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Daily Davening Dissonance

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot
February 10, 2022

Duty or Spontaneity? Set Texts or Creative Expression? Spiritual seeking or disciplined avodat Hashem? Choosing between these modalities of prayer has been a long-standing tension within the Jewish tradition, with many feeling we have lost too much of the spiritual dimension.

My revered teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, once passionately recounted the story of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Habad Hasidut, who journeyed to Vilna to study Torah with the renowned R. Elijah, the Vilna Gaon. On his way, he met an elderly man who asked where he was going, to which R. Shnuer Zalman replied, “To study Torah by the Gaon.” The old man responded: “You already know how to learn a bit of Torah, but you know nothing about davening; go seek out the Mezritcher (R. Israel of Mezeritch, student of the Baal Shem Tov).” Rav Lichtenstein then launched into a discussion of the challenges related to tefilla in the Modern-Orthodox world and the need for improvement in adding more depth to the experience.

Indeed, in our contemporary rabbinic and educational exhortations, texts we study, and conversations we hold about daily tefilla, we speak about it as a spiritual experience. We wax eloquent about the daily encounter with God, worship of the heart, and the emotional high of speaking to the Ribbono Shel Olam.

Dissonance exists, however, because we do not often acknowledge the complex truth that the very structure of halakhic davening may impede the average Jew from achieving such a spiritual experience daily. Part of this failure rests on our own shortcomings and commitments; part is due to the challenges of modernity and feeling less reliant on God; and part is due to secularization. However, part of it is inherent in halakhic prayer as formulated by Hazal and developed by the Rishonim and Aharonim. Hazal and the Rishonim clearly valued the spiritual dimension of prayer, not making tefillot rote-keva. However, they also considered other values in codifying Hilkhot Tefilla, structuring prayer as a series of set texts performed at set times with set formats.

These choices contrast with biblical prayer as reflected in Tanakh, which was entirely spontaneous. The reasons for this shift are well justified: the need for unified practice of Am Yisrael, the loss of the Temple and its formal service, inculcating important areas of Jewish belief, etc. However, like every choice, it came with a cost, part of which was an attenuation of the most spiritual dimensions of the daily tefilla experience.  Standardization continued into the Middle Ages, and so while Rambam ruled that one should not pray for three days after a voyage in order to settle one’s mind, this ruling went by the wayside in subsequent halakhic history. The basic halakha states that one who lacks proper intent in the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei must repeat it. However, by the time of the Shulhan Arukh, this Talmudic ruling is set aside with the rationale that we no longer have proper kavana and would be stuck in an endless loop.

Standardized prayer trumped the spiritual experience, and duty became the daily prayer modality of the average Jew.  Hasidut tried to resist this phenomenon with ecstatic prayer, ignoring halakhic set times, encouraging elongated prayer, and adding mystical kavanot. However, mainstream halakhic practice did not follow that path. Instead, the average shul and school in our communities accepted zmanei tefillah and the constraints of the “real” world.

This conflict between halakha and the workday comes into sharp focus in the lived experience of many minyan attendees. Some shuls print on the amud used by the shaliah tzibbur a note that “one must be up to Barukh Sheamar by 7:05, Yishtabach by 7:09,” etc. The same holds true in schools, where the need to finish davening by a specific time, together with sleepy kids and rote recitations, does not engender the high of a spiritual experience. The halakhic demands of davening alongside the reality of catching a train to work or starting first period by 8:55 is a crushing truth that that inhibits the spiritual moments I believe Hazal envisioned within the bounds of structured halakhic prayer.

A telling, albeit unintentional, recognition of this struggle can be found in R. Dov Zinger’s recent work, Prepare My Soul: Recipes for Awaking the Soul. This insightful, passionate volume contains wonderful suggestions, almost all of which are external to the demands of halakhic prayer: going out into nature, having one person ask another questions of meaning, infusing prayer with music and song. Here is one illustrative citation:

When praying in a habura, we can invite, at the prayer’s outset, anyone who would like to ask for the help of the group:

To express a request. Or mention the name of another who is in need of prayer

To give their own name to the group,

And the entire group together can repeat the name out loud and pray.

Another possibility is to have everyone sit together in a circle and everyone writes down their own requests. All of these notes are then collected and placed in the middle of the circle.Each one then reaches out a hand and randomly chooses one of the notes, and reads out the request written before him with focus.

These suggestions may increase kavana, but they all attempt to bypass the reality of halakhic prayer’s demands through interaction, dialogue, or journaling outside the recitation of the texts. Moreover, implementing these suggestions daily within the various time constraints requires a total overhaul of our schedules and lived reality.

If we as a community are truly willing to transform standard formalized tefilla into a more spiritual experience, then R. Zinger’s suggestions, and more, need to be implemented. However, enabling such changes may only be possible through coupling them with the expansion of the halakhic concept of “better to recite less with more intent than more with less intent,” which has traditionally applied only to Tahanunim or psukei dezimra. My friend and colleague Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph, in a public panel fifteen years ago, advocated for “power davening.” He argued for reciting a streamlined psukei dezimra followed by birkot Keriat Shema, Shema and a daily hoiche kedusha in every shul and school minyan, where each of these sections would be recited with intent and devotion. Such streamlining would also allow time for some of the more spiritual exercises and practices that could elevate and transform our davening experience. For many of our congregants and students, this would be a radical shift and an attempt to right the balance between the goals of structured, halakhic prayer and the desire to connect to God that many feel should be enhanced.

If, however, we as a community are not ready to explore such paths, our rhetoric and expectations of daily prayer should reflect that truth. Our vision cannot continue to be one of dissonance, speaking of spiritual “highs” when the lived reality reflects different priorities and goals.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

Rabbi Helfgot is chair of the Department of Torah SheBaal Peh at SAR High School, serves as Rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, and is an adjunct faculty member at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He taught for many years at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education as well as serving on the faculty of the Wexner Heritage Program.

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