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Being a Sheliach Tzibbur

Rav Elyakim Krumbein
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Translated by Kaeren Fish


Every so often, our teacher, Rav Yehuda Amitalz”l, would ask something of us during his sicha on the first night of Selichot. He would ask us to put aside our personal needs and view ourselves as “shelichei tzibbur,” prayer leaders and emissaries of the congregation, pleading for peace for all of Israel and for national redemption. To me, this always sounded exciting and challenging, but at the same time made me uncomfortable. “Only the greatest person amongst the community, in terms of wisdom and actions, is appointed as sheliach tzibbur,” teaches the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 8:11). Rav Amital himself was suited to the task – but are we worthy of assuming that title and role for ourselves?


An examination of the demands that Chazal set forth for a sheliach tzibbur, and the way in which they were interpreted by the Rambam, may help reconcile us with Rav Amital’s request. The Gemara discusses the qualifications of the sheliach tzibbur in the context of prayer on a public fast day (and Halakha tends to draw a comparison between the fasts and the High Holy Days). The Rambam concludes, based on this discussion, that there are two different models for a sheliach tzibbur (as we shall soon see).


The Mishna (Ta’anit 15a) presents us with two public roles related to the fast day – one is “he who delivers words of admonition” (or “a moving address” – divrei kibbushin), the other is the prayer leader (“ha-over lifnei ha-teiva”). Who are these two people?  The Mishna explains:


Ashes were placed on top of the Ark, and upon the head of the Nasi, and upon the head of the Av Beit Din… The most senior among them would deliver words of admonition… They would then stand in prayer, led by an elder who was proficient [in the prayers], and who had children, and who was destitute – in order that he would pray wholeheartedly.


The speaker who delivers the address is a respected personage, a leader of the community – either the Nasi or the Av Beit Din, whoever was older. The sheliach tzibbur, in contrast, is described as possessing specific qualities. The beraita in the Gemara (16a) highlights the difference in the description of these two figures. Concerning the “words of admonition,” we learn:


Our Rabbis taught: If there is an elder [present], the elder speaks; if not – a learned scholar speaks; if [there is] none – a person of stature speaks.


Or, according to the formulation of Abaye:


If there is an elder who is a learned scholar, then the elder who is a learned scholar speaks; if not – a learned scholar speaks; if [there is] none – a person of stature speaks.


Unquestionably, this is a person of distinction. The prayer leader, in contrast, is described thus in the Gemara:


“They would then stand in prayer”: even if an elder, who is also a learned scholar, is present, they appoint as prayer leader only a regular person. What is the meaning of a “regular person”? Rabbi Yehuda says: He has children, but lacks [financial] means, he labors in the field, and his house is empty, his youth was unblemished, and he is humble and acceptable to everyone, he is skilled in reading and has a sweet voice, and reads Torah, the Prophets and the Writings frequently, and studies the Midrash, halakha, and aggada, and is proficient in all of the blessings.


The Rambam codifies these requirements, along with his commentary, in Hilkhot Taaniyot (4:4):


Who is worthy of leading the prayers on these fast days? A man who is proficient in the prayer service, and proficient in reading from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, and has children but lacks means, and works in the field, with no transgression among his children or household members or those associated with him; rather, his house is clean of transgression, and he did not make a bad name for himself during his youth, he is humble, and acceptable to the people…


Let us focus on the Rambam’s opening words. In his view, this is talking about someone who is worthy of leading the prayer specifically on “these fast days.” Indeed, we cited above what the Rambam says in his Hilkhot Tefilla concerning the prayer leader on regular days, where the preference is different: “the greatest person amongst the community, in terms of wisdom and actions.” The other personal qualities which appear in the beraita – an empty house, humility, etc. – are not mentioned. In other words, there is a difference between the ideal prayer leader on a regular day, and the ideal prayer leader for a fast day.


This distinction drawn by the Rambam is not accepted by other authorities. The Tur (53) understands the beraita in Ta’anit as simply enumerating the exemplary qualities that should characterize the sheliach tzibbur on any day in the year. This leads us to ask two questions. First, from where does Rambam deduce that there is a difference between the requirements for a sheliach tzibbur on a fast day and those for the same position on any other day? Second, what is the meaning of this distinction?


