Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Windows on Jerusalem

Throughout Jewish history, since the destruction of the Second Temple, up to the present day, Jews have longed for a return to Jerusalem. At weddings, in blessings after meals, in the t'fillot, in song, and in literature, the Jewish soul yearns for Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish universe.

Two Shabbatot ago, I was in Efrat, where I stayed by one of my teachers from Pardes. The synagogue where he davens has windows on either side of the aron kodesh. The synagogue is on the northern most end of Efrat, and therefore has a view of Jerusalem through those large windows. Just past the hilltops on which sit the Arab cities of Beit Jala and Beit Lehem, is Jerusalem itself. Having lived in Jerusalem for well over a year now, mentioning Jerusalem in my davening has taken on a different tone, since I am on the inside looking out. At this point, I'm not sure that I necessarily like the new tone, but my experience in Efrat has reminded me of the kavanah with which I used to say those brachot. I was able to see Jerusalem and long to be within its embrace, to return to it, even though I was only going to be outside for about a day and a half.

I hope that our daily lives can impact the experience of our own prayer, in a way that changes kavanah, or sheds new light on "old" words.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


In our efforts to try and find spirituality and deep connections in prayer often lead us to take t’fillah very seriously. Generally, that is a practice which I would commend, and even recommend, since it would theoretically allow us to block out distractions and concentrate solely on our relationship with Gd.

Perhaps the best example is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which have taken on a doom and gloom atmosphere when it comes to t’fillah, at least for the majority of Ashkenazi communities. While there is plenty of reason to have those feelings given the gravity of the day, there is also room for celebration. Regardless, the unbridled celebration comes five days after Yom Kippur with the onset of Sukkot. In Israel, the mood change is palpable as soon as the Sukkot begin popping up around town. In some cases, already narrow streets become labyrinths in which pedestrians must negotiate the sukkot.

During t’fillah on sukkot the atmosphere in the synagogue is palpable with excitement. We get to enjoy the hands-on experience of shaking the lulav and etrog. Hallel (Psalms of praise) are joyously sung. Most notably for me, however, was that there was much more talking during t’fillah. The shul in which I davened for the holidays is very serious, in my opinion, about their davening, and they avoid most conversation. To see this entire community enjoying more light-hearted moments during t’fillah was as if I was witnessing, and to some extent participating in, the collective sigh of relief that comes after a long transformative undertaking.

What’s the take-away?
I have written a lot about the importance of taking tfillah seriously in order to find meaning with in it, and allow it to take hold of the davener. However, I’d also put forth the idea that we might be able to find davening equally as effective at penetrating our hearts if we back off the seriousness just slightly, and allow for a more festive vibes.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Yom Kippur Wrap

I will be the first to admit that Yom Kippur is one of my favorite days of the year. Between the liturgical poetry, the beautiful nusach, and the freedom from caring about my appearance, or physical sustenance, the experience is a catharsis of emotions and senses.

Even with all of the positives, I found myself doubled over the chair in front of me as neilah (closing service) headed toward its conclusion. This year, I decided to stand for as much of Yom Kippur as possible. I believe that the tfillot are more participatory and experiential than any other day of the year, and I was trying to take advantage of that element. I wanted to make an attempt to stand before Gd, since if I was in court I certainly wouldn't be sitting as I plead for my fate. I also saw it as a method by which I could afflict myself just a little bit further.

Back to being doubled over the chair. The standing on very hard stone floors, coupled with the lack of food and water were taking a small toll on my body. My back was aching, knees sore, head seeming to float slightly on my shoulders, tears in the corners of my eyes. However, the harder I davened, the more the discomfort abated, or became less noticeable. Once neilah was completed and maariv began, all of those aches returned.

I do not claim to have found the secret to prayer. But the task now becomes taking that full body experience into all of my davening, and by extension our davening. Any ideas?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Unattainable Prayer

The lead-up to Rosh Hashana is in full swing, slichot start in a few hours. Each morning except for Shabbat and erev Rosh Hashana we have heard, and will hear the blats of the shofar, it awakenings us, and reminding us of the importance of the upcoming days. Aside from intensifying the tshuva process, that I think begins in the middle of the summer with the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, there is an understandable temptation to pray for blessings in the new year.

