The issue in the case he discusses involved a synagogue where they do not regularly wait for the rabbi before starting Chazarat HaShatz. In his answer R. Sternbuch cites the Rema (O.C. 124:3), who notes that we are not to wait for individuals who pray at length, even if they happen to be people of importance in that city. Nor should we wait for a great scholar who has not yet arrived before starting the service. He adds, however, that the Mishna Berura (124:13) as well as the Magen Avraham (124:7) advise that today we wait for the rabbi before starting Chazarat HaShatz.
R. Sternbuch cites the Gaon R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski’s Teshuvot (siman 5) that were published in 5742 (1982), where it is stated: “We cannot change the custom of waiting for the Rav (or Av Beit Din) during the tefilla; all these [honors] are based on our holy Torah and from them we may not budge … and if, Heaven forbid, we depart from their ways even by as little as an iota, the entire Torah will fall, Heaven forbid.”
R. Grodzinski also remarks: “It is enough that in our generation we do not add practices of our own if there is no need to do so. However, we may not negate, or move away from, any of the words of our holy sages, the great men with vision who provide us with all our needs.” It seems, according to R. Grodzinski, that a congregation where it has become the custom not to wait for the rabbi strikes at the very foundation of the Torah by denying their rabbi the honor due to him, and this might negatively affect how their prayer ascends to heaven.”
R. Grodzinski continues: “It is only permitted [to do so] on such occasions when the Rav prays at great length and he himself requests [by motioning] that they [are allowed to] not wait [for him to conclude his Shemoneh Esreh].”
R. Sternbuch explains that this is in accord with Aruch HaShulchan’s ruling (Orach Chayyim 124:8) that in such an instance the rabbi should request that they not wait for him. He notes that we find likewise (Ri Migash 180) that we may not impose on the congregation an excessive wait, and that is why, when R. Akiva prayed with the congregation (Berachot 31a, as noted previously), he would cut short his usually lengthy prayers so as “not to inconvenience the congregation (torach hatzibbur).”
But in truth it seems that the rabbi should not make light of the honor of the Torah and consistently request that the congregation not wait for him. Therefore, at least on Shabbat [when there is more time available], he should not be lenient with his kavod, but should require the congregation to wait for him, and thus kevod haTorah will be upheld.
R. Sternbuch cites the Chazon Ish (Even HaEzer 148), who posits that a scholar should not constantly forgo the honor due to him because, if he does so, all the other scholars will constantly be compelled to forgo their honor. He also cites Tractate Kiddushin (33a), where we find that R. Shimon beRebbi (a disciple of R. Yehuda HaNassi) as well as Abaye were particular about the honor due to them as sages.
R. Sternbuch then cites Keter Rosh, where we find that the Vilna Gaon was very scrupulous in this regard because he saw it as a matter of honor due to the Torah, and that was in spite of his personal difficulty in concentrating on his prayer when he knew that the congregation was waiting for him to conclude. He notes that, as a general rule, we can therefore conclude that on Shabbat the rabbi should not forgo the honor due to him. The congregation should wait for him to conclude his prayer, for then they will know that they must honor the rabbi and the Torah.
R. Sternbuch then asks a related question, “I find a difficulty. Is not the honor due to the rabbi, a Torah scholar, a requirement and a positive command, as stated (Leviticus 19:32), “Mipnei seiva takum ve’hadarta penei zaken, ve’yareita meElokeicha, ani Hashem … – You shall rise in the presence of an old person and honor the countenance of an elder, and revere your G-d, I am Hashem”? The term elder (zaken) refers to one who has acquired wisdom (zeh kanah chochma, see Rashi ad loc.), and Rambam lists this as mitzva #209 of mitzvot aseh, the positive precepts. This mitzva is possibly greater than some other positive commands (due to its comparison at the conclusion of the verse to the honor one gives Hashem) or as great as the positive command to sanctify the kohanim (Leviticus 21:8), “Vekiddashto ki et lechem elokecha hu makriv, kadosh yihyeh lach ki kadosh ani Hashem mekadish’chem … – You shall sanctify him, for he offers the food of your G-d; he shall remain holy to you, for holy am I, Hashem, who sanctifies you.” Rambam lists it as mitzva #31 of the positive precepts. R. Sternbuch obviously bases this on the Mishna in Tractate Horayot (13a), which states the order of precedence among people based on holiness and lineage: A priest has precedence over a Levite; a Levite over an Israelite; an Israelite over a mamzer (one born of a prohibited relationship), and so on. The Mishna notes the following exception: “If, however, the mamzer is a scholar and the High Priest is an am ha’aretz (ignorant), the mamzer ersed in the law has precedence over the ignorant High Priest.”
