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.