Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Personal Reflection: Mizmor l'David (The Minyan, not the Psalm)

When living in Israel, one is afforded the opportunity to attend many different places for t'fillot. On every corner there is a beit k'neset (synagogue) which is ready to welcome any passerby. Each one is a little different in terms of spacial arrangement, attendance, and general atmosphere. I've referenced on a few occasions the importance a friendly environment, acoustics, and so forth. Obviously the davening itself is just as important. So, I offer you the following case study: Mizmor l'David.

Mizmor l'David is an independent minyan in Jerusalem. They meet in what appears to be the multi-purpose room of a local school. Participants are seated on plastic chairs. The room is cramped, and often far too warm. The mechitza which divides the space roughly in half is made of cloth on a wood frame, but is not usually opened during the d'var torah. Men and women deliver the d'var Torah, however only men serve as shaliach tzibbur (public emissary). The davening is Shlomo Carlebach style, with dancing often following the conclusion of L'cha Dodi (a liturgical poem that welcomes the Shabbat Bride).

My Take: Despite the cramped (some people even daven outside and listen through the open windows) and often overheated surroundings, I have yet to find a minyan that matches the energy and spirit of Mizmor. There are some other fantastic, and fairly famous minyanim around this neighborhood, but none of their Kabbalat Shabbat experiences are as consistently moving or energetic as those of Mizmor. The passion overwhelms all of the detractors (little personal space, uncomfortable seating, and the heat). Often I feel as if the energy builds, and then when it finally reaches its breaking point, participants begin dancing. Sometimes I force myself to stop my own singing, and just listen. The fact that I feel fully integrated into the davening while I'm just sitting there, speaks to the total experience of this particular t'fillah.

My blessing for everybody is that we find a place such as Mizmor where we can fully experience the t'fillot in a vibrant and communal manner.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Return to Normal

Last Thursday evening, we returned to the normal weekday arrangement of t'fillot. Friday we resumed saying tahanun (putting down of the head). Remember, since the beginning of Hannukah, we did not say tahanun, and we inserted into the amidah a passage about the holidy of which we were in the midst. Additionally, we encountered rosh hodesh Tevet (New moon of Tevet) which meant we also included the ya'aleh v'yavoh section appropriate to those two days.

With the return to a "normal" davening, I believe that it gives us the opportunity to refocus our energies on the davening that appears before us every day in the siddur. It is not uncommon to hear that davening becomes stale when saying the same words repeatedly. I'll admit, I do get excited any time we have additions to the amidah that are related to our location in the calendar, as it provides the framework for a bit of a change in the text of davening. That excitement however, brings a greater appreciation to the normal davening. It allows me to refocus on the words, and I'd like to offer you all the opportunity to do the same.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hannukah Tension

Throughout the ongoing week of Hannukah, we insert into each recitation of the Amidah a special passage that references and recalls the festival which we are currently celebrating. We commonly think of Hannukah as a holiday about a simple jug of oil that miraculously lasted for eight times longer than expected. We grew up with stories about the joy of the light increasing each night, the miracle growing with each passing day, and the like.

However, if you look closely there is a significant tension between the oil story which receives only a few lines in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), and the military victory that preceded. The gemara only delves into Hannukah while in the middle of discussing which materials are suitable for lighting one's home on Shabbat. The Rambam, in his Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Megila v'Channukah Chapter 3 Hilkhot 1 and 2 writes about the military victory. In chapter 4 he discusses the appropriate procedures for lighting candles. The litugical insertion is primarily about a military victory, as are the Psalms of Hallel which are also recited throughout Hannukah. Why are we so concerned about the eight days, why would the holiday not be seven days like Passover? According to the Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, Hannukah was originally compensation for the missed Sukkot offerings of that year. Finally, the rededication of the Temple and establishment of a Jewish monarchy which would last for nearly 200 years cannot be ignored.

I do not want to diminish the importance of the story of the oil. I also do not want to discourage the ideas that the light of Hannukah are kindled during the part of the year when daylight was scarce, and therefore it brings light into our lives. There are plenty of similar stories that are told surrounding the holiday, and my intention is not to stifle them either. Rather, I want to point out a real tension in the halakhic literature and liturgy that must be seriously considered even as we enjoy the national celebration of Hannukah. My Hannukah blessing is that we should all be able to critically analyze t'fillot, that they should grow in meaning and depth for all of us.

Hannukah sameach.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Great Synagogue

I have written here and there about the shaliach tzibbur (communal emissary) and the importance that that role has in the experience of Jewish prayer. If you go back and read my post about Yom Kippur, I wrote that the shaliach tzibbur for musaf did not have the most magnificent voice, but that his presence, passion, and command for the t'fillah far surpassed any his vocal shortcomings. To draw a contrast, last night I attended kabbalat Shabbat at The Great Synagogue, pictured above.

The chazzan, accompanied by an award winning choir, delivered rousing renditions of the Friday evening t'fillot. It was an impressive display of what I think comes to mind when people think about classical European chazzanut. Any attempt at recounting the beauty of the music would fall woefully short of its true grandeur. At one point, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be transported to the "old world," where daveners would pack the shul to hear the magnificent voices of Europes finest chazzanim.

I would be remiss if I did not inform you that it was not a participatory experience. There were very few opportunities to sing along. As such, many of those in attendance, tourists and daveners alike, turned to side conversations which detracted from the power of the music. Unlike my Yom Kippur experience, which was highly participatory, this was perhaps akin to a concert, which while beautiful did not fulfill my desire to sing the Psalms of kabbalat Shabbat.

I hope this helps others in considering what kind of davening they wish to seek and build.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Personal Reflection: Memorization

Memorization is a powerful tool. Usually we associate memorization with preparation for tests. I want to associate it with prayer. For now, I am going to leave aside the potential halakhic problems that may arise from memorizing prayer, which is fair game for a later post, and instead share my own memorization journey.

