Communal Cry: The Paradox of Tefillah Be-Tsibbur


A well-known midrash[i] gives prayer the moniker “avodah she-be-leiv,” “service of the heart.” Tefillah thus takes on an intensely individual character. Unsurprisingly, the image of Hannah’s highly personal prayer dominates our heritage’s perspective on shemoneh esreih, the centerpiece of tefillah[ii]; the halakhot which emerge from this image, such as the proscription that tefillah be whispered such that only the prayer and G-d can hear[iii], further the individualization of tefillah. Yet this most personal of mitsvot ironically frames the most commonplace public element of halakhah, the institution of teifllah be-tsibbur. Instead of praying alone in their homes, Jewish individuals make their way to a gathering place, a beit ha-kenesset, specifically designated for prayer, and make a conscious effort to whisper in a group of ten. It is this halakhah which gives rise to a central paradox of the Jewish life experience: while prayer is one of the most personal actions a Jew takes, the prayer service and its house become the centerpiece of the Jewish community. What can such a public gathering possibly contribute to avodah she-be-leiv? If prayer is so intensely personal, how can a community pray?

Careful analysis of the Talmudic passages which discuss tefillah be-tsibbur can offer some insight into its nature. Consistent with tefillah’s nature as personal avodah she-be-leiv, the gemara never mandates tefillah be-tsibbur[iv], but a collection of statements toward the beginning of massekhet berakhot establish it as laudatory. In one place (Berakhot 7b), Rabbi Yokhanan proclaims that the time a tsibbur prays is an “eit ratson,” an auspicious time for prayer’s acceptance. Elsewhere (Berakhot 6a), Abba Binyamin proclaims that a person’s tefillah is heard only in the beit ha-kenesset[v], and Rashi explains that the beit ha-kenesset houses the tsibbur’s beautifully sung praises.

An eminently plausible minimalist reading of both these statements can maintain that the institution of tefillah be-tsibbur exists merely to bolster the participating individuals’ tefillot. Both sources describe the acceptance of a personal tefillah, not a joint tefillah of the tsibbur. If such a joint tefillah does not exist, the paradox of tefillah be-tsibbur is merely an apparition. The tsibbur provides only a framework to help the individual’s prayer.

How does the framework of the tsibbur create this “eit ratzon”? Once again, a simple explanation presents itself. Praying in a room designated for prayer, surrounded by others also praying, focuses the individual on his prayer. Tefillah be-tsibbur is thus a mechanism for encouraging kavanah. Indeed, this position is adopted explicitly by Rabbeinu Manoah[vi]. According to Rabbeinu Manoah, far from being a paradox, tefillah be-tsibbur is one of the most internally-focused halakhot of avodah she-be-leiv.

Yet a third Talmudic statement suggests this minimalist approach may not suffice. According to Rabbi Natan (Berakhot 8a), G-d does not reject “tefillatan shel rabbim,” “the prayer of the masses.” A simple reading of this statement reignites the heart of the paradox, the claim which Rabbeinu Manoah seemed to set out to deny: the masses can pray. It seems, according to Rabbi Natan, that tefillah need not be an individual’s avodah she-be-leiv; the prayer of the masses is a valid metaphysical halakhic entity.[vii]

Such a claim seems to have support in the halakhic tradition. Notwithstanding Rabbeinu Manoah’s interpretation, Rambam[viii] seems to believe in this view of tefillah be-tsibbur. He opens his discussion of the topic with the phrase, “tefillat ha-tsibbur,” “the masses’ prayer,” already indicating that he believes in the existence of such a concept. He then chooses to quote Rabbi Natan’s statement, as opposed to Rabbi Yokhanan’s. Rambam also believes in the concept of being “meshateif im ha-tsibbur,” an individual’s joining a tsibbur. If the tsibbur were just a framework for bolstering the individual’s kavanah, the individual would never truly “join” the tsibbur but merely surround himself by it; it is only the metaphysical creation of a tefillat ha-tsibbur which would require the individual to “join.”

Rav Soloveitchik[ix] notes that the very roots of tefillah are in the tsibbur, since the tefillot were established to correspond to the korbenot tamid, which were public offerings[x]. Thus, according to Rav Soloveitchik, tefillatan shel rabbim is, in fact, the paradigmatic example of a prayer. Rav Soloveitchik opines that when G-d accepts prayers, he accepts them as one conglomerate tefillat ha-tsibbur – for, after all, there is only one korban tamid each morning for the entire nation. The tefillot ha-tsibbur of various communities form the core of this entity. According to Rav Soloveitchik, ten men are required not merely to bolster kavanah but to represent the entirety of the Jewish nation, creating an entity which is not the prayer of an individual or even a community, but the prayer of a nation.

