Does Prayer Need A Change?

Today, many people find prayer difficult – it’s hard to concentrate, prayers are irrelevant, and they are too long * The difficulties raise serious questions: Is there a discrepancy between prayer and our everyday lives? * Prayer itself cannot be altered, but changes do occur in minhagim that are not strict halakha, and thus, there is room for discussion about the structure and character of prayer * The challenges surrounding prayer are not new; already in the times of the Gemara we find many people did not attend synagogue * Crowdsourcing: describe what prayer is like in your synagogue, in order to discuss and deal with the issue

Question Regarding Prayer

I received a question that seems characteristic of the feelings of many religiously observant people, and due to its importance I will quote it in full:

“Rabbi, I try to get up every morning and direct my actions towards ‘tikkun olam’ (making the world better), and feel that my work in the army is very important for the security of Israel; nevertheless, for years I have felt that prayer services are a disturbing factor in my ‘tikkun olam’… instead of rising in the morning and setting out to do important things, I’m forced to ‘waste’ an hour, at the very least, on prayer (including getting ready, etc.). It seems that Rabbi Ilai Ofran was able to express my feelings in words, and I am attaching what he wrote:

‘I am one of those people who tend to think most of the problems we face today are remarkably similar to those of previous generations, and I hold dear the advice of the wisest of men, not to say ‘why were the old days better than these’. Nevertheless, it seems to me that our situation has never been so difficult – prayer, the regular and daily one, the one that halakha demands we pray in public three times a day, is simply dying. This is attested to by the many synagogues that operate only on Shabbat, and the numerous synagogues that on weekdays can barely scratch-up a minyan of kaddish-sayers and pensioners. This is evidenced by the thousands of Shabbat leaflets flooding us, some of them third-rate newspapers, poor in Torah and rich in gossip and advertisements – all tolerable, to relieve the boredom of two hours of prayer. Two hours for which most of the synagogue’s visitors are the only time of the week they come to shul. The tiny babies brought to shul on Shabbat morning with the declared intention of “letting mom sleep” attest to this, out of honest consideration that between the two possible disturbances, the disruption of prayer is the least severe.

If an outsider, an alien or a tourist, had landed in our synagogues at any given time of the year, except Yom Kippur or Independence Day (the only two days that are still really “holy” to us), we would not be able to convince him that what he saw before him is considered prayer. The noise of talk, the piles of newspapers, and the cries of children would make him think they were fooling him.

Most of the teachers, rabbis, and principals I have met (including myself) are perplexed by this issue. It is clear to everyone that it is impossible to stop speaking about and enforcing the subject of prayer, but it is also clear to everyone that it is impossible to continue down this path.

Once, a generation or two ago, or even three, obedience, loyalty, and commitment to something which one did not connect to were the cultural language, not only of prayer and of the religious world but of all spheres of life. People married a partner chosen by a matchmaker and not necessarily the one they loved, they worked in family businesses and not necessarily in the profession they dreamed of, and enlisted in the unit to which they were sent by the screening officer at the induction center and not the one they wanted to serve in.

We, unlike previous generations, seek a connection. The profession that passed through the family from one generation to the next has given way to what interests a person and leads to his self-realization. Even in the army, a preference questionnaire already exists, a trial period, and the question “in what division would you like to serve?” A person who grew up in a world where one is encouraged to seek out connection and affinity, attraction and realization in every field, is likely to seek it in the religious sphere as well. He was never accustomed, in any domain of his life, to absolute obedience – “Do it because I told you, and that’s it!”

The difficulty of feeling connected in daily prayer, as well, is not a new phenomenon. Rabbi Eliezer already said that “He who makes his prayer a fixed task, is not genuine supplication,” all the same, our Sages tried to deal with the frustration of the daily murmur of a text that does not necessarily speak to me: they added songs to the prayer – Pesukei D’Zimra and Shirat Hayam, Birkat HaShir, and Shir Shel Yom – all these are not part of the prayer itself, rather an attempt to add to it a dimension of connection and experience through song and melodies. Our Sages solved the lack of supplication described by Rabbi Eliezer by setting Tachanun at the end of the prayer and tried to flavor the unique atmosphere of Shabbat through the hymns and liturgical poems of Kabbalat Shabbat.

But what have we done to all these? We turned them into an ambiguous murmur. “Lechu neranena” (‘come let us sing’) has become “Lechu nemalela” (come let us mutter), Shirat Hayam has long not been a song of praise, rather a murmur, difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea. In saying the long Tachanun on Mondays and Thursdays, there is not much of a plea to God, except for the pleas that this long section will end already. Additions intended to safeguard prayer from its shortcomings has become the greatest challenges it faces. Even the mitzvah of reading the ‘Shema’ has turned from a loud open call to just another reading from the prayer book.

I often pray in educational institutions – mechinot (army preparatory schools), yeshivot and schools, youth congregations, and youth movements, and every time it’s very upsetting. The situation is regretful and worrisome, and I fear we are approaching an unsettling dilemma beyond compare – if there is a significant change in the nusach (style), or in the minhagim (customs) of our prayers, we may, God forbid, harm, or even lose an important and ancient Jewish tradition. Paradoxically, if such a change does not occur without delay, we may, God forbid, harm and lose that important and ancient Jewish tradition.”

