Sunday, January 21, 2007

Decisions, decisions

We’ve never switched to Voice Mail for our home and home-office phones, because, with Voice Mail, one can’t hear messages at the time that they’re being recorded. We’ve found that the combination of screening our calls by both ear (on our two answering machines) and by caller-ID box works best for us. All of our friends and family know that we screen all of our calls, and, that, therefore, they must (at least begin to) leave a message if they want us to answer our phone.

So there I was Shabbat (Sabbath, Saturday) morning, dressed to the nines in blue jeans and a decent but casual shirt—no, I always wear a skirt for davvening (praying) on Shabbat, but have you ever tried to pull a pair of pantyhose over half an inch of surgical dressing and Ace bandage?—and partway through P’sukei d’Zimra (Verses of Song, a.k.a. the Introductory Prayers), when the family phone rang, and I heard, courtesy of the answering machine, the unmistakable Irish lilt of one of the finest Shabbos goyim I’ve ever known. “J. and E. are having a Kiddush in honor of their 57th anniversary. I’ll be over with a wheelchair at 11. If you buzz me in, I’ll take you. If not, I’ll go back. See you.”

What to do? After serious consideration, I concluded that, from a halachic (Jewish religious law) point of view, there wasn’t much difference between taking a subway to synagogue on the Sabbath and riding a wheelchair to synagogue on the Sabbath, so why get J. and E., two of my favorite congregants, upset? As for pressing the buzzer that unlocks the lobby's inner door, well . . .

So I speeded up my davvening, read the Torah reading in English (knowing that I’d probably arrive too late to hear it in Hebrew), chanted Haftarat Shabbat Rosh Chodesh to myself, grabbed a quick snack of nuts, raisins, and chocolate (my favorite form of caffeine), somehow squeezed my bad foot into the aforementioned pantyhose, threw on the nearest skirt, blouse, and jacket that I could grab, and rolled out the door with my keys around my neck and carrying nothing but my two canes. And a fine time was had by all.

Except when it came time for Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals). This got very interesting. The chazzan (cantor) was kind enough to ask me to lead. He was also kind enough to announce that, due to my current dubious condition, I’d be leading while seated. (I don’t know whether this is standard practice among more traditional folks, but it’s generally customary in our synagogue for the person leading the bentching [Birkat haMazon] to stand, in order to make it easier for everyone to hear him or her.) So I began leading the introductory psalm, Shir haMaalot, from my seat at a table in the back of the room. Folks, are you sitting down? You’re not going to believe this, but one of the women at the next table actually leaned over to my husband and complained that I was singing too loudly! Um, hello? I’m sitting in the back of the room and trying to lead the folks in the front of the room, among others, in prayer! Do you object when the cantor stands in the front of the room and tries to sing loudly enough to lead the folks in the back of the room in prayer?? Rather than put up with her b . . . , er, bellyaching and/or giving me dirty looks through the entire bentching, I stood up and, two canes and all, started walking toward the center of the room, still singing. And that’s when I began having second thoughts. Did I happen to mention that the woman objecting to my loud singing was none other than the H. (also called H.D.) mentioned here? So I says to myself, says I, “This dame is going to complain no matter what I do, so why not do what I jolly well please, and let the chips fall where they’re bound to fall anyway? And with that thought in mind, I betook myself, still singing, all the way up to the front of the room—and hobbled up onto the bima, from which I proceeded to lead the rest of Birkat HaMazon.

There's more to this story: Never in my life have I felt so thoroughly ignored when leading a prayer. The hubbub from the blabbers was unbelievable. But since the rabbi has made it perfectly clear that even he can’t be expected to participate in Birkat HaMazon—he’s as likely to talk through Birkat HaMazon as any of the congregants—I didn’t even feel free to ask for quiet. So I just barreled through, ignoring the commotion as best I could.

My husband assures me that it wasn’t my imagination—as best he can remember, there probably weren’t even 10 people bentching along with me. (His very rough estimate of the number of people in attendance is 75). The only two whom I could actually hear, occasionally, were him and the chazzan. He has suggested that, since leading Birkat HaMazon while being almost completely ignored simply gets me upset, perhaps I should no longer lead Birkat HaMazon under the current circumstances at this synagogue.