Last year, when I began learning at Yeshivat Hadar, I had a conversation with one of my teachers about the memorization of prayer, specifically the Amidah. I was staunchly against memorizing the pillar of Jewish prayer (I consider the Shma a statement, not a prayer). I felt as if my own words would be somehow cheapened if they were committed to memory, almost like I would be performing the prayer rite with less than total focus. I felt comfortable with the siddur (prayerbook) in my hand, and I was certainly not going to let it slip from my grasp.

Sometime later, I found myself having unintentionally memorized the Amidah. Simply, if you say something enough times, it becomes easier to recall. One could certainly make the argument that because our prayers are fixed, and the possibility for memorization exists that there is a problem to be found here. I'll leave that aside for now as well. Finally I decided to attempt to recite the entire weekday Amidah without any siddur assistance. I found that I actually was more focused and concentrated because I did not have the words printed before my eyes. I did not have the luxury of rushing through words or running syllables together. Without a siddur, I had to provide all of the punctuation and enunciation. It was truly a watershed moment.

I don't want to put forth the idea that the entire could or should be memorized, because there are certainly pitfalls if the davener is not careful. Rather, selective memorization has the potential to be useful, and not just for standardized test preparation.

I would be curious to hear the opinions and experiences of others with regard to Amidah memorization.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Transitional Silences

Transitional moments within davening are generally opportunities to keep the t'fillot at hand moving along without delays that would cause a lapse in concentration or disrupt the atmosphere of holiness. As an aside, halacha takes into consideration this fact, and prohibits the burdening of the congregation.

I learned last year at Yeshivat Hadar, that sometimes singing or prayer is enhanced by the inherent contrast between voices and the silence that exists before and after. I agree wholeheartedly with the concept when discussing the moments following the conclusion of a niggun (wordless melody), but I've been wrestling recently as to how this might apply to t'fillah.

Among the moments within davening where there are "transitional silences," none is more powerful for me than that heading into and out of the silent amidah. Regardless of which service of the day, the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) has a vocal role before the amidah begins, whether in the form of a bracha or half-kaddish. Once the shaliach tzibbur concludes however, there is hopefully a silence that pervades as all present begin the personal amidah. The transition allows individuals the opportunity to gather his or her thoughts before commencing the t'fillah. It is undoubtedly tempting to rush into the amidah, a temptation to which I have succumbed on numerous occasions. In the last week, I have found my personal amidah to be far more meaningful and moving when I take those few seconds, absorb the quiet, gather my thoughts, and only then begin the amidah.

On the other hand, there is a certain shattering of the silence when the shaliach tzibbur begins the repetition of the amidah. Though this week of experimenting, I have come to think of the whispered words "Hashem sfatai tiftach u'fi yagid t'hilatecha" (God open my lips that they should declare Your praise), as a warning to the kahal that the silence is about to end and the repetition will shortly begin. Yes, the aforementioned quote from Psalms it's own meaning, paralleling the "y'hi ratzon milfanecha..."(So may it be Your will...) at the conclusion of the amidah. For the purposes of this t'fillah element, I am relying on my own understanding.

I would be curious to hear/read about others' thoughts an/or attempts at the method that I have suggested.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mixed Davening Epiphany

No, it's not what you think. This past Kabbalat Shabbat, I was in a youth hostel in Jerusalem, where all of the guests who are so inclined gather together, and hope to assemble enough people and know-how to create a smooth and meaningful davening. Since we are in Jerusalem, the numbers were not the problem. However, the assembled group was almost evenly divided between those who daven nusach ashkenaz (prayer arrangement that developed in Eastern Europe), and those who daven nusach sfard (prayer arrangement that developed in Western Europe and North Africa). Leaving aside specifics, suffice it to say that there are difference in the two davening traditions.

So what's the epiphany? It did not matter one bit that half of the kahal (assembled community) was working with one text and the other half working with a different text. I cannot honestly tell you that davening was not the best or smoothest that I have experienced. What I can tell you is that all of those who were present came together to welcome Shabbat, each in the way that is customary for him or her.

Why bother talking about it? Often you hear "Oh, in nusach sfard they do X and in nusach ashkenaz they do Y." For the sake of community and the ushering in of the Shabbat bride, it did not matter whose customs were whose. My broader point is that prayer is a communal undertaking, requiring the participation and commitment of all.

Thanks for reading, chodesh tov. I apologize for the long absence. I haven't forgotten about the second half of amud ettiquete.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Amud Ettiquete Part I

Any davening community needs a plethora of shlichei tzibbur (public emissaries who lead the t'fillot). Assuming the role is not a responsibility that anybody should take lightly, as you are literally representing the congregation before God. Additionally, you are leading the community in prayer, and must be sensitive to their needs if you hope to lay the groundwork for meaningful prayer. I'll just share two recent davening environments that were damaged or enhanced by the shaliach tzibbur.

The first was on Yom Kippur. Last month I wrote plenty about Yom Kippur, and even touched briefly on the musaf service itself. The gentlemen who served as shliach tzibbur on that day had such a command of the t'fillot, and such presence in the room, that it did not matter that his voice was neither cantorial nor particularly melodious. Rather, he knew the nusach, he knew what should be extended in the form of communal song, and what areas of the service are better suited for chanting in the traditional nusach. I left musaf overflowing with the emotions of Yom Kippur as well as with reverence for this congregant who had just stood before God on my behalf.

For the final mincha service of sukkot, I attended davening in the same synagogue as on Yom Kippur. The acoustics were the same, room set-up the same, and my location within the room, more or less identical. The man who ascended to the amud began Ashrei (Psalm 145, plus two additional opening verses)with a booming voice, full of character and emotion. However, it became fairly apparent that he did not know the appropriate nusach for the festival, and was unfamiliar with the arrangement of the festival amidah. And while I certainly do not fault him for trying, I was a bit dismayed at the fact that he had not prepared properly.

