The Mishna records a disagreement as to whether a person reading the twice daily Shema should do so aloud: "One who reads the Shema and did not make it heard to his ear has discharged his obligation; Rabbi Yose says that he has not discharged his obligation" (M. Brachot 2:3).
The Talmud notes that the approach of Rabbi Yose is also the opinion of other sages, including Rabbi Yehuda the Prince or Rebbi, as he is commonly known, the eventual author of the mishnaic text which has reached us. The Talmud further explains that these sages reached their conclusion based on the first word of the prescribed text - "shema" meaning "hear": The word "shema" should be understood as setting down the requirement that the text must be read in a tone that can be heard (B. Brachot 13a, 15a).
The majority opinion as expressed by the first anonymous opinion in the Mishna, however, understands the word shema to indicate that passages can be read in any language and concludes that there is no audibility requirement.
What about other mitzvot that also require the recitation of texts - such as the Amida and Grace After Meals - must they be said audibly? Later talmudic sages note that the mishnaic argument exists particularly with regard to Shema, where there is the possibility of understanding the word "shema" as indicating a requirement that what is being said is heard. All sages agree that other mitzvot that require speech need not be said audibly. With regard to Grace After Meals, there is an opinion that it should be recited audibly; however, this is not seen as a requirement that invalidates the recitation (B. Brachot 15a-b).
Elsewhere in our tractate we find a statement regarding the audibility of the so called "silent" Amida. As we have noted, there is clearly no requirement to recite Amida aloud, but the issue discussed is whether it can be said aloud if the supplicant so wishes: "One who makes his voice heard in his prayer [referring to the Amida] behold he is lacking in faith" (B. Brachot 24b). A person who prays aloud may be thinking that God will only hear supplications pronounced audibly. Behind this statement is the message that the Almighty hears our prayers, even when they are inaudible to the human ear.
The rule that the Amida must be said silently is immediately qualified: If someone cannot focus when reciting the Amida silently, he is permitted to pray audibly as long as he is praying alone. Praying audibly with a congregation, however, could disturb fellow supplicants and therefore is not permitted, even for those who have difficulty concentrating when praying silently.
Here too we find exceptions: Codifiers note that for educational purposes, the prohibition against praying aloud in public is relaxed (Tur, 13th-14th centuries, Spain). Praying aloud on the High Holy Days is also treated as a different category: There are those who make extra effort to attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and in consideration of them, we allow audible prayer to facilitate their participation. Also prayers on these significant days are often of a different quality, and a change to audible prayers may facilitate greater concentration and focus.
It should be noted that praying silently does not mean scanning the words. Rather, supplicants are encouraged to mouth the words that they are reciting inaudibly. This follows the paradigm of Hannah's heartfelt prayer for a child where her lips moved but her voice was not heard; a prayer that was answered with the birth of the prophet Samuel (see I Samuel 1).
Codifiers discuss how silent the "silent" Amida must be. According to the classic codes, "silent" means that fellow congregants cannot hear. The supplicants themselves, however, should be able to hear their own hushed tones (Shulhan Aruch OH 101:2). Others - particularly those who follow the Jewish mystical tradition as expounded by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, known as the Ari (1534-1572, Jerusalem-Egypt-Safed) - rule that silent Amida should be just that: Recited in silence such that no one can hear, not even the supplicant.
When discussing the rules of any ritual such as prayer, there is always the danger that we will get lost in the minutiae of the law. Instead of seeking the thrust of the law, we get bogged down in the details. To be sure, the details piece together to give the form and we endeavor to fulfill each element of the law, yet it is regrettable to focus solely on the details without so much as a glance in the direction of the larger issue that the details seek to address.
The discussions regarding the audibility of our prayers must be more than setting an appropriate decibel level for our supplications. It would appear that the tension surrounding the audibility of prayers turns on the two distinct yet interwoven tracks of the prayer venture: The individual's personal and heartfelt supplications on the one hand, and the community's joint, collective effort on the other hand.
The most effective medium for an individual may indeed be to pray aloud, for when reading aloud we are often able to focus not only on what we read but also on what we hear. Alas, an individual muttering his prayers can easily distract a neighbor trying to pour out his heart to the Almighty. Moreover, if everyone in the community were to pray aloud, the result would be cacophony. When we gather as a community, individual silent prayer may be preferable to provide space for each supplicant, though the cost may be that some community members cannot concentrate.
The challenge that stands before any community is how we create a space that allows individuals to pray as part of a group; the audibility of prayers is one of the issues that must be addressed when trying to find the most appropriate balance between the personal prayer endeavor and the joint communal effort to commune with the Almighty.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.