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Rediscovering Prayer –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 4, 2010 | 1:06 pm

Perhaps I speak only for myself but I think generally we have lost the concept of prayer.  The upside of prayer in the Orthodox community is that we do it often.  But this is also the downside.  As a result of the commonness of our prayer I think, at least for me, prayer often can become the saying of words, the recitation of formulas, the fulfilling of an obligation.

The gemara (Berachot 29b)has an interesting instruction for prayer that may help us:
“Rabbi Eliezer says: One who makes their prayer fixed (kevah, which prayer should not be) their prayer is not beseeching/prayerful (tachanunim).  What does “fixed prayer” mean?  Rabbi Yaakov the son of Rav Idi said in the name of Rabbi Oshiyah, (a fixed prayer is)“anyone who feels their prayer to be something which must be carried” (Rash”i- as an obligation to be fulfilled), The Rabbis say, “Anyone who does not pray in words of tachanunim” (Shulchan Aruch- tachanunim is like a poor person asking for alms in pleasant language), Rabah and Rav Yosef said together, “(a prayer is called fixed) If one is not able to say something new in it.”

It seems from the Talmud there are 3 factors in making prayer what it should be (in fact some achronim say that one who prays kevah,  a prayer which is fixed, has not prayed at all (Elyah Raba, Magen Giborim, et al).  To review the three factors in the gemara above which make prayer what it should be are:
1. How we feel about the prayer.  If we see prayer as a chiuv, an obligation to be fulfilled like other mitzvoth, instead of as a conversation with God.
2. The language with which we pray. If we read words from a book, instead of speaking like one person to another in nice language and tone.
3. If we read the siddur and do not say anything new in each prayer. 

Since we are different every day we must in our conversation with God, insert words of our own.  This should be done, the poskim say, in the middle 13 berachot of the amidah.  In at least one beracha and some say in all of the berachot, we should speak to God about and ask for what we personally and our people and world generally need at that moment.

I personally have found that numbers 1 and 2 are hard to control but 3 is more doable.  It is hard to pray 3 times a day without feeling it obligatory, hard to see God as a personal Deity in conversation.  But I find that by beginning with number 3, in my very small way, that numbers 1 and 2 sometimes develop.  Try it.  Next time you daven, in each of the middle 13 berachot of the amidah talk to God about what you need pertaining to that blessing just before the chatimah, the ending of the paragraph.  Talk to God about what the world and Jewish people need.  If you can do it in Hebrew that’s great but English is ok too. 

This mode of beseeching, of seeing God as a parent from whom we request what we personally need rather than an infinite Deity before whom to laude, is the real path of Jewish prayer, as the Talmud said long ago.  Don’t worry about it taking you too long to daven, it will become something that at least sometimes you will look forward to and will change everything. 

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