There is quite a game that is played in many shuls on a regular basis. Sometimes this game is played multiple times a day, and in extreme cases it can even be played multiple times during a single prayer service. The game is not generally discussed and, to the best of my knowledge, no formal instruction is given to anyone. However, most people who attend shul regularly are aware of it and intuitively figure out how to play.
It’s the Chazan Game. In a way the Chazan Game resembles Freeze Tag in that one person must always be “It” for the game to proceed, yet the object of the game is to avoid being “It”. (There is a variation of the game in which many people vie for the privilege of being “It”, and in this variation things can even become violent.) However, for one to truly win the game one must appear willing to become “It”, yet somehow wiggle out while maintaining the respect of his peers and not becoming too vulnerable to becoming “It” in the immediate future. The game is played by all, yet mastered by very few.
Don’t worry; I’m here to help.
To best instruct you on how to succeed we will walk through a typical scenario. The announced starting time for shacharis is 8:00. At approximately 7:58 the game begins. Many of the contestants have already filed into the room, but no one has stepped up to the front to lead the services. Of course not – there’s still plenty of time.
At 7:59 one of the regulars makes the first decisive gambit. “Is there a chiyuv?” he asks to everyone and no one. Of course, this is a silly question. Everyone in the room is obligated to pray. That’s why they’re there. But no one in particular is obligated to lead the prayer, and thus no leader has emerged. Nevertheless, the question must be asked. It is a formality, and it sounds important.
At 8:00 someone may tap the table impatiently. What’s holding up this train, anyway? Why doesn’t someone get up there and get things started already? Only an old-timer sitting in the back is permitted this bold, cantankerous gesture, thereby assuming the role of distinguished onlooker. (It’s a bluff, of course, but one that can only be challenged by another old-timer in search of a bickering match, and this rarely happens.) The sign of impatience coupled with a knocking sound may be enough to intimidate a weaker player to step up and get things started, especially if this feeble individual catches eye contact with the one who knocks the table.
If no one has caved by 8:01 then there is officially a situation. There will be visible signs of impatience. After all, we are now one minute late, which means that we are going to finish one minute later than we otherwise could have and should have finished without altering the usual pace of the prayers. This is extremely bothersome. The annoyance of each minute of lateness in shul is roughly equivalent to twelve minutes of flight delay – and there’s absolutely no chance of compensation.
The game has now morphed into a game of chicken. Some people will pretend to be engrossed in a siddur or a sefer, and thus oblivious to the developing crisis. Others will look around the room, as if trying to identify the secret chazan in the crowd. They will attempt using fleeting eye contact to signal to others that they have a responsibility to step forward. This is a high-stakes game of guilt-tripping, since all are equally responsible. Nevertheless, some players prefer this to staring at a sefer, since silent guilt-tripping stands a better chance of getting things started already.
By 8:02 an interesting development is likely to occur. Someone from the crowd will assume the role of ad hoc gabbai and start to actively request others to daven. He may use a variety of tactics, including timid requests (“Would you like to get things started?”), clever one-liners (use your imagination), not so clever one-liners (imagine that you have an imagination), and overly familiar pseudo-intimidation (“Come on, Joe, get up there and daven”). He may also try to negotiate by promising that he will find someone else to take over.
The ad hoc gabbai is taking an extreme chance. On the one hand, he is placing himself front and center, and is thereby subject to criticism and someone turning the tables on him (“Why don’t YOU daven?”). On the other hand, he is at least doing something to get things started, and thus enjoys an air of authority and public service. A useless middleman? Absolutely. An unnecessary risk? No doubt about it. But if he plays his cards right he will enjoy immunity from becoming chazan as well as the gratitude and respect of his peers.
By 8:05 it is almost certain that someone will cry uncle and step forward, to the relief of all in attendance (though in extreme cases a minyan will actually disband). While this person has lost the Chazan Game, he can still win a consolation prize by giving a condescending look at everyone and no one, then marching up there with an annoyed, heroic posture. He essentially proclaims: “Fine, you idiots! I’ll be the chazan! You’re all pathetic!”
In addition to these few seconds of bravado the loser also earns the privilege of being able to retort for the next few days that he was just chazan should anyone try to guilt-trip him.
This, in a nutshell, is the Chazan Game, and you can play it most mornings in your local hallowed place of worship. This minhag is so widespread that I am convinced it was always this way and is supposed to be this way forever.