Saying some תהלים together, בציבור, in Shul. Sounds nice and simple, huh? How many ways are there to say a מזמור (or kapitel) anyway?
Well, hang on, not so fast.
1-2-3-4 Ways Of Saying Tehillim
Four different ways of going about it come to mind.
1) חזן says/chants/sings opening verse of the מזמור out loud, after which the ציבור says it all on their own until the conclusion. Concludes with chazan saying/chanting/singing last פסוק out loud.
2) Everyone says/chants/sings the whole מזמור together (can be seen among Sepharadim, Mizrachim, Carlebach minyonim).
And two ways where it is done responsively, posuk by posuk, namely
3) Chazan says/sings/chants a פסוק, followed by ציבור repeating same. Widely used among various types of Jews when Tehillim is said in an עת צרה ר”ל or for a חולה ל”ע. Most common method.
4) In an ancient variation, lesser known, but nevertheless preserved to this day in מנהג אשכנז, the recitation is done alternatingly. Namely, the chazan opens with the first פסוק, followed by the ציבור responding with the next one, and so on, until the end of the mizmor, when the chazan chants aloud the last posuk. Regular Shul goers will find this way reminiscent of the saying of שיר הכבוד , aka אנעים זמירות, and שיר היחוד.
Alternating Way Of Reciting Tehillim (#4 above) Background
While many people are familiar with the first three ways, the fourth is a lot less common and hence less well known. According to רבש”ה, in his notes (חלק א’, סימן ט’,עמוד יב, הערה 3) on מנהגים דק”ק וורמיישא לרבי יוזפא שמש (an important work recording the minhogim of the famed Jewish community of Worms from over three hundred years ago), it is an ancient way of doing so, and is also a מנהג מפואר (glorious, beautiful custom), with roots in ancient times, mentioned in תנ”ך. It is further described in an old siddur attributed to ר’ שלמה מגרמייזא, as being בנעימה, כדרך שיר, a pleasing recitation, song-like. In מנהג אשכנז it is still used on certain occasions, one of which is on Friday night (see here for a comprehensive Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz guide to Friday evening davening), when a number of mizmorim are said as part of קבלת שבת.
Analysis Of The Alternating Responsive Way
In it, there is a lot of AC power buzzing about, with the alternating currents of the voices of the chazan and tzibbur being heard. There is a great deal of chazan-tzibbur (leader-congregation) interaction, which gets the tzibbur more actively involved in the enterprise than they might be otherwise, and thereby gains their attention in a greater measure. The tzibbur is also more empowered, being not just totally subservient followers of the chazan in the recitation, but rather close to equal partners, or co-leaders, with him.
Comparison And Contrast of The Different Methods
In general, after various distractions, it seems that speeding, or excessive speed, is perhaps the greatest enemy of proper kavannah, and spirituality, in davening (on this topic, see the chapter תפלה בנחת ובמתינות in שרשי מנהג אשכנז חלק ד). So curbing such speeding is a great desideratum.
In method #1, there is significant possibility and temptation for people to speed through מזמורים, since they are, for the most part, on their own, in the recitation. Of course some people and congregations say them nicely nevertheless, but others don’t reach levels they might otherwise.
In method #2, things are usually quite slow and deliberate, which is much better in terms of battling the scourge of speed davening, and creating more space for thinking about one is saying.
Method #3, while also good in terms of slowing things down (it may the slowest of the four) may feel too slow, and like a drag to some people, since they are essentially going through each posuk twice, once hearing it, and once saying it. It could feel like too much for them to take, which could turn them off.
Method #4, on the other hand, has a different tempo/dynamic, with alternating interaction between the shatz/chazan and tzibbur, being active and passive, work and rest, alternating between reading/speaking and listening/hearing.
But Aren’t They Basically All The Same Anyway?
Although some people might say, hey, what’s the difference, all the ways are basically doing the same thing, saying Tehillim, anyway, nevertheless, the experience can be quite different from one way to another. It’s like someone saying (להבדיל) to a group of people in a modern ice cream parlor, hey, what is the difference, why are you insisting on a specific flavor or mix, you are all doing the same thing, eating ice cream, anyway. What’s the difference if you have one type or another? But we know that ‘little’ variations can make a big difference.
A Method For Past, Present, And Future, אי”ה
People nowadays are searching for ways to enhance the tefillah experience. To take Friday evening, ליל שבת davening for an example, various types of davening exist, such as the relatively new Carlebach davening, various Chassidic ways, Eastern European Chazonus, Yeshivish, and others.
The Minhag Ashkenaz Friday night davening has a special flavor of its own, of which the aspect focused on here, the alternating reciting of the opening mizmorim, is an integral part.
This ancient way of saying Tehillim and davening, is most definitely a מנהג worthy of use, preservation, and consideration. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who preserve and inform us of such ancient treasures. Very simple it is, but potentially a powerful tool for enhancing kavannah and spirituality, to enhance our עבודה שבלב.
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