Rav Henkin on Carlebach Minyanim

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imageby R. Gil Student

Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (d. 1973) was the leading halakhic decisor in America of his day. He was the address for the most difficult halakhic problems. Additionally, as the President of Ezras Torah, he made decisions for the famous Ezras Torah Luach, which set the rules for synagogues across America.

Rav Henkin had strong opinions on many topics, some of which never took hold. For example, he considered non-Orthodox weddings, even if performed completely non-halakhically, to be a form of common-law marriage that required a get, a religious divorce. Rav Moshe Feinstein famously dissented, allowing for the annulment of those marriages when necessary to allow children to marry halakhically. In another area, Rav Henkin insisted that the Lakewood Yeshiva stop its practice of making kiddush before shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah. Rav Aharon Kotler refused to listen, arguing that he was following the practice of the Slabodka yeshiva in which he was trained.

Regarding cantors, chazzanim, Rav Henkin followed a long and illustrious history of rabbinic critics. Throughout the generations, rabbis have denounced various practices of chazzanim. Rav Henkin was particularly concerned with the practice of chazzanim repeating words or singing tunes without words. The former issue has largely, but not entirely, subsided. However, the latter is common practice in Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish and Chassidic synagogues. The chazzan will fit the words to a tune by including “nai nai nai.” Rav Henkin explicitly forbids this for the following reason, based on a contradiction in the Magen Avraham.

I. The Kohanim’s Song

At the end of each of the three blessings of Birkas Kohanim, the chazzan says the final word and then the kohanim sing a tune without words while the congregants quietly recite the Ribon prayer, after which the kohanim say the concluding word of the blessing. In other words, there is a lengthy pause in the kohanim‘s recitation for a song and prayer, during which the kohanim sing a wordless tune. This is the current common practice.

The Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 128:45) describes the practice slightly differently. The way he has it, the kohanim sing the last word as the congregation recites the prayer. The Magen Avraham (ad loc., 73) objects that the congregation must listen to the blessing and may not recite a prayer while the kohanim sing the last word. Therefore, he suggests singing after the last word, at least for the first two blessings.

The Magen Avraham then asks a question that is important for contemporary practice: The Ribon prayer has to be recited during the kohanim‘s blessing. If the singing and prayer happen after the final word, how is that considered during the blessing? He answers that the singing of a wordless tune is an extension of the blessing.

II. Singing Kaddish

However, the Magen Avraham seems to contradict this ruling earlier in his commentary. The Rema (ibid., 124:8) writes that when a chazzan says the concluding phrase “ve-imru amen,” the congregation should not answer “amen” after him but together with him. The Magen Avraham (ad loc., 14) goes even further. He says that when the chazzan sings the phrase at length, the congregation should not wait for him and should just shout out “amen” while he is singing. He explains that the tune is an interruption (hefsek) to the blessing.

This seems to be a clear contradiction between the two rulings of the Magen Avraham. Is the tune an extension of the blessing or an interruption? He was well aware of this problem and explains his different conclusions. If the tune is too long, if the break within the blessing extends for a long period, then it is an interruption. If not, it is part of the blessing. This is not particularly clear guidance, leaving much up to the judgement of the rabbi and chazzan.

III. Rav Henkin’s View

Two years ago, forty years after Rav Henkin’s death, the first volume of a new collection of his responsa was published as Gevuros Eliyahu. The book contains many previously unpublished rulings as well as excerpts from his rulings on the synagogue calendar. All of this is excellently footnoted. The book contains many fascinating and important rulings, such as about a woman saying Kaddish, prayer in public schools, and the use of electricity on Shabbos.

In responsum 15, Rav Henkin objects to singing “empty” (wordless) tunes during the blessings of Shema. He considers these tunes questionable interruptions (chashash hefsek). While he does not explain, I believe he means that the Magen Avraham‘s definition of an interruption is unclear and therefore wordless tunes might be too long and therefore constitute an interruption.

He says not to object that great rabbis have sung wordless tunes during prayer, apparently proving that the practice is permissible. They sang the tunes out of great spiritual arousal. Therefore, their songs were part of the prayer. We cannot reach those spiritual heights.

In responsum 21, Rav Henkin discusses singing during prayer. He approves it based on Chassidic and Sephardic practices. Broadly speaking, Chassidic men sing during prayer on Shabbos and Holidays. Sephardim, who generally have more ancient customs, also sing. But they are careful not to repeat words, their tunes are brief and simple, and they all sing together–chazzan and congregation. Sephardim sing the words, not just “nai nai nai” in between words. Rav Henkin points out that Young Israel synagogues follow a similar practice. Rav Henkin adds that he objects to tunes that repeat words or have no words at all.

In responsum 149 (par. 9), Rav Henkin discusses Birkas Kohanim. He adopts a revised version of the Magen Avraham‘s suggestion. The Magen Avraham advocated reciting the Ribon prayer after the kohanim finish the blessing, while they sing, but only for the first two blessings. Rav Henkin suggested this be done for all three blessings, so there is no interruption in the blessing.

IV. Common Practice

Rav Henkin’s objection to wordless tunes applies not only to Carlebach-style minyanim but also to many contemporary synagogues. However, it seems not to be common practice. The community seems to have never adopted his strict ruling on this subject. This is particularly evident regarding Birkas Kohanim. I am not aware of any synagogue in which the kohanim sing after finishing the blessings.

Additionally, I find his logic difficult to understand. The Magen Avraham justifies the Ribon prayer after the blessings because the brief singing is not an interruption. Rav Henkin seems to have turned that around and ruled that the Ribon prayers should be recited after the blessings because the singing is an interruption. If it is, then why sing at all? And why is it not too late for the prayer, as the Magen Avraham objected?

