Tuesday, June 06, 2006

And Go Round and Round and Round in the Circle Game, then abruptly stop and face a single direction

in the past several years i have given a lot of thought to how to setup an indoor space for prayer. it seems there are two major schools of thought:
  1. The Single Direction Approach in which folks face the same way (often East)
  2. The Circle Approach in which folks sit in a large circle or concentric cirlces

The Single Direction Approach has the advantage of getting more people in less space. This can often have a strong positive impact on intensity of ruach as people hear other folks better and the dynamic feedback can create more energy. Some people prefer the personal space they get from this setup. I imagine the personal space advantage some cite is linked to the fact that you can't generally see anyone else looking at you (the people you can see are in front of you and they can't really see you, the people who can see you are behind you and you can't see them). This distinction may be marginal but it may be psychologically significant to the feeling of privacy.
The SDA has the connected drawback of diminishing people's ability to all see eachother and thus makes subtle tempo and melody shifts more challenging for the shaliach tzibur* to create.

The Circle Approach has the advantage of people being able to see eachother and relate to other folks more directly. I suppose for some this interconnection would be viewed as a drawback. The Circle Approach proponents i daven with tend to talk about it in terms of emphasizing the value of the community and valuing the connections within the community. It demonstrates a caring about who is in the room and who is praying with whom.
The drawback here, aside from the non-privacy, is that many use a big circle which is terrible from a ruach standpoint. The dead space in the middle is like the bermuda triangle of energy. People sing and it's as if pirates abscond with the sonorous vibrations intended for the kahal and the one.

Concentric Circles begin to address this problem but they create the problem of figuring out how to get in an out and should always have at least one and preferable two aisles. So i suppose we are really talking about facing semi-circles.

Sometimes these approaches are combined. I find especially awkward the situation where the community has clearly decided to prioritize seeing each other and actively sharing the experience by sitting in a single circle and then come barchu jump up and face one direction. To the best of my knowledge there is no halachic reason to daven any piece of the service except the amidah with a specific direction. The amidah is generally davened towards J-town.
It is especially ironic that barchu (a leader calling her community to prayer) is so often sung to a wall. It is not the wall which is being beckoned to praise the lord in song, word, and soul--it is the people. So why say it to a wall? Unclear.
Perhaps we could have a focusing kavvanah before singing barchu to a wall.
Maybe something like:
O wall, may your solidness inspire us to support this world, may your porousness inspire us to be open ourselves, may you shelter us in peace. amen.

The point is that it is weird to sit in a circle and then stand unidirectionally. There are major merits to both approaches, but generally, it seems, they are best off not mixed.

[also, a quick thank you to Eli Braun who once, while at the Brown Havurah of which we were both founders, as we stood up and faced east for some non-amidah piece of maariv, asked "have our values just changed?"]

*on wikipedia shaliach tzibur points to hazzan which caused me to wince. perhaps that should get fixed.


At 6/05/2006 , Anonymous alan said...

"O wall, may your solidness inspire us to support this world, may your porousness inspire us to be open ourselves, may you shelter us in peace. amen."

That made my afternoon.

For me personally, I think that it is the density of people which gives the most feeling of being in a community (as you alluded to with the bermuda triangle), and the common direction gives a feeling of unification of purpose.

In fact, I imagine that concentric circles of *outward-facing* congregants would have a similar feeling to the more normal inward-facing concentric circles. It's feeling and hearing the prayers around me that helps to remind me of the larger group.

A circle with an open space in the middle seems to call for being filled. I feel like using a prayer arrangement that creates a void there would be most useful in a situation where everyone was focusing on a ritual that was happening in the center -- i.e. at havdala-time.

As to addressing a wall with Barchu, I think that the most ancient style of shlichut-tsibur was done from within the midst of the praying community.

At 6/05/2006 , Blogger Bri said...

i'm a circle fan, or maybe the half oval horseshoe.

on friday night, it's tricky to figure out what to with the hole of the doughnut, but for a saturday morning minyan, a low table with a torah, covered with a tallit would work.

but i guess you could bring the torah friday night too. its never bad to have a torah around...

At 6/05/2006 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

coNcentric? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concentric)

At 6/06/2006 , Blogger ZT said...


you bring up a very important point: where does the shaliach tzibur sit?
like the older style you mention, and i believe the long standing sephardi minhag i like to lead davening from the middle of the group if it is sitting unidirectionally.

i think you are right about the problem being partially improved on shabbat morning with the presence of a torah table. however many communities who meet friday night do not own torahs, especially havurot, so though workable for many communities, this answer is necessarily limited.

thanks for the spelling check, in a rush to get the post up i neglected to check various spellings.

At 6/06/2006 , Anonymous Bev said...

The Reform Havura at UMD has spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this... a single circle is great if you already feel that you are part of the community. Facing a single direction definitely lends a sense of purpose and a feeling of unity that a circle doesn't neccesarily have. An alternate approach to a circle, concentric circles, and everyone facing one direction is to put people in rows that are curved. That fosters the sense of community and closeness that a single circle does, and it allows for the group to face a single direction and unite in space and purpose. I love it because there is no way for someone to be at an edge or on the periphery of the communal prayer experience.

At 6/06/2006 , Blogger BZ said...

I prefer circles, and it has nothing to do with emphasizing the value of the community and such. It's more because, as sheliach tzibbur, I can lead more effectively (and unobtrusively) when I can see the kahal. (Of course, the option where the kahal is sitting in rows and the sha"tz is in the front facing them isn't even under consideration.) The dead space in the middle, however, is a problem. I think the inner circle should be tiny, to achieve similar density to row-style seating.

At 6/06/2006 , Blogger BZ said...

And that's an interesting point about Barechu. We were just talking about that this weekend -- we were talking about prayer and I said (as part of the usual defense of stage -direction-free prayer) "The sheliach tzibbur shouldn't be talking directly to the kahal at all, except when s/he says Barechu." And the response was "In that case, it's ironic that at my shul, the leader faces the kahal for everything except Barechu."

At 7/01/2006 , Anonymous George/G-li/Eliyahu said...

Three things:
1) Hi!
2) Circle sitting encourages dancing, but makes for very awkward single sex dancing (if it is a non-gendered/egal minyan praying in the circle). If people are praying in rows or semi-circles, than it makes it easier for multible groups to dance simultaniously.
3) concentric circles where people are facing each other are something that also would be an intresting option. It would have to be facilitated carefully to make it not too awkward. eg. I have heard stories about Zalmen Schachter-Shlomi facilitating two people dovenning shema facing each other under one tallit.


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