I hope that this is just the beginning of the conversation, Part II is coming later this week.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Prayer in Sports

For this post I want to take a bit of a detour into the world of athletics, perhaps in an attempt to meld two areas of interest that are equally important to me.

For me, prayer in sports continues to be somewhat of an enigma, it goes without discussion, as a communal activity it is rarely witnessed, but we are privy to brief peeks at it through the actions of the (usually) men who are competing at the highest level in their respective sports. Common "peeks" include a football player dropping to one knee following a touchdown reception, a baseball player crossing himself before at at-bat, or even during an at-bat, pitchers taking a knee behind the mound before taking to the mound. Players in other sports may point heavenward as an acknowledgment of some higher power, or deceased relative who provided significant inspiration. One comparison which I will allow you to evaluate, is the waving of the lulav on Sukkot as a way of recognizing God's presence and athletes pointing heavenward.

However, group prayer, a common Jewish practice, does appear to have a unique place in sports. For example, when watching films that recap the great seasons of a given team, sometimes footage of the team kneeling in prayer before the ultimate game of a season finds its way to the surface. Similarly, following a football game, a number of players often gather at midfield, while one, presumably more senior player, delivers a benediction. Some teams even employ chaplains who regularly visit with the players.

So what is it about athletics that fosters a sense of God? It could be the "no atheists in foxholes" mentality. In other words, those about embark upon, or those who have concluded a trying experience rely upon God. I don't mean to suggest that we need to hit the court, field, or ice in order to have meaningful prayer.

My whole point of taking you through this journey was to provide an opportunity to think about what it means to approach God in times of trial and tribulation as well as in times of plenty. Perhaps we can learn something from our athletic colleagues while still realizing that God is available to us even when we are most satisfied. The mode in which we approach God may differ depending on the circumstances, but that's for another discussion.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Partial Farewell

Today, Hoshana raba, is the final day on which we will recite Psalm 27 during this cycle of holidays. Additionally, it is the last day on which we are commanded to take up the four species. I cannot help but have a bit of sadness for what is the beginning of the end of a period of intensive self-evaluation, judgment, happiness, and everything in between. As the liturgy shifts back to the more routine, the farewell to the feelings and experiences mentioned should continue to inspire our practices and our t'fillot. Psalm 27 will always be available to us, it is not exclusive to this season, in that we are unable to access it during any other time. Similarly, the piyutim and closeness with God during prayer should be an ongoing project, not one that is limited to a fraction of the year. The closeness is unique, but drawing the closeness into the year is the challenge. I wish everybody a chag sameach, a year of many brachot, and I look forward to continuing to discussing many aspects of t'fillah with you.

Chag sameach!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

T'fillat Geshem

As the chagim draw to a close, the Jewish people are offered one more chance to ensure their seal in the Book of Life on Hoshana Rabba, a serious day in a holiday known for its happiness. The following day, Sukkot turns into "atzeret" which is perhaps best translated as addition or conclusion. Among the special t'fillot of the day (including, in Israel, all of the appropriate inclusions for Simchat Torah), is t'fillat geshem. A translation with a few notes from the Orthodox Union is available here. The notes offered there are quite helpful.

A careful read of the stanza's of the piyut(liturgical poem) yields an image of very powerful forces. Water provides and sustains life, the absence of it is deadly. An abundance of water is potentially destructive, and water in an inappropriate place or during an inappropriate time is equally problematic. Fire, water, and blood, are referenced repeatedly in the piyut. Fire and water, are commonly seen as opposites, while water and blood are representations of life(one of the reasons for washing our hands with water after returning from the cemetery). We go to great lengths to avoid the ingestion or consumption of blood, in some cases it is a sources of ritual impurity, which we are instructed to avoid in nearly every situation. Water is generally a purifying force (another reason for post cemetery washing), and on Yom Kippur during the Temple service, the blood of certain animals purifies Israel of sin. Each of the above elements are recalled in reference to a section of the Biblical narrative. In some ways this is the ultimate z'chut avot (merits of the Fathers [anscestors]).

In an earlier post I discussed the importance of dew as viewed through the lens of Israel. Over the past few days, and possibly in the coming days, rain has been plentiful in sections of the East Coast of the United States. As such, I can imagine that on Thursday it will be particularly difficult to stand during t'fillat geshem, and request rain, having possibly slogged through a downpour just to get to synagogue. I hope that those outside of Israel can understand the importance of, and the need for rain inside Israel. Last year Israel did not receive enough rain, and without technological advances, experts felt that thousands could have died. With that in mind, every body should attempt to be fully present as we beseech God for rain. May this year's rain be plentiful, for a blessing, and not for a curse.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Zman Simchateinu

The time of our happiness as it is called in the liturgy. Of the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach and Shavuot commemorate specific events, the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah, respectively. All three have agricultural ties, but Sukkkot, which starts in a few hours does not commemorate a specific event in Jewish history. Yes, it represents the sukkot that people lived during the harvest, and perhaps those that the Israelites inhabited during the 40 year journey across the desert. Also, we rejoice over having made it through Yom Kippur, and increase our joy with the simchat bet hashoeva (water drawing ceremony), expressing the belief that God will bring the appropriate amount of rain in the upcoming rainy season.

The Ashkenazi custom is to omit the recitation of the psalms and the poem Lcha Dodi when Shabbat and a festival coincide. Sepharadi customs vary. The reason given is that we are already in a semi-holiday (even during the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot). Passover, which celebrates freedom, is not dedicated to happiness in the same way as Sukkot. Perhaps you could make an argument for reciting the psalms of praise during Passover, while omitting them during Sukkot. On the other hand, perhaps you would say them on Sukkot to continue to increase the joy, while omitting them on Passover when we recall, as part of the Passover Seder, that people suffered at the expense of our freedom. Just a thought.

