other violations of tirha de-tsibbura, this problem has not gone unnoticed by synagogue leadership; synagogue rabbis and gabba’im frequently chastise their congregants about disruptions of this nature. Unfortunately, this problem seems to be unavoidable; regardless of how many times a rabbi may speak out against talking during services, there will inevitably be people who will continue to utilize synagogue services as an opportunity to socialize with their friends and acquaintances.

It should be noted, however, that the blame for the excessive amounts of talking that occurs in contemporary synagogues does not rest solely with the congregants. The vast majority of talking that transpires during services occurs during “downtime” in which the congregants are not praying but rather waiting for some part of the service to end, or listening silently while the prayer leader alone conducts some part of the service. While some idleness is unavoidable, there are many steps that synagogues can take to minimize the amount of time that the congregation spends standing around idly. Not only will this diminish the amount of talking in the synagogue, but it will also contribute to a more fluid prayer service.

“Downtime” can occur at many junctures during the prayer service, but I will briefly mention the most common examples here.  Firstly, it is very important that a certain amount of planning goes into every prayer service. The people who are to lead services and receive aliyyot should be appointed early in the service. The sifrei Torah should be rolled to their proper place before services to ensure that the congregation will not need to idly sit before the Torah reading to wait for the ba’al keri’ah to find the correct location. The rabbis of the congregation should confer with the gabba’im prior to services to determine which custom to follow in the event of a holiday or special event in which there are divergent liturgical customs, so that these decisions do not have to take place while the congregation is waiting.  Planning these things just a little while in advance can make the difference between a well-organized, pleasant prayer service and a cumbersome and frustrating synagogue experience.

Other manifestations of “downtime” come from certain parts of the prayer service themselves. While I would not advocate any changes to the liturgy, there are certain liturgical practices that have simply gone out of control in our communities. Two particularly egregious examples of this are the mi she-berakh prayer that is recited for sick people and the mi she-berakh recited for a person receiving an aliyyah to the Torah[iii]. With reference to the former, there is absolutely no reason why anyone should feel the need to come up to the gabbai reciting the mi she-berakh to tell him to insert the name of a particular sick person; congregants can and should mention the name of the sick person from their seats as the gabbai reaches the appropriate point in the mi she-berakh. Similarly, the mi she-berakh said for a person who receives an aliyyah should be shortened as much as possible; there is no need for the oleh to enumerate his family members, friends, rabbi, or favorite sports team—to do so is remarkably inconsiderate to everyone else in the congregation who is patiently waiting for the service to continue, regardless of how large of a donation the recipient of the aliyyah may have granted to the synagogue. The abolition of these practices will effectively eliminate a prominent occurrence of “downtime” within the service and will significantly diminish the tirha de-tsibbura that transpires during the Torah reading.

A final, very common incidence of downtime occurs during the interval between the time when the congregation finishes praying the silent amidah and the point when the ba’al tefillah starts his repetition. Although different communities may have significantly different average prayer speeds, there should never be a situation where the majority of a congregation is waiting for the ba’al tefillah to start his repetition of the amidah. If the synagogue rabbi takes a long time to complete his silent prayer, he should instruct the ba’al tefillah not to wait for him. Additionally, if the ba’al tefillah knows that he prays at a slower pace than the majority of the congregation, he should either make sure to pray at a faster pace or decline to lead the prayers. Similarly, if a would-be ba’al tefillah reads slowly, and as a result, his repetition of the amidah would be significantly slower than the congregation is used to, he should decline to take the amud to ensure that the congregation will not become burdened by listening to a painfully slow repetition of the amidah.

Now that we have discussed the problem of talking during the service and the factors that can lead to it, it should also be pointed out that congregants often engage in other activities which are just as disruptive as talking but which often go uncastigated by synagogue leadership. For example, many people, including some prominent rabbis, have the practice to spontaneously raise their voices at certain parts during the prayer service, pace up and down the synagogue aisles, clap, or make exaggerated bodily gesticulations. This behavior can often be distracting to the other congregants and should therefore explicitly be denounced by the synagogue leadership.

In addition to the tirha de-tsibbura that can be caused by an unpleasant physical environment and disruptive congregants, it is necessary to mention the tirha de-tsibbura that can be engendered by the people who play an active leadership role in the services, namely the ba’al tefillah, the ba’al keri’ah, and the synagogue rabbi.

When discussing the issue of ba’alei tefillah and tirha de-tsibbura, the first point that needs to be made is that the synagogue service is not a musical performance. The function of a ba’al tefillah is to act as a representative of the community in the fulfillment of public prayer as well as to discharge the obligation of those who, due to mitigating circumstances, cannot fulfill their individual obligation to pray.  It is not appropriate for a ba’al tefillah to turn this religious obligation into a forum for an aggrandizing display of vocal talent (or, as is occasionally the case, the lack thereof). Although there are certainly parts of the service that are traditionally sung, and it is appropriate for the ba’al tefillah to lead the singing during these parts of the service, the ba’al tefillah should not extend the length of the tefillot nor sing parts of the service that are not usually sung. Not only does excessive hazzanut distract the congregation from the essential purpose of the prayer service, it can be painful for people who do not enjoy listening to hazzanut, and it can often draw out the service to a length to which even the most patient people will become restless. [iv]

Of course, there are people for whom hazzanut is an important and uplifting part of their prayer service, and I do not mean to remove hazzanut entirely from the Jewish People as a religious experience. However, it should be understood that hazzanut is not an integral part of the prayer service and should not be treated as such. If a synagogue does want to invite a professional hazzan once in a while, it is only considerate to warn congregants considerably in advance and to provide alternative services for those who do not enjoy hazzanut.