I don’t want to discourage anybody from approaching Gd in prayer, not in the least. I would however, just offer a word of guidance to everybody, myself included. Prayers for the unattainable and unrealistic should be closely examined. In my experience, I have fallen into the trap of praying for something that was beyond realistic, and then been distraught after my unrealistic prayers went unanswered. My fear is that by pouring out my soul for something that is utterly unattainable, or even impossible, I am damaging my long-term prayer prospects by setting myself up for failure, turning myself off to future opportunities to approach Gd. In communal prayer, we do not ask for rain in Israel in the summer because we know that rain would be extremely dangerous at that time of year, and because rain does not fall in the summer. I suppose that helps clarify my point slightly.

So where’s the balance? Obviously only an individual can know. I think that by approaching tfillot with a kaved rosh (seriousness), it is easier to prevent prayers from running rampant to those that will likely never be fulfilled. With seriousness and forethought we can push the boundaries in our prayers, making them personal and attainable. Although I am backtracking slightly, I do not think that praying for the unrealistic is inherently bad, just that it carries significant dangers.

I wish everybody a meaningful journey in prayer, however that manifests in our collective heart of hearts.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Conference room davening

Throughout the first year of of my blog I tried to write about a few different locations where I davened, in an effort to try and understand how a space does or does not impact the tfillah experience.

Yesterday afternoon, I was asked by one of my Pardes teachers if I would go to mincha in the offices of Koren Publishers. Not wanting to miss an opportunity for a new location, meet some new people, or miss mincha itself, I decided to join him. The minyan was held in a conference room lined with the siddurim of Koren, there was certainly neither a shortage nor a lack of variety among the siddurim available. A couple of pictures on the wall, bookshelves, and a window into a neighboring office completed the decor. A conference table was in the middle of the room, with a couple of office chairs around, leaving most of the participants standing for the duration. A shtender in the corner was the only indication that davening might happen in this room.

It would be difficult for me to say that this was the moving mincha. I think it had something to do with the confluence of prayer and work spaces. A beautiful synagogue is not necessarily necessary for the tfillah to resonate, but I felt like I was at a board meeting. Protecting a sacred space for tfillah could be a crucial element in protecting the prospects of a positive outcome.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Psalm 27: A Personal Reflection II

With the onset of Rosh Hodesh Elul, we will begin the twice daily recitation of Psalm 27, along with the daily blasts of the shofar. Sephardic communities begin the recitation of slichot (liturgical poems for forgiveness), and the gradual ascension from Tisha b'Av to Rosha Hashana increases its gradient. As such, I thought it would be a good time to share a few of my thoughts on the psalm that we will be reciting for the next six weeks. If you'd like the text, it can be found here.

The entire Psalm, I believe, is written from a very personal perspective. The psalmist has entered into a discussion with God, but we can hear only the words of the supplicant. We see a petition for physical and spiritual protection, followed by what for me is the most significant section of the psalm, psukim (verses) 9-11. There is little doubt in my mind that the author of the shma koleinu, found in the Yom Kippur liturgy, knew verse 9 quite well, adding power to the psalm and piyut alike.

There is an existing relationship that has been stretched too thin, the psalmist does not want to be cast off or abandoned by God, one could say this is part of the t'shuva process. Wanting to reenter the relationship, the psalmists cannot afford to find that God is hiding.

Verse 10 makes the plea increasingly personal. Judaism places an extremely high value on the relationship between parents and children. The idea that a parent would forsake a child breeds a feeling of sheer terror. Feelings of loneliness and desertion are terrible when they stand alone, but when caused by those who care for us, they are amplified exponentially. Are psalmists next words are those of petition or affirmation? Although solo, the psalmist expresses an assured feeling of faith, while also asking God to perform the action of A'S'F. The shoresh here can be translated as gathering. Thus, the psalmist is asking to be gathered in like the harvest, bundled and kept close, a connection to Sukkot could be found here.

Finally, in verse 11 we see a return to the dependence of verse 9. Asking for God to lead him down the even path, and to protect him from enemies, the psalmist is sure that he is within the protection of God. In Parashat shoftim, our parasha this week, the final verse implores us to do what is right in the eyes of God (Dvarim 21:9) similar phrases, which are also read at this time of year can also be found(Dvarim 6:17-18,12:28,13:19). From closeness to waywardness and loneliness, we slowly return to God's embrace, but to remain there, godly conduct is a must.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Say hi to Hashem for me"

On more than one occasion, from more than one person, and in more than one place, I can recall somebody saying to me, "Say hi to Hashem for me" as I headed off to the synagogue, or when I was discussing which synagogue I might attend on a given day. Some of those comments were no doubt in jest, but regardless of which ones were and which weren't it reveals an interesting topic of exploration, praying for somebody else. Praying for somebody else, not in the sense of asking for healing, but actually praying in somebody else's stead. Tamar Fox, an associate editor for My Jewish Learning, authored the following article here about paying to pray. It's well worth reading.

