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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Nusach sefarad: Praying in Israel

Over seven years ago, I came to Israel during my year of saying kaddish for my mother, may her memory be for blessing. I wrote about some of the differences in the prayer service in Israel versus Chutz L'aretz (outside of Israel) as well as my personal experience of leading prayers in Israel

Now I am back again in Israeli as a mourner, saying kaddish for my father, z'l. Even though I go to Israel almost every year, it's still not my normal environment and one thing saying kaddish demands of you is regularity and routine. 

Synagogues in Israel have a different feel than in America. People tend to dress less formally. You see people dressed in shorts, wearing sandals, their shirts not tucked in. Also people pronounce the prayers with an Israeli accent whereas people in the shuls I pray at in New York mostly use the Ashkenazi pronunciation with the letter tof pronounced as an s sound rather than a t sound. 

There is no shortage of synagogues in Israel, so finding one to pray at wasn't a problem. There was one nearby where I was staying, in the town of Modi'in. They synagogue had a number of morning services, including one at 8:15 and 9:00 a.m. The first morning I attended the 8:15 service. As happened the last time I was in Israel saying kaddish, as soon as the Gabbai (prayer leader) saw that I was saying kaddish, he asked if I wanted to daven from the Amud (lead the prayer service). I followed my general practice of not volunteering to lead prayers when outside my regular synagogue, but accepting the invitation to lead prayers when asked. 

The Gabbai, the person generally in charge of running the service, told me I could use either Nusach Ashkenaz or Nusach Seferad. These refer to two different modes of prayer. While they are very similar in the aggregate, they have many small but noticeable differences. For example, there are 19 blessings that make up the silent prayer, and, by my count, 14 of them have differences in their wording. 

They synagogues at which I pray in New York use Nusach Ashkenaz, which is the dominant mode of prayer at traditional synagogues in the States. Nusach Seferad, I believe, is more commonly used in Israel than Nusach Ashkenaz. I know the Nusach Ashkenaz prayer by heart, so using Nusach Seferad was going to be a challenge. But I like challenges. Besides, the prayer book that was on the prayer stand was Nusach Seferad.

Besides the linguistic challenge, there is a spiritual dimension to reciting prayers not in one's normal mode. I had to make sure I slowed down enough to read the words on the printed page instead of simply having them flow from my mouth as usual. I had to concentrate on the words and think about the significance of the differences. It must have been clear to the assembled that at certain points of the prayer I was going slower and stumbling over pronunciation of words. But all in all, I did well and felt a sense of accomplishment of a challenge accepted and overcome.

The next two days, owing to jet lag, I wasn't able to make the 8:15 minyan, so I went to the 9:00. I had assumed that this minyan would consist of retired people ("pensioniers" in Israeli slang) but I was wrong. Instead, it consisted almost entirely of teenagers who were too old to go to summer camp. They were quite happy to have an adult volunteer to lead the services. 

I again led the prayers using Nusach Seferad. Thursday was the most challenging day because it also included the Torah reading. I pretended I knew what I was doing, but mistakenly put the Torah scroll back after the Torah reading, as done in Nusach Ashkenaz, rather than, as I later realized, after the U'va Le'tzion prayer. None of the teenagers said anything. Most of them were probably too sleepy to notice. 

After I completed the prayer service on Thursday morning, something happened which I can't recall ever happening in the year and a half that I have, on a consistent basis, led services. I was putting away my tephilin when one of the teenagers passed by me on his way out and said two words to me: "todah raba" (thank you). Someone had actually thanked me for leading services. Of all the many experiences I've had saying kaddish and leading services, that was one of the most moving. 

Sunday, July 7, 2019


I first encountered the term "coverage" when, some 14 years ago, I began teaching at a New York City public school. On one of my first days, my supervisor directed me to go to a particular classroom, informing me that I had a "coverage." A coverage, I learned, means to act as a substitute teacher. When a teacher calls out or leaves early, you may be called on to "cover" their class. I've done countless coverages over these 14 years.

As a kaddish-sayer, I have been called on to do coverages of a different sort. Another person saying kaddish may ask you to "cover" their kaddish. This occurs when they are unable to go to shul to say kaddish. This most commonly happens because they are traveling. Some mourners do whatever they can to avoid missing a kaddish, either by not traveling or by making sure their flights do not conflict with prayer times. However, if you do travel, and you have a lengthy flight, you are likely to be unable to attend a minyan to say kaddish for at least one of the three daily prayer services.

My brother has travelled a fair amount this year. When he does, he lets me know which prayer services he will miss to make sure that I will be attending synagogue in order to "cover" his kaddishes. Last week, a friend who is saying kaddish for his son knew he would miss the afternoon and evening prayer services and asked me to "cover" his kaddishes during those services.

The idea of "covering" a kaddish is rooted in the belief that saying by saying kaddish, you are affecting the soul of your departed. The concept, as I understand it, is that the soul of your parent is in a kind of limbo for the first year. Your kaddishes are helpful, perhaps essential, to elevating your parent's soul to reach eternal life. In considering whether your parent is worthy of eternal life, God considers the kaddishes of the parent's children and counts them as merit. In this way, kaddish has an efficacious effect on the fate of your parent's afterlife. (see my previous blog) As the Chabad website puts it, people who undertake the obligation of saying kaddish "are seeking to prove that the departed is truly a worthy soul deserving of a lichtig Gan Eden, a 'luminous Paradise.'" (

To the extent saying kaddish is an obligation imposed by Jewish law, the law requires the child say only one kaddish a day. However, mourners often try to say kaddish at every possible occasion, that is, at all three daily prayer services, a total of five mourners kaddishes per day. The idea is that each kaddish assists the soul to ascend higher and higher toward heaven. Thus, a traditional response to a person saying kaddish or observing the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of a parents, is "may their neshema (soul) have an aliyah (elevation)."

This concept explains why people ask for "coverages" when they are unable to say kaddish. If either my brother or I cannot say kaddish at a specific prayer service, if at least one of us is saying kaddish, our father's soul is, at every possible occasion, being positively affected.

When my friend asked me to cover his kaddishes, he gave me his son's hebrew name, which I wrote down as not to forget it. I also requested that he send me a picture of his son so that I could have a clearer image of him, and make my friend's loss less abstract in my own mind, when I said kaddish.

The metaphysics of kaddish is a challenging notion for one, such as I, whose basic outlook is one of rationality. Moreover, my father, while not a strict Torah observant Jew, lived a righteous life. I think, if there is a heaven, he is worthy of getting there without my assistance, though I think I do him proud by devoting myself as fully as I can to his memory during this kaddish year. And so, as I write these words at JFK airport on my way to Israel, knowing I am likely to miss at least one prayer service at which I could say kaddish, I didn't ask anyone to cover my kaddishes.

It is comforting to know, however, that my brother will be saying kaddish in my absence.