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Why Does the Chazzan Repeat the Amidah?

Why Does the Chazzan Repeat the Amidah?

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Question:

I recently started attending synagogue services on a regular basis. After we pray the Amidah silently, the chazzan (cantor) repeats it word for word. Why?

Reply:

To answer your question, let’s go back in history close to 2,500 years.

It was the end of the Babylonian exile, and the Jews began returning to the Holy Land. Up until that point there had been no set text or prescribed structure to the daily prayers. It was up to the individual to come up with his or her own script. But seeing that much of the younger generation lacked adequate mastery of Hebrew to eloquently pray in the Holy Tongue, Ezra the Scribe and the Men of the Great Assembly established the text of the Amidah and instituted that it be said thrice daily.1

But the problem was far from solved. This was long before there was even paper, never mind the printing press. With manuscripts few and far between, there were many people who were able to understand Hebrew but had no way to learn and retain the proper texts.

To remedy this, the sages instituted that a representative of the congregation (a.k.a. the chazzan or sheliach tzibbur) repeat the prayers. By hearing the repeated Amidah and answering “Amen” (which translates loosely as “I agree with what was said”), the unlettered Jews could fulfill their obligation to pray.2

But there’s no free ride. This works only for someone who lacks the knowledge to pray but understands what is being said. If you have the ability to pray, or if you don’t understand Hebrew, then you cannot fulfill your obligation through hearing the repetition3 (except for some of the High Holidays prayers, which are very long and hard for anyone to master4).

Why is the repetition said even when there may not be such people present?

The sages instituted that it be said after every Amidah,5 since otherwise we’d need to interrogate each individual in attendance to ascertain whether there is a congregant who fits the criteria for the repetition.6

Nowadays, virtually no one fits the criteria. But there is another reason for the repetition—we recite the Kedushah and Modim prayers during this time.7

Prayer of the Whole Congregation

According to Maimonides, there appears to be an additional benefit. He writes: “What is implied by the term ‘communal prayer’? One person prays aloud and all the others listen. This should not be done with fewer than ten adult males. The leader of the congregation is counted as one of them.”8

This implies that—in addition to praying alongside the congregation—listening to the repetition is the path through which one fulfills the mitzvah of communal prayer.9

Prayer on a Higher Level

The mystics explain that everything has both a revealed and hidden reason. Although on a simple level the reason for the repetition of the Amidah is to accommodate those who are unlearned, there is a deeper reason that is as relevant as ever, even in an age where everyone can access a siddur, or at least a siddur app.

The chazzan’s repetition holds great spiritual power, and enables our individual prayers, which we recite quietly on our own, to reach even greater spiritual heights. Although the Kabbalistic reason is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that it explains why our quiet prayers may be recited even without a minyan, but the repetition of the Amidah may be recited only in the presence of a minyan, and why it is recited out loud.10

Although there are some communities who are lax about the repetition (performing a truncated version known as a hoiche kedushah), in light of the above, those schooled in the Kabbalah warn that it is extremely important that the entire repetition be said aloud and carefully listened to.

Besides for possibly being the vehicle for our communal prayer, the repetition, boosted by our amens, helps perfect our individual prayers and has the power to unite them into a powerful unit that goes directly to the throne of G‑d.

Footnotes
1.
See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillah ch. 1.
2.
Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 34b. See also Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 124.
3.
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 124:1, and Taz and Magen Avraham ad loc. See also Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 124:2.
4.
Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 35a.
5.
Although the chazzan always repeats the Amidah, Maariv (the evening prayer) is an exception. Since it was not originally instituted to be as obligatory as Shacharit and Minchah (and Musaf), the rabbis didn’t institute the repetition of the Amidah. See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 9:9. See also Responsa of Rashba 1:183.
6.
Furthermore, once a decree was enacted, even if it appears that the reasons for the enactment no longer apply, the enactment is still in force until a beit din of greater stature nullifies the enactment. See Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 124:4.
7.
Tur, Orach Chaim 124.
8.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 8:4.
9.
See Rabbi J. B. Soloveichik, quoted in Nefesh ha-Rav, p. 123. He explains that according to Maimonides there are two types of communal prayer: (a) communal prayer, when a quorum of ten men get together and pray quietly (tefillah be-tzibbur); (b) a prayer that represents the entire community through one unified voice (tefillat ha-tzibbur). This is the chazzan’s repetition, which is similar to a communal offering.
10.
See Shaar ha-Kavanot, Shaar Chazarat ha-Amidah 1; Pri Eitz Chaim, Shaar Chazarat ha-Amidah 1–2. See also Reishit Chochmah, Shaar ha-Kedushah 14; Siddur of R. Yaakov Emden, Hanhagot Chazarat ha-Shatz; Kaf ha-Chaim 124:2; Ben Ish Chai, Terumah 1:2; Maaseh Rav ha-Shalem 43, quoting the Gaon of Vilna.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Yehuda Shurpin (Author) September 9, 2016

Re:Not meeting the full intent of the second reading Indeed, it is most unfortunate the pace some pray at. Prayer is called the "service of the heart," prayer is not meant to be a sprint that one just needs to get through, it is a time to connect to G-d, and one should pray at a pace that they can actually reflect upon the words they are saying.

To learn more about what prayer is all about and the deeper meaning behind it see our special section on Prayer
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Confused & Frustrated September 4, 2016

Not meeting the full intent of the second reading. If the purpose of the second reading is "By hearing the repeated Amidah and answering “Amen”, the unlettered Jews could fulfill their obligation to pray," then most synagogues are failing in this obligation. With the first reading being read so fast, thereby shutting out those that read more slowly and the second reading being faster as to sound like a blur, with some leaders practically slurring the words, the repetition loses its meaning. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin (Author) May 18, 2016

Re: How Amidah appeared Close this Incident With all due respect, the establishment of the Amidah prayer as well as the repetition and communal prayer was instituted by the Anshe Kenesset Hagedola (men of the great assembly) who lived around the year 350 BCE i.e. 500 years BEFORE the dates you give. Reply

Anonymous May 12, 2016

How Amidah appeared First, Syrian-Christians invented to pray communally in year 150 (and their bureaucracy fixed that custom in year 300).
Second, Jews invented to pray communally in late Talmudic-times to differ from Christians with Minim-blessing in order to Syriac- or Palestinian-Christians not to unite with Jewish community. Reply

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