Takes Many Spiritual Tools to Connect to an Infinite God –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

On Prayer and Meditation

My first post on Morethodoxy, entitled “Openness and Passion,” outlined what I perceive to be an important process in living the Torah, being able to adopt the strengths one finds in each community and in the so many different approaches to mitzvoth and Torah, even if they are not our own primary practice. Custom is a powerful thing in Judaism, but sometimes stolidness can be spiritually detrimental.

I think that for many people, Jewish and not, prayer has become a recitation of words.   Several frum (observant) people who take davening (prayer) seriously have commented to me, “I like learning Torah and find it meaningful, but I just can’t relate, beyond the level of fulfilling an obligation, to tefilah (prayer).”

The Talmud (Berachot 32b) tells us that the Chasidim Harishonim, the Ancient Pious Ones, used to wait an hour before prayer (to prepare), pray for an hour, and take an hour after prayer (to recover?;  to return to this world?). They did it three times a day, and in fact the Talmud says we are obligated to do this also.

This prayer system does not sound like ours.  We rush in, pray to fulfill our obligation, perhaps concentrate a bit on its meaning and before whom we are praying, and finish.   It does not take us an hour to prepare or in fact any time to come down.  I am not, God forbid, criticizing the many Jews who are sincere about prayer and make great sacrifices to pray with a minyan at correct times or on their own.  I am no expert at or Tzadik in regard to prayer.  But I think that the Talmud’s ancient method of prayer may have been entirely unlike ours.

I imagine a prayer that takes an hour of preparation and an hour to come back is one that is highly meditative.  Kavvanah, the intent that is required in Jewish prayer, is sometimes understood as just understanding what the words mean or knowing that one is standing before the Almightily, but I think the Talmud here is offering us an important tool that reaches beyond the standard level of kavvanah in Jewish law.  Perhaps prayer is not supposed to be just saying words.  Perhaps prayer and the kavvanah that was seen in the time of the Talmud, as a prerequisite for prayer (one did not pray for three days after traveling according to the Talmud since we might lack concentration, Aruvin 65a), is something much more.

Judaism contains many spiritual tools that are often ignored if they are not part of our own personal or community’s customary practice.   There is a tradition of meditation in Judaism.  Clearly when it comes to prayer there was something deeper going in the Talmud that we have lost.  Even latter in Jewish history we have for instance Rav Nachman of Breslov’s instructions regarding prayer and meditation.  That one should go to the forest, preferably at night, and there speak to God in one’s own words (Torah 52).

I think we must reclaim some of Judaism’s spiritual tools.   In the Orthodox community we sometimes, in our punctiliousness, (and probably in reaction to Reform Judaism) allow the ma’aseh hamitzvah (the act of performing the mitzvah) to overshadow the inner kavvanah (intent), and the perhaps the telos of the mitzvah -connecting with God.

Let us be open to taking a closer look at the spiritual tools that exist within Judaism, even if they are not our own or those of our immediate community or custom; even if they feel foreign.  I would even suggest that sometimes there are Jewish spiritual tools that have become inaccessible or lost to us, such as meditation, and that it may take learning them in a non-Jewish context that has cultivated them well, in order to readapt them into Judaism.

5 Responses to Takes Many Spiritual Tools to Connect to an Infinite God –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. Moshe says:

    If I remember Seth Kadish’s book http://www.amazon.com/Kavvana-Directing-Heart-Jewish-Prayer/dp/0765759527 correctly, it was originally prohibited to pray without kavanah. Only after we fell to the level where most people mostly prayed without kavanah did we adopt the custom to pray even without kavanah.

  2. Aryeh says:

    I do not disagree with the premise, but I do believe that the lack of kavanah and hurried effort at tefilah that many deal with is because of the modern world. I, for one, certainly have more kavanah on Shabbat and Yom Tov than I do during the week when I am running to work, to deal with kids or for an errand. On the Yamim Noraim, when things are not as rushed I have the most Kavanah. I think this is a result of the modern world’s impact on us. It does not, I believe have to do with any reaction to Reform or another complex concept.

    I do think, though, that we do a poor job of educating on tefilah. Even those that went to day school or yeshiva, once tefillah was learned, did those schools continue courses on the meaning and concepts behind tefilah? The answer is usually no. I believe in the Maimonidies model as taught by Rabbi Wohlgemuth zt’l. Tefilah courses were important in that school (perhaps Rabbi Lopatin can speak to their importance). The basics were taught in elementary school, but middle and high school were when you understood tefilah. This, unfortunately, is rare. In fact, so rare that there is the famous story that when the Rav zt’l visited one of Rabbi Wohlgemuth’s zt’l classes, he took a copy of the exam that was being given that day and gave it to his smicha students at RIETS, none of whom passed.

  3. Anna says:

    3 prayers… 3 hours each…

    9 hours to pray per day…

    Think one minute about what you say Judaism is asking the Jews!!!

    If it is the case, Judaism is a religion for those who don’t work, don’t want to be with their family and don’t need any time for themselves. People who don’t give anything to society and would need society to feed and lodge them.

    But then, they can always throw a prayer and get pay, kill a chicken and get pay, write a mezuza and get pay, cut a prepuce and get pay etc… What a surprise!

    Sorry if I sound a little angry. This wasn’t the reason why I left religions behind. It is not because it was created by men, but because they usually created bloodthirsty, intolerant, misogynistic, illogic/against science gods and rules.

    How can God creates the plants before the sun? Even if it was just one day/24 of our hours, it cannot work, but it is even worse if we have to believe it is “one day” of God, that is billion of years, so to rectify that the Universe is of couse not 6000 years. Do you think plants can live millions of years without the sun? But then, religious people will invent another explanation like plants didn’t need the sun, that God provided for them in another way. Explanation after explanation, so not to see the simple truth that the people who wrote the torah didn’t know, among many many other facts, that plants cannot live without sun, like that our earth wasn’t created before the stars etc…

    Oops I did it again, letting my rational thoughts out while I dislike religions primarly because God doesn’t care about little girls being raped or men being tortured while affirming he is a loving-God. A loving God who give the “miracle” of a little jar of oil but who let children die in wars or drough etc


  4. Hyim Shafner says:

    That piece of Talmud is refering to a group of people, the “Ancient Pious Ones.” we don’t know who they were but certainly there is no obligation on Jews to pray 9 hours a day. On the contrary from a Biblical perspective just one moment of connecting with God a day in one’s own words would be enough. I felt the story of the ancient pious ones was important because it shows us that prayer is meant to be more than mere recitation of words, rather a deeper more meditative act.

    In terms of creationism and science see my post on this blog about that, here is the link: https://morethodoxy.org/2009/10/16/rash%E2%80%9Di-and-ramba%E2%80%9Dn-on-creationism-by-rabbi-hyim-shafner/

  5. the art of war…

    …He wrote that . . ….

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