We teach people how to say the prayers; we don't teach them how to pray them. Although, there are exceptions (notably Lionel Blue to whom this writer owes a great debt, and some others), this seems to be a pattern in Anglo-Jewry,1 apart perhaps from Hasidic groups. As synagogues and as movements, we offer classes in Hebrew from beginners to advanced, we give seminars in the history and development of the siddur, we lead shiurim on talmudic passages dealing with issues relating to services, and of course, we publish prayerbooks. But I have rarely heard of the colleague who has taught the techniques of prayer beyond the saying of the words and the meanings to be elicited from them, and how they all fit together.
And yet, prayer is one of the central events of synagogue life, week in, week out, year in, year out. It is an experience so normal, so usual, that we seem to take it for granted. We apparently imagine that people somehow automatically know how to do it, that they don't need lessons in the techniques and practices of prayer. Or even, that prayer cannot be taught, because it is too personal, too individual. In their careers, I suspect that all rabbis have met Jews who find services boring. We make jokes about this, like the one about the man who complained to his rabbi that every time he came to shul the music was always the same.
It has been taught: 'To love GOD your God and to serve [God] with all your heart' (Deuteronomy 11:13). What is the service of the heart? You should say that it is prayer.2Now, in the biblical and rabbinic view, the heart was conceived of as the seat of the mind,3 rather than the emotions, as in modern popular thought. So, what the baraita is talking about is the use of the mind in prayer, and, as is well known, this is what is meant by kavvanah, intention or concentration, the focusing of the mind during prayer.
Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) taught that one 'who is about to pray
should learn from a common labourer, who sometimes takes a whole day to
prepare for a job.'4 Preparation for prayer is essential if
prayer is to become more than a mechanical recitation, and time must be
given to it.
Paradoxically, prayer itself may be a good way to prepare for prayer. There is a story of a Hasidic rebbe who was asked what he did before he prayed, and he replied 'I pray that I may be able to pray.'5 Another approach may be to pray a personal prayer before the service proper, a prayer that expresses some concern that you may feel, or that seeks personal purification, or that offers up one's self, or even the parts of one's self that one is ashamed of, to God.6
Other preparation techniques may involve 'centring,' the calming and focusing of the mind before the formal set service. One suggestion is to use the prayer Elohai Neshamah from the morning service as a breath meditation. This is based on the fact that in Hebrew the words for soul (neshamah) and breath (neshimah) are closely connected, and indeed in Biblical Hebrew neshamah can mean both or either. Careful examination of this prayer reveals that a rather high proportion of words end with the letter hay with a dot (mappiq) in it. This letter should, strictly speaking, be pronounced as a consonant. If this is done during Elohai Neshamah the result is a series of breaths and exhalations which can help 'centre' the worshipper.7
Another centring technique involves the use of the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounced name of God, the name that is so holy we never say it properly, but substitute the name ADO_NAI for it. But the consonants of the original name, yod-hay-vav-hay, may also be related to the breath, since the sound of the letter hay is the sound of the lungs exhaling. Try thinking of the letter yod while your lungs are empty, then, as you fill them, imagine the first letter hay. Then hold that breath for a few seconds while thinking of the letter vav and imagining the oxygen spreading throughout your body, which itself is in the shape of a vav. Then exhale slowly while meditating of the second hay. Try this several times before prayer. Breathe deeply, using your stomach, but don't take in or expel too much air.8
