מאבל לאור גדול: Preliminary Thoughts on Joy and Aveilut in Contemporary Jewish Worship

I confess, I am a Minyanaholic, even a bit of a Minyan-snob. I am one of those guys who not only, under normal circumstances, makes a point to be at Minyan, but notices and judges you (yes, you!) if you are not there. I said already, I’m a Minyan-snob, a wonkish Minyanaire. That’s because the obligation to Daven with a Minyan is real (see אורח חיים צ:ט), albeit with very legitimate provisions, including ongoing work-related exceptions (see, for example, גמרא ברכות לח עמוד ב and אורח חיים קכח:כד). One of the million reasons that I am endlessly thankful for my job is the opportunity it affords me to Daven with a Minyan regularly; I do not take that lightly, and I do not mean to insult those with legitimate reasons for missing Minyan, even often. My Minyoxiousness is reserved for lazy people who would rather watch TV than go to Minyan (on that, see אורח חיים צ:יא).

I go to Minyan a lot, in part because I believe that that is a real obligation. But that also, perhaps, legitimizes my weighing in on another obligation, one that is not real at all: the supposed requirement for someone who is a mourner to serve as Chazzan whenever he can.

I don’t blame people for mistaking this for an obligation, since the Establishment has attempted to convince us of this for some time. As esteemed a publication as Eretz Hemdah once delineated the obligation this way:

“The Rama (YD 376:4) rules that it is proper for sons of the deceased to bring them merit by saying Kaddish and being chazan for 11 months after death. Yet, mourners do not have an absolute need or right to be chazan. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 53:20) says that a congregation may choose another chazan over a mourner if they so desire. A mourner’s absolute right applies only to the Kaddeishim designed for them (Mishna Berura 53:60). However, the congregation should allow a mourner to be chazan under normal circumstances (he is a fluent chazan and positive person).”

Let’s look at the sources the Eretz Hemdah quotes. First, the Rama in Yoreh Deah – I’ve quoted a bit before and after to show that I have not eliminated anything of relevance:

שולחן ערוך יורה דעה סימן שעו סעיף ד
ונהגו להקפיד אם יכנס אדם לבית אחר קודם שירחץ וישב ג”פ, ומנהג אבותינו תורה (שם במהרי”ל). ונמצא במדרשות לומר קדיש על אב (כל בו וריב”ש בשם תנחומא וספרי, ובחיי בשם מסכת כלה, וב”י בשם הזוהר, ובא”ז בשם תנא דבי אליהו רבא); ע”כ נהגו לומר על אב ואם קדיש בתרא י”ב חדש, וכן נהגו להפטיר בנביא, ולהתפלל ערבית במוצאי שבתות שהוא הזמן שחוזרין הנשמות לגיהנם. וכשהבן מתפלל ומקדש ברבים, פודה אביו ואמו מן הגיהנם (כל בו בשם הגהות). ונהגו לומר קדיש על האם אע”פ שהאב חי עדיין.

Maftir, one Kaddish at the end of each Tefillah, and Chazzanut at Ma’ariv of Motza’ei Shabbat (for twelve months, not eleven). That’s it. Notice the Rama’s reason in the first line quoted above – Motza’ei Shabbat is when the souls of the departed go back to Gehinnom. Then, in the very next line, the Rama says that a son’s serving as Chazzan “redeems his father’s soul from Gehinnom.” Eretz Hemdah took this second line wildly out of context, somehow extending it to every opportunity to be Chazzan that a mourner should encounter for eleven months. But that makes no sense – souls return to Gehinnom once a week; not all day, every day, seven days a week, for eleven months. It is difficult to say that the Rama meant that mourners should always be Chazzan when (1) his first line states explicitly that that obligation is only on Motza’ei Shabbat; and (2) his second line gives a reason that is only relevant to Motza’ei Shabbat. So why, at least according to this Rama, is it “proper for sons of the deceased to bring them merit by saying Kaddish and being chazan for 11 months after death?” I think that Eretz Hemdah has some explaining to do on this one.

