It is difficult to know whether the current state of prayer is on the rise or decline, but one change has definitely occurred – today we are more open to speaking candidly about prayer * After years of dealing with the halachot of prayer, the time has come to deal more with its value and significance * Difficulty in concentrating on fixed prayers is nothing new, but today there are two additional factors making it even more difficult: intellectual progress making it difficult to read a fixed text, and electronic media that habituates us to distractions * Our Sages objected to the lengthening of prayers due to concern of wasting people’s time, therefore, a solution must be found for people who find prayers too long
The State of Prayer
In my previous column, I began dealing with the state of prayer. Apparently, the sources I brought indicate that in the days of Chazal the state of prayer was no better, but in regards to the question I asked the readers: “Has the state of prayer declined in the last generation”, I remain in doubt. I received responses from communities that have respectable prayer services with numerous congregants, and communities that barely manage to have prayer services on weekdays, and on Shabbat, the prayers are not sufficiently respectable. It is not clear whether there is a process of decline or, conversely, an increase in the status of prayer. Generally speaking, the status of prayer corresponds to the overall religious level: the higher it is, the more prayers are generally respected.
What has changed is that today people speak more about the difficulty of fulfilling the obligation to pray. In the past, a lot of people who found it difficult to pray remained at home and did not talk about it. Today, however, thanks to the openness of dealing with sensitive topics, people speak more candidly about prayer.
I also do not know whether there has been a decline in the situation in educational institutions, but I learned from the reactions of the great value of education. Educators spoke about the process of teaching their students about prayer in depth until reaching the point where prayers are held with dignity and have become a significant part of the students’ day. Accordingly, I will begin by clarifying the significance of prayer.
The Value of Prayer
Ostensibly, prayer itself is questionable – after all, the Creator of the world is infinite, above and beyond all else – why should He listen to our prayers? How can a man formed from dirt and dust turn to the Infinite and expect Him to listen to his trivial words? Nevertheless, God, in His great kindness, bestowed upon man the gift of prayer, through which he can turn to Him, and God hears His prayer. As we say in the blessing “Shomeyah Tefillah” – “Blessed are You, Hashem, who hears prayer.” It is also written: “Hashem is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them” (Psalms 145:18-19). We have also learned in Tanakh (the Bible) that the patriarchs and the prophets turned to God in prayer.
Still, the question must be asked: How is it possible for prayer to help? Seemingly, if a person deserves to receive a certain thing, he will get it even without prayer; and if he is not worthy, even with prayers and supplications he won’t. However, Hashem established a law in Creation, that when we awaken in the world below to approach the Almighty and request a blessing from Him, He, in turn, is aroused from above to bring upon us an abundance of good, according to our needs and the requirements of the world. In other words, even when people are worthy that Hashem shower them with goodness, sometimes the giving is delayed until they pray for it, because in this way, the good we receive from Him will be more meaningful to us, for God’s will is revealed in man in this manner, and consequently, our connection to Him, the Source of our lives, is strengthened through prayer.
The Effect of Prayer
Every prayer has an influential effect, as Rabbi Chanina says, “Whoever lengthens his prayer, his prayers do not return unanswered” (Berachot 32b). Sometimes the effect is immediate, and other times in the distant future; sometimes the prayer is answered completely, other times partially. As Chazal say (Devarim Rabbah 8:1), “Great is prayer before HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Rabbi Elazar says: If you want to know the power of prayer – if it does not accomplish everything, it achieves half.” HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the One Who knows how to help and support a person. Sometimes, for various reasons, a person’s misfortune is for his own good, and therefore Hashem does not accept his prayer. Nevertheless, his prayer benefits him, and its blessing will be revealed in one way or another.
Even the most righteous people, whose prayers were generally accepted, sometimes went unanswered. For instance, even though Hashem accepted Moshe Rabbeinu’s prayers to forgive the Nation and annul His decree of destruction when Israel sinned by creating the Golden Calf and sending out spies who returned with a negative report about the Land of Israel, (Exodus 32 and Numbers 14) when Moshe came to beg on behalf of himself to merit entering the Land, HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to him, “Enough! Do not talk to me further about this matter” (Deuteronomy 3:26).
Therefore, a person must exert himself greatly in prayer, and not assume that since he is praying, HaKadosh Baruch Hu must fulfill his request. Rather, he should continue praying, knowing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu hears his prayers and that his prayers are most certainly doing some good, although how much, and in what way, are unknown.
Members of the Great Assembly, at the beginning of the Second Temple period, amended the wording of the blessings and prayers and enacted the order of the three prayers: Shacharit, Mincha, and Aravit. On the one hand, this represented a decline compared to the accepted custom during the First Temple period, for when a Jew prayed, he prayed in his own personal wording which most likely expressed his feelings more accurately. On the other hand, however, by way of the enactment of fixed prayers and their wording, all of Israel became connected to prayer on a regular basis, in an ideal nusach (wording) that included all the values that Jews are meant to pray for.
