Question: I was recently discussing the sorry state of religion in Eretz Yisrael with some friends, noting that unfortunately a majority of the population consists of non-observant Jews. I expressed my view that this fact explains why Moshiach has not yet come. I avidly read your column and am anxious to learn your view of this matter.
No Name Please
Summary of our response up to this point: We inquired into the statement we say before Kol Nidrei: “We sanction prayer with the transgressors.” To which transgressors are we referring?
Some suggests that “transgressors” refers to the Marranos in Spain who openly committed the sin of idolatry. Others say we are referring to individuals who violated communal edicts that got them banished from the synagogue.
Some compares praying with transgressors to the fragrant frankincense spices in the beit hamikdash which contained among its ingredients chelbona, a foul-smelling spice.
We asked: What if there are no transgressors in synagogue? Does their absence invalidate our Yom Kippur prayer service?
The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 33b) states that the obligation to pray falls on every individual congregant, while Rabban Gamliel disagrees and says that the chazzan discharges the congregation of its obligation. The Mechaber notes that someone who is not conversant in praying must pay attention to each word of the chazzan’s repetition to discharge his obligation. One who is conversant cannot be discharged and must say the prayer himself.
However, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper, the chazzan discharges the obligation of everyone, even those who are well versed. Each person must either recite the prayer by himself or follow the chazzan’s prayer word for word.
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We find the following in the concluding Gemara to Rosh Hashanah (35a): “R. Acha b. Avira said in the name of R. Shimon Chasida: Rabban Gamliel would allow even those people who found themselves in the fields [engaged in agricultural activity] to be discharged of their [prayer] obligation [by the chazzan]; it is needless to say that those who are in town are also discharged.”
The Gemara questions this assumption: “Surely the opposite should be the case, for those in the fields are unable to come due to matters that are beyond their control – i.e., they are anusim – while those in town: what is there preventing their attendance?”
This is similar to what Abba the son of R. Binyamin b. Chiya stated: “The people who stand behind the kohanim [during Birkat Kohanim] are not included in the blessing.” Both laws exclude people. Those people in town who do not deem it important to come to synagogue for Birkat Kohanim do not benefit from that blessing.
The Mechaber (Orach Chayim 128:24) seeks to clarify what the words “the people who stand behind the kohanim” mean. The assumption is that people must stand facing the kohanim, but the Mechaber writes that those standing on the side of the kohanim “even should there be a wall of steel between them – it will not cause a separation.”
The Ba’er Heitev (ad. loc. sk 42) maintains that those standing to the side must at least be within the side periphery of the kohanim. Those standing behind the kohanim, though, are not included in the blessing. The Ba’er Heitev cites the Bach, who is lenient since people nowadays buy, and own, assigned seats. Those with seats along the eastern wall are thus considered anusim. They cannot move from their assigned place to another spot since they would displace fellow congregants. (In practice, though, we find that in most situations, people sitting in front row seats are able to move to the back and face the kohanim without disturbing their fellow congregants.)
We now return to the Gemara as it concludes: “However, when Rabin came [from the land of Israel], he reported that R. Yaakov b. Idi said in the name of R. Simon Chasida that Rabban Gamliel only allowed those engaged in work in the fields to be discharged of their obligation [by the chazzan]. Why? Because being engaged in their work is a matter beyond their control. However, those in town [who are not engaged in fieldwork] are not discharged. Rashi (sv “aval d’ir lo”) explains that since they are not engaged in work, they are able to pray on their own.