No one second-guesses the chazzan like the chazzan himself.
I don’t daven for the amud often, but when I do, there are a lot of thoughts going through my head. Mostly questions. I can’t just turn around and ask the crowd. Am I the only chazzan who wonders these things? Everyone else seems so sure of themselves.
I’m not even talking about Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the chazzan gets to prepare the davening beforehand. He’s not blindsided by the gabbai 30 seconds before davening. He knows beforehand that he’s going to daven. That way he can dry clean his kittel. Most days, people all over the world get dropped in front of the amud with no advance warning. Sure, maybe we should all prep everything, just in case. The problem is that you never know what shul you’re going to be asked in. When you go to a shul that you rarely go to, that’s when they specifically ambush you and ask if you can daven. They’re already tired of asking everyone else.
“Guess at our nuschaos and minhagim,” they say. “It’ll be fun!”
Point is, there are all these questions that chazzanim have — at least infrequent chazzanim — and we can’t even ask anybody. The best we can hope for, for some of these questions, is a nod from a random person in the crowd. How often can I keep turning around to find out what’s doing before people think there’s something wrong with me? Why can’t this be one of those shuls where the chazzan stands at the bimah, and there are rows of people in front of him so he can just copy whatever they’re doing?
Maybe we should just have a printout of the questions to hand the gabbai when he asks us to daven. That’ll show him who he’s dealing with.
But some of these questions are just for ourselves:
- I wonder if anyone can tell that I’m not good at singing.
- Am I loud enough that people can hear me in the back? Am I yelling in the rabbi’s ear? I wish someone would tell me. All I’m getting are nods. Someone just walked over and turned on the little lamp over the amud.
- I thought he was about to tell me I was in the wrong tefillah or something.
- Did anyone notice that mistake, or should I keep going? Maybe they’re quietly giving me a chance to correct it.
- Has everyone finished saying this paragraph, or is everyone just saying it quietly?
- If everyone is davening quietly, how do I know when they’re done? Should I just guess? Wait until I’m done and then add ten seconds?
- Who’s that guy yelling out random parts of davening, and why is he davening slower than the rav?
- If this guy is going to daven louder than me, why did he refuse to be the chazzan?
- How come I cannot think of a single tune that I have ever heard for Lecha Dodi in my life, or at least how it starts, besides for the Young Israel one that I learned when I was five?
- Is this one of the tefillos that I’m supposed to say Birchas Kohanim?
- How far back in the shul do I have to go to find a seat for Tachanun? There are no open seats in the first few rows.
- OK; different nusach than usual. Shtiller Shemoneh Esrei is the practice run. Pretend you’re saying it out loud.
- I wonder where my kids are right now.
- I don’t know if people know this, but if you’re ever not sure of what to say next, and you make your choice, and someone behind you happens to clear his throat at that exact second, it will throw your entire world into question.
- Am I going too fast? Am I going too slow? At any given point, I feel like I’m making half the shul happy and half the shul upset.
- I guess if half the shul wishes that I was going faster and half the shul wishes I was going slower, then I’m doing great. No? No one told them to daven in the same shul as each other. This isn’t on me.
- Let’s see how many people finished Shemoneh—Wow, when did the room get this full?
- Are ten people finished with Shemoneh Esrei? I’ve lost count. I thought that guy was done, but then about two minutes after I counted him, he suddenly backed up three steps. I thought that guy was on his phone, but it’s possible he’s using it to daven. That guy is standing still like he’s davening Shemoneh Esrei, but it’s possible he’s done. Is there anyone sitting down behind other people who are davening? I feel like someone just disappeared from view. Can everyone who’s done just stand sideways or pace around a little so I can tell? No, forget the pacing. I think I counted that guy twice. Did I forget to count myself? How long have I just been swiveled around and staring at the crowd? I have to swivel the other way now to count the left side of the room.
- OK, someone just gave me the nod. How does some random person always know when it’s OK to proceed? Is he willing to take halachic responsibility for me? Because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have made eye contact with me, right? The rav isn’t finished either. Is he going to take the blame on this?
- Maybe the guy just has inside information about whether the guy next to him is still davening.
- Does this shul wait for the rav, or does it not? Is this one of those shuls that only waits for the rav for some things? How can you wait for the rav for some things and not others? If the rav is not current when we get up to Shemoneh Esrei, won’t that just mean we’re waiting longer for him to finish Shemoneh Esrei?
- How come the chazzan hasn’t concluded this paragraph yet? Oh, right, that’s me.
- Don’t forget Ya’aleh V’yavo. Don’t forget Ya’aleh V’yavo. Don’t forget Ya’aleh V’yavo. I already forgot it in the quiet Shemoneh Esrei.
- Was that enough korbanos? People are telling me to start “Rabbi Yishmael Omer,” and there’s no way I could have gotten here by now legally. Their tefillin isn’t even on.
- Why does this shul tallis keep sliding off?
- How come this tallis only goes halfway down my back? Is this a kid-size tallis?
- This is the yellowest tallis I have ever worn in my life.
- Is Modim supposed to be a race? Because I am not winning. Everyone else gets to mumble. Will anyone notice if I mumble?
- Is there Tachanun today? I’m going to pause before Kaddish and see if everyone puts their heads down. Just listen for the sound of everyone pulling out their chairs. I know they can’t do that quietly.
- I have to blow my nose. I have to blow my nose. I have to blow my nose.
- I could grab some of the rav’s tissues.
- At what point of chazaras ha’shatz can I stop to blow? Modim?
- Where does the chazzan stand during leining? I have no idea. I never pay attention to him then. Should I go back to the amud? Should I find a seat? Should I stand at the amud but turn the amud a little? I feel weird quietly facing the wall and following along, like I’m in trouble. Should I give them this tallis to use for aliyos? I think it’s a tallis for kids.
- Everyone is still waiting for a Lecha Dodi tune. Just pick something! Fine, go with the old one; who cares? Or go with one that nobody knows and they have to slowly sing it a few seconds behind me so I feel like I’m singing into an echo chamber.
- I just said, “Morid Hatal” in an Ashkenaz shul. How do I take that back? With a moment of uncomfortable silence?
- Sefirah? No wait, it’s Elul.
- Should I start HaMelech, or are they going to switch me out for a second Shacharis chazzan? One who can sing.
- Why isn’t anyone opening the aron? Should I open the aron?
- Are there Kohanim present for Birchas Kohanim? I’m going to guess that there are. I think there was a kohen at leining. I don’t know for sure; I was facing the wall.
- How am I supposed to take out my esrog and lulav between chazaras ha’shatz and Hallel? I am the shatz!
- Is the rabbi going to speak? Is he not going to speak? Should I start Kaddish? “Yisgadal … Oh, he’s speaking. Where do I sit? Should I just stand at the amud? And turn it a little?
- OK, a kid just ran out for the speech. I could sit in his seat. Between his father and his grandfather.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.