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Friday, October 18, 2019

Practice makes perfect: leading prayers during the 10 Days of Repentance

Leading prayers is one of the burdens/privileges of the year of avelut (mourning). Both the burden as well as the privilege is heightened during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known as the "Ten Days of Repentance."

This phrase, like many other number references in Judaism, is somewhat of a misnomer. The ten days are really seven, because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah as well as Yom Kippur. The Shome Esray prayer, means "18," but actually consists of 19 blessings. The seven days of shiva (which means seven) are really five and a half since they include the day of the funeral and ends the morning of the seventh day. The rule that a person who misuses sanctified property is penalized by adding a fifth of the value actually results in a person paying a quarter of the value.

One of the defining features of the ten days is are the six changes to the prayer. Four of the changes involve insertions to the various the first, second, second to last and last blessings of the prayer. The other two changes involve the substitution of words in the "chatima" at the end of the third and eleventh blessings.

The former is the most significant change wherein the words "Hamelech Hakadosh" (the Holy King) is substituted for "Ha'el Hakadosh" (the Holy God). If you don't make this substitution, your prayer is considered invalid, you have not fulfilled your prayer obligation, and you must repeat it.

There is also two slight changes to the every kaddish. One extra word is added. Instead of saying "le'elah min kol berchata" (above all blessings), you say "l'elah u'lelah min kal berchata" (above and above all blessings). (Some versions leave out the vov and read it as "l'elah l'elah".) In addition, at the end of the kaddishes, you substitute "oseh hashalom bimromav" (the one who makes peace in heaven) for "oseh shalom bimromov" (the maker of peace in heaven).

Given how often you say the prayers (three times a day) and recite kaddish (at least eight times a day), it is not easy to remember to make all these changes.

But I've gotten better at training my mind to be attuned and attentive to the changes in the prayers. This is not my first time leading prayers as a mourner during the Ten Days. And so when I was called upon to lead prayers, I was ready. The changes were imprinted on my mind. On several occasions, I let either the morning, afternoon or evening services. Each time I made all the necessary changes. It's a good feeling. As I said to one of the synagogue leaders as I descended the bima after the morning service, practice makes perfect.

There is one additional element to leading prayers during this period, and that is leading the congregation in the call and response of "Shir Hama'alot" and "Avenu Malkenu." You are the one guiding the assembled through these moving prayers. This is your chance to emote, to add your own imprint to the prayer service, to express your own feelings as you plead with God to have mercy for us, to forgive us, to grant us a good and healthy year, to judge us kindly and with favor this year. It's your chance to elevate the service from the ordinary same old, same old to something that makes an impact on the assembled's emotional state. And you have this chance because of the fact that, last year, God did not enscribe your own parent into the book of life. All the more so to plead that this year, unlike last year, be full of goodness and life.

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