The Mechaber in Orach Chaim quoted (more accurately) by Eretz Hemdah also does not come close to delineating any obligation for a mourner to be Chazzan with any regularity:

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים סימן נג סעיף כ
אם אחד רוצה לומר תפלה בשביל אביו, ואחד רוצה לומר בשביל אחר, מי שירצה הקהל שיאמר התפלה – הוא יאמר.

Here again, the Mechaber seems to see no preference whatsoever in a mourner’s serving as Chazzan and doesn’t even come close to legitimatizing the now-universal practice of granting unchecked power to mourners all over the world to turn Shuls, once Citadels of Joy, into morose extensions of Shiva houses. And a look at the Shulchan Aruch’s source, a Teshuva by the Maharik, shows that, if anything, the Mechaber is actually being kind to mourners as compared to the Maharik before him:

שו”ת מהרי”ק סימן ל
אבל בענין התפלה, כך לי: האומר בשביל אביו, כמו האומר בשביל אחר שאין קרוב כלל. דאין זה תלוי כלל אלא ברצון הקהל, שהתפלה היא שלהם, והיא במקום קרבן צבור, דהיינו התמידים, שהיו באים משל ציבור. ואין ראוי שהיה אדם שלוחם להקריב את קרבנם שלא מדעתם ורצונם. ומטעם זה, פסק רבינו שמחה, דאפילו יחיד יכול לעכב את החזנות ולומר, “איני חפץ שיהיה פלוני חזן!” – אם לא שכבר הסכים עליו מתחלה. והלכך, מי שירצו הקהל שיאמר התפלה, הוא יזכה בו, ולא האחר.

The Maharik lends not a hint of legitimacy to the Minhag so prevalent in our Shuls that mourners take over without a second thought, even going so far as to say that a single individual who is unhappy with a mourner-Chazzan may obfuscate that person’s “right” to Chazzanut.

The Darkei Moshe [i.e., the Rama] mentions two Rishonim who object to the idea that an individual can assert his will for no reason – “אפילו בלא טעם” – as to who should be Chazzan. It is interesting to note, however, that the practice of unilateral, purposeless objection does seem to have at one point been very popular:

חידושי דינין והלכות למהר”י ווייל סימן ס
על מה שנהגו בימים נוראים למחות לשונא להתפלל.
כתב מהר”ח אור זרוע, ע”י סיבה ששמע על הנוהגים כך שהיחיד מוחה אפילו בלא טעם, ותולין דבר זה ברבינו אביו ז”ל – וכעס הרבה, והוכיחו על כך, שחלילה לאבא לפסוק כך, להתיר ליחיד כל דהו למחות בלי טעם! – אך, (this individual should) יציע טעמו ודבריו לפי טובי העיר; אם יראו דברים ניכרים, שראוי למחות עליהם – כפי זה יעשו, עכ”ל. וע”ז הוסיף רבי שבתי ז”ל, שהיה באותו דור ראש מנהיגנו, וז”ל – גם בעיני הקטן, לא טוב וכשר הדבר להחזיק במנהג זה, לתת יד ליחיד כל דהו בלא טעם טוב:

While it doesn’t seem that any legitimate Halachic authority ever permitted the custom of unilateral, purposeless objection, it does seem that that custom nonetheless persisted with some degree of latitude in various communities. Left to our imagination, of course, is what constitutes “בלא טעם,” and it is not clear whether one’s objecting to a Chazzan simply because that individual is a mourner would, at least according to the Darkei Moshe, meet the criteria of “בלא טעם.” The Maharik would certainly consider one’s objecting to a particular individual serving as Chazzan merely because he is a mourner legitimate and not “בלא טעם” – notice the placement of the words “ומטעם זה” in the Maharik quoted above.