Alternatively, simply meditate on the Tetragrammaton itself. Scholars agree that it comes from the Hebrew root meaning 'to be, exist,' but disagree as to whether it means 'the One who is' (and hence, 'the Eternal') or 'the One who causes existence.' Never mind. Use either idea, or both, in your meditation. And to help you focus on this holy name, you might wish to purchase, or make, a Shiviti: either a picture for your wall (for when you pray at home) or a card (that may be kept in your prayerbook) which has as its central feature the four-letter name in the verse: Shiviti YH_VH (ADO_NAI) lenegdi tamid, 'I keep GOD before me always' (Psalm 16:8), with the Tetragrammaton written especially large.9
Another friend of mine is a great fan of the Psalms. He says that everything he is feeling is already there, waiting for him to use it to express himself. Some prayerbooks include all or some of the psalms, or one could keep a book of psalms near ones prayerbook so that one can use one or two as a warm-up for the service. The psalms have many different themes, of course, and many people have their own favourites, but mine are: Psalm 23 when I feel the need for guidance or support, Psalm 30 when I am depressed, Psalm 51 when I am conscious of having sinned.10
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav offered useful advice on how to read the Psalms:
On the subject of reciting Psalms: [Rabbi Nachman] spoke with one person and told him that the essence of the recitation of the Psalms is to say all the poems of the Psalms about oneself, to find oneself in the midst of each and every psalm. The other asked him...: 'How?' And our teacher...explained it to him briefly. For all the wars about which King David--peace be upon him--asked for God--may God be blessed--to give him victory--all must be interpreted about oneself with regard to the war against the inclination towards evil, and its cohorts. And similarly with the rest of the psalms.... Then he asked him: How can interpret about oneself the verse in which King David...praises himself, like, for example: 'Preserve my life, for I am pious' (Psalm 86:3)? He replied: This too must be interpreted with regard to oneself, for [people] must judge themselves on the side of merit, and find in themselves some merit or good point. For in the aspect of this good point is the aspect of [being] pious, etc....11Yet another technique is to sing a wordless niggun, or melody. Some smaller communities do this from time to time, but even if yours doesn't, humming a tune quietly to yourself before the service starts may also help to concentrate the mind.
Another teacher suggests that as we do this, we shouldBehold I am taking upon myself the positive commandment 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself' and I love everyone of Israel with all my soul, with all my heart and with all my might.12
My own view is that the world is too small to restrict this meditation to Jews, and therefore, I prefer a simpler, but wider, form, like the one found in the prayerbook of the American Conservative movement:...Mentally love every individual in Israel, in order to raise one's prayer in conjunction with all the others.13
I hereby accept the obligation of fulfilling my Creator's mitzvah in the Torah: Love your neighbour as yourself.14
One should concentrate during the recitation of blessings on the meaning of the words. When one mentions the [four-letter divine] name, one should concentrate on the meaning of what is read [i.e. the word ADO_NAI, namely] on [divine] rule, since [God] is ruler of all, and one should concentrate on what is written, on the yod-hay[-vav-hay], for [God] was, is, and will be. And when one mentions [the word] 'elohim ('God') one should concentrate on [the fact] that [God] is mighty, the master of possibilities, and of all powers.16Karo suggests that we bear in mind the fact that the Tetragrammaton has, as it were, two aspects: the hidden and the revealed. The hidden is represented by the unpronounced letters yod-hay-vav-hay ('what is written'), related to the verb hayah, to be, while the revealed is represented by the name we actually say, ADO_NAI, ('what is read') with its connotations of divine rule. ('Adon means 'lord,' of course.) Moreover, rabbinic and kabbalistic tradition regularly assumes the divine name 'elohim ('God') represents God's might, while the Tetragrammaton indicates divine love.
