There is a debate in the Talmud regarding why the repetition of the Amidah was introduced. The Talmud teaches that reciting the amidah is incumbent on every member of the congregation, and that the recitation of the communal prayer leader would fulfill the obligations of those who were not familiar with the prayers. Rabban Gamliel, however, taught that the prayer leader exempts the entire congregation from their obligation, including both those who are familiar with the prayers and those who are not. At the heart of this debate is the essence of communal prayer. For Gamliel, the essence of saying the prayers aloud clearly was about more than just fulfilling a statutory requirement, but rather more about our need to pray together as a group. In this sense, the Hazzan is truly the shaliach tzibbur: not acting as a priest who recites a magical incantation that will resolve the legalistic question of whether one has fulfilled some halachic obligation, but is instead acting as an emissary of the congregation: a representative who will help us fulfill our need to commune with the divine in a public service. The majority opinion does not, however, agree with Rabban Gamliel (or me!) that one who is knowledgeable may also be exempted from saying the statutory prayers by merely responding “Amen” to the Hazzan’s prayers. Those who are able are obligated to say the prayers for themselves before the Hazzan leads prayer on behalf of the community. The notable exception to this rule, though, is on the High Holidays, where our tradition holds that even one who is knowledgeable can have his obligation fulfilled by the Hazzan’s communal recitation and, indeed, that one’s individual prayers are, by themselves, not sufficient in fulfilling his or her obligation.
The main reason given for this difference is that at the High Holidays the service is longer and therefore fewer people can be expected to know the prayers. To be sure, the liturgy is far more complex on Yom Kippur than at a weekday maariv service. But the reason for this shift in priorities speaks more to the nature and urgency of our prayers at this time of year. On the High Holidays, the communal nature of prayer, by necessity, takes precedence over one’s individual prayers. Our need to forgive, and to be forgiven, cannot be achieved in the context of our own individual supplications. We come together to take part in a public exercise of communing with the divine, cultivating compassion within us for each other and, ultimately, for ourselves.
For many of us, the music of the High Holidays serves as a conduit, enhancing our connection with prayer. During the Yamim Noraim, different styles of music serve both to evoke individual memories and emotions, and also to help us reflect on the various theological and psychological angles suggested by our diverse liturgical tradition. Music can serve even more importantly, though, as a unifying and rejuvenating force in our community, awakening within us the passion and compassion to move forward in our lives in a positive manner. Our participation reaffirms our commitment to each other as part of a group in which each voice is heard simultaneously in its own right and also in the context of the community. May you and your families feel your voices heard and your spirits uplifted amongst each other as we embark on this new year of promise.
Shana Tova Umetukah,
Hazzan Randall Levin