There are a number of halakhic ramifications to these two different perspectives. For example, Rambam[xi] defines tefillat ha-tsibbur as one person praying while the congregation listens. Such a construct is possible only if the goal of tefillah be-tsibbur is to create one entity of tefillatan shel rabim; if the goal is to help ten or more individual prayers, each of these prayers must be recited by the individuals of the congregation![xii] Thus, the form of tefillah be-tsibbur may change depending on which perspective is taken.

The nature of the mitsvah of tefillah be-tsibbur also depends on one’s perspective. According to the minimalist approach, tefillah be-tsibbur is an individual mitsvah; according to the Rambam’s apparent approach, it is a mitsvah fulfilled by the community, instead of by a specific individual. This may have ramifications in different areas of halakhah. For example, the Gemara (Berakhot 47b) tells the story of Rabbi Eliezer, who violated the Biblical prohibition against freeing his slave in order to form a minyan[xiii]. The Gemara justifies this act on the basis of tefillah be-tsibbur’s[xiv] being a “mitsvah de-rabim,” a mitsvah of the masses. This is most directly true if one views the mitsvah as being accomplished by the community. If the mitsvah is accomplished by specific individuals, one must interpret mitsvah de-rabim differently; for example, Rosh (Mo’eid Katan 3:3) sees the advantage of tefillah be-tsibbur in the mere facts that it is accomplished by all individuals, and that Rabbi Eliezer’s freeing his slave helped multiple individuals fulfill the mitsvah.

The different perspectives toward tefillah be-tsibbur also necessitate different perspectives toward how an individual becomes part of the tsibbur. As noted above, according to Rabbeinu Manoah, it seems likely that the individual merely needs the presence of a quorum, while Rambam seems to require some act of “joining” the tsibbur. The concept of “joining” is amorphous, but it may reflect more stringent requirements of adding oneself to a quorum. For example, Shaarei Teshuvah (55:14) rules that if an individual can hear the tsibbur from a different building, he is considered to be praying with the tsibbur. This should certainly be true according to Rabbeniu Manoah, since merely hearing the tsibbur’s prayers assists his kavanah. Peri Megadim (90:15), who may disagree[xv], may believe in a more stringent concept of “joining.” Global perspective toward tefillah be-tsibbur also has ramifications in the related issue of how the quorum forms. According to the Gemara (Berakhot 47b), the higher form of zimmun (a group’s unifying for Grace After Meals), which also requires a quorum of ten, can be recited even if ten are not quite reached, such if the tenth is a minor, or nine people are arranged in such a way that they appear to be ten. Can these leniencies be duplicated for tefillah be-tsibbur? If the quorum of tefillah be-tsibbur is necessary merely to bolster kavanah, the answer is almost certainly yes[xvi]; but to create a metaphysical communal prayer may necessitate an actual quorum.

One final halakhic question concerns the content of the tefillot. Magein Avraham (90:17) asks whether an individual who prays mussaf while the tsibbur is praying shakharit is considered to have fulfilled tefillah be-tsibbur. Such a tsibbur certainly creates an environment which contributes to the individual’s kavanah. According to the minimalist perspective, therefore, the individual should fulfill tefillah be-tsibbur, consistent with the opinion of Mishnah Berurah (90:30). Magein Avraham himself, however, believes such an individual does not fulfill tefillah be-tsibbur. This seems to reflect a need to create a communal prayer; mussaf and shakharit are too different to conglomerate into a single tefillatan shel rabbim. Interestingly, Tslach (Berakhot 6a) adopts both perspectives of tefillah be-tsibbur in different situations. According to Tslach, if the case arises outside the beit ha-kenesset, only the tsibbur’s prayer is heard[xvii], and an individual who prays mussaf while the tsibbur prays shakharit is not considered part of the tsibbur. Inside the beit ha-kenesset, on the other hand, the individual’s tefillah is heard as long as he is an environment of prayer, which can be created even if the tsibbur is reciting ashrei and of course exists if the tsibbur is praying shakharit. Tslach’s exposition beautifully showcases the simultaneous existence of two levels of tefillah be-tsibbur: the core tefillat ha-tsibbur, which is created by a quorum praying the same prayer together, and the prayer environment, which is created in a beit ha-kenesset even by a tsibbur who is done with shemoneh esreih and can be joined by an individual praying a different prayer. These two levels correspond to the two perspectives the rishonim had on tefillah be-tsibbur.