Here are some questions for my more traditional readers:

Is it customary, when leading Birkat haMazon, for one to remain seated at the table at which one ate, to stand at the table at which one ate, or to stand wherever one is most likely to be heard?

What are the circumstances, if any, other than a brit milah (ritual circumcision), wedding, sheva brachot, and meal in a house of mourning after the return from the cemetery, at which it’s traditional to recite Birkat haMazon as a group? Does one typically bentch communally at any other seudat mitzvah?

Would bentching communally at an occasion such as today’s, when a special Kiddush lunch (with bread) was being served, be typical or not? Come to think of it, how typical is a Kiddush lunch with bread in a more traditional synagogue?


P.S. I've decided to retract my original decision not to lead Ashrei anymore (because of the song and dance I got about that at that Ritual Committee meeting), and to continue leading it from the bima, as I've done for roughly the past decade. I've come to the conclusion that some people are going to get honked off no matter what I do.


Sunday, January 21, 2007, 4:00 PM update


Here's another question for my more traditional readers:

Given the choice between making ha-motzi and reciting Birkat HaMazon with at least a mezuman in the synagogue, on the one hand, and following the tradition of making a motzi and doing Birkat HaMazon at home alone or with only one's spouse, on the other hand, which is preferable, from a purely halachic point of view? Is it of any relevance that the rabbi himself is single, and/or that, as a congregation with a largely senior membership, a large proportion of our members are widows living alone or empty-nesters, many of whom are in poor enough health not to be inclined to invite guests?

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8 Comments:

Blogger Unknown said...

Generally, everyone remains seated; if anything, it may be required.

Wheelchairs are generally permissible on Shabbos. There's nothing about them that wouldn't be (assuming a non-electric one, I mean). We used to take my grandfather (or a couple years ago, grandmother) to shul by wheelchair...

Sun Jan 21, 03:49:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Maya Resnikoff said...

I've always seen people stay seated, where they were eating. (And it is strongly preferable to bench where you were eating: preferably at the same table, but at least in the same room. However, if you forgot to do so, I've been told you should stop where you are and bentsch there. I think there was originally a dispute about whether or not you needed to return to where you ate, but the eventual decision was that in that case you don't have to.)

I've almost always seen people at least make a mezuman together, and then people who aren't done eating may quietly eat more and wait for most people to be done bentsching before resuming conversation at a level above a whisper. But if they're in the majority, then unless some people need to leave and can't make a mezuman on their own, I'd be confused as to why the community was bentshing then, rather than later...

Sun Jan 21, 08:32:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...

Folks, are you sitting down? You’re not going to believe this, but one of the women at the next table actually leaned over to my husband and complained that I was singing too loudly!

Some people just don't get it.

Sun Jan 21, 10:51:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Okay, I've got two votes for staying seated, included one suggestion that it may be required.

Ezzie, thanks for the info re the wheelchair. I thought a wheelchair was considered a vehicle.

"I've almost always seen people at least make a mezuman together, and then people who aren't done eating may quietly eat more and wait for most people to be done bentsching before resuming conversation at a level above a whisper." "Quietly?" In *this* shul? I should live so long! (In all fairness, part of the problem with the congregants whispering is that such a high percentage of our members are hard of hearing that whispering is not really an option.)

"But if they're in the majority, then unless some people need to leave and can't make a mezuman on their own, I'd be confused as to why the community was bentshing then, rather than later..."

My husband's reaction was to ask what you meant by "later." He says that, in all likelihood, we couldn't get sufficient quiet until 3/4 of the people had left.

The elephant in the room, folks, is that, among the yakkers, the rabbi himself is not only among the chief offenders, but has gone out of his way to insist that we have no right to expect and/or insist on quiet during Birkat HaMazon. So someone who insists on quiet is seen not as a person trying to do the right thing, but, rather, as someone "playing holier than the rabbi."

I don't remember whether I ever mentioned this previously, but the first day our current rabbi helped lead a Shabbat morning service, he took a plate of food before motzi was made, and, when I mention to him that motzi had not yet been made, his only reaction was, "I'm not making a motzi." This, in itself, was not surprising, as most Orthodox Jews make motzi at home. But when I pointed out to him that it was disrespectful to the person making motzi for anyone to serve him/herself before motzi was made, he completely failed to understand my point. It wasn't until I hit him up with halachah (Jewish law), "lifnei iver lo titen michshol," in front of a blind person one must not put a stumbling block" that *something* finally registered. (The rabbinical interpretation of that biblical quote is that one must not do anything that might mislead someone who might not know better.) Given the established minhag/custom of our congregaition to make a motzi at kiddush in synagogue, it's highly unlikely that it would have occurred to most of our congregants that a person eating a meal at the synagogue on Shabbat would deliberately avoid making a motzi there so as to say it at home, instead.