The Mishna Berura assumes that Chazzanut is something that a person in his week of Aveilut would more likely do:

  משנה ברורה סימן נג ס”ק נט
(נט) בשביל אביו – פירוש, שמת אביו, ורוצה להתפלל כדרך האבלים, כי תפלה היא יותר מצוה מאמירת הקדיש.

With the delicateness that the Mishna Berurah takes in explaining this issue, it doesn’t sound to me like, even in his time, Chazzan-centeredness by mourners was a regular practice – or at least a preferred one. And the Piskei Teshuvot (נט:כ) notes that the Ari Z”l never advocated for mourner-Chazzanim, even on Motzaei Shabbatot: ויש לזכור כי האר”י ז”ל, אשר בודאי היה בקי ביותר בשורש תיקון הנשמות בשמי מרום, כתב כי עיקר התיקון הוא באמירת קדיש ולא הזכיר ענין התפילה לפני העמוד.

Eretz Chemdah’s mistake is mirrored in ArtScroll’s excellent and authoritative Mourning in Halacha, 40:1, where we learn that “[t]he custom is that the mourner leads the prayer-service during the entire eleven months.” That I cannot deny, but the citation given for this “custom” in the footnote, “Rama (376:4),” is dishonest, since, as we have seen, the Rama does not say that. In the next paragraph, the author acknowledges that he does in fact know how to read a simple Rama: “One should especially make an effort to lead the Maariv services at the conclusion of the Sabbath, since that is when the souls return to Gehinnom.” The same Rama is again cited in the footnotes. But the Rama never said “especially” anything, and ArtScroll knows that. By citing the Rama twice, once with the qualifier “especially,” the implication is that two levels of obligation exist. The Rama, in fact, only noted one.

The Aruch Hashulchan (376:12) quotes the Rama verbatim and without modification. In a further compromise of its intellectual integrity, Mourning in Halacha (Ch. 40, fn. 2) quotes directly from a different part of the same paragraph in Aruch Hashulchan, but ignores the Aruch Hashulchan’s quote of the Rama which would have damaged MIH‘s claim that mourners have regular rights to Chazzanut. How interesting that MIH contains a long (and rather patronizing) direct quote from Aruch Hashulchan on a different matter, and soon after (fn. 4) a long quote directly from She’arim Metzuyanim BeHalachah, but ArtScroll never quotes the Rama itself directly! A little difficult, perhaps, when you know you were misquoting him to begin with.

As a regular Minyan-goer who has sat through year after year of thrice-daily Chazzanut by mourners, I would like to advocate a return to the ruling of the Rama: One Kaddish per Tefillah; Maftir; and Chazzanut at Ma’ariv after Shabbat. I think it is time to reclaim our Shuls as places of joy and Divine connection – “שהתפלה היא שלהם, והיא במקום קרבן צבור” – a far cry from the houses of death they are now, burdened by numerous Kaddishes, laden with memorial plaques, and almost endlessly beset by mourner-Chazzanim. (I have even heard people express surprise that more people don’t come to Minyan regularly; I am not surprised at all!)

I do not believe that posting this will bring about any overnight change in this regard, nor should it. מה אני ומה חיי? I teach kids for a living. I am satisfied to start the conversation, to make it safe to bring up this issue in polite company without it being considered an affront to mourners everywhere to do so, to request intellectual honesty (rather than purely emotion-based decision-making) on this issue from our leaders, and to have others check my work and prove to me, if possible, that there is some obligation here that I am not seeing. I certainly do not mean in any way to slight mourners – nor did the Rama, the Mechaber, the Mishna Berura, or the Maharik. But I do believe that we need to carefully consider the extent to which we equate Tefillah and Aveilut in contemporary Orthodox Jewish life and whether that equation (or our desire to be menachem aveil properly, as it is demonstrated here) is appropriate, deserved, or beneficial to our overall spiritual health or that of our communities.

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