The Torah tells us in Deut. 16:14-15 that we should rejoice and have nothing but joy.
I hope we all have the opportunity to enjoy the time of our happiness to its fullest, as well as the most meaningful and respectful manner. I am gong to attempt to write about on the psalms of Hallel in the coming days, so be on the look out for that. There are also some pictures available on Shibbles' Eyes.

Chag sameach!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Yom Kippur Wrap: T'fillah

Disclaimer: There is no way that my words will accurately encompass, describe, or depict my Yom Kippur t'fillah experience, but I will try nonetheless.

I believe that one of the secrets to meaningful davening is finding or creating a community that davens with intention. What does this mean? A community whose focus is to come together in prayer before God, where every member is standing alongside, whether figuratively or literally with the shaliach tzibbur (public emissary). When Kol Nidre began on Yom Kippur eve, I knew immediately I was in for a treat. Instead of standing passively and listening to Kol Nidre, the participants chanted along with the shaliach tzibbur in a haunting tone, setting the atmosphere for the evening and the following day.

The Musaf (additional) service on Yom Kippur is lengthy and, as I wrote in my post last week, has the potential to be a real snooze-fest. However, the gentleman who was the shaliach tzibbur brought the entire davening to life. He selected upbeat melodies when appropriate, somber ones when necessary, and the members of the kahal (congregation) participated actively. This particular fellow did not have the traditional voice of a cantor, but rather, an average but very pleasant voice. This goes to show that you do not need a chazzan with an other-worldly voice, instead you need somebody who is familiar with the service, and who can stand before God as your emissary, and that is just what he did. When the time came to bring our faces to the floor in prostration, the entire congregation joined in, similar to Kol Nidre, it was not a show that the participants came to witness, instead it was a communal endeavor.

Finally, my growing knowledge of Hebrew proved invaluable. I can only say that any serious davener should undertake the lofty and lengthy project of understanding as much and as many of the t'fillot as possible. This method may lead to theological questions, but that is just the kind of davening culture that I am hoping to cultivate.

I hope that your Yom Kippur was as meaningful as mine. Check out my other blog, Shibbles' Eyes for more observations about Yom Kippur that do not specifically related to t'fillah. Also, look out tomorrow for some pre-Sukkot thoughts.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Tomorrow evening many will enter into Jewish houses of prayer, some for the third time that day, others for the third time in a year. All will open their machzorim (High Holiday prayerbook) to the words of Kol Nidre. The evening service will follow, including the appropriate material for Yom Kippur, most notably the short vidui (confession) and the longer al chet (For the sin). However, unlike a usual evening service, the amidah will be followed by a number of supplications, piyutim (liturgical poems), and the 13 Attributes of Mercy.

The first such piyut, of unknown authorship, is entitled ya'aleh tachanuneinu (may our prayers ascend). Unfortunately, I could not locate a suitable version online. Mirroring slightly one of the verses in Leviticus (23:32), which describes the duration of the "affliction" of Yom Kippur, the piyut expresses the hope that from evening (of Yom Kippur) to morning (of Yom Kippur day) and by evening ( the conclusion of Yom Kippur), The People Israel will find favor in the eyes of God. The author uses a Kabbalistic technique of reverse alphabetical order, symbolizing complete understanding as well as the need return to the beginning.

I believe that the author takes us on a journey through Yom Kippur. We begin with petitions, we cry out all day long so that by evening, when the effects of the fast are fully felt, we are aware of our mortality, we have hopefully achieved atonement, and a favorable status in the heavenly court. Furthermore, since the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul we have been drawing closer to God via t'shuva. With the process nearing its apex, I would posit that we return to the start and begin living with the changes that our introspection yields, modeling the ideal of the piyut.

One construction of t'fillah suggests that the prayers take the place of the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. One of my teachers at Pardes said this week that on Yom Kippur we should imagine ourselves as if we are the High Priest carrying out the offerings on the altar. Maintaining laser-like focus throughout the t'fillot, and devoting ourselves entirely to God, almost as if we are sacrificing ourselves. T'shuva is a process that extends well beyond Yom Kippur, but if we approach Yom Kippur with a serious intent, like that of the High Priest, our t'shuva will be far more meaningful while we reach the ascension described in ya'aleh tachanuneinu.

There you have two takes on one of my favorite liturgical poems. Other Yom Kippur material will be showing up on my other blog, Shibbles' Eyes, available in the side bar on the right.

Shana tova u'ktiva v'chatima tova l'kol beit Yisrael!
May all Israel be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Solitary Prayer

Amidst days of beautiful piyutim (liturgical poems), petitions for forgiveness early in the morning, blasts of the shofar (ram's horn), the haunting melody of Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King), and the famous u'netaneh tokef, one prayer stood out among the rest. The Prayer for the members of the Israel Defense Force. One version of the text can be found here.

Offered at the conclusion of the Torah reading on Shabbat and holidays, this prayer pierced my consciousness approximately fifteen minutes before the first set of shofar blasts were supposed to undertake that role. The kehillah (congregation) whose davening I attended is Orthodox. They permit women to come to the bimah (raised platform) to offer supplementary prayers. That day, however, the woman did not come to the bimah. She was anonymous to me, but as her voice began to quiver, I finally (like the dew last week) understood just why we include such words in our prayers whether in Israel or abroad.

In Israel most everybody has been a soldier, will be soldier, and/or have children who are or will be soldiers. Until Rosh Hashana morning, I had felt that offering a prayer for soldiers while outside of Israel was a bit forced, save for the times that Israel has come under attack. I looked around, I saw others crying, eventually realizing that I was indeed crying too. At that instant, the motivation for a prayer for the soldiers became painfully clear. Even when Israel is not at war, its young men and women are in the honorably difficult position of defending Israel's borders, sometimes resulting in injury or loss of life. Behind every soldier's M16 and brave face, is a mother, a father, siblings, children, friends, and a community, it is for them that we offer the prayer.

