Sunday, September 30, 2012

Aleinu in 30 seconds or bust

How long does it take to say the Aleinu prayer that precedes the Mourner's Kaddish? (An informative article about Aleinu appears at Well, I've happened to time myself (again my iPhone came in handy here). Proceeding at a normal reading pace, neither rushing nor reading slowly, I can say the two paragraphs, which I estimate at about 180 words, in about 30-32 seconds. If I really rush through it, I can get the time down to about 25 seconds. That's because I've said this prayer thousands of times, as Aleinu concludes every prayer service (except, as I noted, the Yom Kippur services). I've said it so many times that the words are practically imprinted on my brain.

That's good, because you have to be ready to recite the Mourner's Kaddish right after the prayer leader completes it. And sometimes he goes fast. I've begun timing how long the prayer leader takes to recite Aleinu, and it's ranged anywhere from 22 to 36 seconds. Sometimes he goes so fast that I'm forced to recite the end of Aleinu at breakneck speed.

I owe my ability to race through Aleinu to my reasonable Hebrew literacy skills. But for those who are not that fluent in Hebrew, reciting Aleinu in time to say the Mourner's Kaddish can be virtually impossible. I have a friend whose mother died a few months ago whose Hebrew skills are not that good. He told me that he is almost never able to get through Aleinu before the prayer leader finishes it and the mourners begin to say kaddish.

The problem with L'david, Psalm 27, is even more severe. This psalm is recited for about 45 days a year, between Rosh Hashana and the end of Sukkot. I haven't memorized it as I have Aleinu. The Hebrew of the Psalms is also more difficult than the Rabbinic Hebrew of the Prayer Book. Though it has less words than Aleinu, it takes me about as long, if not a few seconds more, to read that psalm. But invariably, the prayer leader finishes it well before I do. There are times I'm not even sure he's read the entire psalm. Again, those who struggle with Hebrew have little chance of saying the entire psalm before the kaddish begins.

Of course, if I'm leading prayers, I have control over the timing, and I try to make sure I don't rush through the prayers, though one's own perception of speed changes the more one leads prayers. I think I'm going slower than I actually am. Just last night before I began leading the evening Ma'ariv prayer after Shabbat, a gentleman requested that I go slower than I usually do.

Synagogue is made up of a diverse population. I've been told that I daven too fast and I've also been told that I daven too slow. I think others pray too fast. What can you do? Not much. The world is not perfect. If it were, I wouldn't be saying kaddish.

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