In Judaism prayer is an integral part of every aspect of the human experience. It’s no surprise, therefore, that in periods of crisis we naturally increase our prayers and rely on God to protect us. In recent years we have seen a particular outpouring of prayer for our brethren in Israel, who look danger right in the face, whereas we generally see only its shadow.
While it’s gratifying to see genuine concern for our fellow Jews and a spiritual response to our troubles, the “more-is-better” attitude about prayer needs to be examined. In particular, the popularization of public Tehillim recitals following daily tefillos in shul is something that on the surface appears to have no downside, but in reality is no simple matter. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that adding Tehillim to the end of public tefilla on a regular basis is inappropriate and possibly even ineffective.
This position will surely provoke outrage among many readers, who will incorrectly interpret it as a denial of the power of prayer and/or a lack of concern for the welfare of our fellow Jews. Others will declare that no one should ever be criticized for praying more than strictly necessary if they wish to do so, certainly not when such a good cause is involved.
But tefilla is a mitzva, and every mitzva has parameters that must be adhered to. Failure to do so can result in the mitzva being fulfilled in a less than ideal fashion, in the mitzva not being fulfilled altogether, and possibly even in a grave sin being committed instead. The best of intentions do not make up for improper procedure, and prayer is no exception. Our Sages teach us guidelines for proper, effective prayer, and we must adhere to these guidelines with the same fidelity we show for the particulars of any other mitzva.
Adding Tehillim to the end of tefilla is inappropriate for the following reasons:
The additional Tehillim has become rote just like the regular tefillos. The first time we publicly recited Tehillim for Israel was surely a moving, heartfelt experience. But when the Tehillim recitals occur every day in shul, it’s impossible to maintain the concentration and feeling it deserves. When it comes to prayer, quality is always more important than quantity, and piling on more quantity without commensurate quality only detracts from the effectiveness of the tefilla. It is like adding water to a perfectly seasoned dish.
Some might respond that it is incumbent upon the individual to maintain his focus, and that whatever we manage to accomplish as a tzibur is better than nothing. This is not so, for a poor tefilla is a disgrace before Hashem, akin to bringing a blemished sacrifice. It is not a no-lose situation, and unless we have mastered the tefillos that are already systematic, it is presumptuous and irresponsible to pile on more.
Worse still, public Tehillim recital has been stripped of its emotional impact; we have become desensitized to it, and thus must be bludgeoned with still more when we “really” need to say it. Ten years ago we would say one perek after a terror attack. Now we must say five to separate it from the ordinary. Is there any logical end to it? And if more really is better, why stop anywhere? Don’t we care about our fellow Jews enough to say just a little more? Chazal understood that quality supersedes quantity when we can’t expect to have both, and so must we.
- Institutionalizing daily Tehillim at the end of tefilla undermines the rest of the tefilla that Chazal deemed sufficient for us. Anything and everything that we can ever pray for, both on a personal level and a communal level, is covered in the Shemoneh Esrei. This is in fact the essential daily prayer, when we have Hashem’s “fullest attention”, so to speak. To institutionalize Tehillim at the end of tefilla indicates that Shemoneh Esrei is not enough. Rather than adding more Tehillim to our daily tefilla, we should perfect the essential tefilla that we already have and fail to maximize.
Chazal were incredibly sensitive to the concept of tircha d’tzibura, an undue burden on the public. For example, they instruct a shaliach tzibur to pace himself moderately; not only must his pace not be too fast, it must also not be too slow. For any individual, no matter how well respected, to cause the public to wait is an unfair burden and a disgrace.
Come on, you say, it’s only a couple of extra minutes, and it’s for such an important cause. Well, rather than let our emotions get the better of us, let’s examine Chazal’s approach. Chazal greatly concerned themselves with the length of tefilla, and for us to lengthen it even slightly without exercising the same careful restraint and sensitivity is imprudent. They composed the tefilla, and if we are to alter it in any way we must follow their methods.
In Megilla 23A we are taught that on Mondays and Thursdays we call three men up to the Torah, while on Rosh Chodesh and Chol Hamoed, when work is slightly less pressing, we call up a fourth. Now, honestly, how long does it take for someone to say a bracha and read 3 pesukim in the Torah? One minute? Two minutes? And is this not a worthy cause, for additional Torah to be recited in public? Nevertheless, Chazal decided to draw the line where they did, and would not go beyond that line by even an extra minute. We should exercise the same caution.
If you are still not convinced, the Taz writes that the Sefer Torah should not be covered between aliyos, but only rolled up, since the extra activity would constitute a tircha d’tzibura (see Mishna Berura 139:5). This extra activity can be performed in a matter of seconds, and if those responsible for it are on the ball there does not need to be any waiting involved. Nevertheless, it is considered a burden on the public, who might have to wait a few extra seconds for the Sefer Torah to be shown additional dignity.
In light of this, how can one not be frightened to add to the daily tefillos?
A supplementary reason: It is not uncommon for Tehillim to be recited for more than one cause at a time (Jews in Israel, Israeli soldiers, MIAs, terror victims, sick people, American armed forces, Agunos, mix and match any way you like). Are these causes all worthy of our prayers? Absolutely. Should we focus on more than one concurrently? Absolutely not.
The Gemara in Taanis 8B relates that a Jewish community was once endangered by both a plague and a famine. The people asked: “What should we do? To pray for two things at once is impossible. Let’s pray for the plague to end and we will endure the famine.” R’ Shmuel bar Nachmani advised them to pray for sustenance, since Hashem would only grant that to keep people alive, and thus would end the plague in any case. We learn from here that a tzibur can’t declare special tefillos in wholesale fashion; it will be ineffective.
Finally, many communities today recite Tehillim on Shabbos, despite the general injunction against making requests for our needs on Shabbos. They argue that this is a sha’as hadchak, a time of pressing danger, and thus special tefillos are appropriate even on Shabbos.
I submit that for the past 2,000 years the Jewish people have experienced few periods of true safety and security, yet they did not deem it necessary to declare a public red alert every Shabbos. While I do not mean to minimize the real dangers we face, we must examine the situation in the proper context. A city that is surrounded by an invading army faces a true sha’as hadchak; their backs are clearly against the wall.
The danger we face is certainly serious – we face frequent attacks by those who wish to destroy us, and the situation is in danger of worsening – but we are no worse off than the Jews of Europe, who faced pogroms and worse as a regular part of their lives. Do we really feel the same fear and urgency as Jews surrounded by an attacking army? To exaggerate our response by making Tehillim on Shabbos standard fare may demonstrate poor contextualization.
May we deepen our understanding of the rules of tefilla and continually improve the quality of our prayers so that they may be readily accepted.