Needless to say, the famous passage of Rosh Hashana davening that declares "On Rosh Hashana they will be inscribed, and on Yom Kippur they will be sealed...who will live and who will die..." takes on special resonance when viewed through the lens of a loving mother pleading before God to bring her child home safely.

Stay tuned this week, as we move towards Yom Kippur.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Do the Dew

For a few more weeks we will be able to include the brief but powerful phrase of morid ha'tal([God]cause the dew to fall) in the the Amidah (silent devotion). These two words are inserted in each of the daily Amidot, during the summer season in Israel, beginning during Peach and continuing through Sukkot. In siddurim (prayerbooks) intended for Israelis the words morid ha'tal are often printed. In siddurim for duel use you might find "In Israel Say: Morid Ha'tal." While siddurim for American daveners omit the phrase entirely.

Why mention this today? Early this morning, I walked through the small patch of grass behind my apartment, my feet were almost immediately soaked.I reached down, ran my fingers through the grass, and found my hand almost dripping with clear, clean water. Nobody waters the grass, the dew provides the sustenance.

I have long been troubled by the mentioning of dew while residing in the United States because of the fact that I do not need dew for survival. I decided that this was the year I would try saying morid ha'tal throughout the summer, even when I was in the United States. At the start it felt very strange, especially on days of pouring rain in New York. Summer wore on, and the weather in Washington, D.C. grew hotter, the dew began to feel like a more natural inclusion, despite my geographical location. Once in Israel, I felt more comfortable because at least I was in the area where the two words are intended to be uttered. It was, however, not until this morning, that I fully appreciated the necessity of dew for sustenance.

After this experience, I will continue to say morid ha'tal in future years. I hope that in the time of Rosh Hashana preparation, that you have space to include these short but incredibly important words in your t'fillot, regardless of location.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Power of Nusach

Music has the unique ability to establish or alter the mood of the listener. The music of Jewish prayer is no different in that respect. Weekday services have their own mode and style, ranging all the way to the once-yearly nusach (musical arrangement) for Ne'ilat Sha'arim (Closing of the Gates) at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

What does this have to do with the season of t'shuvah specifically?

The music of the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays, Days of Awe, or Ten Days of Repentance) is obviously unique to those days as well as extraordinarily beautiful. From the opening notes on Rosh Hashana eve, continuing through the previously mentioned ne'ilah, the drama and gravity of the days are established. Among others, at this time of year I find myself humming the familiar melody of the chatzi kaddish that marks the entrance to the hallowed hours of the mussaf (additional) services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, among other melodies. Allowing those sometimes chilling notes to escape my lips moves me into a mindset where I am instantaneously closer to God, a central feature of the t'shuva season.

To understand the power of the nusach, and the place it has in prayer makes us better daveners. On the side bar, I have listed a website entitled Virtual Cantor. If you have a moment, locate the recordings for the High Holidays, you will likely find familiar sounds. Allow yourself to be consumed by the power of nusach

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sacred Space(s), Part II

I have been doing a lot of thinking since my post on Monday about what it means to make a sacred space. Yesterday morning, I again went to the Kotel (Western Wall) for shacharit (morning prayers) as well as to try and gain a deeper understanding of the sacred spaces question. I came away with two models of sacred space.

Model 1: Inside-out

The Inside-out model is essentially the Ohel Mo-ed (Tent of Meeting) or Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) methodology. In this model the holiest area can be found at the center, and then the kedusha gradually decreases as one moves from the center. The holiest location was off limits to even the High Priest, save for one day a year, Yom Kippur. Moving away from that critical center, the holiness decreases, although never entirely dissipates. I would recommend finding a good diagram of either the Ohel Mo-ed or the Beit Hamikdash for better visualization. Some chumashim have them in the reference section. To review, a place is anointed as holy, and then the sacredness flows from that area.

Model 2: Outside-in

Exactly the opposite of Inside-out, and the model with which I believe is most relevant today. This is the model of the independent minyan, sometimes the synagogue, and perhaps even a beit midrash (house of study). Here, the people bring the holiness into a space, and ascribe the holiness to the location. For example, Kehillat Hadar which meets on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, uses the basement of a local church to hold their Shabbat morning activities. Chairs are set, an aron kodesh (holy closet) is stationed and eventually equipped with a Torah. The participants arrive, engage in davening with great fervor, and read from the Torah. However, once the davening has concluded, the space is transformed back into the basement of a generous church. The behavior, set-up, mindset, and intention of the kahal (community) brings the kedusha. Thus, we bring holiness to a place by behaving appropriately, dressing appropriately, having a focused intent, and gathering the dispersed holiness into a critical mass.

Please be advised: these are not criticisms of Kehillat Hadar, nor are they a knock on the holiness of the church as a whole.

I wish you luck on transforming your spaces, Shabbat shalom.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sacred Space(s)

So far, I have touched on a couple of elements that I feel are critical in experiencing meaningful prayer. One such element was that of space. And while I'm still working on a rubric, I want to discuss one space specifically, the one featured in the photograph above, the kotel hama'aravi (Western Wall).

Thursday morning I walked to the kotel for the first time since arriving in Israel. I had never been particularly moved before, but I had enjoyed the davening nonetheless. On Thursday I was brought to tears. I said Shma, one hand over my eyes, the other touching the cool smooth stones, not yet warmed by the sun. Friday night I participated in Kabbalat Shabbat at the kotel. I joined a group of soldiers, hareidim, tourists, and American students in song and dance. I knew none of these people, their names, or their histories, but we were united as our melodies mingled with others' and floated heavenward. No tears this time, but a spiritual connection all the same.

