Friday, June 15, 2012

Winks and nods

An important skill that I've had to learn as prayer leader is to interpret the nonverbal communication of the Rabbi and Gabbai.  (The Gabbai is the person who chooses the prayer leader and generally oversees the service.)  Learning the meaning of their gestures comes up in two situations.  The first is after the recitation of the Shma.  The Shma Yisrael (Hear Israel, the Lord is God, The Lord is One) is composed of three paragraphs from the Bible along with two blessings before it and one, two or three after it (depending on the the time of day and the community custom).  The Shma Yisrael is recited in Shacharit (the morning service) and Ma'ariv (the evening service).  It is recited silently except for the last two words of the third paragraph, "The Lord your God" and the first word "Emet" (true) of the blessing after the Shma.  But before the prayer leader recites these three words, he must get the approval of the Rabbi, or, if the Rabbi is not there, the Gabbai.  This approval is done non verbally, usually with a nod.  When the prayer leader completes his own reading of the Shma, he must look at the Rabbi or Gabbai and wait for the nod.  (If there is no Rabbi or Gabbai present, he may say the three words whenever he finishes his own reading.)

Each person has his own way of giving the prayer leader the go-ahead.  Most look at you and nod their head.  Others give you a quick glance.  Still others raise their eyebrows.  It's usually pretty clear when the signal is being given, though it takes a while to distinguish between the subtle movements of their recitation and the more directive go-ahead signal.  Once, when I first started leading prayers, I made the mistake of thinking that a particular Gabbai would give me the signal, but he seemed to be nodding out and I just kept waiting and waiting until someone in the congregation shouted out, "Nu!"

The other signalling occasion is the start of the public recitation of the Amidah (silent prayer).  After the prayer leader finishes his own silent prayer, he has to look at the Rabbi or, if there is no Rabbi, the Gabbai.  If they are still praying, he has to wait for them to finish, which is indicated by the three backward steps that one takes after concluding the prayer.  Sometimes the Rabbi or Gabbai will finish, but then survey the congregation to see how many people (actually just the men) are still praying, and when enough are done, he will then give you the nod to proceed.  One Rabbi taps on his prayer stand, which I learned is his signal that he was near enough to the end of his own prayer for the prayer leader to proceed.  I wasn't always sure about the tapping because he keeps his hands on the prayer stand when he prays, so I think I didn't always get the signal, so lately he's been tapping so loudly his intent is unmistakable. 

One thing that makes me uncomfortable is the need to look at the signal giver for the go-ahead.  I don't like staring at them.  So what I do is give them glances every few seconds or so.  I probably miss a signal every now and then because I'm not looking, but I'm not going to stare at a person who is praying or reciting Shma.

Like any public ritual, there are many layers that are only revealed through consistent engagement.  To be a mourner is to learn on the job how to lead prayers.  I can say that I've concluded the apprenticeship period, have achieved the level of competency and, perhaps, may even attain the level of expert by the time my mourning period ends.

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