In certain books, concerning the [statement] written in the Shulchan 'Aruch that one ought to concentrate when saying the four-letter divine name [on the fact that God is] ruler of all, who was, is, and will be, they say that it is difficult to concentrate on this every time one mentions this name. Therefore, [concentrating on it] once is sufficient....17Or use a Shiviti-card, as described above, with the Tetragrammaton showing over the top of the page of your siddur, so you can look at it from time to time during the service. This method is recommended by the commentary on the Shulchan 'Aruch known as Sha'arei Teshuvah by Hayyim Mordechai Margoliot of Dubnow (d.1818):
I have seen in the writings of my grandfather's cousin, the pious, divine rabbi, our rabbi and teacher, Zalman Lukover--may his memory be a blessing--about [people] who were accustomed to draw candelabra on a piece of parchment to place inside prayerbooks. Written on them were [the words] Shiviti ADO_NAI [with] the four-letter name, [and] other [divine] names, and the candelabra is known by the name Shiviti. And the purpose is that one should remember not to engage in frivolous conversation during prayer out of reverence for the [divine] name which is before one's eyes.18Yet another technique, for which a Shiviti-card might be helpful, is one based on a simplified version of the Lurianic kavvanot. Although, as we have seen, the original meaning of the term kavvanah was intention or concentration, in the kabbalistic school originating from the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the Ari, of Safed, the kavvanot became a highly elaborate system of meditation to accompany prayer, with detailed instructions for keeping in mind the interactions thought to take place in the spiritual worlds while one recites the text in the siddur. Needless to relate, this is an extremely difficult technique to master, and is rarely attempted even by many kabbalists.19 However, it is possible for non-specialists to utilize some of the Lurianic or kabbalistic techniques, at least in outline form, during the morning service.
The World of 'Asiyah, Making; this is usually understood as including the physical world we inhabit.These 'worlds' are not successive in time, nor thought of only in a hierarchy; they are simultaneous, and may be understood as sheathed within each other, with 'Atzilut innermost. At a personal level, they may be said to represent the four levels of human existence: body, emotions, mind, and spirit, respectively.20 And each of these levels may be represented by the letters of the Tetragrammaton.21
The World of Yetzirah, Formation; the domain of the angels.
The World of Beriah, Creation; the world of the Divine Throne.
The World of 'Atzilut, Emanation; the world of the pure divine essence.
We will now explain the basic principles that exist within the order of the repair (tikkun) [to be accomplished during] the morning service. Know that from the beginning of the prayer up to Baruch She'Amar is the World of 'Asiyah. From Baruch She'Amar up to Yotzer 'Or is the World of Yetzirah. From Yotzer 'Or up to the end of the 'Avot is the World of Beriah, while the rest of the 'Amidah is the World of 'Atzilut.22(In Vital's scheme, which he says he learned from his teacher Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the Ari, the 'Avot, the first paragraph of the 'Amidah, is a transitional stage between the two highest worlds. Following other kabbalists,23 I prefer to see it as part of the World of 'Atzilut.)
|Morning Prayers & blessings||'Asiyah /Making||Body||the last hay|
'Verses of Song'
|Shema & her blessings||Beriah/Creation||Mind||the first hay|
|Amidah or Tefillah||'Atzilut/Emanation||Spirit||yod|
For those who prefer visualizations, Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) recommended
that one imagine oneself proceeding through the various courts of the Temple
in Jerusalem.25 Or you may prefer to think of it as proceeding
through a palace in order to appear before the Sovereign. (The Hebrew word
can mean either 'temple' or 'palace.')
Of course, the Afternoon and Evening Service do not have this entire structure, though both include the 'Amidah. One may then utilize the notion put forward by the Spanish kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla (1248-1325) that this sequence of blessings may be thought of as a ladder26 'reaching up to heaven,' a ladder whose goal, whose highest rung, is peace.
'I keep GOD (ADO_NAI) before me always' (Psalm 16:8). This is a great principle of the Torah and among the virtues of the righteous who walk before God....27No one pretends that this is easy, of course, but it is not impossible.
'I keep GOD (ADO_NAI).... ' For one should picture the Tetragrammaton before one's eyes..... This is the mystical explanation of 'I keep GOD before me always' (Psalm 16:8). This is of great advantage in the matter of the awe [of God, according to] the Ari of blessed memory.28
'And I am prayer' (Psalm 109:4): 'It is as if a poor man, who has not eaten in three days and whose clothes are in rags, should appear before the king. Is there any need for him to say what he wants? That is how David faced God--he was the prayer.'29If concentration and involvement are to be achieved, then it is clear that their opposite, boredom, has to be avoided. Hence the saying: 'Do not make your prayer a fixed, formal thing (qeva') but a plea for mercy and a supplication before God' (Avot 3:18). Qeva' is the opposite, the enemy, of kavvanah.
