"I try to put most of my efforts into preparing myself for davening, not into preparing the davening"
A longtime yeshivah mechanech (Chedvat HaTorah, Lev Aryeh, Lakewood East), former rosh kollel, and veteran composer (“Chamol”), RABBI AKIVA HOMNICK serves as the baal tefillah in Rav Yitzchak Berkovits’s Minyan Avreichim in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood.
A NIGGUN THAT GETS ME INTO THE ELUL MOOD
Definitely Eitan Katz’s “Lemaancha.” My talmidim in yeshivah all know that’s my Elul niggun.
THE TIME IT TAKES ME TO PREPARE
I’ve been davening for the amud for over 30 years, and in the early years I definitely prepared more. Now, I try to put most of my efforts into preparing myself for davening, not into preparing the davening. I think that practicing the tefillos too much makes them too mechanical, and being spontaneous leaves more room for emotion. My davening remains the same, year after year, because the oilam likes the familiar.
A NIGGUN THAT GETS THE CROWD TO JOIN
On Rosh Hashanah, the Veyesayu tefillah in Mussaf composed by Rav Shalom Schwadron is something everybody sings together. Then there is Areshes Sefaseinu, which we sing to Rav Yitzchok Alster’s famous “Yedid Nefesh” niggun, and Hayom Haras Olam, when I use either the “Machnisei Rachamim” niggun or “Lemaancha.” On Yom Kippur, you can hear everyone sing together when it comes to “Ki anu amecha ve’atah malkeinu.” And of course, they join in for “Chamol.” In my earlier years as a baal tefillah I actually didn’t use my own niggun because I felt uncomfortable pushing it. But then I got complaints – people told me, why should they lose out just because I was the baal tefillah? Since then I use the niggun exclusively for “Chamol,” but not for any other part of the davening.
THE NIGGUN THAT TAKES ME BACK TO THE YAMIM NORAIM OF MY CHILDHOOD
My father was a baal tefillah, but as he used to travel all over the US in this capacity, I didn’t hear him daven, and I don’t have that many memories of the Yamim Noraim of my childhood. My earliest memories include the traditional, sing-along, “Ki anu amecha ve’Atah Malkeinu” from the beginning of the Yom Kippur vidui — the same tune I still sing today.
THE BAAL TEFILLAH WHO MOST INFLUENCED ME
The greatest influence has probably been Rav Yitzchak Berenstein ztz”l, the legendary baal tefillah in Kfar Chasidim. I heard him daven only once or twice, but it made an incredible impression and I tried to incorporate a lot of his nusach. Rav Yitzchok was only 17 years old when Rav Elya Lopian ztz”l appointed him to daven for the yeshivah, and he was the baal tefillah until his passing. He had such regesh, and such a beautiful voice. His nusach was not the Chevron standard, but mostly his own, an original yeshivishe nusach. Another influence is the outstanding baal tefillah Rabbi Mordechai Pearlman, who davens in Yeshivas Ohr Somayach. I’ve never heard him in person, but when I first prepared to daven I used his tapes.
THE MOST EMOTIONAL PART OF THE DAVENING FOR ME
On Rosh Hashanah, it would be “Heyei Im Pifiyos,” the supplication of the shaliach tzibbur during Mussaf always moves me. And of course, so does Unesaneh Tokef, and the paragraph that follows which begins “Ki keshimcha kein tehilasecha… Emes ki Atah hu yotzram — In truth, You are their Creator, and You know their inclinations…”. On Yom Kippur, the part that moves me most is the seder avodah.
MY FAVORITE TUNE FOR KEDUSHAH
I really like to change that around. During the Yamim Noraim period, I use “Pnei Le’elbon” or “Machnisei Rachamim.” On other Yamim Tovim, I like “Eizehu Mekoman Shel Zevachim,” because of its connection to the Bais Hamikdash. For simchahs, I might use the Pittsburger Rebbe’s song “Ilan Ilan,” and on a Shabbos I have several options, among them “Racheim Bechasdecha” and Benzion Shenker’s “V’liYerushalayim.”
MY FAVORITE ENGLISH SONG
That would be “Lulai Sorascha,” by Abie Rotenberg.
A SONG THAT TAKES ME BACK TO YESHIVAH DAYS
The Modzitzer “Mechalkeil Chaim,” as performed by Reb Benzion Shenker with Yossi Sonnenblick. It's a very powerful niggun, and in yeshivah we used to all sing it together on Yamim Tovim, at mesibos, and on other special occasions.
THE ONE ALBUM I WOULD TAKE ALONG ON A LONG ROAD TRIP
A gorgeous album, although a bit obscure, called 100%, produced and arranged by JJ Fried. It’s a beautiful collection of chassidish niggunim and some Meron music. My second choice would be the vintage I’d Rather Pray and Sing, by MBD.
WHAT THE FAMILY SINGS AROUND THE ROSH HASHANAH TABLE
The atmosphere on Rosh Hashanah is very serious, so we don’t sing that much at the seudos, except for maybe “B’sefer Chaim.”
WHAT WE SING AROUND THE YOM TOV TABLE
We like to sing the Belz “Melech Rachaman,” and songs from Hallel, such as the Bobov niggun “Mah Ashiv” or the Modzitzer niggunim for "Betzeis Yisrael."
MY ADVICE FOR A NOVICE BAAL TEFILLAH
Try not to be too tense about the nusach, and as natural as possible from the amud. Mainly, keep in mind that you are representing the tzibbur before the Ribbono shel Olam. And of course, my own father’s advice to every baal teffilah: “You have to give it all you’ve got!”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 826)