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High Holidays in Tearful Prayer

High Holidays in Tearful Prayer

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Grandma's painting of her grandfather praying.
Grandma's painting of her grandfather praying.

The High Holidays in Samarkand were an experience unto themselves. From the beginning of the preceding month of Elul, a change could be discerned in the atmosphere. The people of the community grew introspective, as each individual tried to improve on his or her own religious observance and focus less on material pursuits. One could sense that the Days of Awe were approaching.

The two days of Rosh Hashanah were solemn and awe-inspiring. Our minyan took place in a private home, and was made up of some fifteen to twenty men, each person sitting in his place, totally immersed in prayer. We were very careful not to utter anything unrelated to the holiday, and even when we needed to communicate, we preferred to motion with our hands so as not to get caught up in idle talk. Every free moment was devoted to reciting Psalms.

At one point, we found out about the Lubavitch custom to arrange, by roster, for the Psalms to be recited continuously throughout all forty-eight hours of the holiday. One could sense that the Days of Awe were approachingAlthough there weren’t enough people between us to arrange a full minyan for each shift, we divided up the hours and each of us took a shift. The shifts would begin ten minutes early and end ten minutes late, so as to ensure a seamless transfer, without any interruptions. In that manner the Psalms were recited constantly, with the exception of the times of the actual prayer services.

As I write this, the memories draw me back to those wonderful days. I find myself back in shul for the High Holidays, and it is hard for me to describe the feelings that engulfed us in the small room our minyan was held in.

R. Berke Chein stands in one corner, covered with his tallis and saying Psalms in a soft and tearful voice. R. Moshe Nissilevitch stands in another corner, words gently drifting from his mouth. Dovid and Eliyahu Mishulovin sit with their prayer shawls over their heads, reciting Psalms with tremendous concentration, and so on.

As the minyan started, everyone began to daven with intense focus, each person as their ability and energy allowed them. Each person looked inside his prayerbook and uttered every word clearly, trying his best to think over the meaning of the Hebrew words.

My father had managed to get a hold of a traditional Chabad Tehillas Hashem prayerbook from an individual in Moscow. His desire to acquire it was so great that he paid 700 rubles to buy it from him—the equivalent of an entire month’s salary! After we had obtained the Tehillas Hashem, we were able to more accurately recite the prayers according to our custom.

When the leader reached the Shemoneh Esrei, the silent portion of the prayers normally recited together with the minyan, some congregants would still be making their way through the various earlier stages of the prayers. Although we always made sure we had enough people together before beginning Shemoneh Esrei and enough people ready to answer to the Leader’s Repetition, we never tried to hurry anyone. We simply didn’t dare interfere with someone else’s prayer.

This We didn’t dare interfere with someone else’s prayersilent prayer always had a unique aura; whispered voices rose and fell, with the sound of quiet sobbing in the background. One cried, another sighed, and yet a third shed tears silently onto the pages of his prayerbook.

After the Leader’s Repetition on Rosh Hashanah, we tried to wait for those who were still praying on their own so that they too could be together with the minyan when the time came for the blowing of the shofar; while waiting, the others recited Psalms. With Reb Berke leading the proceedings, the shofar-blowing ceremony, including its prefatory prayers, lasted an hour. His tears would intermingle with drops of sweat, soaking his prayerbook and the table he stood at.

After prayers of this intensity, even the way we walked down the street on the way back home was changed. We walked with a focused mindfulness, our heads bowed, looking only within our immediate vicinity. We hurriedly ate the festive meal so as to provide sufficient time for the afternoon prayer and the riverside tashlich ceremony. If I do not err, R. Berke would fast during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, partaking only of the two nighttime meals.

I particularly remember Yom Kippur in Samarkand. R. Moshe Nissilevitch would come to the house where the minyan was held, with his prayerbook and Psalms, and remain there until after the fast. From the time he entered the house, he would stand opposite the wall, covered with his tallis, murmuring words of Psalms or praying quietly. R. Moshe always made an effort to stand the entire day. He said it was his father’s custom, and it was one that he kept his entire life. This was his Yom Kippur: completely engrossed in his prayers, oblivious of the goings-on around him; I still cried as I prayedalways praying at his own pace, even if the minyan was ahead of him. His quiet, hoarse voice could barely be heard, and every so often a tear would make its way down his cheek. His Shemoneh Esrei was quite lengthy, as he tried to enunciate each word properly. He would often repeat words of the prayers, apparently to ensure that he had pronounced each one just so. He would be extremely careful not to utter any unnecessary words outside of the prayers.

After leaving Russia, it was difficult to become accustomed to the different type of conduct we observed elsewhere. During my first Rosh Hashanah in Israel, I still cried as I prayed; but to be honest, those tears were less from the atmosphere of Rosh Hashanah itself than from my longing for Rosh Hashanah in Samarkand.

Excerpted from the book Samarkand, by Hillel Zaltzman. Hillel is the director of Chamah, an organization which works to share the beauty of Judaism with immigrants from the former USSR. The author can be contacted here.
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Mark Los Angeles September 20, 2015

Thank you again Hillel,
Thank you very much for your response. I try to imagine the lives of my great-grandparents and their parents in Russia. Your article gave me a glimpse of their lives, I felt, and I am grateful for that. LaShana Tova and may you have an easy fast.

Janis, thank you very much for your words. Reply

Janis Phoenix September 13, 2015

The Presence of G-d is like a teardrop in the heart, and that teardrop can actually become real tears flowing down one's cheeks. At the invitation of Jewish friends my husband and I attended a Shabbat service in Synagogue in Sun Lakes Arizona. As we walked in I almost sank to my knees the Presence was so real and so powerful in the synagogue. I cried as I read Hillel Zaltzman's article here. I understand. Reply

Hillel Zaltzman Brooklyn, NY September 11, 2015

Response to Mark I would like to respond to Mark from Los Angeles:
My dear Mark,
I'm pleased that you read my article, and will attempt to answer your question. To say that the tears come from the difficulties and persecution we experienced daily for the sake of observing Jewish laws, would be untrue. We got used to living with that plague for many, many years.
The tears were inspired by the holiness of the day of Yom Kippur.
I wish you a Shana Tova, and much success in all your endeavors.
Sincerely, Reply

Anonymous September 9, 2015

Thanks, Reply

Mark Los Angeles September 8, 2015

Beautiful recounting of a great experience Your description of those days makes me wish for a similar experience. What caused the tears? What emotions were you feeling? Reply

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