Redundant Recitation: Repeating words and phrases in prayer, Part IV

Thus far, we have addressed two possible issues that a chazzan would encounter if he would want to repeat words or phrases of the Siddur text in order to make them fit better with a tune he wishes to sing.  In addition to these two considerations of maintaining liturgical and scriptural integrity, there is an additional consideration that could also potentially curtail a chazzan’s ability to introduce repetition into the prayers.   thank youA mishna in Berachot states that if a chazzan recites the word Modim in the Shemonah Esrei prayer (which, literally translated means “thanks” and is part of a phrase that reads “We give thanks to You…”) twice consecutively, he should be silenced (33b)[1].  The Gemara explains that saying “thanks, thanks” sounds like an acknowledgement of two different authorities, i.e. two different deities, and is therefore forbidden on theological grounds.  According to the Gemara, reciting “Shema, Shema” (which means “Hear, Hear;” part of the verse “Hear O Israel…”) shares the same concern of implication of polytheism (ibid.).

A question that is very relevant to the issue of what parts of the prayer service a chazzan may repeat is the scope of this concern for heresy of the Mishna and Gemara.  The Talmud only applies it to these two instances of Modim and Shema.  Are they merely examples of many more potential applications of this law or, are they perhaps the only two instances in the entire Siddur?  Ostensibly it seems that limiting this concern to these two cases alone would be difficult to defend.  Is repetition of these two words the only repetition in the entire liturgy that would qualify as implying heretical or polytheistic beliefs?  Why would this phenomenon not be duplicated with many other words in many other prayers?  Upon further thought, however, the mechanism of this concern is not clearly defined.  Throughout the entire Shemonah Esrei, the chazzan addresses Hashem, the One G-d.  Is it not a farfetched concern that someone who would hear him recite Modim twice would suspect that he secretly denied monotheism?  Suspicion upon hearing the repetition of the word Shema, which does not refer to G-d himself but rather to the Jewish people as a whole, seems even less likely.  The application of this concern for theological implications beyond the two instances specified by the Talmud is, therefore, impractical if not impossible.  This argument would lead to a minimalistic approach to the Talmud and limit the application of the law of silencing the chazzan to these two scenarios[2].  In addition, as demonstrated above, common practice is to repeat many words and phrases in the prayer service – some of which could possibly have heretical interpretations.  If the precise application of this theological concern is unclear, it makes sense to this author to assume that it is limited to the examples specified by the Talmud rather than denounce the minhag (custom) of previous generations and countless contemporary communities.  This law of silencing the repetitive chazzan would therefore not practically affect a chazzan or any congregant’s ability to repeat phrases of the prayers (provided that no other mitigating factors are present, as detailed in previous articles).  In the final installment of this series, the issue of liturgical poetry in prayer will be discussed.

[1] The Talmud also labels the repetition of words of certain prayers as “disgraceful” – but not to the point that “silencing” is necessary (Iggrot Moshe O.C. II, 22).  The intricacies of that law are out of the scope of the present article.

[2] Another approach would be to assume the worst and limit any repetition whatsoever unless we could somehow be certain that no potential heretical implication would be possible.  This stringency might be justified based on the severity of heresy.


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