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לְמַלְמֵל וּלְהַמהֵם | The non-cognitive experience of ambient mumbling in communal Jewish prayer by R’ Elie Kaunfer

Severe weather warning. A photograph of a mamatus cloud formation in Fort Worth, Texas on 21 Sep 2009 (credit: Lars Ploughmann, license: CC BY-SA)

Severe weather warning. A photograph of a mammatus cloud formation in Fort Worth, Texas on 21 Sep 2009 (credit: Lars Ploughmann, license: CC BY-SA)

“The members of the congregations are reminded and ordered to follow the cantor’s prayers quietly and silently. They must refrain from the illegal and cacophonous shouting which so frequently disturbs peaceful and true devotion.”

~Proclamation concerning the Improvements of the Worship Service in the Synagogues of the Kingdom of Westphalia, Sept 24, 1810


What is “good davening”? Usually people define it by the intensity of the music or the quality of the shatz.[1] an acronym for the Shaliaḥ Tsibbur, i.e., the ḥazzan or cantor  But I think it comes down to this: mumbling.

In truth, prayer was never meant to be silent. The Amidah is unusual in that it is said silently, but in the ancient world, reading was done out loud (thus the word in Hebrew for “to read”—kara—is the same as “to call.”) The Psalms describe one “contemplating” the words of Torah day and night (Ve-hagita Bo Yomam Va-Laila)—but hagah really means “to pronounce in a low growl.” This atmosphere of a “mumbly” davening stands in sharp contrast to a library atmosphere. In a silent reading, the atmosphere is often rigid and staid. When a group of people mumbles the words of the siddur instead of reading them silently, the experience is completely different. In the low mumbling reading, the atmosphere resembles nothing that we have experienced in Western society—a humming or buzzing sound of praise and prayer.

The mode of silently reading prayers puts the worshiper in the realm of the cognitive—just as we might experience reading a book on the subway. But the act of mumbling moves from a purely cognitive experience to a more viscerally emotional act. The aesthetic effect of this mumbling serves a dual purpose: Besides its own value as a way of engaging in prayer, it provides a contrast to the truly silent parts of the prayer: the Amidah. The silence of the Amidah is all the more powerful when it replaces the sounds of prayer that preceded it. Ḥannah, the mother of the prophet Shmuel, was thought to be drunk when she prayed completely silently (1 Samuel 1:13–15). Clearly the Amidah, which the Talmud notes is modeled after Hannah’s form of prayer—is different from the rest of the prayer experience. The silence of an Amidah that begins (with no interrupting page announcement or stage direction) right after the mumbling of the worshipers is a contrasting silence—a silence that makes us straighten up and pay attention to the new mode of prayer before us.

How does one learn how to mumble? Here are some tips:

Daven the words fast

Mumbling is not about enunciation, it is about entering into a different head-space in relation to the words, one that can be done best when the words flow.

Experiment with volume

Mumbling is not monotone. When I mumble the prayers, some words come out louder than others. I am often surprised by which words I say more loudly – they allow me to relate to those particular words in a different way.

Practice with a line you already know

Take the first line of Ashrei. Memorize it. Then start saying it fast, over and over again. Say one word louder than the next. See how that familiar line begins to change in your experience.

Be louder than your neighbor

The best mumbling is experienced in a group. If only one person mumbles, there is no din and atmosphere. But people rarely want to be the leader on this. Take a risk and set the pace for others with your own mumbling.

For an even deeper understanding of what might be at work in mumbling praxis in Jewish prayer, please listen to R’ Elie Kaunfer’s lecture on prayer’s non-cognitive aspects.

This essay was first published in an article by Rachel Druck, “Elie Kaunfer Loves Mumbling” on a blog she made during her year as a learning fellow at Mechon Hadar’s Yeshivat Hadar in 2009.


1 an acronym for the Shaliaḥ Tsibbur, i.e., the ḥazzan or cantor

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