What is it about that space? On the one hand, its an open air synagogue with poor acoustics, a flaw which I think detracts from the enjoyment of davening. On the other hand, it's currently the closest you can come to the Holy of Holies, except for maybe a spot in the Kotel tunnels, and open your lips in prayer. Maybe I've answered my own question, but how do we carry this kedusha (holiness)into the world such that we might sanctify other spaces as well?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Psalm 27: A Personal Reflection

Having now completed one week of daily recitations of Psalm 27, I feel that it is now appropriate to offer some of my thoughts about the Psalm we will continue saying through the conclusion of Shemini Atzeret. The text with translation can be found here at Mechon Mamre. By the way, Mechon Mamre is a fabulous resource for your own learning.

The psalm seems to be divided into three sections. The first, verses one through three, the second verses four through six, and the third verses seven through thirteen. Perhaps not coincidentally JPS makes the same demarcations.

I read the first section as an affirmation of faith. It strikes me as similar to the opening bracha of the amidah where we invoke the names of our ancestors. Almost as if to say, no matter what happens we still have a connection to those people, and I, regardless of circumstance will maintain a connection to God. If you'd prefer a slightly more flippant take, the author is "buttering-up" God. Faith is being affirmed even at a time when individuals could have drifted from God's presence and faith is being recalled at a time when actions might not dictate recognition of God's existence. The reaffirmation serves as the first step to re-enter the abode of God.

Section two switches to a mode of petition and modesty. Our needs our constantly changing and we could request anything, but as the psalm says, "One thing I ask of the Lord..." shelter and protection. Even though I may have been wayward toward You or towards others, I seek Your shelter. Perhaps here we see a connection to Sukkot, which also explains why the Psalm is no longer said once we have completed our week in the sukkah. One final observation on this section: the root S'T'R appears twice. We are asking to be hidden and protected. Interestingly enough, the fifth sin found in the long vidui (confession) of Yom Kippur asks for forgiveness for sins committed in public or in sater (private), the same S'T'R root from our psalm. God knows the hidden sins along with the public ones, allows us to return after transgression, and provides protection. That's t'shuva.

If you believe as I do, that sin leads to sin, which eventually distances an individual from God and Godliness, then the third section flows with tremendous power. During the time of self-evaluation, while looking to grow in our relationships with each other and God we cannot help but ask to be heard and accepted by God. When I recite the text, my thoughts are usually directed to the idea that I do not deserve yet another chance. I am deliberately avoiding the temptation to over-dramatize, but the dramatic feelings do indeed percolate whilst reciting this third section. Yom Kippur's shma koleinu (hear our voice), which bears some similarities to the psalm, continues to be very personally moving, and in fact it is this third section, in conjunction with shma koleinu, that spurs me to continue delving deeper into myself.

I have put quite a bit out there today, but please feel free to comment and offer your own take.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Liturgical and Spiritual Shift

The calendar has turned from the month of Av to the month of Elul. For the past several weeks, the haftara (weekly prophetic reading) has been related to the calendar instead of thematically tied to the parasha (weekly Torah reading). This is a ten week cycle, that this year began on July 3rd.

The first three haftarot of admonition conclude on the Shabbat that precedes the tragic day of Tisha b'Av (9th of Av). We are foretold about the coming destruction of the Temple. True to prophesy, the Temple is destroyed and all of its holy vessels are hauled off to Babylonia. Later, this also becomes a foretelling of the second destruction. The seven haftarot that follow Tisha b'Av, those of consolation, are elevating in nature. They encourage return and repentance. In other words, from the depths of destruction, to the heights of redemption. Similarly, at the end of the seven weeks of consolation, and the ten week cycle overall, lies the day of judgment, Rosh Hashana.

During the reading of the seven haftarot of consolation, comes the new month of Elul. Two new elements are added to daily prayers. In the morning(except on Shabbat) the shofar (ram's horn) is sounded at the conclusion of davening, arousing souls to ascend to the heights, and out of the depths from which they come. Preceding the shofar sounding is the recitation of Psalm 27. You can find the text and translation here. I will save my thoughts on the psalm until later in the month.

Just as the haftarot have shifted and the liturgy itself begins to change, I would encourage you to begin your personal introspection, culminating in spiritual elevation. I believe that when used appropriately, the month preceding the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can elevate the t'fillot and the experience of standing before the aron kodesh (holy ark) on those days.

The blog will also be undergoing a bit of a transformation. I hope to take advantage of the gold mine of liturgical material available, touch on some of the themes of the High Holiday liturgy, as well as discuss difficult or challenging sections. Let the tussling happen here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Movement in Prayer

In response to Paige's comment(which you can see below), I gave more thought to the concept of including significant movement during prayer. As luck would have it, following my post last Friday, I attended kabbalat Shabbat (Lit: Receiving the Sabbath) and there was significant dancing by both men and women.

It felt almost as if putting down our siddurim and joining in a lumpy, rhythmically challenged circle released some sort of euphoric energy that permeated the prayer space for the remainder of the evening. I can only explain it by saying that the siddur banging, and shuckeling (swaying) that was occurring before the dancing was similar to building up the pressure in a carbonated beverage. Obviously, when this bottle was opened we weren't all spritzed, but that's not the point.

So, I'm not sure exactly where to go with this from here, except to point out that in the case of last Friday, movement lifted the spiritual, physical, and emotional levels of the evening. I'm equally unsure of how appropriate it would be in all contexts, and what a "dancing/movement model" would look like while still retaining respect and reverence for prayer and the prayer space.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Hearing the Prayers of Others

As in communities all over the world where there exist a significant Muslim population, in Jerusalem one can usually hear the call to prayer at some point during the day. Since arriving in Jerusalem on Monday, I have been able to hear the last of the five daily calls to prayer. Usually the sound is sort of captured on the wind and depending on the direction, the volume varies.

