It is not uncommon for educators to pause for a few moments in between Pesukei de-Zimra and Birchot Keriat Shema to facilitate a reflective tefilla exercise designed to enhance students' kavana. This practice, however, raises a halakhic question concerning interruptions in the middle of davening. In this article I'd like to elaborate the halakhic basis for such interruptions as well as explore the parameters for doing so. In particular, the question arises as to whether it is preferable to run such an exercise before or after the half Kaddish immediately preceding Barchu.
Hefsek is generally a concern throughout much of tefilla, especially during the middle of a beracha. In our case, since the minyan finds itself right in between the berachot of Pesukei de-Zimra and Keriat Shema, one might have assumed that there is no halakhic concern of hefsek whatsoever. The Yerushalmi, however, as quoted by Hagahot Maimaniyot (Hilchot Tefilla Perek 9) and others, teaches that a soldier who speaks at this juncture must return from the battlefield and is considered to be a sinner. On this basis, Tur (O.C. 54) cites Rav Amram Gaon that one may not pause between Pesukei de-Zimra and the beracha of yotzer. This is quoted by numerous rishonim and is codified in Shulchan Aruch. (It is noteworthy, however, that this ruling it is not cited in the Bavli and is not found in our printed text of the Yerushalmi. Rambam does not codify this law in Mishneh Torah, and Beit Yosef cites Rabbeinu Yerucham as outright rejecting this halakha. Still, the normative halakha is clear.) At first glance, this ruling of the Mechaber might lead us to prohibit outright any interruption at this time.
There are, however, two arguments for leniency. First, rishonim debate whether or not it is permissible to interrupt for the purpose of a mitzvah (e.g., tzedaka collection; see Tur O.C. 54) at this time. Indeed, all poskim agree that if a tallit or tefilin only arrived at this time, one is permitted (and urged) to recite the appropriate berachot and don them at this time. Although it is not 100% clear-cut, it would seem that one could make a fairly strong argument that preparing to enter tefilla with proper kavana, especially if the earlier stages of tefilla were inappropriate for this preparation (for instance, some students had not yet arrived or were not fully focused), is permissible at this time.
Second, there is a broader argument to permit interrupting for the sake of the prayer. In principle, one may interrupt even in the middle of Keriat Shema (or even Shmoneh Esrei) if one is simply unable to focus due to a distraction, lack of siddur, or other reason. There is clear halakhic evidence that this leniency extends even to interrupting in order to ensure that another person is able to daven properly. Rashba (Responsa 1:293, codified in Shulchan Arukh O.C. 236:2) rules that the gabbai may proclaim “ya’aleh ye-yavo” in order to remind the congregation to add that particular tefilla. (And although there is some discussion as to whether the same leniency applies to Shacharit, that seems to be due to the added stringency of semichat ge’ulah litfilla in the morning; the prohibition of interrupting between Pesukei de-Zimra and yotzer seems to be no weaker than the issur against interrupting immediately before the Shmoneh Esrei of Maariv).
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe O.C. 4:16), in response to a question posed by Rav Ephraim Greenblatt, rules on the basis of Rashba that one may interrupt le-tzorech tefillat acherim. Along similar lines, directly addressing educational scenarios, Rav Hershel Schachter permits teachers to speak at various points of tefilla when interruptions are otherwise prohibited more stringently than between Pesukei de-Zimra and yotzer (e.g., in the middle of Pesukei de-Zimra) to ask students to be quiet, sit down and the like. It would therefore seem to be appropriate to interrupt for a reflective exercise immediately before reciting Birchot Keriat Shema, on the basis of the heiter of “le-tzorech ha-Tefilla.”
Having established the permissibility of such an interruption, the question becomes when exactly to pause: before or after kaddish? The short answer is beforehand. Darkei Moshe (O.C. 54:2) cites a medieval dispute between Kol Bo and Or Zarua in regard to when one may interrupt le-tzorech mitzvah (assuming one may interrupt at all), and concludes especially on the basis of kabbalistic considerations that one should not interrupt after kaddish (and certainly not after Borchu). This psak is recorded in Rama (54:3) and is, to the best of my knowledge, universally accepted among acharonim, including Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Aruch Hashulchan and Mishnah Berurah (all ad loc.).
[The only complicating factor is that Rama teaches that one may not recite kaddish if not preceded immediately by the recitation of pesukim, as typically happens at the conclusion of Pesukei de-Zimra. For this reason, whenever an interruption took place in his shul, he insisted that the chazan recite a few extra pesukim before reciting the half Kaddish. In fact, it is on this basis that Magen Avraham and others require the recitation of Torah shebe’al peh, including the Mishnah of Rabbi Chanina ben Akashya, immediately before reciting kaddish derabanan. According to this Rama, it would seem necessary for the chazan (or perhaps others, according to Magen Avraham’s parallel) to recite pesukim before the recitation of chatzi-kaddish. This, however, may not be necessary, as the near-universal practice is not to follow this recommendation of the Rama after the rabbi’s sermon on Shabbat morning immediately before Mussaf. This requires a bit more investigation, but the practice of our communities may be sufficient not to require the addition of extra tefillot at this juncture. Moreover, there may be room to argue that since the reflective exercise is not an extraneous interruption for the sake of mitzvah (e.g., an appeal for tzedaka), it is not considered a hefsek at all, and even Rama would not require the addition of pesukim before the recitation of kaddish.]
In summary, then, there is firm halakhic basis to permit interruptions between the end of Yishtabach and Chatzi-Kaddish for educational and inspirational tefilla programming. May God grant us the insight to develop educational approaches that instill within our students and communities a lifelong commitment toward inspired tefilla.