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This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society of America.
Since the Amidah isthe central prayer of any service, it is important to address the piyyutim added to it for Rosh Hashanah. During the opening blessing of the Amidah, the leader–called the shali’ah tzibur (the representative of the congregation)–recites a reshut, a poem asking permission to interrupt the standard prayer with special additions. Mi‑sod hakhamim (from the teachings of the Sages) asserts that whatever the shali’ah tzibur will insert is based on traditional teachings, midrashim, and talmudic statements.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the leader continues with Yareiti (I am in awe), a piyyut expressing one’s feelings of trepidation at the task of being the shali’ah tzibur on this awesome day. Yareiti was written by the 11th–century poet Yekutiel ben Moses of Speyer and is similar to other, more elaborate piyyutim such as the Hineni, which introduces the Musaf service. These piyyutim stress the inadequacy often felt by the shali’ah tzibur, who recites them to request God’s guidance in the task of leading the prayers and forgiveness for any mistakes that he or she might make in the process. The leader asks God to grant these requests based on the merits of his or her parents and ancestors and of the people he or she represents.
On the second day we recite a different piyyut, Atiti le‑hanenakh (I have come to implore), on the same theme. Written by Simeon bar Isaac of Mainz (whose piyyut Melekh amon is recited earlier in the Shaharit service), Atiti le‑hanenakh allows the shali’ah tzibur to question his or her worth in even more vivid terms and to plead for God’s mercy upon His people.
The weight of responsibility upon the leader of the service is very great. It is for this reason that these heartfelt pleas are uttered by the shali’ah tzibur at the beginning of each repetition of the Amidah. But what is the status of the "representative of the congregation?" In the earliest references to prayer, we find that there was always a leader for the service whose responsibility it was to guide the participants in the liturgy. The official status of shali’ah tzibur, however, ultimately came to apply to the individual who recites the Amidah. Since the Amidah is the central prayer of each service, it is the obligation of each person to recite it; but because of the prohibition by Jewish law during the early centuries of committing prayers to writing, a problem arose for those individuals who did not know the prayer by heart and therefore could not recite it. Because of this problem, some authorities felt that it was sufficient for a person to recite a brief and abbreviated version of the Amidah. The ultimate solution, however, was to have the Amidah recited aloud by one who represented the congregation, the shali’ah, or messenger. Since the prayer of the shali’ah tzibur is thought to represent that of the individual, it is important for the messenger to perform perfectly. As the Mishnah puts it, "If one recites the Amidah and errs, it is a bad omen for him. If he is the ‘representative of the congregation,’ it is a bad omen for those who sent him, since a person’s messenger is considered to be the person himself" (M. Berahot 5.5).
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