I have no understanding of Arabic, and frankly attempting to learn and understand Hebrew is time consuming enough. However, what I can understand is the passion that is behind the melodious voice.

Whilst listening to the prayers of others whose words I do not understand, I began to wonder how would our t'fillot sound to an outsider. Would they be filled with passion like the voice I hear every night, or would they be weighed down, carrying a sense of burden. The obvious answer is that it depends on the circumstances, and the group who can be heard. Some probably sound like a burden, and others probably sound like they are overflowing with joy to be standing in prayer.

I am not suggesting that davening communities put on a show in the event that they are being witnessed or overheard. What I am suggesting is that each participant with maximum effort by being truly present. Leaving the shaliach tzibbur (public messenger) out to dry takes away from the atmosphere. Similarly, overtaking the shaliach tzibbur creates a feeling of confusion. Having been in both situations, I can tell you that neither is particularly pleasant.

So how do we apply the passion of the Islamic prayer leader? I propose studying the dynamics of each prayer space and evaluating the intention and commitment that you as an individual are bringing. If this means taking a few moments before prayer to collect your thoughts, if it means stretching, meditation, please do it. I must qualify by saying that not every entrance into a prayer space is consumed with overwhelming meaning, but that by putting the most into it, we stand to get the most out of it. Perhaps by using some innovative methods, we can be sure that our passion in prayer mirrors that which I hear on a nightly basis.

As always I welcome your suggestions and comments.

Note: If you would like to post, please let me know, as this is a communal effort, and I want this blog to continue to grow.

Shabbat shalom.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bestowing a Blessing

Anybody who has been to Israel or who lives there knows that crossing paths with soldiers is a very common experience. Similarly, anybody who has been to Israel or who lives there knows that witnessing the making of brakhot(blessings) is also a common sight.

However, in light of my recent post about the siddur, I took special note of the following scene:

On Thursday in the town of Zichron Yaakov, a number of soldiers were visiting the First Alyiah Museum, and the other sites of Zichron. During lunch, the soldiers fanned out to make their selections from the shops and cafes that Zichron offers. A small group of male soldiers were flagged down by an older man whilst enjoying his lunch. Beckoning the green-clad soldiers to his table, the man pulled out his siddur. He began leafing through it, as if he was looking for just the right words. The older man bestowed a blessing upon the young men, they exchanged handshakes, hugs, and parted.

As I watched from the distance I could help but think about what I was witnessing. And while we're not talking about t'fillot in the sense of davening, observing the rapid turning of pages and the grateful faces, made me appreciate on a physical level the potential of prayer. I touched on this a bit in an earlier post about the health benefits of regular prayer. However, this is about the giving and receiving of blessings, and not specifically the medicinal benefits.

As such, and perhaps as you might have expected, my blessing to you is that my story here will allow for you to have greater physical appreciation for the words that are printed, or the ones that flow unscripted from our lips.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Departure Special: T'fillat Haderech (Traveler's prayer)

In a few short hours I will be boarding a plane for Israel, providing me with a perfect opportunity to say and discuss t'fillat haderech. The bracha itself can be found in Brachot 29b/30a. Below is the translation of the Hebrew text.

May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to
guide us in peace, to sustain us in peace, to lead us to our
desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us
home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the
way, and from all calamities that threaten the world. Bless the
work of our hands. May we find grace, love and compassion in
Your sight and in the sight of all who see us. Hear our
supplication, for You listen to prayer and supplication.
Praised are You, Lord who hears prayer.

What has struck me most significantly today, is the universality of this particular blessing. The reader is asking for a number of types of protection, even invoking sections that ring familiar from the end of the thirteen weekday blessings of the Amidah.

However, today I am traveling alone, and the bracha stresses "us" repeatedly. You could make the argument that "us" might include my fellow travelers, but to be honest they are total strangers. Which is not to say that they are not worthy of receiving blessings, rather that usually "us" refers to a group where there is some communal connection. During daily t'fillot in the context of a congregation, independent minyan, or college campus, the "us" seems to have more resonance.

I suggest trying to read the text in first person singular voice, and see how that feels. Do the dynamics of the bracha change? Do you feel that you're isolating yourself from others? Towards the end of creating a meaningful prayer space, I hope critically reading the texts assists in the process.

For more investigation, Brachot 29b/30a the aforementioned location of the bracha, also contains a few words about saying the bracha with a group. Found here in English and here in the original.

I welcome your thoughts, my next post will be from Eretz Yisrael.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Putting Siddurim(prayerbooks) in Order

The Siddur (prayerbook) used to be an object of novelty. There was a time when only the wealthy members of a Jewish community owned siddurim, and even a time before that where no prayers were fixed in writing. They were often elaborate works of art with colorful illustrations or perhaps gold trimmed pages. For a number of reasons, the siddur was not available to every person, leaving those without a siddur to recite the t’fillot from memory or fulfill their obligation through the shaliach tzibbur (public emissary). Among the reasons for low siddur ownership were low literacy and the high cost of producing books. However, as literacy increased, and following the invention of the printing press, siddurim for all became a reality.

In his book A Guide to Jewish Prayer, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes that Jews have long been called the People of The Book. Usually The Book referred to the Torah or by extension the Talmud. Steinsaltz proposes that there is another book that is just as critical, the siddur. Steinsaltz explains that the relationship that a Jew has to the siddur is what makes it unique. He continues by reminding the reader that the siddur is often one of the first texts that a Jewish child learns, and that it accompanies every Jew throughout his or her life, to be used daily, in times of joy, sadness, for holidays, and assorted blessings. Thus, I would put forward that the prayer book itself is just as important to the davener(one who prays) as the words contained within.

