Oh Davvener, Adieu!

At 8AM, Friday, June 6, 2014, motzei Atzeret 5774 / after the Shavuot retreat at Hazon’s Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center  in New Falls, CT, Reb Zalman (z’l) led participants in Chol Davvenen / the weekday prayer service and taught us all powerful lessons of dvekus / cleaving to God. It turned out to be the last service and shiur / study session Reb Zalman would lead before being niftar / deceased.


Reb Zalman (z’l):
Besides the book that’s called “Davening, A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice” which has been published and which I co-wrote with Joel Segal, (and it is a wonderful book; it won the National Jewish Book Award, and all that other stuff. But look! What’s more important is it guides you, it shows you how to do it, what to do so you Davven), now, if you also see another book on Davennen called “The Gates of Prayer, Twelve Talks on Davvenology,” [you’ll see that] it has twelve lectures that I gave on various subjects of Davennen and then it was transcribed. And there you will find a chapter that’s called “Blue Jeans Spirituality”. (That [whole] series is wonderful because we have it in DVD [form] so you can show it [to a group]. We [also] have it on MP3 so you can play it and listen to it and of course in print. And if you get a chance to work with a group and you would play one of those DVD’s, then any time a person wants to ask a question, etc., you can always easily stop the recording and go and have a conversation about it.) It is a wonderful series; you can learn a lot from it. Also, “Gate to the Heart” which was an earlier form, is also out again in a much nicer form because Reb Netanel Miles-Yepez did such a beautiful job with it.

And in either case, you have ways of making your davvenen work [so I want to let you know of these resources].

Usually, when we come to the end of the Shavuot retreat, I don’t want to do: “Lead a service.”

What I want to do is give you an assignment that you have fifteen minutes, (not more than that), in which you do whatever you want to do in the morning [with your davvenen].

Now, the Siddur, “Sh’ma’: A Concise Weekday Siddur For Praying in English” is available. Amazon has it here. It’s a beautiful Siddur. And it’s ancestor is called “Yidaber Pi“, is in a smaller size and you can download it from here. They both have the morning davvenen all in the vernacular. Why [in the vernacular and not in Hebrew]?

They used to say that when you’re davvening alone,  you davven in Hebrew; when you’re, however, davvening with a group you can, from time to time, put in English, the vernacular. I want to turn it around. I want to say it’s much better to davven in Hebrew when you’re with a group and when you’re alone, during the week, you davven in the vernacular.

Just let me read you a little bit. (Reb Adam Segulah Sher went to the Open Siddur Project and there he copied this one up and any of you can do that. You can either get that “Sh’ma’: A Concise Weekday Siddur For Praying in English” from Amazon, or you can get the other one called “Yidaber Pi” from here. Yidaber Pi‘s a little older.)

But the point that I want to make is that you cannot get the benefit of it if you read it with your eyes only. The reason is that what you read with your eyes, you’re reading out – from the book. When I want to make fun of it, I show how people would come to synagogue, open up the prayerbook, and say, “It’s the same old prayerbook! Nothing new,” and then they turn again to the beginning which says who wrote what and when the Rabbinic Assembly did this and that – [and they’d say, “Nothing new”] because it’s so boring if you read from the book out.

But what would be if you had to have the Siddur show you how to read from the book to someone (and in this case, to God.) So it will touch you only if: hashma l’ozn’cha mah she’motzei mipicha / if you cause your ear to hear what your mouth is saying.

השמע לאזנך מה שאתה מוציא מפיך

Then: nafshi et yatza b’dabri / then my feeling gets involved.

נפשי את יצאה בדברי

So I’ll read you now my translation of a regular siddur piece called “Ahavat Olam“.

From ever
You have loved us into life,
Yah—our God.
You nourished us with kindness
And abundance.