While the existence of communal prayer as a metaphysical entity seems to be a well-supported halakhic option, it brings the paradox of tefillah be-tsibbur upon us in full force. If tefillah is avodah she-be-leiv, if the very essence of tefillah is shaped by the thoughts of the individual who pours his soul before G-d, how can a tefillah be attributed to a community? It is possible that the nature of the communal tefillah is entirely different from the nature the individual avodah she-be-leiv, and the communal tefillah is centered in shared words instead of personal thoughts.[xviii] There seems, however, to be a subtler option.

The crucible of Egypt provided our nation with its opportunity for the first national tefillah in its history. The tefillah of the Jews in the second chapter of Shemot is beautiful in its simplicity. According to the Pasuk (Shemot 2:23), “Va-yei’anehu venei yisrael min ha-avodah va-yizaqu, va-taal shavatam el ha-elokim min ha-avodah,” “Bnei Yisrael groaned from the labor, and they cried out, and their prayer rose to G-d from the labor.” A national groan and cry, the most basic expression of pain and yearning for G-d’s salvation, was enough to start the wheels of redemption.

The model of this tefillah can solve the paradox of tefillah be-tsibbur. Perhaps a community cannot think the complex thoughts of personal tefillah, but a community shares a basic yearning to G-d. The tefillat ha-tsibbur is formed, in its essence, by a communal cry; it is this basic yearning which unites the tsibbur and allows the individuals’ disparate and distinct tefillot to share the basis of communal prayer as they rise to and are heard by G-d.[xix]

One other element also unites the disparate individual prayers: the individuals themselves think of themselves as part of the community. “Joining” the community, as Rambam mandates, requires more than merely being present for prayer with a minyan. Two peculiarities in Rambam’s exposition of this concept[xx] seem to suggest this. Kesef Mishneh notes that Rambam’s mandate to “join the community in prayer” is borrowed from Berakhot 29b-30a, which uses the phrase in an entirely different context. According to that Gemara, a person should pray tefillat ha-derekh in the plural, including others along with himself in his prayers, thus “joining the community in prayer.” Rambam, however, borrows the phrase to mandate tefillah be-tsibbur. After borrowing this phrase, Rambam explains, “A person should not pray individually whenever it is possible for him to pray with the tsibbur.” Such a qualification is somewhat unusual for Rambam. What is the connection between mentioning others in prayer and tefillat ha-tsibbur, and why does Rambam feel the need to restrict the obligation of tefillat ha-tsibbur to “whenever it is possible”?

It seems that Rambam views “joining the community in prayer” as a broader attitude, not a specific action of praying with a minyan. One who “joins the community in prayer” must see his needs and the needs of the rest of the community as intertwined and inseparable. Thus, even when he separates from the community (such as when he travels, and must recite tefillat ha-derekh), he includes the community in his prayers.[xxi] The attitude of shituf im ha-tsibbur thus pervades all of one’s prayers, even when tefillah be-tsibbur is impossible. This explains the inclusion of the qualifier in Rambam: one must always “join the community,” but the primary expression of this attitude is when it is possible for one to join tefillat ha-tsibbur. If one rejects this opportunity, he demonstrates that he is uninterested in viewing his relationship with G-d as part of the broader community’s. One who accepts this opportunity, however, demonstrates an entirely different attitude toward his relationship with G-d and his act of prayer, an attitude in which others are included in his prayers; his needs become the community’s, and vice versa. It is this attitude which unites the individual avodot she-be-leiv into one tefillatan shel rabbim; all the individuals pray with the common communal needs in mind first.

If this is the case, tefillah be-tsibbur is more than the centerpiece of the Jewish community; it is what builds the Jewish community. Individuals can develop very personal relationships with G-d through avodah she-be-leiv, but the challenge of tefillah be-tsibbur is to recognize that yearning for G-d is a basic element of the prayer experience and is shared by other members of the community. The ideal of shituf im ha-tsibbur challenges the individual to place others’ needs alongside his own, giving the rest of the community a place in his personal communication to G-d. Only this attitude can create a tefillatan shel rabbim, and only through this type of prayer can the individuals build a communal relationship with G-d.

