Davening during lockdown

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Davening during the lockdown due to Covid-19 has been an entirely different experience.  

During normal times, davening is confined predominantly to morning Shabbat and Yom Tov services in shul. But during the pandemic, it has involved attending virtual Shacharit services led by Senior Minister Albert Chait of the United Hebrew Congregation, Leeds.  

I made a considered decision from day one that I would attend these services each and every morning and that is exactly what I have done.  

Has it been easy? Not really. Has it been enjoyable? Not entirely so. It has not been easy because the speed of the minister has been too fast for me on several occasions, especially in areas I am unfamiliar with.  Picking up following the silences within the prayers has also been difficult at times but, as the weeks and months have gone by, identifying the text has been easier as I have become more familiar with each of the prayers.   

As far as enjoying the services are concerned, truthfully, this is mixed. I have felt (as I would in shul itself) somewhat of an uninvited guest at a morning service as I recognise that it is unusual for women to attend these services. However, I have enjoyed learning and understanding more of the service and felt comforted by prayers, maybe more so because of the virtual mechitza rather than the ‘real’ one in shul.  

Then why have I remained adamant in maintaining this practice? My first thought that starting the day with a structure would be useful and satisfying and this it has been. I also thought that praying each day in the morning would offer some comfort in these very difficult times.   

To recite the Shema each morning has certainly been a positive feeling for me. But being a woman, it has most definitely highlighted just how much of it is male dominated, as is indeed the entire morning service. I say this not because the rest of the davening is just for men but because it is mainly men who attend these virtual services. This is quite understandable. However, it is also very comforting to see that several women also attend. 

I have learned some of the different prayers about which I wasn’t previously aware. This is especially true of Tachanun and I have tried and am continuing trying to get to grips with its meaning. Much of it, if I have interpreted it correctly, seems to focus on anger, that of Hashem and that of us. Can the Almighty forgive us for our anger, and can we rise above our ‘stubborness’? We pray, in the Artscroll Siddur translation, ‘There is none like You, G-d who is slow to anger and is abundant in kindness and truth. Save us with your abundant mercy.’ These words feel extremely powerful and meaningful. So why is Tachanun said on certain days but not on others? It is not recited on Shabbat, before a Yom Tov or on Rosh Chodesh, etc. The Siddur does state on which occasions and days on which Tachanun is omitted but does not say why. This is something I need to work on and learn about in the future, even when the lockdown has ended, and virtual services have become a thing of the past.    

To some extent, I will miss the virtual services as it has become the new(ish) start of my day. However, although I will continue praying in my own way at home when synagogues open again, I will not be attending the live services at shul. I am happy with this. I have learned. I have found comfort and I am now confident in being able to pray each day in my own way. Overall, then, being on lockdown during the Coronavirus pandemic has in this instance been a learning experience and a positive result.  

Being on lockdown and attending the virtual services has made me reflect on my attitude and gratitude towards Hashem so I can question Tachanun and the prayers that previously I have not been a part of, so I see this as a positive reaction not only to prayer but also to the difficult situation we find ourselves in.   

Leynning from the Tikkun, through a screen and without the aliyot has also been strange but I fully understand why this has to be so. But I question the necessity to leyn in this way at all, without a minyan and without being able to say Kaddish. With so many deaths in the community it has been incredibly sad that this has not been possible. For those observing Yartzheits, it is also very uncomfortable to see loved ones not being able to recite Kaddish. 

After lockdown, I question myself as to whether I will continue midweek morning prayers and how obligated a woman is to do this.  

As is the norm in Judaism, there are several interpretations. One of these is that in the Artscroll Siddur, ‘According to Magen Avraham (O.C 106:2) women are required by the Torah to pray once a day and they may formulate the prayer as they wish. In many countries, this ruling became the basis for the custom that women recite a brief prayer early in the morning and do not recite any of the formal prayers from the Siddur.’   

If I am absolutely honest, I think that this will be my way forward but with more understanding of the morning prayers as a whole. The whole experience of virtual prayer continues to be positive and as I said at the beginning starting the day with a structure would be useful and satisfying and this it has been. I also thought that praying each day in the morning would offer some comfort in these very difficult times, which it has been, so I am very grateful to have had this opportunity. 

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Roma Cohen lives in Leeds, is Vice President of Harrogate Synagogue and co-chair of Leeds Limmud.
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