Nusach Hatfilah – A Unifying Force in Judaism
A survivor of the Holocaust by the name of Chaim related a remarkable story that I would like to share with you. Chaim grew up in Budapest and remained there during the war years. Though life was not easy, he managed to survive, living in the Jewish part of the city before the Nazi occupation. But then the Holocaust came to Budapest as well, with all its fury. The Nazis were aided by the Hungarian Arrow Cross, who murdered Jews randomly. The infamous Eichman herded the Jews into a Ghetto from where they would be deported to Auschwitz. Chaim wasn’t going to wait to be taken away or being shot by the Hungarians. He decided to move to the other side of the Danube into Buda where no Jews lived, and hide out as a Gentile.

He found a room in a remote part of the city, hoping not to be recognized and thereby save himself. Armed with false papers, Chaim claimed to have come from the south of Hungary looking for work. Most of the neighbors paid little attention to him except for one young man by the name of Laszlo. He seemed to always be looking suspiciously at Chaim. When Chaim tried to make conversation with Laszlo, he became very evasive and defensive. He made Chaim feel very uneasy. Fearing that this man might be onto him, Chaim decided to look for another place to live. One day he noticed that he was being followed by that man and quickly went into a crowd to loose him. Yet, something about him didn’t seem sinister.

Chaim concluded that this man was either a Nazi informant, or another Jew also in hiding. But how can he find out which it was? They kept eyeing each other uneasily. One day there was a heat wave and the occupants of the building remained outside until late into the evening. Chaim, not wanting to get into unnecessary conversations with the other tenants, remained in his room despite the stifling heat. Late that evening, Chaim noticed from his window that all the other tenants had gone to their apartments, except for Laszlo, who was still out in the front of the building smoking a cigarette.

Chaim decided that this was an opportune moment to try something. He went downstairs and stood within earshot of Laszlo. Chaim began to whistle the tune of Kol Nidre. If Laszlo was indeed a non-Jew, it would mean nothing to him, but if he was Jewish, there would be an immediate recognition. Laszlo looked at Chaim as if stunned and began to also whistle. Both had tears in their eyes. Laszlo then said “Oich a yid” (also a Jew). Laszlo then told Chaim how frightened he was of Chaim, thinking that he might be a Nazi informant.

As Jews, we feel a strong connection with other Jews because of many factors. Though we may come from different countries, have different languages, or cultures, one of the strongest connections that ties us together, is our music, particularly our synagogue music.
The Kol Nidre with its haunting melody is part of what makes us feel Jewish. No matter wherever in the world we might be, we pray with the same melody. A Jew from Boro Park can walk into a shul in London, Jerusalem or Melbourne and immediately recognize the “davening” and join in as if he had prayed there all his life.
What makes this possible? The answer is, the age old Nusach Hatfilah, the musical mode and familiar chant of the Shliach Tzibur. This is what allows any Ashkenazi Jew, no matter where he is from or what cultural background he has, to be completely familiar with the “davening” wherever he may be and on a yahrzeit or CH”V in “Availus”, to act as the Shliach Tzibur.

Unfortunately there are many people that are not proficient enough in the “nusach” to act as the Shliach Tzibur, yet unabashedly walk over to the “omud” and attempt to lead the services. They are doing a great disservice to everyone present without realizing it. If the Shliach Tzibur knows the nusach, you will always hear the loud voice of the whole congregation joining together in the davening. One immediately gets a feeling of oneness “K’ish Echad B’leiv Echad” (all become as one person with a singular heart). This gathering of people becomes truly one Minyan praying together with enthusiasm. Yet, when someone who has no business acting as a Shliach Tzibur attempts to do what he is unable to do, there is generally a deathly silence in the shul. The Minyan comes together only by Kaddish, Kedusha and Borchu. Other than that, it is many people in one room, “Davening Biyichidus”(as separate individuals) as if without a Minyan.

This is particularly a problem when one is considered a “Chiyuv” such a mourner who attempts to do what he doesn’t know how to do. As in the story where a mourner upon completion of the services was approached by the Rabbi and told, “when your father passed away he made you into a “yasom” (an orphan) but he didn’t make you into a Chazzan."

In short, if one wants to act as the Shliach Tzibur during the weekdays, or for Mincha on Shabbos, one doesn’t need a good voice. But he must know the nusach. Otherwise instead of creating a Minyan, he destroys the Minyan.

I recently davened Shacharis, in a well-known “Minyan Factory”, in New York City on a weekday. A Chassidic looking man, even more, a Rebbish looking man occupied the Omud. He began immediately whining in a high voice and saying every word aloud. The whining didn’t have even the remotest resemblance to “nusach”, however the gentleman certainly prayed with great devotion. Though there where well over 100 people present, throughout this torture, there was a deathly silence in a shul where one normally hears the loud Rinah U'tfilah (the sound of a multitude praying melodiously together). Not only one couldn’t join in, but one's Kavanah was totally disturbed by the “Chazzan” whining every word loud where you could barely “Daven B’yichidus” due to the distraction he was causing. I looked around the room at the over 100 people present. Everyone there withdrew into their own world, or at least tried to. This was a large Tzibur praying without a Minyan. The so-called Chazzan caused this though I am sure, believing that he was inspiring everyone to great heights.

If you don’t know the nusach, stay away from the “Omud” or you will be responsible for a Minyan davening practically Biyichidus and causing Tzar (suffering) to people. Go learn the nusach, listen to it. Bring a tape recorder to shul during the week and go home and learn it, but don’t torture your fellow Jew.

I hope BE”H to write another article in the near future explaining what Nusach Hatfilah is, and how it has developed over the course of history to what it is today.

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