Monday, September 14, 2009

Which way does your chazan face when he says shma?

Serious question. When your local chazan says shma with the Torah in his arms does he face ark or audience*? I asked this the other night on Twitter, and I'm asking it again here today, because the behavior of our local Hasidim continues to bewilder me. When one of the local Hasidim serves as chazan, he almost says shma with his back to us.

Now this isn't as disrespectful as, perhaps, it sounds. In our shul, the amud is right next to the ark, so what the does is take the torah, and walk the half or quarter step back to the spot where he's stood for the entire service. Still, I find the whole thing bizarre, not least because the note in every Sefard siddur I've consulted invariably says the Chazan should face the audience and lift the Torah as he announces the shma.

What's going on? I suppose it's possible that this Hasidic practice I've observed stretches back to the Baal Shem Tov himself,  but my hunch is it developed more recently either out of convenience (as mentioned the amud is inches away) or as an overt rejection of the big shul practices which Hasidim almost universally regard as modern, and therefore foul and deserving of scorn. I can quite easily imagine a hasid reasoning, well, if they do it in that kind of shul it must be wrong. In fact, I've seen similar: At one of the Saturday afternoon house minyanim I've written about, we had a hasidic fellow who tried every week to convince our Torah reader to take off his talis. Why? Because the Ari said that talitot shouldn't ever be worn in the evening or afternoon; thus the older, and at least equally valid custom followed in non-Hasidic shuls is ipso facto an error to be stamped out.

* For some reason, my alliterative use of the word "audience" disturbed one of my Twitter hasidim. He insisted the only correct word to use here is "congregation", and after a brief argument about semantics, I believe he dropped me. He claimed he had the dictionary on his side but I think he merely found the word "audience" impious. Anyway, the dictionary supports me just fine.
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