Helping the amateur cantor to lead

Leading a congregation in the prayers is less challenging with the program, 'Be a Ba'al Tefilla.'

tefila disk 88 (photo credit: )
tefila disk 88
(photo credit: )
Be a Ba'al Tefillah, a CD-ROM in Hebrew and English by Davka Corporation in Skokie, Illinois ( or Dekel Software, its Israeli distributor, at or 02- 991 2718), for Windows, Mac and MP3 and MP3 CD players, for ages 13 through adult, $39.95 or shekel equivalent. Rating: **** 1/2 According to Jewish custom, if you are asked to serve as a volunteerba'al tefilla (leader of the prayers), you are first supposed to decline out of modesty, saying you are not qualified or saintly enough to carry out the task. Only if your fellow worshipers reiterate their request should you go ahead without undue delay. Professional prayer leaders who are being paid should not decline but just do it. Leading a congregation in the prayers - getting every word right, not omitting anything specified for certain times of the year and chanting according to traditional tunes - is challenging, especially for a volunteer who isn't a professional ba'al tefilla. It is to help them that Davka Corporation released this program, and while it trains you only for the Sabbath - and not the upcoming High Holy Day - services, it is very useful. The Shabbat service is the highlight of the week in the synagogue. Unlike weekday services, when everyone is rushing off to work or school, the Sabbath is a time when the congregation can truly sit back, enjoy a good prayer leader and concentrate on their prayers and their relationship to God. The disk features the chanting of Sherwood Goffin, the well-known cantor (for 42 years!) of Manhattan's Lincoln Square Synagogue and faculty member of Yeshiva University's Belz School of Jewish Music. It was compiled, arranged, adapted and composed in part by Cantor Bernard Beer, director of the Belz School, based on centuries of cantorial styles. Goffin, who presents the services in both Sephardi and Ashkenazi pronunciation, recorded prayers from Kabbalat Shabbat through Ma'ariv on Friday night to Shaharit and Mussaf on Shabbat morning. The program even features multiple versions of popular tunes for Lecha Dodi, El Adon and Kedusha rather than only the most common versions. The New York cantor sounds quite Israeli (rather than the American he is), which is a boon to Israeli ears. Goffin offers the accurate, authentic version of the Shabbat davening adapted from the curriculum taught at YU's cantorial school. His voice is very pleasant, and his performance is highly professional. Unlike Shabbat services in Orthodox synagogues, the chanting is accompanied by the piano, played by by Cantor Eric Freeman of the cantorial school. The five full hours of prayers come in 268 short files in MP3 format, and once you've selected a prayer, it will repeat itself unless you select another one. There are no videoclips to show the cantor in action or any visuals at all except for what you choose to see as part of Microsoft's Media Player, which can include rather psychedelic geometric and fractal shapes in a rainbow of colors, according to your choice (if such visuals were screened during a service - using a Shabbat clock, of course - congregants would be mesmerized and unlikely to whisper among themselves during the prayers). Rabbi Herschel Schacter, the rosh yeshiva of YU's rabbinical school, permitted the use of God's name as recited in the actual service, because the program was initially intended for novice learners who wish to learn how to lead the Shabbat service. If a novice heard the word "Hashem" used by the program instead of the tetragrammaton, explains Schacter in the program notes, he might use it in the synagogue instead of God's actual name. The program notes advise listening once to an entire paragraph, then playing one phrase at a time and repeating it out loud at least three times (and more if necessary). When you finish a whole prayer, reverse the process to see if Cantor Goffin sings it the way you have learned it. You are advised to review everything you have learned within two or three days to "lock into your memory" what you have learned before. The disk also includes a 22-page Hebrew text of the relevant prayers in the form of a PDF document that can be viewed while listening to the chanting. However, there is no transliteration in Latin letters and no way to click on a section of the printed text and then have the relevant segment of the chanting sounded. These would have been nice - and probably made it a bit more expensive. But if they had been offered, the program would have earned a full five stars.