An idea that occurred to me, and one on which Tamar touches, is what I've termed the "agent factor." While I don't want to make too broad of a generalization, the majority of American and likely world Jews are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the structure of the siddur or are not equally uncomfortable with prayer. The discomfort with prayer itself is for individual exploration. I believe however, that we owe it to our communities to teach the siddur in a way that allows people to access it, and its rich history. With enough quality information, I think that the need to pay somebody else to pray would become obsolete because people would not be worried about facing public embarrassment when entering a prayer space. To read a bit more about that, here's another good article: DavenSpot

So while "say hi to Hashem for me" might not always be a serious remark, the duty falls upon us to open prayer to everybody without it having to cost a cent.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Edot Hamizrach and Ashkenaz

Last Shabbat, I had the pleasure of staying with one of my teachers in the yishuv of Tzur Hadassah. Throughout Shabbat I had the opportunity to daven at a mizrachi synagogue who davened nusach edot hamizrach, and an ashkenazi shul who davened nusach ashkenaz. I just wanted to share a couple of observations that I think can be applied to tfillah in general.

First, the general layout is similar, which should not come as a surprise. After davening, I was speaking with one gentleman from the mizrachi synagogue (in Hebrew). He told me that he had been watching my friends and me struggle through the siddur. I explained to him that we were just looking for the correct page. Although I did concede that not being familiar with the siddur itself was a bit of a challenge when the kahal shifted from one section of the davening to another.

Second, despite the lack of familiarity with that particular siddur and nusach, I found it relatively easy to participate. There was a general flow to the davening that I take for granted when I am using nusach ashkenaz. Furthermore, as I mentioned above, since I have a general familiarity with the t'fillah structure, it was less complicated to navigate my way.

The lesson here, I believe, is to strive for a general outline of t'fillah because it opens up our ability to daven in other communities and serves to enhance our understanding of the project of prayer. Finally, really knowing your siddur is key. I like to feel at home in my siddur, although not at the expense of being able to uses others.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Some contemporary halakhic debates about prayer are often couched in language of obligation and time-caused mitzvot. Usually we see such language when discussing the role of women inside the halakhic framework. Wrapped into the discussion of time are "halakhic hours" by which we measure the day, which becomes especially critical when discussion t'fillah. Another language of time exists however, that of sacred time. As we get set to embark on the holiday of Pesach, we will encounter "zmanim" as an important theme of our t'fillah.

In kiddush for the festivals we are sanctifying time. In reciting kiddush we are setting apart time from time. While this is also the case on Shabbat, the words zmanim or moed are not found in the Shabbat kiddush. Furthermore, we identify the festivals as a specific time.
Pesach- Zman cheruteinu (time of our freedom)
Shavuot- Zman matan Torateinu (time of the giving of our Torah)
Succot- Zman simchateinu (time of our happiness)
In other areas of t'fillah we include appropriate seasonal additions, further marking the change of seasons in our prayer, and also in our lives.

Davening when seen through the eyes of zmanim, can help us serve the purpose of marking stages in our year and our lives. It should not be just a halakhic language that gets bandied about. So as you make kiddush and say t'fillot on the upcoming holiday, take a moment to think about what it means to mark time in our davening.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Kol Rina

Last Shabbat I had the pleasure of trying out a new synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot called Kol Rina. Kol Rina meets in a miklat (bomb shelter), and you could easily miss it. Once inside, it appears as if this is a full service synagogue, with a newsletter, committees, a library, events, a rabbi, all of the markers of an established community, so I quickly overcame my shock when I noticed that the sanitary white walls of the miklat had been made to look more heimish.

On to the davening. Plastic chairs seem to be the norm. Thankfully fans lined the walls, allowing for plenty of air circulation. The mechitza was in a front-back arrangement, which is not my preference, but the amud (leader's table) was centrally located. Those assembled were primarily in their 20's and early 30's, some with children, and a few older folks.

