When in Rome, do as the Jewish Romans do

Shabbat or Shabbos?

Last week I reviewed a solution for weekends on the road in the post Shabbat Travel Kit, but the issue which bugged me most while writing, was whether I should write “Shabbat” or “Shabbos”?

Personally I’m more comfortable with Shabbos, also known as the Askenazic pronunciation. That’s what I grew up with and use till today for prayer and Torah study. For day-to-day speech in Israel, I use the Sefardic pronunciation, which is ubiquitous in the country. But when I write posts in English for the English speaker, I’m in a quandary what pronunciation to use.

This past post really put the issue to a test. The product I reviewed is named “The Shabbat Collection”. I can’t change the name of the product, but I personally prefer Shabbos, so I ended off with a mishmash, including writing Shabbat in the post title and Shabbos in the body of the post.

One day I’ll make a firm policy for my posts but in the meantime pardon me if I occasionally switch allegiance from time to time. If you have any advice for me, please write.

when in rome
Beth-El Synagogue in Casablanca

This issue brings me to the topic of today’s post. Lets say you follow the Askenazic version and pronunciation and you’re now at the Beth-El Synagogue in Casablanca, Morocco. All the locals are praying Sefardic. What about you?

Or lets say you hail from a very traditional Yemenite family and find yourself praying in the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich, Germany. What about you?

when in rome
Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich

Which tradition do you follow with the pronunciation and the Nusach (version)? Is there a difference if you are praying as one of the congregation in silence or if you are saying Kaddish out loud and they hear you? If you are honored by being the Chazzan (cantor) do you follow your own tradition or the local one?

There are two main opposing factors to take in consideration:

  1. According to the Zohar there are twelve gates (or windows) in Heaven; one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the prayers of each tribe passes through its own distinct gate. This idea implies that there is no “one size fits all” but rather each tribe or group has their own unique style of prayer. In addition, the verse “V’Al Titosh Torat Imecha” (translation: Do not abandon the Torah of your mother) implies that you may not abandon the traditions of your family.
  2. The verse “Lo Titgodedu” (translation: Do not make factions). This refers to the prohibition of creating factions among Jews when some practice one law or tradition and others follow a different one, in the same location. The implication is that you must follow local custom for the sake of unity among Jews.

When you pray in a synagogue with a different tradition than yours, you need to balance these two opposing principles of maintaining your own tradition while refraining from negatively impacting Jewish unity.

The Sages from Talmudic times up till the modern age discuss the issue extensively. I’m not sufficiently scholarly to write the Unified Theory for Cross Cultural Prayer, but here are a few simple guidelines to keep you out of trouble on your trip:

Nusach

  • When reciting the silent Shmoneh Esrei, say it according to your own tradition.
  • When you are responding to Kedusha, say it according to the local custom.
  • If you are asked to be the Chazzan, say the silent Shemoneh Esrei according to your tradition but when you repeat the Shemoneh Esrei out loud do it according to the locals.

Pronunciation

  • Stick the pronunciation you are used to whether you are praying as a congregant or as a Chazzan. Unless you have a lot of practice switching, it will confuse you and make a mishmash of words.

As a footnote, according to the online Encyclopedia Britannica, Ashkenazim constitute more than 80 percent of all the Jews in the world, vastly outnumbering Sephardic Jews. In the late 20th century, Ashkenazic Jews numbered more than 11 million. In Israel the numbers of Ashkenazim and Sephardim are roughly equal, and the chief rabbinate has both an Ashkenazic and a Sephardic chief rabbi on equal footing.

So the next time you go synagogue hopping with a different tradition, remember – When in Rome, do as the Jewish Romans do (at least in public).