Perhaps Rav Henkin was concerned that our Birkas Kohanim tunes are longer than those in the time of the Magen Avraham. Indeed, I have seen some synagogues in which the extended tune for the third blessing is sung for the first two, as well. Therefore, he was concerned that these tunes may be an interruption. In other words, this is a case of doubt (safek).

The concern is sufficient to delay the tunes until after the blessing, which is a biblical commandment. However, the Ribon prayer is merely a Talmudic custom, and therefore allow for leniency in this doubt.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. For the record, kohanim never (not on weekday, not on chag) sing in Israel. The tefillot are accordingly not said.

    • never use never. in bnei brak in yeshivat kiryat melekh as well in my minyon, in tiferet zion, the kohanim sing during musaf of chaggim. originally in kiryat melech they sang at all three brachot and this was then cut down to the last one. i have the feelling that we are not the only ones in bnei brak who do it.

      • Point taken. I have been in some shuls where on very rare occasions- like Yom Kippur Musaf- the chazan may sing a bit before saying the last word in the line, but I don’t recall the kohanim every following suit. Could be that many Israeli-raised kohanim wouldn’t even know how.

        • davka, all the cohanim who sing and know the niggun are second and third generation israelis. could they learned it in ponevich. haven’t really looked into the yeshivot who do it. anyways it’s not rare here at all and i said all the cohanim know the niggun. and most of the kahal says the prayer

  2. Thanks for this. perhaps a review of his teshuva clarifying his position on women saying Kaddish might also be worth summarizing.

  3. MiMedinat HaYam

    Nachum: nor do sfardim in chu”l sing.

    Also, chazzan malovany opposes much ‘carlebach davening’ cause its not (traditional; what is traditional?) Chazzanut.

    • ein haofeh mei’id al issato, he is nogei’ah badavar. btw, the title is misleading. rav henkin never related directly to carlebach minyanim. after 40 years have gone by, and perhaps a need for such minyanim, who knows if he would have changed his mind. and what about the rosh chodesh minyanim as well as chol hamoed in zefat and other places where musical instruments are played during the hallel? it took us an hour to do hazi hallel during chol hamoed pesach. i came with a well known maggid shiur and his son from bnei brak – he played the guitar and his son the violin. and the maggid shiur was also the chazzan for mussaf. what was pasul 40 years ago maybe kasher today.

  4. “For example, he considered non-Orthodox weddings, even if performed completely non-halakhically, to be a form of common-law marriage that required a get, a religious divorce. Rav Moshe Feinstein famously dissented, allowing for the annulment of those marriages when necessary to allow children to marry halakhically. In another area”
    It is my understandingthat RMF was a daas yachid in this area-the Rav essentially agreed with Rav Henkin,as I have been told by students of RAKotler, and RHutner and RYakov Kamenetzky that they also did not accept RMF’s position in this matter.

  5. There is a story- I think I saw it in a book by R’ Wein- that as he was dying, his mind largely gone, R’ Henkin kept repeating, “She needs a get; they need to blow the shofar first.”

    Similar stories are told about the Rav- that even toward the end of his life, if you brought up a Rambam, he would respond and begin discussing it with you.

    L’havdil, Muhammad Ali’s mind is fine but his body definitely isn’t. But they say that if you put him in a ring, all of that seems to drop away. The human body and mind are incredible things.

  6. MiMedinat HaYam

    Mycroft: i heard the same. But as a practical matter, its a very useful psak, solving a very serious problem, very practically. BTW, rav henkin even said a catholic wedding performed by a priest (of two jews) also requires a get.

  7. “Mycroft: i heard the same. But as a practical matter, its a very useful psak, solving a very serious problem”
    But does it solve the problem-one can argue it makes the problem worse. Unlike kashrut if one relied on the gadol hador to eat something and it was treif one ate treif but so what after 120 if one of the charges brought against you is that you ate treif in such and such a day I would be quite sure that claiming accurately that one relied in good faith on the gadol hador would remove that charge-BUT a gadol can’t change the facts-if he would rule someone is not an eshes ish but the person was an eishes ish the children born because of relations with someone not her husband would be a mamzer-thus the problem long term could be much bigger by “solving the problem” A hypothetical incorrect psak does not change the mezius.

    • What do you mean? The way halakha works, if he rules she’s not an eshet ish, she isn’t. In fact, it’s a lot less “provable” (i.e., subject to objective tests) than kashrut.

    • I think I’m just repeating R Nachum Lamm’s “The way halakha works, if he rules she’s not an eshet ish, she isn’t.” in more words, but it could use more words.

      Yes, the Rabbis really do define reality.

      I am under the impression that the Rambam may be a daas yachid, albeit an signifiant one, who may say otherwise. Rabbis can create new laws, but interpretation of existing law has only one right answer, and if there ever is a machloqes someone most be mistaken.

      But the vast majority of rishonim (as least: Rashi, Ritva, Raavad, Ran, Rif, and the Rosh) have a more constructionist view of halakhah, in which Hashem let us pick our own path, and therefore there could be multiple valid interpretations.

      So that the question of whether or not she is an eishes ish is really up to the poseiq, as long as he is following the rules of pesaq.

      Or, to put it the way the Maharal might, given his explanation of “eilu va’eilu”, the question has an answer that only HQBH can understand. We can choose how we model that question to fit it into our world, which aspects of that incomprehensible to highlight.

    • Eishes ish and tereifus are not metzi’us.

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