The traditional Jewish practice in congregational worship requires that the central prayer, known as the “Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh ‘Esreh), be recited two times in the service. First It is whispered or mumbled quietly by the individual worshippers, and afterwards it is chanted out loud by the prayer leader on behalf of the congregation.
Considering that the prayer in question is quite a lengthy one, its double recitation can challenge the patience of participants who have other tasks to attend to in their daily schedules. Nevertheless, the repetition was a mainstay of Jewish liturgical practice. Its origins date back to the era when rabbinic Judaism insisted on a strict differentiation between the written Torah—a category that was essentially restricted to the books in the Bible—and the oral Torah that comprised all the other accepted religious traditions. Because the prayers were classified as part of the oral tradition, they could not be written down, and therefore had to be memorized or improvised.
The rabbis realized that in the absence of written texts, many Jews were probably not knowledgeable enough to recite the complex prayers on the spot; and this was the main reason for instituting the dual recitation: during the initial silent recitation, the more learned worshipers would address their Creator individually; and afterwards the prayer leader would recite the text aloud so that unschooled members of the community could fulfil their obligations by responding “amen” to his blessings.
As with several qualities of devout prayer, the sages of the Talmud traced this one back to the biblical figure of Hannah, the pious mother of the prophet Samuel, about whom it said: “she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard.” The rabbis pointed to several spiritual ideals that are best expressed by means of silent meditation—including the implied trust in an all-knowing God who does not need to be shouted at, and the opportunity it provides to confess individual sins without fear of their becoming embarrassing public knowledge.
The post-talmudic leaders of the Babylonian academies, the Ge’onim, were generally inflexible about continuing that ancient ritual, and they refused to abandon it even in the face of extenuating circumstances, such as when not enough time remained to recite the full service within the permitted time limits, or on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur when the lengthy and elaborate service greatly exceeded the capabilities of most worshippers to articulate their own silent versions of the prayer.
Notwithstanding all the commendable reasons and benefits that might attach to the convention of repeating the prayer, it also gave rise to several problems. For one thing, it was based on a division of the congregation into two distinct classes, the literate and the uneducated. Consequently, each class might feel some redundancy or resentment regarding the the portion of the service allotted to the other.
In the twelfth century an inquiry was addressed to Maimonides concerning a custom that had been introduced by a former cantor in an Egyptian town: of reciting both renditions aloud, but omitting from the first one the passages that may only be recited in the context of formal communal worship. Those passages—primarily, the “Ḳedushah” (holiness) blessing—would be included in the subsequent repetition by the prayer leader. The community had adopted this format as their norm.
A Jewish scholar visiting from a Christian land later proposed a different alternative that was supported by some of the locals: According to his reading of the talmudic sources, the circumstances that gave rise to the silent reading—especially the concern about penitents not confessing their transgressions aloud—were not pertinent in most situations. Moreover, it was arguable that someone who has already fulfilled his obligation by reciting the prayer quietly should henceforth be disqualified from reciting it again as the congregational prayer leader. For this reason, the visitor recommended that they completely abolish the silent prayer, and keep only the full cantor’s intonation. The community chose to remain loyal to their homegrown custom of two spoken recitations.
Maimonides himself categorically rejected the community’s practice, insisting that vocal recitation of a silent prayer is self-contradictory and defeats the original purpose of the practice.
As for the proposal to abolish the silent prayer, Maimonides noted that this would contravene the Talmud’s ruling and the normative custom. Nevertheless he supported such a procedure, but for entirely different reasons. In fact, he urged that it be adopted with the explicit awareness that it constituted an innovative religious reform.
Like similar reforms that had been introduced by the sages of previous eras, this one would be justified by an urgent need to overcome a serious problem. The knowledgeable members of the community, once they had fulfilled their own liturgical obligations by whispering the silent prayer, felt that they had no reason to listen attentively to the ensuing public recitation; and instead they felt free to chat, stroll, spit and cough. The masses, who looked to the scholars for guidance, emulated their behaviour to the point of feeling free to walk out of the sanctuary.
In order to counteract this irreverent chaos, Maimonides ordained that the service should consist of only a single, orderly reading of the Eighteen Benedictions aloud, during which the learned and the unlettered alike would be required to be standing respectfully and carry out their obligations by mouthing the words along with the leader or by responding “amen” to each blessing.
The maintaining of respectful decorum is of course an important religious value at all times. However, Maimonides had an additional—and probably more pressing—concern that he wished to address through his proposal. He argued that the existing situation amounted to a desecration of God’s name. Muslim neighbours, who cultivated orderly discipline in their own prayers, derided the boorish behaviour in the synagogues that seems to make a mockery of prayer. In justifying his departure from established practice he invoked the scriptural battle cry, “It is time, Lord, to act for thee: for they have made void thy law!”
A student of Maimonides appealed to his teacher for support in his efforts to impose the liturgical reform in Alexandria. This tampering with the accepted custom succeeded only in part. It was limited to the town’s smaller “Babylonian” synagogue and excluded certain holy days for which the worshipers refused to abandon their cherished liturgical poetry. Nevertheless, it had provoked widespread and vehement hostility that was taking a long time to calm down. At any rate, Maimonides’ son Abraham reported that his father’s enactment was taking hold in many middle eastern communities, a trend that would persist until the sixteenth century.
Maimonides’ reform would be revisited by Rabbi David Ibn Abu Zimra [the Radbaz] who presided over the Jewish community of Egypt in the sixteenth century. In 1539 a dispute broke out between the new Sephardic majority who wished to restore the silent prayer, and the “native” Arabic-speaking (“musta‘rib”) Jewish community who insisted that residents of Maimonides’ own city ought to remain loyal to his teaching.
In discussing Maimonides’ arguments about maintaining a favourable impression among their Muslim neighbours, the Radbaz noted that the formerly respectful relations between Jews and Muslims had deteriorated significantly since Maimonides’ day. “They dismiss our prayers as blasphemies, they claim that our Torah has been tampered with, and so forth. And since they hold such opinions about us anyway, we may as well just follow the normative law, since there would be no advantage to doing otherwise.” It appears that this hostile attitude has only intensified since the Radbaz’s days.
Now I do not normally encourage worrying about how others see us. Nonetheless, a bit more mutual respect between the two communities could well be an improvement.
Improbable as that objective appears at this point in history, it might yet be worth devoting a prayer for its achievement—at the least, a silent prayer.