Even though one is unable to pray with attachment (devekut) at the beginning of the prayer, one should nevertheless say the words with great concentration (kavannah), and strengthen oneself little by little, until the Blessed God helps one to pray with great attachment.31Pinchas of Koretz also offered sound advice on this point:
In the name of the Rav [Pinchas of Koretz]: He strongly urged that one should not drive oneself [in prayer] with the intention of attaining to the holy spirit, but should serve [God] in simplicity. And if one should be worthy of attaining it, it will come of itself. Then he--may his memory be a blessing--told a story about a certain [person] who had prayed in order to attain to the holy spirit. But the prayer created a barrier, so he attained the spirit without the holiness....The Hasidim 'recycled' the kabbalistic notions of 'smallness' and 'greatness' (qatnut and gadlut) and applied them to psychological states. We might call them spiritual 'highs and lows.' They saw this as the natural consequence of the soul having to live within a body, but also argued that we have to experience the spiritual 'lows' if we are to experience the spiritual 'highs.' Without this natural rhythm, without the ebb and flow of divine vitality within us, we experience an emotionally grey universe.
Furthermore, [someone] said in the name of the Rav that this is the explanation of the verse: 'Jacob went on his way [and the angels of God met him]' (Genesis 32:2), but he did not seek this [meeting].32
From the Ba'al Shem Tov (c.1700-1760) of blessed memory, on the subject of [the verse]: 'the creatures (CHaYYOT) ran and returned' (Ezekiel 1:14)--for after the soul (neshamah) is hewn from a holy place, it is fitting that it should be continually enflamed for the place from which it was hewn [on the one hand], and lest it should be annihilated from existence [on the other]. Therefore, it is surrounded with matter, so that it may also do physical things, like eating and drinking, buying and selling, and the like, rather than leading a life of constant service to the blessed God, through the mystical concept of repair (tikkun) and the [permanent] establishment of the soul. Thus, even at the levels of the sefirot, 'smallness' and 'greatness' (qatnut and gadlut) exist, through [the mystery of the phrase]: 'the vitality (CHiYYUT) ran and returned.' For a permanent pleasure becomes natural [ordinary] and is no pleasure. Therefore a person may ascend and descend in the service of the blessed God, so that one might have pleasure, which is the essence of the service of the blessed God. Hence it says: 'This is the law of the burnt-offering ('olah)' (Leviticus 6:2), for the diminution [that occurs] when one's perfect service does not ascend ('olah), and one is troubled by this, this is the aim of ascent, for one will experience even greater pleasure afterwards.33Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs has pointed out that the modern Hasidic movement elevated prayer over all other religious duties, including Torah-study.34 My own personal view is that for many people today the synagogue service, and thus prayer, is their only or primary means of exposure to Judaism. The plethora of Jewish books being published seem to go largely unread by the masses of our community. Prayer, therefore, has, by default, become elevated over all other religious duties in modern Judaism, as it had in Hasidism, and possibly for some of the same reasons. Perhaps we need to be reminded of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz' teaching on the supreme importance of prayer, and the personal nature of prayer at its deepest level:
The Torah is a bride's ornament. Therefore, one may explain it to others. But prayer is itself divinity as Scripture says: '[God] is your praise and is your God,' (Deuteronomy 10:21) [so that each person receives] in accordance with what is deemed appropriate by God. '[Her husband is] known in the gates (she'arim)' (Proverbs 31:23)--'[The Holy Blessed One is known and cleaves to each person] according to the measure (sha'ar) of their understanding' (Zohar I, 103b). Therefore, one is unable to explain it [prayer] to others.35