Holy One!
For the sake of Your plan,
For Your honor,
And because we know
That our parents trusted You,
And You, in turn, taught them
How to live life,
So as to be serving Your purpose,
We do ask You to share with us
In the same way.
God, kind Parent,
We live in the embrace
Of Your caring.
Make ours an understanding heart,
To become aware
And to be careful and effective
And In this way, make real
What You speak to us in Torah,
And with so much love.

When we study Torah,
May we see clearly
What is meant for us to know.
When we do Mitzvot,
May our feelings
Sit harmoniously in our heart.

Could you imagine you do a Mitzvah, whatever you do and your heart feels fully harmonious with your action, how good that feels.

Focus all our hearts’ longing
To that moment,
When we stood in Your Presence,
With both awe and adoration.

There are some moments that we experience the awe and the adoration, like in a sunset or sunrise, or in a childbirth, or at a death bed. These are the moments of awe and adoration. And if you are  Catholic, you’d make the sign of the cross. It’s like saying “oy, it’s such a [holy moment] ….!”

May we never have to be apologetic for our love for You.

Trusting You,
We are happy to see
Your beneficent plan unfolding.

May Your
Kindness and compassion,
Be available to us.

So as you see, I’ve translated the Hebrew, but I’ve translated the Hebrew in such a way that it is how I prayed the Hebrew, my kavvanah, and as I recited the Hebrew, I put that Kavvanah now into English so you can do that too.

You don’t have the resource today, (i.e. I don’t have handouts). I’m sorry, but you have a better resource here [in your heart].

So if you have a Tallis, put it over your head, if you have T’fillin, make sure they’re on and then, in the next fifteen minutes, I’d like you to have a conversation with God any way you’d feel like it. Begin by thanksgiving because that’s the easiest. Thank you! E.g.,

“I’m not feeling so well today, and I needed to get the help to come here, but I’m so grateful that I got the help and that this is available.”

Gratefulness is a very [easy] entrance door, “Thank you, thank you.”

And then say something about how you are inspired about what you see in the world, the plants that are growing, the animals that you see, etc.: Whatever it is that you want to say, “Hallelujah, I thank you for this, hallelujah I thank you for that.”

And then, after you’re done with that, go inside of yourself and reach into a place where the archetypes are, where the angels are, where the great future lives, and there address God to align you to Her will so that you can really feel that what you’re living, what you’re doing is, “Thy will be done rather than my own.”

And then, you come to the Amidah and here you have everything that you need to pray for: Understanding, wisdom, forgiveness, healing the sick, strength, making a living, the ecology and the economy: You have all these things.

So I want you to do that now, by yourself now, and if you can do it in your seats, good, and if not, you can go to a someplace near the wall, wherever you feel comfortable. So…. But it’s important that you should hear what you’re saying. Don’t schweig / don’t be silent. You know? So it may feel funny at first, but once you reflect that you couldn’t speak if it weren’t for God making a mouth for you, that you couldn’t think if it weren’t for God to make you conscious. So it’s not a question of is God present or is God not present. if I am here, then God is here. I wouldn’t be here without God being here.

A side story:

One of the great Hasidic masters of recent times was the Slonimer Rebbe and he wrote a series of wonderful books called Netivot Shalom / the Paths of Peace. He was not someone who merely spoke, but he wrote and he wrote in mind so that people could understand what he’s saying, not to go very fancy.

And in the opening of the first book he writes: There are only two things that are necessary: One is Dvekut / to be sticking to God, in connection with God, and the second one is Daat / to be aware that you are in connection with God.

So he points out that the connection with God is always, that we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a connection with God, because koach hapoel b’niphal / the divine power is active in us.

כח הפועל בנפעל

So that’s not a problem.

Where is the problem? In our awareness of it.

And so making ourselves aware of that [is what we have to do].

So you can imagine how much I adored what he was saying because it is both a very simple thing that he said and at the same time it’s the most basic functional thing. So I asked a friend of mine to make me an appointment so I could go and see him. And, of course, I went to mikvah beforehand, [I did those things which are] how you prepare before you go to see a Rebbe.