Ba’alei tefillah should be aware of the liturgical customs of the congregation as well as the pace at which the majority of the congregants pray. It is inappropriate for a ba’al tefillah, of his own volition, to change the accepted nusah, tune, or pace of the congregation’s prayer. If a ba’al tefillah does not wish to abide by the community’s standards in this regard, he should not be permitted to lead services, since it will inevitably bother members of the congregation. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon the synagogue leadership to ensure that if someone is chosen to lead a part of the services that involves singing, the ba’al tefillah must be able to both carry a tune and choose a key in which the vast majority of the congregants can sing. A ba’al tefillah who receives disapproving reviews about his performance from a significant number of congregants should not be permitted to lead the services again at that synagogue until it can be ascertained that he has corrected his deficiencies.

Similarly, if at all possible, a synagogue should only allow a ba’al keri’ah to read for the congregation if his keri’at ha-torah abilities are up to certain basic standards. While there is no need for a ba’al keri’ah to have a beautiful voice, it is important for the dignity of the congregation that a ba’al keri’ah not be completely tone-deaf. More importantly, a ba’al keri’ah should have a basic knowledge of Hebrew grammar as it pertains to the reading of the Torah. Although the Hebrew language has changed much since the biblical period, and even the most meticulous of ba’alei keri’ah will not even come close to approximating what the language originally sounded like, there are certain grammatical nuances which are widely accepted as being preferable, if not obligatory, to be emphasized when reading the Torah, such as the correct accenting of the words and the differentiation between a sheva na and a sheva nah. Synagogues, especially large synagogues that have the resources to be selective, should make efforts to obtain a ba’al keri’ah who has a strong command of these nuances of the Hebrew language. In addition to ensuring that the keri’at ha-torah will be fulfilled in the most proper and halakhically acceptable fashion, a good ba’al keri’ah can make the Torah reading an enjoyable part of the prayer service, whereas a bad ba’al keri’ah will leave congregants cringing for the entire duration of keri’at ha-torah.
Having discussed the ba’alei tefillah and ba’alei keri’ah, the final and perhaps most ubiquitous manifestation of tirha de-tsibbura comes from the rabbi himself, and in particular, the practice of the rabbi’s sermon during the prayer service. It is often the case that a significant portion of a synagogue’s congregants have little or no interest in hearing their rabbi’s sermon, and often for good reason. Modern synagogues have congregants whose educational backgrounds in Judaism range from almost complete lack of Jewish literacy to seasoned yeshivah students to rabbis to tenured professors of Jewish Studies. Very few rabbis possess the scholarship and oratory skills to please such a diverse audience.  Moreover, even if a rabbi were able to consistently give highly intelligent and articulate derashot that appeal to the entire congregation, it would still be inappropriate for him to deliver his sermons during services, as it unnecessarily lengthens the prayer service for those who came to synagogue simply because they wanted to pray with a minyan.

The alternative, of course, is not to eliminate rabbis’ sermons, but simply to relocate them to a juncture which is more considerate of the congregants. If a rabbi or his congregation feels the need to have a weekly (or daily) devar Torah, the rabbi can deliver his words of wisdom either prior to the commencement of services or subsequent to their conclusion, [v] so only those who are interested in hearing the rabbi speak will stay, while those who wish to leave can do so without feeling uncomfortable. This small change in the scheduling of the rabbi’s sermon can improve the atmosphere of the synagogue by leaps and bounds.

There are undoubtedly many other synagogue practices which fall under the category of tirha de-tsibbura; I have only listed the ones which I consider to be most significant. It goes without saying that many of the specific suggestions I have put forward in this article are somewhat controversial. I do not expect every synagogue to implement all of the policies I have suggested, or even agree with them,  but I think it is important that every community look at itself and ask, “what can we do to ensure that all our congregants have a meaningful and positive tefillah experience?” Eliminating the many little annoyances that have crept into contemporary synagogue services can go a long way in improving a congregation’s attitude toward the institution of communal prayer.

Toviah Moldwin is a junior in YC majoring in computer science, and is an editor in chief for YU Beacon.


[i] See Berakhot 27b and Sotah 39b (The terminology in Sotah differs in terminology from that in Berakhot, see the article cited in the next note).

[ii] This article is not intended to discuss the technical halakhic and conceptual issues relating to tirha d’tzibbura. For that, see the following article: “Kevod Tsibbur ve-Torah Tsibbur,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Medrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion, available at: http://www.etzion.org.il/vbm/archive/8-bishiv/37%20tircha%20de’tzibura.php.

[iii] Ideally, the service would be significantly improved if no mi she-berakh prayers were recited at all, but, as this is a custom that has become well-ingrained in many communities, at least we can cut down on the unnecessary waste of time that occur while preserving the custom of the mi she-berakh prayer.

[iv] This is particularly a problem during the High Holidays, when the service is often drawn out several hours longer than is necessary simply due to the enormous amount of hazzanut. While some may feel that hazzanut is part of the “High Holiday experience,” it is important to remember that for many people (particularly children and young adults), the long, drawn-out services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom ha-Kippurim are among the most painful and difficult rituals of Judaism, and there is no real reason for this to be the case-the services can easily be shortened by several hours without detracting whatsoever from the meaning of the service. Even on Yom Hakippurim, when the Torah commands us to “afflict our souls,” the rabbinic interpretation of “affliction” does not include the particular affliction of having to stand in the synagogue for hours on end listening to hazzanut.

[v] If a kiddush is being held after services, it is preferable, from the perspective of both the rabbi and the congregation, to have the devar Torah either at the kiddush (assuming that the congregants have a place to sit) or afterwards. Having a devar Torah immediately prior to kiddush is probably more inconsiderate than having it in the middle of services, and it is a sure-fire way to guarantee that no one will pay attention.