By Mordechai Schmutter
For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been davening on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at a vasikin minyan, which is my teshuvah for what time I wake up for Shacharis the rest of the year.
I also happen to be the gabbai pesichos at this minyan. The rav, who is also the chazzan, chose me the very first year because he was looking for someone to do it (he couldn’t very well be the rav, the chazzan, and the gabbai pesichos), and I was standing closest to him.
But I take the job seriously. It’s not a big minyan, mostly because of how early it is, and there are about 60 pesichos to go around, so basically everyone gets pesichah, some people more than once. It’s an equal-opportunity pesichah minyan.
But I have a lot to juggle, because as it turns out, it takes all different types to make a minyan. For example, some people come because we start early, and some people come because we end early. I come because there’s minimal singing, and I tend to space out. A lot. Not just in shul. I’m talking about all the time. Spacing out is how I come up with my articles.
So even if I can rein it in and not space out while I’m davening—even if I can focus on the meaning of the words and all that they symbolize—it’s hard to keep that focus when the chazzan is going, “Aye aye aye” and neither of us is saying any words. When he sings, I space out. Even if I’m singing along, it’s just my mouth that’s singing along. It’s not like my brain can be mechaven to the explanation of “Aye aye aye.” (It means yes, yes, yes.) But then the chazzan stops singing and moves on, and my head is still going “Aye, aye, aye.” And by the time I reenter the atmosphere, it’s 25 minutes later. And we’re on the next page.
I know that not everyone has this issue, and some people enjoy the singing. But my ideal minyan is one where I can spend at least 95% of the time either saying or listening to actual words.
But my point is that it doesn’t really matter who you are—you get pesichah. It’s not a big enough minyan that I get to give it to whoever is most chashuv, and it’s not really my place to decide who’s the most chashuv. It’s Rosh Hashanah. This is not the time to judge people.
So, for example, I give it to people who are new to the minyan, to say, “Welcome to the minyan! Have a pesichah.” Frankly, most of them are surprised to even get it, and they’re like, “No, no. There are more deserving people than me. I wouldn’t even know what to do.”
Um, it says in the Machzor. You just open the aron. It’s not like pesichah on a regular Shabbos, where you have to stand there and figure out which Torah to take out based on the frantic hand signals of 38 people.
But this brings me to another issue, which is that we daven in a venue that’s wider than it is deep. Most of the year, this minyan davens in the shul. On Rosh Hashanah, we don’t want the other minyan to hear our shofar before they’ve made a berachah on theirs. It’s not like we can keep it down. So we daven in someone’s dining room/living room/kitchen/entranceway/front porch. My point is that to get to the people I want to give pesichah to, I have to squeeze through the crowd and plan my routes around the people who are still davening.
So thanks. You saying, “No, no,” to be nice makes my work twice as hard, because now I have to either find someone in this immediate area, or I have to plunge back across the shul to find someone else.
But Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah is the biggest challenge, because I can’t talk because of shofar. So how do I get people up there? Do I walk them? Do I point at the aron and hope they get it? Do I point and then mime opening a curtain and a set of doors? And why is it that every time you ever try to mime opening a set of doors, you have to lean back, so your imaginary doors don’t hit you?
So what I generally do is I have an ArtScroll Machzor. I show someone the page, and I point to the words, “The ark is opened,” and I point to him, and then I point back to the words, “The ark is opened.” And then I wait for it to register.
Usually, he smiles and nods. Though I don’t know if that means anything. A lot of times they nod, and then I go back to my seat, and when pesichah comes along, they’re nowhere to be found.
Maybe it’s a grammar thing. The Machzor doesn’t say, “Open the ark”; it says, “The ark is opened.” Okay, so the reason ArtScroll says that is that they don’t want everyone stumbling forward at once. But my point is that’s not really a command. It’s a statement. “The ark is opened.” So the guy looks at the ark and look at me and thinks, “No it’s not.”
Or maybe the guy is smiling and nodding because he thinks I think I’m trying to show him something funny in my Machzor. He doesn’t really understand my joke, but when someone says something you don’t understand and you don’t have the luxury of asking him to repeat himself, the general minhag is to smile and nod, and hope he goes away. Which I do.
And then he doesn’t show up.
So maybe I should give out those pesichos before Mussaf, right? No dice. When I give it out even a few minutes too early, people miss their cue. Never mind if I give it out before Mussaf altogether.
And I don’t blame them. I forget pesichah during the year. Whenever I get pesichah for leining, I open the aron and take out the Torah. After leining, when they’re ready to put it back, suddenly everyone stops and waits, and I’m like, “What are we all waiting for? Oh.”
So my goal is to give out any given pesichah as close as possible to when it has to be done. But not everyone realizes I’m doing that. Sometimes the guy looks through his Machzor to see which pesichah I’m signaling about and finds that it’s around 20 pages from where we are. So he settles back in. But what he doesn’t realize is that a lot of those pages are small words that the shul doesn’t say. Not to mention that, if he has an ArtScroll, half the pages are in English, and all the bottoms are explanations. So what do I do? I can’t exactly tell him. There’s no sign language for, “It’s really much sooner. Those are all peirushim.”
Or sometimes, they wait a couple of minutes to start coming up, but they can’t get through the crowd in time, nor can they say, “Excuse me,” and it turns out they didn’t factor in travel time. And everyone’s staring at the aron, waiting for it to open by itself, because they’re standing smack in the way of the guy who’s trying to get through to open it, whom they can’t see coming because they’re staring at the aron. Like someone’s going to open it from the inside.
Ideally, everyone would sit right next to the aron. That would make my job easier.
But I am learning things as I go. For example, I learned the hard way that the pesichah for Hayom T’amtzeinu (at the end of Mussaf) has to go to a kohen, because they’re all still up there blocking the aron, and anyone else going up there would have to squeeze by them and try not to step on anyone’s toes. I learned this the first year, when I decided to give the kohanim the first few pesichos, and then I tried to give Hayom T’Amtzeinu to someone else. With boots.
But there’s a serious learning curve. If I give out pesichah too late, they don’t make it. If I give it too early, they forget. And the right time for each pesichah is different, based on which pesichah it is and how far each person sits from the aron.
It’s tough. This is what I think about during chazaras haShatz. Instead of spacing out.
I have a smart rabbi, apparently. But seriously, what do I do?
Well, I’ve been doing this for 15 years. I’ve tried some things. Tune in next week to find out what they were. v
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.