by R. Gil Student
What good is an app for benching, reciting the blessings after a meal, when we cannot use it on Shabbos? That was the reaction I heard from many people when NCSY announced its new, free Bencher App. This attitude neglects a few things. First, people bench during the week also, not just on Shabbos. Second, sometimes people new to observance want to practice saying prayers in order to become more fluent. This is especially true when those prayers are sung out loud. It can be embarrassing when you mispronounce a word out loud.
But more importantly, the wildly popular NCSY Bencher was never just about benching. It is a cultural experience. The NCSY Bencher (made by the supremely talented David Olivestone) is designed to assist Jews in their religious growth. It is full of songs and prayers, translated into English and transliterated to allow for easy pronunciation of the Hebrew for those who do not read Hebrew as quickly as they sing.
These songs are commonly sung at Shabbos meals, mitzvah events (e.g. weddings) and the many NCSY gatherings. They come from Bible, prayers and religious texts like Midrash and Talmud. Song is a method of uniting a group. When everyone sings together, they join in unison despite the many different backgrounds and temperaments. While people may disagree about many things, when they sing they are united. This is a powerful emotional experience. The NCSY Bencher allows newcomers to feel that unity, to join the group almost immediately and feel like they belong.
In this sense, the NCSY Bencher is less a tool for prayer as it it is for fitting in. Someone who has never kept kosher can join together religiously with the rabbi’s son in a melodic praise of God. However, the drawback has always been that you have to know the tunes in order to join the singing. Those with a good ear can learn the songs quickly but many people (including me) were born without that talent. Technology changes that equation.
Just like GPS evened the field between those with a good sense of direction and those directionally challenged, the NCSY Bencher App empowers those who are musically challenged. The app includes all the songs, translations and transliterations from the classic Bencher. It also contains recordings of musician Aryeh Kunstler singing the songs (sometimes in multiple tunes). You can listen to the songs over and over until you learn the tunes. Newcomers will be able to prepare for Shabbos and other occasions, avoiding potential embarrassment. You don’t have to be a quick musical study to join the special unity of NCSY singing and Shabbos Zemiros.
Even old-timers can benefit from the app. Some of us only know a few tunes and can expand our repertoires with the app, enhancing our Shabbos meals with variety. Some of us routinely butcher the songs and can use the private refresher course that the app offers.
Additionally, while it is strangely downplayed, many people do not have a tradition to sing Zemiros at the Shabbos table. I say strangely downplayed because if your family is not blessed with musical ability, singing Zemiros becomes torturous. There is an erroneous idea that if a prayer or song is published in a prayer book or blessing booklet, everyone must recite it. This is incorrect. Different communities have different traditions and a wise publisher will include as many traditions as possible to maximize the market for his product. You, the consumer, have to know your traditions or pick one. I am aware of reports that both Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rav Menachem Shach did not sing Zemiros. I do not know whether this represented a widespread Lithuanian tradition or just their families’ custom. Regardless, that tradition exists.
If you are someone who does not sing Zemiros regularly, occasionally you might be put in a position where you have to sing Zemiros or other songs. While you may remember the tunes more or less, the NCSY Bencher App provides a refresher course. This is a great tool for learning, reviewing and learning to fit in. It is a Litvak’s survival tool in an increasingly Chasidic world and a newcomer’s survival tool in the religious world.