R. Sternbuch now asks, “Why, according to the mitzva of ‘Vekiddashto’, does the Kohen take precedence over the scholar (the exception being where the scholar is so great that all the Kohanim show deference to him, as we see in Tractate Gittin 59b)? This is difficult to understand, as the honor due to the scholar is not always less than that due to the Kohen, and sometimes actually greater, as we noted in the Mishna in Horayot.
R. Sternbuch offers the following explanation: “The honor that we offer the scholar is singularly different from the honor accorded to the Kohen, and is demonstrated by details such as rising in his presence.”
In the reading of the Torah, calling the Kohen first is not a specific honor, but rather it follows the order of precedence of the Mishna in Horayot. Since this is not one of the specific honors due to a scholar, we do not have to honor the rabbi in that situation, except that it would be a lack of respect to call another Yisrael before the rabbi for shelishi, the third aliyah (the first available after Kohen and Levi.)
There is no requirement to stand before Kohanim or to accord them the other honors given to a scholar, as “VeKiddashto” only emphasizes their precedence when it comes to mitzvot. The same would apply to Levites, whose honor also precedes that of others, concludes R. Sternbuch.
The Gaon R. Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (Responsa Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah Vol. 2:99), is equally strict concerning the honor accorded to the rabbi. Even in cases where the honor is not one mandated by the Torah or by our sages, but was instituted by the congregation itself, such as walking around the bimah upon the conclusion of one’s aliyah to the Torah in order to shake the rabbi’s hand, a custom which the congregation now wanted to rescind, R. Feinstein did not allow its discontinuation. He emphasizes that even in such a case this custom of kavod accorded to the rabbi must continue, as rescinding it will cause diminution of the honor given to the rabbi.
Regarding Keriat Shema, even though we do not find any source that specifically requires us to wait for the rabbi, we deduce that we should do so from the following:
R. Yosef Caro (Orach Chayyim 61:3) states as follows, “Keriat Shema contains 245 words (tevot) and in order to achieve [the number] 248, which corresponds to the number of limbs in the body [and is also the number of the positive precepts], the chazzan concludes the Shema recital with ‘Hashem Elokeichem Emet’ – and then he repeats this verse.” The Rema adds, “And with this, when they hear these three words said by the chazzan, the congregation’s requirement is fulfilled …”
We can see that if there are individuals who do not say the words of Keriat Shema as fast as the chazzan, they will unfortunately not have fulfilled the requirement of 248 words. Therefore, just as in the Shemoneh Esreh, we should wait for those who say the Shema “word by word”; thus waiting for the rabbi is the logical solution.
To summarize, we see that there are two rules related to waiting for the rabbi: first, it is an honor due to the rabbi; second, it is of important halachic benefit for the members of the congregation.
We also note that this honor accorded to the rabbi specifically at the prayer service is rooted, as we noted earlier, in the Gemara (Berachot 31a) describing the custom of R. Akiva who, cognizant of any inconvenience caused to the congregation, would cut his prayers short when praying with them. It is obvious that concern for their possible inconvenience must have been the result of an existing practice – to wait for R. Akiva, as well as for other scholars, before starting the Reader’s Repetition of the Shemoneh Esreh.
In fact, to wait for the rabbi to finish before starting the Reader’s Repetition, or proceeding with the recital of the Shema, is not the gabbai’s dilemma, but rather the rabbi’s prerogative. And we would be well advised to emulate the age-old way in which a rabbi has to be honored.