Davening was nusach Sfard, with a Carlebach style. It took a bit of time for the energy to get going, but then it was hard to contain. Dancing broke out sporadically and repeatedly throughout the evening. There was a sense of just losing oneself in the melodies, forgetting about any of the concerns of the week preceding or following. About the dancing, one of my roommates said it best, "At Kol Rina, you don't dance, you get danced." Which turned out to ring quite true. I must admit that the latter portion of davening dragged a bit, as a few of the men were not willing to conclude their singing and move on to their respective meals. Aside from that, I highly recommend Kol Rina.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


A few weeks back I authored a post about outdoor prayer. As I think I made clear, my preference is to remain indoors for all of the reasons that I mentioned. I also find it stifling to davenin in an enclosed stuffy location. In fact, there is a custom of at least building btei kenset (synagogues) with windows. This morning I believe that I came to the realization that a hybrid option could be preferable.

Today was the first day that the morning air was warm enough to allow for the Pardes windows to be opened during shacharit. The still sparse traffic was not terribly noisy, and the breeze was gentle enough to get the air in the room moving. I went on to have a very meaningful davening, that stuck with me for the duration of the day.

What's the point here? Environmental sensitivity can have an incredible impact on our prayers.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Individual

Let me begin this brief post by expressing explicitly that I believe wholeheartedly in communal prayer as a viable and necessary outlet of group expression. Furthermore, please do not leave your respective minyanim in a situation where they will be without a minyan, just for the sake of this post. Nor should those saying kaddish forgo the public space. Disclaimer concluded.

Over the past few weeks I have come to greatly enjoy davening alone. In the context of the community, you are bound to certain rules of davening courtesy. Not too fast, not too slow, not too loud, etc... When you're alone, none of those pressures apply. I have been able to be as vocal or emotional as I feel necessary without the fear of who might or might not be watching. My mumbling (discussed in an earlier post) can be as loud as I want, screaming, should I desire it, or even singing. I am free to move as I feel fit. Whether that manifests as pacing, shuckeling, or swaying, I know that nobody's space will be invaded. Practically speaking, individual davening also serves as an opportunity to hone skills as a shaliach tzibbur. In this way, I think the lessons learned can be taken back into the communal environment.

I would urge others to give individual davening a try, we may learn a lot about ourselves as a community of daveners if we give ourselves that chance.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Inside or Out?

Davening in sacred spaces has received several mentions on this blog, usually referring to indoor areas. Having just completed a three day tiyul in the Golan Heights, we had several opportunities to daven outdoors. After these few days, and other experiences, I can safely say that I do not personally find outdoor davening to be a moving experience. I know that there are a number of people who relish the opportunity to daven outdoors, in front of the miracles of creation, and with the wind in their hair. While all of those are fantastic reasons, for me the setting is simply too distracting. There are too many things to look at, dirt to kick, birds to hear, and others. Halakhically, I found it difficult to hear the shalich tzibbur. I am certainly not, nor would I ever, tell somebody not to daven outside. In fact, I would recommend it as an experiment. I'd be curious to hear about the experiences of others.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Barrier

No, not the barrier you're likely thinking of. Rather, the language barrier that exists for anybody who is praying in a language that is not their native tongue.

I remember during my religious school days that we struggled to simply pronounce the words well enough to be able to recite them in public. Eventually, we were bordering on memorization. The issue then became actually understanding the words, which I admit can be a significant barrier to meaningful t'fillah. However, there are some conceptual items within the traditional liturgy that some daveners find difficult. In cases such as those, perhaps a more limited understanding is preferable, although in general I do not side with that approach.

Halakhically (according to Jewish Law), almost all of the t'fillot can be said in a language that you understand, which means not necessarily Hebrew. I submit however, that there is something unique about saying the t'fillot in Hebrew. Therefore, given my aversion to prayer in English, and the need to have at least rudimentary understanding, what should be done? I have found it helpful to focus on two brachot, or even a larger section of the t'fillah, until I am entirely comfortable with the content, main themes, words, etc... This can be done by a slower recitation of the selected texts, or through additional examination outside the context of t'fillah.

Through a further understanding of the text, we enable ourselves to appreciate the magnitude of prayer, as well as open the doors to a more personal connection to God and our communities. Good luck.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Refuah Shleimah

My apologies for the long delay between posts. I was privileged to be visited by my parents followed by a battle with the flu, which has become in the inspiration for this post. While I was sick with the flu, I was fortunate enough to receive get well wishes from a number of teachers and friends from whom and with whom I learn at Pardes. Most of those messages ended with the words "refuah shleimah" (complete recovery).

