How eager should we be to lead the prayer services? Should we jump at the chance to guide fellow supplicants? Or perhaps we should balk at the responsibility, leaving the privilege of directing the service to others?
Our sages declare that one who is invited to serve as shaliah tzibur, to lead the prayer service, must first decline this honor (B. Berachot 34a). This initial refusal indicates that the leader recognizes that he is unworthy of the distinction of being the community's representative (Rashi, 11th century, France). This may reflect the broader goal of humility - not just in the realm of leading the prayers - suggesting that a person should always be hesitant and not accept a position of honor immediately (Rabbi Yehonatan Hakohen of Lunel, 12th century, Provence).
The Talmud goes further with a parable: If he does not decline at first, his tasteless attitude is likened to cooked food without salt - just as such a dish gives sustenance but lacks flavor, so too this prayer leader may adequately fulfill his task though his role is somewhat bland and lacking in zest.
Yet the service would never start if everyone adamantly refused to lead. Thus our sages tell us that if someone declines excessively, he is comparable to a dish that has been oversalted. Seeking a framework for a workable medium, the Talmud queries: How should he behave?
A guideline is provided: The first time a person is asked to lead the service, he should simply refuse. The second time he is approached, the potential leader should bestir himself, as if he is wavering as he considers rising. Finally when he is asked a third time, he should step forward to where the leader stands during the service and guide the congregation in prayer.
In conclusion, the Talmud quotes an earlier source that succinctly tells us of three things that are bad in excess but are fine in moderation: yeast, salt and refusal.
Normative Jewish law limits this talmudic passages on two fronts (Shulhan Aruch OH 53). First, the instruction applies only to a leader who is not the established shaliah tzibur. A person who officially serves the community in this capacity need not go through the motions of being asked thrice before the onset of each service. Furthermore, if the potential shaliah tzibur is approached by a great person, he should acquiesce without tarrying.
The hassidic master Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Eichenstein of Rozdol (d. 1827) was known for his asceticism and understanding of the hidden realm of Torah. Addressing his disciples, he told of his personal journey that gave expression to the stages described in our talmudic passage: "When I was a young man, I had a beautiful voice and I knew how to make all the prayers sound divinely pleasant. Thus I was often asked to lead the service, as many people desired to listen to my melodious prayer. As for me, I was at war with my evil inclination; each time I rose to lead the service I battled against any feeling of self-importance and vanity. I said to myself: 'I am obligated to lead the service and am doing so without arrogance and conceit.' I decided that I would never lead the services, so that no hint of haughtiness should enter my heart. Moreover, I decided to switch places in the synagogue: No longer would I sit by the eastern wall, the pride of place in any synagogue. For in that place people would gather around me to hear the harmonious sound of my personal prayer. Instead I decided to stand in the corner where no one could hear my voice.
"As I stood humbly in the corner, offering my heartfelt prayers, I felt that I had reached the lofty goal of worthy prayer with unadulterated concentration.
"Suddenly I realized that the evil inclination had misled me into feeling proud at my prayer achievement! I said to the evil inclination: 'I thought that at least here in the corner you would leave me be and not disturb my thoughts. Since I see that here too you intend to pursue me, I will continue to serve as leader of the service as was the custom of my forefathers. Thus at least I can serve my creator with the vocal gift that has been bestowed upon me.'"
In tackling the personal challenges of sincere prayer, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi journeyed through the three stages described in the Talmud. At first he flatly declined to serve as shaliah tzibur, thinking that a blanket refusal would help him avoid the challenges of arrogant thoughts during prayer.
This move, however, did not have the desired result; as Rabbi Yehuda Zvi stood in the corner, he found himself in a quandary: Should he lead the congregation and risk feeling proud of his musical capabilities or should he stand off to the side and still be subject to the deception of the evil inclination which would nevertheless attempt to lead his thoughts to pride - not on account of his tuneful prayer, but for the earnest prayer that he was offering away from the eyes and ears of those present. This is the second stage of wavering described in the Talmud.
Finally, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi put his foot forward - perhaps hoping to trip up the evil inclination or at least escape its clutches - as he decided to lead the prayers with his pleasing voice and thus serve the community and the Almighty.
Hesitating before serving as the shaliah tzibur is not only an exercise in self-restraint, nor is it merely an exhibition of humility; it is part of the process of discerning in what way fulfilling the proffered leadership role will be a constructive experience. The service requires a prayer leader, but only one who will serve the community's needs and will grow through the experience should accept this responsibility. Perhaps this is a noteworthy paradigm for leaders in all walks of life: Leaders may be necessary, but one should be hesitant before accepting this mantle, ensuring that it will be a constructive venture.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.