Time and Eternity in Shabbat Services (Part 1)

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Mar 11, 2014 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

I remember well a warning from one of my teachers in rabbinical school (for me, the Leo Baeck College in London). We were discussing Shabbat morning services, and the warning was to young(ish) rabbis and rabbinical students that if we “indulge ourselves too greatly in liturgy, the result will be that the ovens of our congregants will come to be the homes of a new generation of burnt offerings.” The message was quite clear that these burnt offerings would be desirable neither to our congregants nor to God.

I would like to reflect a little this week on the length of Shabbat morning services, especially within the Conservative Movement. While there are some among our shul-goers who love the experience of community prayer and have no concerns about length, it would be fair to note that they are a minority. I sometimes put the following question to rabbinical and cantorial students at JTS: “Consider a good, loyal member of a Conservative synagogue who has young kids and is not so observant as to pray every day, but attends shul a couple of Shabbat mornings every month. How many times per year does this person fulfill the mizvah (obligation) of reciting the three biblical paragraphs of the Shema’?”

The answer given to me is often “24” (obviously, twice a month for 12 months). When I raise an eyebrow, the number starts to drop. Because when a leader of a Conservative synagogue says that there were, say, 97 people in shul on a Shabbat morning, this means that there were 97 people at kiddush (and maybe Adon Olam). In most cases, there would have been a modest number at the beginning of the service, with many people arriving perhaps in time to hear the Torah reading. So our hypothetical member with young kids at home will be doing well to arrive in time for the Torah reading, the devar Torah, and to pray a little (perhaps) in Musaf. This will bring her or him into shul for a significant amount of time (an hour and a half or so) to hear words of Torah, teaching, and lovely melodies; to pray for the community, our country, Israel, and peace in the world; but not to take part in what many people identify rightly as one of the most important liturgical texts of the Jewish people—Keri’at Shema’, the recitation of the Shema’.

So I suggest that this hypothetical loyal congregant will never recite the Shema’ on Shabbat morning, having arrived too late in the service, and certainly not on the mornings of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Families with young children tend not to come to evening services; in praise, I know that they are often gathered with other families for a Shabbat meal with kiddush and blessings for their children.

Everyone does come on time for Kol Nidrei—so I suggest that, for so many among our community, the full recitation of the Shema’ is a once-a-year experience at Kol Nidrei.

But, I wonder, is this the best way? Do we serve God, do we nurture the souls of our people, with gatherings in our synagogues that last so many hours? More than the sacrifice in the ovens back home, are we not overloading and burning out the hearts and souls of our people?

This is a difficult and complex question. I would be very interested to hear from you all about this point especially. Last week, I asked a class of rabbinical and cantorial students to design a halakhically valid Shabbat morning service that would last 90 minutes; next week, I’ll share some of the results in this column.

As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me atsabarth@jtsa.edu.