Preface to the Answer

Engaging in the issue of prayer is important and challenging, and the penetrating words of Rabbi Ilai, Rabbi of Kvutzat Yavneh, provoke discussion. Admittedly, the discussion is not an open one – in the end, we cannot decide to fundamentally change the order of prayer.

Critics of this kind of discussion call it apologetics, that is, reasoned arguments in justification of the masoret (tradition), which does not attempt to clarify the objective truth, but rather, assumes that it is correct. Indeed, we believe that the masoret is just and beneficial to those who guard it, and that we are required to delve into the takanot (major legislative enactments within halakha) of tefillah and its minhagim (customs), and reveal the many meanings hidden in it, which are brought to light from one generation to the next, according to the special character of each generation. In light of this, sometimes according to the rules of halakha, emphasis change, and usually minhagei reshut (optional customs) have become chova (obligatory), but sometimes minhagei chova have become reshut, or were canceled altogether. For indeed, tefillah is made up of obligatory d’oraita (from the Torah) foundations, encircled by takanot Chachamim (rabbinic enactments), and then enclosed by minhagim accepted by all of Israel or in certain ethnic communities; the halakhic weight of each and every part is different, and when necessary, each part can be judged according to its importance.

Topics for Discussion Concerning Prayer

First, we must diagnose the situation: 1) has the status of prayer in our times weakened compared to the distant past in the days of our Sages? 2) What percentage of communities fit Rabbi Ilai’s painful description? 3) What is the process taking place in our generation in relation to prayers – apparently, some people are getting stronger, while others are weakening. What characterizes both of these groups?

From there I will proceed to deeper questions: 4) Is compulsory prayer in a minyan too long for today’s observant Jew, and comes at the expense of other important values such as Torah study, a worthy job, and quality time with the family? Or, in other words, according to the situation today, is our Sages concern and warning against “tircha d’tzibbur” (wasting people’s time) being violated? 5) For people today, many of whom are learned, is it difficult to have kavana (intention) while reading quickly all parts of the prayer? 6) Do young people, whose brains have become accustomed to the flow of visual information at a fast pace due to heightened use of electronic means, find it harder to concentrate on prayer, and what is the correct solution? 7) If necessary, what prayers can be shortened? 8) Do people today find it particularly difficult to pray in a minyan, and for those who do, how should they act according to halakha? 9) Is it preferable for prayer to be held in educational institutions, or should children pray under the guidance of their parents?

The State of Prayer and Minyan in the Days of our Sages

I will begin with the first section. Apparently, throughout the generations, the issue of prayer was challenging, as our Sages said, “These are the things of supreme importance which nevertheless people neglect” (Berachot 6b). Rashi explains: “Such as prayer that ascends to Heaven.” This also emerges from the words of our Sages, who enacted to read on Monday’s and Thursday’s the beginning of the week’s Torah portion, in order to prepare the public for the parsha, but since there were many Jews who did not pray in the minyan all week long, and were called “yoshvei kranot” (literally translated as people who hang out on street corners and are ignorant of the law), our Sages also enacted that the following week’s Torah portion be read in the Mincha prayer on Shabbat (Baba Kama 82a, according to Rashi and Rosh).

We have also learned (Megillah 2a) that many of the inhabitants of villages did not come to the synagogue even on Purim, and so that they could fulfill the mitzvah of reading the megillah, our Sages enacted that it be read to them on the Monday or Thursday close to Purim, days on which, in any case, they would come to sell their wares. We also learned (Megillah 21b) that there were Jews who were so late for Shabbat morning prayers that they never heard the beginning of the Torah reading and the blessing, and therefore our Sages had to enact that every person called-up to the Torah would recite a blessing beforehand, so that everyone knew a blessing is recited before reading the Torah. And then there were Jews who, every Shabbat, weren’t able to stay until the end of the prayer, and left before the end of the Torah reading, and so they would know that a blessing is recited after reading the Torah, our Sages enacted that every one of the seven called-up to the Torah would recite a blessing at the end of his portion of the Torah reading.

The Situation in the Last Generation

Regarding questions 2 and 3, I must note that according to my personal experience, the state of prayer is reasonable. In the places where I lived – in Jerusalem, Beit El, and Har Bracha, many attend synagogues all week long (Har Bracha has six morning minyan’s on weekdays). Still, some of the regular worshipers complain about the length of prayers, and the difficulty in having kavana.  Likewise, there are synagogues where people are in the habit of chatting during Shabbat services.

Apparently, there are different communities, and it is important to examine the processes taking place in various synagogues in recent decades. The examination should be done in neighborhoods where the religious community has resided for some time, so that the synagogue emptied or filled, not because of shifts in population, but rather, due to internal processes occurring within the hearts of the congregants. I would be grateful to anyone who could send me information about the situation in his synagogue.

Next week, God-willing, I will address the fundamental question.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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