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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

To Stand? To Sit?—
Worship Choreography in Mishkan T'filah

by Rabbi Richard Sarason, PhD

One of the many distinctive features of Mishkan T'filah vis á vis earlier North American Reform prayer books is its disinclination to prescribe a single set of performance practices throughout the service (such as when to stand up, when to sit down, how a particular text is to be recited and by whom). This is done to allow "for maximum flexibility and with respect for varying congregational customs."

In particular, the diversity of practice in our Movement today can be seen in the matter of the recitation of the Sh'ma : Does the congregation stand for the Sh'ma ? If so, when and for how long? Does the congregation remain seated? Here we explore the origins and rationales for these diverse performance practices in the hope of helping to make better sense of our choices.

Interestingly, there appear to have been different performances practices from the outset for the recitation of the Sh'ma (the full three scriptural paragraphs: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:1-21, and Numbers 15:37-41, not just the Sh'ma verse). The Mishnah ( B'rachot 1:3) records a dispute between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai as to whether "when you lie down and when you rise up" (Deut. 6:7) refers only to the time of day when Sh'ma is to be recited (Hillelites) or whether it also refers to physical posture (lying down at bedtime, standing up in the morning; Shammaites).

The Hillelite position was deemed normative, which means that no specific posture was prescribed. But in the early Islamic period (by the ninth century), we learn of divergent practices between the Jewish communities in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia. The Jews in Israel stood for the recitation of the Sh'ma (all three paragraphs), while the Jews in Babylonia remained seated. No explanation is given for the practice in Israel, but likely the standing posture enacts the importance of the liturgical act of affirming scriptural text (to this day, it is customary to stand for the recitation of the Hallel psalms on the festivals, and for the public reading of the Ten Commandments and the Song at the Sea). The Babylonians apparently saw themselves as continuing the Hillelite practice; they accused the Palestinian Jews of being "Shammaites."

Since Babylonian practice became normative for all of the medieval rites, the traditional practice to this day is to remain seated while reciting the Sh'ma . One rises only for Bar'chu (the official beginning of public worship); the next time one stands is for the Amidah .

Reform practice on this issue has never been uniform. The first Reform congregation in Germany, the Hamburg Tempelverein, apparently retained the traditional practice; their prayer books (1818 and 1841) do not indicate otherwise. The prayer book of the radical Berlin Reformgemeinde (1848), on the other hand, instructed the congregation to rise for the Sh'ma verse and Baruch shem and then to be seated. These two texts were recited in German and then sung in Hebrew with the choir; the rest of the abbreviated service (excepting the K'dushah verses) is in German. The Sh'ma verse was singled out for special treatment because it came to be viewed as the "watchword of our faith," encapsulating the crucial difference between Judaism's strict monotheism and Christianity's trinitarianism. On the other hand, since German Lutherans stood for the recitation of their creed, so would German Jews.

The earliest Reform prayer books in North America, those of Leo Merzbacher at Temple Emanuel in New York (1855), Isaac Mayer Wise's Minhag America (Cincinnati, 1857), and David Einhorn's Olat Tamid (Baltimore, 1856/1858), do not direct the congregation to rise for the Sh'ma , although Einhorn, like the Berlin Reformgemeinde, singles out the Sh'ma verse and Baruch shem for decorous recitation in Hebrew by the rabbi with repetition by the congregation (the rest is in German). Only the Union Prayer Book of 1894-95 (and its subsequent revisions: 1918-24, 1940-45) enshrines the practice of rising for the Sh'ma and Baruch shem , then sitting down.

Gates of Prayer (1974) introduces an unprecedented performance practice. Rather than have the congregation stand for Bar'chu , then sit, then stand for Sh'ma and Baruch shem , then sit (the practice of the Union Prayer Book ), this volume has the congregation rise for Bar'chu and remain standing through Sh'ma-Baruch shem , then sit. The rationale clearly is practical rather than ideological. In the earlier British Liberal Service of the Heart (1967), which was also edited by Chaim Stern, the congregation stands at the very beginning of the service (when the rabbi enters?), sings a hymn, recites Bar'chu , sits, reads several prayers, then stands for Sh'ma through V'ahavta , sitting before L'ma'an tizk'ru . This practice, too, avoids the "up-and-down" feeling of the Union Prayer Book . Finally, the 1994 gender-neutral revision of GOP has the congregation stand for the first time before Chatzi Kaddish and remain standing for Bar'chu (this reflects one traditional custom), which also avoids the "up-and-down" feeling.

Given this diversity of practice among recent Reform prayer books and the desire of some in our movement to restore elements of traditional performance practice, it is sensible for Mishkan T'filah to leave these options open to congregational choice.

Rabbi Sarason is professor of Rabbinical Literature and Thought at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. This piece appeared originally in Ten Minutes of Torah ( in February 2006.

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