Today, there are a multitude of siddurim available. Movements of Judaism have published their own versions, including changes in the liturgy where they feel such changes are necessary and appropriate. Some congregations have created siddurim tailored specifically to the needs of that particular community. The logic behind undertaking such projects can be boiled down to the desire to have a prayerbook that expresses the ideals and embodies the sentiments of those using the book. For some, a siddur whose content does not match is a problem for effective and meaningful prayer.

With the seemingly countless siddurim that are available, the davener must make a choice as to which siddur to purchase and ultimately use on a regular basis. Artscroll/The Rabbinical Council of America, Koren Sacks, United Synagogue of Conservative Judiasm, The Union for Reform Judaism, and the Reconstructionist Press are just a few of the options. But the davner also must consider Hebrew/English, translation, explanatory notes, gender sensitivity, Ashkenaz (Eastern Europe) or Sepharad/Mizrachi(Spanish/Middle Eastern) rites. With all the options, the davener must make sense of the maze of siddurim to maximize his or her prayer.

To emphasize my point, I want to share the thoughts of David Gerskoff whom I met during my year at Yeshivat Hadar. About selecting a siddur he writes the following:

“1) Complete traditional Hebrew/Aramaic text for Shabbat, holidays, and weekdays, with no deletions, abbreviations or substitutions (except for #5 below)
2) Literal English translation of all Hebrew/Aramaic
3) Indication of shva na and shva nah and kamatzim katanim
4) Small, lightweight size, for easy portability
5) Egalitarian textual changes (e.g. Silverman birchot hashachar, imahot, nahem on Tisha B'av)
6) Minor, non dogmatic (e.g. "say with emphasis) choreography directions (e.g. "say this standing")
7) Attractive layout of text, including placement of Hebrew/Aramaic/English, fonts, size
8) Descriptive endnotes for particular special days (i.e. Hanuka, minor fasts)
9) Descriptive footnotes for specific tefilot

I think that an idea siddur enhances prayer in numerous ways. It should never be a struggle to find where a particular tefila is in a siddur, nor to look up the English meaning of a particular word or phrase, nor answer a quick reference/gabbai question.

I find the Koren Sacks pocket siddur to be a beautiful siddur that meets almost all of my (except #5). My previous siddurim were the pocket complete ArtScroll (which met 1-2, 4, and 8-9) and the pocket Sim Shalom (which met 4-6 and 9). For the Yamim Noraim, I use ArtScroll's interlinear mahzorim, since much of the Hebrew in the piyutim is unfamiliar to me. If there were Koren Sacks mahzor with English I would likely switch to that.”

So you see, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to selecting the appropriate siddur. David’s list may or may not be your list. Regardless, I encourage everybody to think about what their list would look like and to find a siddur with the best fit. If we are truly the People of The Book, in view of Steinzaltz, then it is to our benefit to find the best siddur. The book should not be a stumbling block toward reaching prayer that is deep and heartfelt.

Good luck, I’d love to hear about others’ quest for the perfect siddur.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The tummy and the T'fillah

As we move later into the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, there are a number of experiences one undergoes. I want to focus on the experience of prayer whilst in the throes of hunger pangs.

Like the day of Tisha b'Av itself, praying while hungry raises lots of questions. Allow me to apologize in advance for not providing answers or even proposing answers. There is plenty to be said about why we fast, but I want to just list some questions that arise on Tisha b'Av and the minor fast days that may not necessarily be as apparent on Yom Kippur.

1) Does being without nourishment alter our kavanah(intention)in prayer? If so, how?
2) Do petitions for our needs have more or less significance?
3) How do feelings of physical weakness later in the day mirror the mood of the day, and how do we express those feeling through our t'fillot?
4) Are the additions to the amidah appropriate with what we are feeling?
Finally, not a t'fillah question specifically but:
5) Are our feelings about hunger in the world altered? If so, how?

No answers today, but I hope that along with the other thought processes that are ongoing today, my questions will allow us to appreciate the mincha(afternoon) and maariv(evening) t'fillot more fully.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Who needs prayer?

Over the past couple of days I have been thinking about prayers driven by necessity. There is a common saying "there are no atheists in foxholes." And while I do not want to discuss the merits of faith or lack thereof in this post, I do find it interesting that people turn to prayer in times of need even if they were otherwise unattached to prayer in a formal or informal sense.

Why do people not offer prayers of thanksgiving as often as they offer prayers of petition?

I am not pushing for one model specifically, but rather for a more rounded approach to prayer. In other words, a model in which prayers are offered in all circumstances, from dire to euphoric. Your own prayer can be a physical manifestation of your spiritual feelings, one that may not only help your faith regardless of how strong, but also have some medical benefits. Check out the link to read about the benefits of spirituality.


Whether its for your heart, your spirit, your faith, try prayer in different circumstances (bracketing the usual daily prayers for the purpose of this post), see how you feel. So in an answer to the title of this post, everybody needs prayer in one form or another.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

First Post

Well, here we are. I'm making my very first blog post in any format, I guess you could say that I have arrived late to the Blogging party, but that will not deter me now.

Over the coming months, I envision this space being a forum of open discussion and mutual contribution where we can delve into the aspects of t'fillah that are troubling, mystifying, rewarding, meaningful, bizarre, or humorous. Also, as an exploration of t'fillah spaces and settings, I am working on a rubric so that prayer experiences can be analyzed on some sort of quantitative scale.

Now you might ask, why would I want to quantify t'fillah, a very spirtual and potentially personal undertaking? The answer is simple, I am not evaluating the spirituality of any individual per se, rather trying to understand what makes up a "good davening." Obviously, that is subjective, but with objective criteria perhaps we can also understand different models for prayer and how elements may be shared from one to another, rather than settling into a mode where we are blind to other ideas.

In this case, as in all future posts, I am not discussing the halakhic status of any particular davening setting. However, in order to understand the setting, we may characterize a space as "with/without musical instruments" or "with/without mechitza" so as to understand the space more fully.

I look forward to reading, discussing, and sharing with you.