Not surprisingly, this drew my thoughts to the refuah blessing of the amidah, the 8th blessing in the weekday arrangement. We ask God for a complete healing that we will be saved and we place our trust in God to heal what ails us. The blessing concludes with Blessed are You God who heals the sick of the (His) people Israel. Individuals have the options to insert a special petition for one who is ill. In the individual petition, we ask for a speedy and quick recovery for that specific person or people. Often we think of those in need of such special t'fillot to be in dire straights, such that they need additional prayers to be offered on their behalf.

While I appreciate wholeheartedly the refuah shleimah wishes of my friends and teachers, I can't help but think that there are those who are more in need and deserving of such prayers. Or, perhaps there's a separation between the colloquial "refuah shleimah" and actually asking for a specific person's recovery during the Amidah. Or, maybe we have entered into a situation where we hope that our actions influence our thoughts. In other words, by wishing for the recovery, whether for the flu or something more serious, we are hoping to transform ourselves into people who are more compassionate to the ill. Regardless which method or methods you subscribe to, maybe this can serve as a catalyst for the way we think about the refuah bracha in the Amidah.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


It is possible to identify Jewish prayer using several physical movements. For more on those movements, I refer you to this article found on My Jewish Learning. However, the article lacks one movement that is central Jewish, or any prayer, the lips. Without the lips, expressing words is very difficult. This is not to say anything bad of meditation, silent prayers, or internal examinations of personal thoughts. So working with the assumption that we are orally expressing our prayers, lip movements are essential. Lip movements can lead to mumbling the words, and mumbling is my topic of discussion.

There are at least three places in the Bible where we are informed about the lips. First, in Psalms 51:17 we ask God to open our lips before reciting the Amidah. Second, in Psalms 19:15, after concluding the Amidah, we ask God to accept the words that our lips have just offered. And finally in Samuel I 1:12, Hannah offers her prayer in front of Eli the Priest, and all he can see is her lips moving. Based on these three verses alone, we can see a strong scriptural support for at least moving our lips while praying, as opposed to merely reading the words with our eyes.

I can remember going to synagogue as a child and hearing all of the old men mumbling. I marveled at how they could read anything that fast, let alone a foreign language. Since then, I have come to appreciate mumbling in t'fillah. In my experience, certain words come out louder than others. It is important to note that mumbling does not mean skipping or skimming over the words. Rather, it's a recitation of the words under your breath in a way that hopefully only you are able to hear. Over time, I found that mumbling helps me significantly in my t'fillah, making it more like a conversation with God and less like a recitation. I would encourage you to attempt "project mumbles," following in the footsteps of our Biblical references. For some it will work, for others, perhaps not, but experiment and see what feels natural to you. I think we owe it to ourselves and to the t'fillot.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Morning Revelation

Among the other brachot offered during the shacharit (morning t'fillah) we find one that is about the creation of light and darkness. The text reads "Blessed are You God Master [king] of the universe, who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace, and creates all."

I have long been confused as to the placement of this blessing. I know there is a blessing later on about God as the fashioner of light, however this blessing seems to be about creation itself, while the other is more about messianic redemption. As part of birkot hashachar, we thank God for a number of aspects of our lives, and it would seem that this blessing might fit better if it was located earlier in the t'fillot. According to Sefer Abudraham, the bracha fits perfectly given what follows. Furthermore, the Abudraham locates a versein Isaiah (45:7), where a similar formulation is found (although the siddur edits the verse). Given both the scriptural reference, and its place between the Barchu and shma, and the Abudraham's explanation, I can begin to understand the bracha's placement. We have just declared that God will be praised forever, it is followed with a blessing touting the universal accomplishments of creation, before the siddur leads us to the Judeo-centric declaration of Shma.

Even after taking this closer look, I was still slightly unsatisfied...until this morning. The day began in Jerusalem with a thick cover of clouds and fog. Although there was light, there was very little direct sunlight to be found. After saying Barchu, I glanced out the window while reciting yotzeir or (the name of this blessing), and the sun broke through. I am sure many of us have witnessed sunrises in dramatic locations, but none of my sunrise experiences were directly tied to the recitation of this bracha. With the reading of the verse in Isaiah, internal siddur geography, this morning's experience, and Abudraham's help, that I am not only comfortable with this bracha and its placement, but also confident enough to say that I experienced a morning revelation vis a vis yotzeir or.