I believe that the answer to the first question is quite simple. Speaking about the sheliach tzibbur, the beraita starts off by saying, “Even if there is an elder present who is also a learned scholar, they appoint as prayer leader only a regular person.” Why would we think that preference should be given to an elder who is a learned scholar – i.e., a leader of great Torah stature? Apparently, that was the accepted norm throughout the year. The ideal sheliach tzibbur on a regular day would resemble, in essence, the scholar/elder who delivered the admonishing address on a fast day. Hence the Rambam rules that on a routine day, the greatest amongst the community, in terms of wisdom and actions, should be appointed. On a fast day, in contrast, a “regular person” (adam ha-ragil) is chosen. When we use the term “regular,” we mean “just like everyone else.” But in the context of the beraita it is likely that the term means “ragil bi-tefilla” – i.e., proficient (experienced) in leading the prayer. But at the same time the beraita does also seem to convey a sense of “ordinariness” as a personal quality. In any event, the Rambam picks up on this nuance. And this brings us to the crux of the difference between the two types of prayer leaders.


In the preceding halakha in his Hilkhot Ta’aniyot, the Rambam writes:


After this man finishes his words of admonition, they stand in prayer. And they appoint a prayer leader who is worthy of praying [i.e., leading prayers] on these fast days, and if the same one who delivered the words of admonition is worthy of leading prayers, then he does so; if not, someone else is appointed.


The leader who delivers the words of admonition is great in Torah and wisdom, but there is no guarantee that he is fit to lead prayers on a fast day. For this particular role we seek someone who labors in the field and is humble and is acceptable to the community – in other words, a person who is not arrogant, who is unexceptional and upright. The greatest amongst the community may be such a person, but this cannot be taken for granted.


Why is it specifically this sort of person who is sought as a sheliach tzibbur for a fast day? There are two aspects to this.


First, we must consider the perspective of the community. The person selected to lead the prayers is someone who is “worthy of praying on these fasts.” We appoint him in our stead, because we feel that we ourselves are not worthy. This person is supposed to serve as a role model, showing how people such as ourselves should pray: he is an ordinary person with no pretensions or manners of authority. We also place this person in front of ourselves in order to bring submission to our hearts, as a continuation of the “words of admonition”: why could we not have been more like him? If the sheliach tzibbur was by definition the greatest person amongst the community, enjoying a status far removed from the day-to-day realities familiar to most people, then it is doubtful that these objectives could be attained.


But there is also another side to the coin, and that is the perspective of the sheliach tzibbur himself. In what sense does he see himself as a “shaliach” – a representative, an emissary? The answer is to be found in the continuation of the Mishna, in the blessings which the sheliach tzibbur recites:


The first [of the special additional blessings on a fast day] he concludes with, “He Who answered Avraham at Mount Moriah – may He answer you and hear the sound of your cry this day. Blessed are You, God, Redeemer of Israel.” He concludes the second with: “He Who answered our forefathers at the ReedSea, may He answer You and hear the sound of your cry this day…” He concludes the third with, “He Who answered Yehoshua at Gilgal, may He answer you and hear the sound of your cry this day…”


The sheliach tzibbur halts his conversation with God, as it were, in order to address the congregation: “He Who heard our forefathers, may He hear your cry.” He turns to the public that has appointed him because, in his simplicity and humility, and in contrast to their intention, he for his part is not prepared to stand in their stead. His aim is to reveal to them their own prayer. To those who feel that they lack the ability to pray, he declares: “You have a mighty prayer, and it is identical to the prayer of the forefathers, the prayer of Yehoshua, the prayer of Shemuel, and of all the great leaders of Israel.”


To perceive the prayer of Klal Yisrael when they do not believe in themselves, to become one with their prayer, to elevate it and to believe in its greatness – that is the role of the sheliach tzibbur on a fast day.


Likewise, we too – the simple, regular people – are called upon to assume this great task on the Yamim Nora’im. May it be God’s will that our prayers ascend and find favor before the Compassionate One.

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