keep it short

parshat Shemini

So this guy from Crimea is having a press conference and the Russian reporter asks him to describe the “situation” in one word….. “keep it short” he says.  The Ukrainian answers “good”.
“Could you elaborate?” asks a Western reporter.   “Not so good” replies the Ukrainian.

Draw your own social commentary.  For the purposes of this post the joke dramatizes the diametrical difference between short and long.

So Aaron’s sons are consumed by fire for offering a unfamiliar sacrifice.  In a previous post I have argued that they committed the ultimate transgression… they added to God’s command… they played the dangerous game of being Holier than Thou.

Today, I’d like to make it even simpler… Nadab and Abihu committed the ultimate offense… they made the service longer….

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was still. (Leviticus 10: 1-2)

nadav and avihu

The key phrase is ” before all the people I will be glorified “.

וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד

כבוד הציבור

The Mishnah (Yoma 68b) relates that on Yom Kippur the kohen gadol would read two adjacent sections from his sefer torah. A third section, whose location in the Torah was somewhat distant from the former sections, would be read by heart. The Gemara explains that rolling the sefer torah to the relevant location was not an option, “because of the honor of the congregation.”

טורח ציבור

Although the Gemara mentions the honor of the congregation, the idea clearly refers to the familiar concept tircha de-tzibura [”burdening the public.”] — causing the congregation to wait while the sefer torah is rolled. As Rashi explains, the concern was “on account of the congregation’s honor, for they would wait in passive silence[i] [while the Torah was rolled].”

An interesting extrapolation from this halachah relates to public speaking.  In principle, it is forbidden to quote Torah verses by heart: Quotations of scriptural verses must be read from a written text.  Based on the practice of the kohen gadol,  the Mishnah Berurah (49:3) suggests that it might be permitted for somebody engaged in public speaking to cite scriptural verses by heart, for looking up each verse would place a burden (of waiting) on the tzibbur [congregation]. (see: The Halachic Principles of Tircha De-Tzibura, Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer)

To put it another way: A good sermon should be like a woman’s skirt: short enough to arouse interest but long enough to cover the essentials.

The sin of abusing the Jewish People and needlessly lengthening the service, applies not only to the public reading of the Torah,  the Rabbi’s sermon but even to the prayers themselves.

In a statement that seems most surprising, the Gemara (Berachot 12b) writes that it would be fitting for our reading of the Shema to include the passages of Bilam’s blessing. The reason why the section is not included is on account of tircha de-tziburah—”burdening the public.”

The long and short of it is that the sin of Nadab and Abihu was that they made the service longer.

There’s a lot that our Israeli brothers and sisters can learn from the Diaspora in terms of pluralistic Judaism, but one thing that we certainly can learn from the Israelis is how to shorten our services. A 2 ½ – 3 hour service …. Just shoot me!

Would you go to a 2 ½ hour yoga or exercise class?  And what’s with all these instructions and accommodations for the visitors and novices.  If you had been practicing yoga for years, would you really go to a novice yoga class. Isn’t that what beginners services and orientation weekend are for?  If you are an opera aficionado, would you really go to an opera that was translated or where the action was stopped to explain or call a page number? And the audience is told when to clap?

So if you’re interested in the future of Judaism in a modern time-stamped world, keep in mind that the stakes are high … ask Nadab and Abihu!  Remember that the difference between short and long may be the difference between good…. And not so good.

If you want a historical perspective on how our liturgy got so long check out: WHAT HAPPENED TO SHORT PRAYERS? by Woolf Abrahams

I want to keep this post short… so I’ll end with a few quotes regarding length of service from: Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer which provides lessons from the independent minyan at Kehilat Hadar.

I was always confounded by the fact that the Orthodox Shabbat morning service started eating Kiddush while the egalitarian traditional service— using exactly the same prayers— took thirty to forty-five minutes longer. The sixth time Hadar met, in June 2001, we actually finished the entire service in two hours. This was a breakthrough that was critical for the community— we had demonstrated that we didn’t need to cut parts of the service or race through the liturgy at breackneck speed in order to finish davening in a reasonable amount of time. It is a matter of eliminating the “dead time,” finding quality Torah readers who make minimal errors (mistakes always slow down a service), starting on time, and insisting on a brief dvar Torah. [ii]

We fought the notion of Jewish Standard Time in several ways at Kehilat Hadar. We had a very strict rule from day one that we would start the minyan on time, no matter how many people were there. People often complain about the late ending time of synagogue services, but in my experience, the best place to “save time” is at the beginning.[iii]

…. there is also a cost in announcing page numbers. Besides interrupting the flow of the service and the rhythm of the emotional arc, a page number announcement sends a clear message that (1) everyone should be on that page and (2) there is one siddur to use (the one with the page number being announced). In truth, public prayer allows for individual pace and expression much more than a page announcement might imply. …. Finally, announcing pages every week assumes that the congregation will always depend on an announcement to know where the leader is. This gives very little sense of empowerment to the worshiper, even one new to the davening. At what point is he able to find his own way through the service, without the repeated guidance of a page announcement?  It is worth noting, however, that announcing page numbers as a rule diminishes personal engagement with the prayer service and should at least be considered to have costs as well as benefits.[iv]

keep is short


[i] Although I am not arguing that the Biblical source for Kavod Hatzibur and tircha de-tzibura is וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד and before all the people I will be glorified…. It is curious that Kavod is linked directly with “silence”.  In the Talmud with the bored silence of the congregation as the Priest, Rabbi or Torah reader fiddles and extends the survice and in the account of Nadab and Abihu, with the silence of their father, Aaron וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.

[ii] Kaunfer, Rabbi Elie (2010-02-01). Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Kindle Locations 930-935). Jewish Lights Pub. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Kaunfer ibid (Kindle Locations 868-871)

[iv] Ibid (2240 – 2251)

3 Comments

Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah

3 responses to “keep it short

  1. Larry Stern

    Kavod Hatzibbus no doubt is extremely significant and importand. Tircha Dtzibbur ( overburdening the congregation) falls into this category. I would like to make a small differentiation between Shabbat prayers and weekdayif I may. During the week, most are busied and rushed due to work related actvites, whereas on Shabbat, aka the “day of rest” we are not consumed with getting to work, catching the train, etc. In other words, on Shabbat, where are we going already? (Orthodox and many Conservative) are not running to the mall, ballpark, etc. So if you spend 15-20 min or even 30-40 min more in services on Shabbat, whats the big deal already. If you would add up the 5-10 minutes a day we “steal away from God”, the extra few minutes on Shabbat seems to me like a fair balace to our spiritual scale with the Almighty. I understand that some minyanim run longer, and perhaps there is no “need” for that to be so, but at the end of the day, its still morning!!
    Shabbat Shalom to all.

    L. Stern

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