In all my born days, I don't believe I've ever before encountered a rabbi who showed so little kavod (respect) for an individual try to lead others in performing a mitzvah. Indeed, Jack, "Some people just don't get it."

Sun Jan 21, 03:10:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Sorry, let me try that link again:
”playing holier than the rabbi”

I just had a nice long conversation with a sister congregant who called to wish me well. Her opinion of the rabbi's handling of Birkat HaMazon is, "He's rude."

My husband thinks I take all of these things way too personally. He's a lot better at shrugging off this stuff than I am.

Current circumstances being what they are, I've suggested to him that perhaps we should just gather all the folks interested in saying Birkat HaMazon around one table (or, if necessary, in a circle of chairs) and say it as a small group, rather than even trying to get the rest of the folks in the room to join in. Seriously, folks, why should anyone who can't get even the rabbi to support him/her in his/her efforts to lead others in performing a mitzvah expect many of the congregants to care?

Sun Jan 21, 03:59:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One is supposed to sit, and sit such that one can see the place where one ate. Preferably, anyway. I expect one could find a leniency to permit doing it standing if to lead people who wouldn't otherwise be able to do it etc.

Groups: zimmun sanctifies God, and zimmun with a minyan, more so. So if you /can/ make zimmun, you're supposed to, even if it isn't a party occasion, on the principle of not passing up an opportunity for sanctifying God. Conversely, talking through zimmun demonstrates a huge lack of respect for God and the community, more so than talking during benshing, which people might have the grace to do quietly.

Sun Jan 21, 04:53:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Sheyna said...

"...perhaps we should just gather all the folks interested in saying Birkat HaMazon around one table (or, if necessary, in a circle of chairs) and say it as a small group, rather than even trying to get the rest of the folks in the room to join in."

FWIW, this is what we do at our shul (and all sitting). Some folks are particularly NOT interested in bentching and would make a huge stink if they thought the rabbi, the lay leadership, or anyone else with any actual or implied authority was suggesting they ought to bentch. So those of us who do want to bentch do so in a grouping in one corner of the social hall and anyone nearby who wants to talk usually moves away and leaves us to it.

At communal dinners (as opposed to a kiddush lunch on Shabbat), when it is expected everyone will bentch, whomever is leading does so sitting where s/he ate, and always sings loudly so that everyone can follow and participate.

HTH!

Sun Jan 21, 05:06:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"Groups: zimmun sanctifies God, and zimmun with a minyan, more so. So if you /can/ make zimmun, you're supposed to, even if it isn't a party occasion, on the principle of not passing up an opportunity for sanctifying God." So we *aren't* necessarily nuts for making a motzi and chanting Birkat HaMazon in synagogue, even if that's not necessarily traditional. If you're going home to make kiddush with your family, that's one thing, but if 90% of the congregants are either single or "empty-nesters" (with older children who no longer live at home), really, what's the point in passing up such a fine opportunity?

"Conversely, talking through zimmun demonstrates a huge lack of respect for God and the community, more so than talking during benshing, which people might have the grace to do quietly." So it's not only the leader and the community who's being "dissed" (shown disrespect), but also Hashem. It's nice to know that I'm not totally off base in feeling that there's some insult involved in such behavior, even if that applies mostly during the zimmun.

That none of this has occurred to the rabbi is astounding, in my opinion. Thanks for the info, Jen.

"Some folks are particularly NOT interested in bentching and would make a huge stink if they thought the rabbi, the lay leadership, or anyone else with any actual or implied authority was suggesting they ought to bentch." Shayna, what's really sad about the whole situation is that this is the first rabbi we've ever had, to the best of my recollection, who *hasn't* insisted on quiet. Even though many congregants may not have been happy about that, it was never a serious source of complaint before. In my opinion, our current rabbi has, essentially, given the congregation carte blanche to be disrespectful.

Sun Jan 21, 08:29:00 PM 2007  

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