God’s Service: Atarah (Crown) or Tircha (Burden)?

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Dec 12, 2013 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

Rabbinic sources deal not only with the texts of Jewish liturgy, and the occasions and times at which they are to be said. Our Sages from the earliest times engaged with what we might call “ritual process” or, more informally, the experience of “sitting in shul.” From most ancient times until the day before yesterday, there has been debate and discussion about how to go about this—where to sit, in what language to pray, how many people to “call up,” how long should the Torah reading be, and how long is “too long”—even for the most beautiful and soulful worship?

Within the same chapter of the Tur (the great code of Jewish law by R’ Ya’akov ben Asher; Orah Hayyim, chapter 53), we find two discussions of interest. The first case brings the view of the author’s illustrious father, Rav Asher (the rosh), who openly rebukes a congregation where it seems that the “well-born” members decline to serve as sheliah tzibbur, leaving this role only for the humble and lowly born, those without yichus. The Rosh writes, “This behavior embodies despising the mitzvot! . . . It is an outrage to see the service of God (melekhet Hashem) as if it were a menial occupation; rather God’s service is a “Crown (Atarah) adorning the head.”

Joseph Caro, in his commentary to this chapter (Beit Yoseif), presents the case of a person who leads prayers with a beautiful voice. Caro quotes Rabbi Shlomo ben Adret (the Rashba), who notes routinely that it is reprehensible if a person sings beautiful melodies only to show off their vocal prowess. The case is, of course, deemed praiseworthy when a person with a beautiful voice “Rejoices in their heart that they give thanks to God.” However, even in this (praiseworthy) case Adret notes, “Anyone who [excessively] prolongs the prayers does not do well, for it is taught:  . . . one should be brief because of the concern [not to cause] a burden (tircha) to the community.”

In close proximity we see the tension between the profound goal to serve God with joy, in services that are like a crown upon the community: singing, speaking, teaching for the glory of God, and our concern that the experience of those gathered together indeed be one of joy and not a tircha, a burden. This tension has endured for centuries, and in this 21st century, as I visit congregations around the country, I hear both stories—reports of joyous services and inspiring words, and those who feel trapped within our walls for too long, experiencing too little. I sadly recall the story from the very first of these essays of the young child who imagined that the list of names in gold of those “who died in the service” could only refer to their demise from tedium in shul.

Especially this week I am eager to hear from readers about your own experiences. Please share with me your sense of finding the glory and joy of praise to God in our synagogues, an experience that is ateret l’rosh—or whether (sadly) you find yourself caught in tircha d’tzibbur.

You may write to me privately at sabarth@jtsa.edu.

You may be interested to read (perhaps for a second time) the powerful reflections touching on this topic from JTS our Chancellor, Prof. Arnold M. Eisen.