May 27, 2024
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In the Jewish world, there are many important jobs but few more important than that of the Baal Koreh. We often take the Baal Koreh for granted but reading the full parsha each week is no small task. It requires focus, dedication and professionalism of the highest order. Ideally, the Baal Koreh should have a pleasant singing voice but volume is more important than sound quality. If an aspiring Baal Koreh cannot project his voice for all to hear, then he is not cut out for Torah-reading duty just like an aspiring trapeze artist with acrophobia is not cut out for high-flying duty.

Technically, Jewish law does not allow compensating a Baal Koreh for Torah-reading on Shabbos. Jewish law, however, permits paying a Baal Koreh for the time he spends preparing for each weekly laining. It is like hiring someone to deliver a singing telegram on shabbos but actually paying the person for the pre-shabbos vocal practice time. Of course, there are differences between a Baal Koreh and a singing telegram. A Baal Koreh usually does not wear a costume and a singing telegram usually does not chant the shalshelet.

Baal Korehs come in many varieties, with different styles and abilities. No two are exactly the same and therefore a shul should take great care in hiring a Baal Koreh who will reliably deliver the perfect parsha to meet their needs. Some congregations might enjoy a more sing-songy style while others might prefer a more cut-to-the-chase approach. That said, pace is paramount. A Baal Koreh definitely is reading too quickly if he finishes the parsha in under five minutes. He definitely is reading too slowly if between the seventh aliyah and maftir, the congregation pauses for shaleshudes.

A Baal Koreh also must achieve a high degree of precision. A mistake-prone Baal Koreh can be extremely annoying, especially for the gabbais who have to catch each error. Of course, mistakes in other professions can have more dire consequences. A mistake-prone pilot is not only a nightmare for air-traffic controllers (a/k/a the “gabbais of the sky”) but also a danger to those in the air and on the ground. Thus, a pilot who lands a plane safely arguably is as deserving of a “yasher koach” as a Baal Koreh who reads a parsha correctly. Unfortunately, most passengers head straight to baggage claim and congregants usually make a beeline for kiddush, without stopping to express appreciation for the smooth landing/reading.

The Baal Koreh must read every single word accurately and will be immediately and publicly corrected for the slightest infraction. In this regard, the pressure on a Baal Koreh is even more intense and unrelenting than the pressure on a shul president to correctly pronounce congregants’ names when delivering the weekly announcements. Come to think of it, every shul should assign a gabbai for the weekly announcements so that when the shul president inevitably mispronounces a name or commits any other error, the gabbai can quickly correct it. For example:

Shul President: “On behalf of the shul, we extend our condolences on the passing of Barry Lawless.”

(Gabbai quickly leans over and whispers into the president’s ear.)

Shul President: “Correction: We extend a mazel tov to Larry Barness on passing the bar.”

The Baal Koreh normally has no say regarding who receives an aliyah each week. That is the gabbai’s job, so the Baal Koreh never knows who he will be standing next to during the laining. If his mortal enemy is called up for an aliyah, that could create an extremely awkward moment. For this reason alone, a Baal Koreh should try to stay above the fray and avoid conflicts with congregants. That is usually easy for the Baal Koreh to do because all of his free time is spent preparing for the next parsha.

While Baal Korehs are compensated, there are other jobs in the Jewish world that are not compensated, even though they probably should be. For example, most self-respecting shuls have a “candyman,” a congregant who doles out candy to children on shabbos. The “candyman” is not a synagogue employee; he is not on the payroll and he has no contractual or other obligation to hand out treats. The job is totally unauthorized but maybe it should be. Perhaps shuls should officially recognize the role of the “candyman” and formally offer him compensation and/or inventory. In this connection, paying the “candyman” in Chanukah gelt might kill two birds with one stone.

Final thought: Reading a Torah can be harder than reading a room but is easier than reading minds.

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