How Long do Services Really Have to Be?

Posted on June 15, 2022

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

A few weeks ago, a group of us were learning about Jewish prayer and music with Hazzan Barnett, me and Rabbi Josh Warshawsky and Rabbi Josh taught an amazing story from the Talmud (Berakhot 34a). The story goes:

Once, a student led the prayers in Rabbi Eliezer’s house of study, and his prayers were unusually lengthy. The other students complained, “Master, how slow this fellow is!”

Rabbi Eliezer responded to them, “He is no slower than Moses, who pleaded on behalf of the Jewish people [after the sin of the golden calf] for forty days and forty nights.”

On another occasion, a different student led the prayers. This student recited the prayers quickly. The other students complained, “How hasty this fellow is!”

This time Rabbi Eliezer replied, “He is no hastier than Moses, who pleaded for his sister’s recovery with a few short words.”

In particular, we Hazzanim get accused all the time of drawing prayers out for too long. This dreidlech and that vocal flourish or repeating a word three or four times for emphasis will leave some folks in the congregation antsy about ending in time to get to Kiddush. I happen not to be like that stereotype, boasting as I do: “Tuna by Twelve or your money back — that’s the Hazzan Sandler guarantee.” But Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that even a Shabbat service that goes until 1pm is considerably shorter than Moses’s prayer following the Golden Calf incident.

On the other hand, I recall in my days at JTS and Ramah that there was sometimes a competitive energy around being the speediest davener. I remember friends trying to see who could recite the second paragraph of Aleinu (the “Al Kein”) the fastest. In those moments my friends and I would bemoan the speed, realizing we couldn’t keep up with that pace and losing our spiritual moment in the process. But surely those services were still much longer than Moses’s prayer for Miriam, which comes in this week’s parasha Beha’alot’cha. In Numbers 12:13 Moses calls out to God:  “אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ׃ El na, refah na lah– Please God, please heal her.” Only five words that couldn’t have taken more than 15 seconds to utter. Rabbi Eliezer, his students, and all of us even today struggle with determining the best speed and length of prayer services.

What’s the conclusion? Is it better to be longer? Shorter? Somewhere in the middle? The answer is simple: Yes. Each style of prayer has its advantages and disadvantages. A more appropriate question we might ask ourselves is: How can I inspire my fellow daveners to connect with HaShem? What is my kavanah or intention in my prayer? If the Shaliach Tzibur is davening at a different speed than I prefer, how can I make sure my prayer experience is still meaningful?