Cantor Sokoloff and I often joke about a course for rabbinical students entitled “Page Calling 101”. Although there is no single course at the seminary that prepares rabbis to announce page numbers, there are a myriad of courses and experiences that prepare rabbis to think about the davening (prayer) experience and to appreciate the importance of the choreography associated with our liturgy. This year, as a community, we have spent time discussing our prayer experience, with the ultimate goal of understanding why we sit or stand for many of our prayers. During our learning, we have had an eye towards understanding our own practices. From these conversations, the ritual committee has approved a few changes in our own practice, which you might have already noticed during services.
There are two important principles in Judaism related to prayer: keva and kavanah. Keva means fixed and focuses on the fixed part of our prayer experience. We pray three times a day and have a fixed liturgy in the siddur. That is all connected to keva. Kavannah is associated with the intentionality behind the prayer experience. It is associated with spontaneity and ensuring that the experience is meaningful. The rabbis noted the importance of having both keva and kavanah in our prayer experience—to adhere to a fixed rhythm and text but to ensure that there is meaning behind that experience. It is easy to have just keva or just kavanah, but melding the two together, is an art. The rabbis, throughout the ages, have reminded us of the importance of striving for the ultimate goal of having both in our worship experiences.
With these ideas in mind, we now understand how choreography plays into our prayer experience. Ultimately, our body position and posture are intended to put us in the right mindset for specific moments during the service.
Two specific changes that were made to our choreography relate to the Shema and to Aleinu. Both changes were made with an eye towards enhancing our prayer experience. During the Shema, you might notice that everyone is sitting for the entirety of the prayer. The prayer is composed of Torah passages and is an important moment of the service. We make a proclamation when we recite the Shema about our relationship with God. As such, it is important to be able to focus on the text and aim for the highest level of intentionality and focus. Halachah, Jewish law, prescribes that we sit for this important statement, especially as we have been sitting for the blessings that lead up to the Shema. This way, we go into the prayer fully focused on the text, rather than concentrating on if we are sitting or standing. In truth, the rabbis did not always agree about whether to sit or stand during the Shema, but ultimately Rabbi Hillel’s teaching that we sit, influenced halachah in this situation.
During Aleinu, you might notice that the community now remains standing for the entirety of the prayer. Aleinu is an important part of our prayer experience, recited three times a day, at the conclusion of each service. The prayer proclaims our praise of God and hope for the future recognition of God by all of humanity. In order to maximize our ability to focus on the entire prayer, we will stand until the conclusion of the prayer.
I share these changes and the intention behind the changes first to ensure that you are not surprised when you come to the synagogue, and it seems like something is different. But more than that, I want you to understand the meaning behind the changes so that you can make your own choices. Ultimately, the goal is to make your prayer experience meaningful for you as you meld keva and kavanah together and find ways to continue to connect with prayer. What I did learn at the seminary, is that telling the community when to sit or when to stand is not nearly as rewarding as teaching the community about why we sit or stand and watching as congregants find meaning in their prayer experiences.
Rabbi Loren Monosov