Yakir Forman is a second-year student of the Yeshiva College community majoring in mathematics and physics.

[i] Mekhilta de-Rabi Shimon bar Yochai 23:25

[ii] In general, in this article, “tefillah” will be taken to refer to shemoneh esreih. Mishnah Berurah (90:28) cautions against the widespread impression that the primary gain of tefillah be-tsibbur is the ability to hear kaddish, kedushah, and barekhu; rather, the primary gain is praying shemoneh esreih together with the tsibbur. Thus, unless otherwise stated, almost all discussion in this article revolves around shemoneh esreih.

[iii] Berakhot 31a

[iv] Continuing the same tradition, the Shulkhan Arukh (OC 90:9) uses the rare formulation, “yishtadeil adam,” “a person should strive [to accomplish tefillah be-tsibbur],” avoiding the usual “chayav” which mandates an action.

[v] Many rishonim have the alternate girsa that tefillah is heard only be-tsibbur, a more direct reference to tefillah be-tsibbur.

[vi]  Commentary to Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah 8:1. Actually, Rabbeinu Monoah’s position is that including others in one’s prayer increases one’s kavanah. This position is advanced to explain the position of  Rambam, who, as noted below, seems to combine the halakhah of tefillah be-tsibbur with the advice to include others in one’s prayer. Rabbeinu Manoah’s explanation seems to encompass both halakhot.

[vii] It is noteworthy that the word “tefillatan,” “prayer,” appears in the singular. According to Rabbi Natan, the masses pray a single prayer entity.

[viii] Hilkhot Tefillah 8:1

[ix] Shiurim Le-Zeikher Abba Mari, vol. 2, pp. 37-38

[x] The Gemara (Berakhot 26b) asks what the tefillot correspond to and gives two answers: that the tefillot were established by the avot, and that the tefillot correspond to the qorbenot tamid. These two approaches typify the paradox explored in this article. The avot were individuals, and pointing to them as the source of prayer stresses its individual nature; in contrast, the public qorbenot seem to paint tefillah as an inherently public action.

[xi] Hilkhot Tefillah 8:4

[xii] The converse does not seem to be true; that is, the practice that the congregation members pray individually does not necessarily embrace the minimalist view of tefillah be-tsibbur. It seems possible that the prayers, though recited individually, combine to form one entity of communal prayer. This issue depends also on the manner in which the individual prayers combine to form one prayer, which will be discussed later in the article.

[xiii] A “Canaanite slave” cannot count toward a minyan, but a freed slave can. However, Torah law prohibits freeing a Canaanite slave. Nevertheless, Rabbi Eliezer freed his slave so that he could count as the last man of the quorum.

[xiv] Rosh (Berakhot 7:20) sees the mitsvah at issue as kedushah and barekhu, not shemoneh esreih be-tsibbur. If so, this story is irrelevant to our exploration of tefillah be-tsibbur.

[xv] Admittedly, a simpler reading of the Peri Megadim does not touch on this issue.

[xvi] This is especially true of the case of nine people who appear to be ten; after all, it seems likely that if the presence of the quorum bolsters the individual prayers’ kavanah, it is more important that the tsibbur looks like a quorum to the individual prayers than that it actually be a quorum.

[xvii] “Heard” references the statement of Abba Binyamin, upon which Tslach is commenting.

[xviii] This perspective finds its strongest support in Rambam, who distinguishes so sharply in the form of the two types of tefillah: tefillat ha-yachid is recited silently, seemingly because of the importance of the thoughts behind the words, while tefillat ha-tsibbur is recited aloud by one member of the congregation.

[xix] Such an approach also provides another explanation of Mishnah Berurah’s aforementioned position, that the individual who prays mussaf while the tsibbur prays shakharit is considered to be praying tefillat ha-tsibbur. If the basis of tefillat ha-tsibbur is merely the yearning to G-d expressed in the act of prayer itself, it can be formed even of different tefillot.

[xx] In Hilkhot Tefillah 8:1

[xxi] This may explain why the Gemara chose specifically tefillat ha-derekh to teach the lesson that one must mention others in his prayers. When one is separated from the tsibbur, including others in individual prayer is the only connection one has (in prayer) to the tsibbur. It thus becomes the principal expression of shituf im ha-tsibbur in this context.