Intent versus Routine
There is, however, a danger that a fixed wording of prayer could become routine, without the intent of the heart. This is probably the reason why in all the days of the First Temple, the prophets did not enact a fixed and binding order and nusach for prayer. However, after the destruction of the First Temple, our Sages realized that it was necessary to establish an actual framework for spiritual matters to endure. In his essay “Chacham Adif Me’Navi” (a Torah scholar is greater than a prophet) in the book “Orot”, Maran HaRav Kook explains the merit of our Sages, who, through their detailed enactments, paved permanent paths to emunah (faith), Torah, and mitzvot. What prophecy failed to eradicate from the Jewish nation – the grave sins of idolatry, incest, and bloodshed, which prevailed during the First Temple period and caused its destruction – our Sages successfully achieved through their enactments, and the increase of Torah study in all its details and laws. And thus, thanks to the fixed prayers, even in the long days of exile, the Jewish nation preserved their identity, faith, Torah, and the hopes of their redemption.
However, Rav Kook continues to explain that over time, the preoccupation with details became so intense that the overall values of the Torah were no longer reflected in them, and many people began to despise details. Ever since, it became necessary to engage in the light of prophecy revealed in the general values, and in the study of emunah. But precisely as a result of this, we will have a better understanding of the great value of wisdom and the details of halakha, for prophecy “will recognize the magnitude of the act of wisdom, and in righteous modesty will proclaim: ‘a Torah scholar is greater than a prophet‘.
As a continuation of Maran HaRav’s essay, it can be said that the difficulties of prayer in our times stem from a great deal of preoccupation with the details of prayer, at the expense of understanding its overall meaning. We must now increase our concern with the significance of prayer, and thus strengthen ourselves in the details of its laws.
Tikkun Olam and Closeness to God
It is explained in the Talmud (Berachot 26b) that our Sages enacted the three fixed prayers to correspond to the three patriarchs and the korban ha’tamid (the daily offering) which we were commanded to sacrifice every day. Consequently, there are two main goals to prayer: one – to connect us on a regular basis to the heritage of our forefathers, which adds a blessing to the world and repairs it by revealing the light of God and His blessing. Therefore, the order of the blessings in the Amidah prayer is aimed at tikkun olam (improving the world). The second goal corresponds to the korban ha’tamid, the essence of which is closeness to God, the gathering together of all forces by which we act, and connecting them to their source, to the infinite spring of emunah.
The Difficulty in Concentrating on Prayer Nowadays
Today, two factors have been added to the difficulty of concentration in prayer. One is that many people have become more educated, and as a result, they are used to understanding, observing and thinking about their actions, and it’s hard for them to read a fixed nusach that does not inspire them to think. The second factor is that in consequence of electronic media, people are used to thinking quickly about various matters, while constantly being distracted by the great amount of information flowing to them from their surroundings.
It seems, however, that these difficulties precisely seem to emphasize the importance of prayer today, because due to the abundance of information, and the numerous details people receive from their surroundings every day and every hour, we are liable to forget our soul and the greater vision. That is why it is so important three times a day to converge within ourselves and approach Hashem in prayer, and thus receive inspiration and constant renewal in order to add goodness and blessing in the world.
The Length of Prayer – Tircha D’tzibbur
All the same, there are quite a few complaints about the length of prayers, also coming from those who fear God and are meticulous in mitzvot. Indeed, there apparently is a big question: It is explained in the Talmud (Berachot 12b) that our Sages sought to add the parasha (portion) of Balak to Kriat Shema, “and why did they not do so? Because of tircha d’tzibbur” (wasting people’s time). According to our Sages, despite the importance of the parasha of Balak, which deals with the uniqueness of Israel and is not unlike the importance of Kriat Shema, its blessings, and the Amida, our Sages did not fix it in the nusach of Kriat Shema because of tircha d’tzibbur. How then did they enact the reciting of the lengthy Pesukei d’Zimrah, Tachanun, Ashrei, Lamnatzeach, U’va l’Tzion, Shir shel Yom, Ketorit, and Aleinu l’Shabayach? In truth, however, our Sages did not enact all these additions as obligatory precisely because of tircha d’tzibbur; rather, throughout the generations, righteous people, followed by entire congregations, recited them regularly, until in time, they became obligatory, and thus entered the fixed nusach.
In practice, minhagei Yisrael (accepted Jewish customs) are binding, but in shaat ha’dachak (times of stress), reciting the main nusach is sufficient, as halachically ruled for latecomers – they should skip all of Pesukei d’Zimrah in order to recite the Amidah prayer with the minyan (S. A. and Rama 52:1). Some poskim say that they should skip only most of Pesukei d’Zimrah for this purpose (Mishkenot Ya’akov, see Peninei Halakha: Tefillah 14: 5). The same applies for the rest of the additional verses, i.e. in a shaat dachak one may skip them as well.
Indeed, from this issue, it can be concluded that people in charge of congregations must ensure that public prayer is not too long. If there is a minyan of Chassidim (righteous people) who want to pray at length – tavo alayhem ha’bracha (they will be blessed), but those in charge must ensure that the public at large is able to pray in a minyan without tircha d’tzibbur.
There are other issues that, God willing, I will deal with in the future. But one conclusion is clear: there is a need for deeper study of the significance of prayer, and rabbis, teachers, and worshipers in general together, must discuss how to conduct prayers in the most respectful manner while providing solutions for those who find lengthy prayers difficult.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.