When I was admitted to see him, his gabbai was telling me that he’s getting already older, that he may not be as sharp as he used to be, (you know, it’s like if someone would introduce me they’d say the same thing), his beard was getting scraggly etc.

So he asked, “What do you want?”

And I said, “Rebbe, I’ve come to ask you for gemilat chesed.” (Gemilat chesed means an act of kindness. Usually that means “borrow money”).

But he asked, “What kind of gemilus chesed do you want?”

And I said, “I would like you,  with your intention, with your kavvanah, to say:

v’yadata hayom v’hashevota el l’vavecha / know this  today and make it subtle in your heart, ki Adonai hu Elohim / that hashem is God, eyn od milvado / nothing else exists.

וידעת היום והשבת אל־לבבך כי יי הוא האלקים בשמים ממעל ועל־הארץ מתחת אין עוד

“I want you to do it with your Kavannah while you hold my hand.”

He looks up to his attendant and says:

“Ot! Dos iz a yid wos versteht wos iz meine sforim” / here is a Jew who understands what I’m writing about.

אָט! דאָס איז אַ יוד וואָס פערשטעהט וואָס איז מיינע ספרים

He took my hand, put it on his heart and talked to me for twenty minutes.

I want you to know it was a very special moment and I would like to give it over to you too.

So if you touch your hand on your heart for a moment, this transmission the netivos sholom gave to me, may it continue to go to you so that you might be able to be open to the presence of God in your life that you can be aware of how you are in devekut v’nomar amen.

So I’m giving you two minutes to just sit and ask yourself, what is it that you’d like to do in the next fifteen minutes? Think about it. Later on you’ll talk to your neighbor, but meanwhile, think about what would you like to do, how would you like to fill the fifteen minutes? Use the order that I gave you before or anything else. Begin with thanksgiving, with gratefulness.

Alright? We’re beginning the fifteen minutes of Davennen now. You take your Tallis, put it over your head if you’d wish, and I’d like to hear a sound, not what you’re saying, but there should be a nice little sound like a hum because people are doing what I said.


(fifteen minutes).

It’s time!

I’d like to ask you first to talk to your neighbor what you experienced, and then I’d like you to share with all the other people a little bit.


I think I can tap into the gratitude and wonder and what I need. Anne Lamott wrote a book called “Help, Thanks, Wow” basically the three things that you said are in the Amidah.

The big stumbling block for me is the “You”; it is in thinking and feeling and communicating that I am in that kind of a “You” relationship with God having not grown up with it the way that you did. It’s more like I can tap into a god being “everything in the universe” but as soon as I’m talking to someone, it doesn’t work. Does anybody else have that issue?


It is very important to understand that we are all in this boat together.

Is there an Other or is there not an Other?

Who listens to our prayer? Is it merely a psychological thing? Are we jazzing ourselves up? Or is there some heart that’s listening?

And if you check it out you will find that even the people like the Tibetans who would say there is no God will still tell you about the bodhisattva with a thousand arms who has so much compassion that he doesn’t want to go to nirvana until every last person is redeemed and he is waiting there.

Christians, Catholics talk about the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

For us, the Shomea Tefilah, the Hearer of Prayer, is very clear that we are going to the world of Yetzirah.

Of the worlds, in the world of Yetzirah, God is present to us as an Other. In all the other worlds, God is not the Other, or at least not in the sense of the Other you can talk to. The God Who creates this physical universe isn’t necessarily answering our prayer. You know, e.g., a person takes poison and says:

“Dear God! I hope it doesn’t kill me!”

It’s not going to work that way; it will kill him.

In the world of Beriyah, we go:

“Oy! How important it is to understand that there’s a source of Creation, and there’s a God, and it goes all the way up to Atzilut

and there you have a good idea.

But, when it comes to the world of Yetzirah, that’s where God puts on a mask (we talked about that yesterday) in which God can be met.

And it depends how you allow God to meet you.

There was a time when people thought of God as being a nice old Rebbe. In the Medieval period that is how they described it.

The Rambam and other people said you must not have any picture of God whatsoever.

But, Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, as I told you, was talking about Anthropopathy, the belief that if we have feelings of love and of care, that the universe, God has these feelings for us and so that we can talk [converse].

You will see: The more you do it, there will be a moment of the breakthrough that you will have the sense:

“Ah! Today, not only did I talk to God; today I knew that I was heard by God and I was given back an answer!”,

[though] not necessarily in words. So keep trying that.

I wrote a piece called “Why Theologians Have Trouble with Prayer,” and if you write to me, I’ll send it to you so you’ll see it’s all laid out there.

Let’s continue. Who else would like to speak?


Amen to that. When you say to Davven in the vernacular it was so freeing because English is all I know and to be able to have a heartfelt davening in English… I am very grateful… In the last part of my davening, I found myself resonating with the Hebrew blessing before the Torah is read and I thought to myself, “I’m right here with the Torah, but I’m curious because I have no idea what today’s Torah portion is that I wound up blessing before the reading of that. So if someone could enlighten me on that, thank you.


Some people look at what we are doing with this and think that it’s an innovation but, there used to be a Siddur especially for women called the Korban Mincha Siddur. And it had everything in Yiddish. And there were so many wonderful Techinot, private prayers: A mother when she is pregnant, and one prays for her, the child within her, and we were doing all these kinds of things before and it’s necessary to bring them back to a vital situation, so I thank you.


I feel such an abundance in my heart that it’s overflowing and that overflowing came into my prayer. There’s so much. Let me be a channel to give, to bring, to comfort, to channel, to use all this blessing. And it just went out. And I just… That permission, that invitation to think about what I wanted and to feel and to speak in English and the energy around and somehow in the middle of it, something you were praying noticing this, we trusted you and this was turning us also with prayer, so. Thank you. This is a new way of praying.


Have any of you here had experience with a sweat lodge, raise your hands. Wonderful. So you know that when you sit in that teepee and you’re sweating and people are praying and they pray in such a simple way, no vouchsafe or bestow, they’re just talking about, “I’m just a poor man and I’m trying to do such and such and I need your help dear God,” and they talk very, very simple. And they don’t need philosophy for doing that.

So I’d like to see, sometimes, that before a service starts in a big synagogue that several of you should meet in the little chapel downstairs where the minyan is during the week and in front of the aron kodesh start saying:

“Dear God: Shabbos is about to come, but want to tell you I still have a worry. You keep it for me for this coming week.”

And you can do this with your friends being there who will say:

“Please dear God help her with this.”


I feel much more comfortable praying alone. I feel embarrassed if I have to make my voice sound among other people. I had to go in the corner so no one would hear my voice. Also, for me, the genie comes out of the bottle of my heart, a welling over. I can get drowned in my own emotion. And [just] fifteen minutes to handle the ocean that’s in my heart that needs to storm a little bit?


I want to say that there are some very complicated ways of getting in touch with spirit and with God and if you were to listen to some of them, they would say you have to have a six month retreat, you have to have a two year retreat, etc.

If you can’t do it in fifteen minutes or twenty minutes at most in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening, you’re  not going to do it.

So we need to make sure that as we are studying, we need to pay attention to ways to make sure that those minutes that we spend at it are not going to be fluff, that they’re going to be real.

And that is where the next generation will be writing things about davvenen.

I’ve tried to do it in my own way to be able to make sure that people will be able to experience what we are talking about.

My e-mail address is davvener, davvener@gmail.com

I got this because one day the daughter of my Rebbe, Reb Yosef Yitzchak, was fixing him up with the T’fillin on the head, (you know, he was in a wheelchair, he was paralyzed), and she takes out a little mirror so he could see that they are balanced in the right place, and he turns to his daughter and he says:

“Ot! Dos bin yetzt a davvener” /  that’s me, I’m a davvener”.

אָט! דאָס בין יעצט אַ דאַוונער

And that’s why [that’s my e-mail even now], that touched me so much because I felt that’s what I wanted to put all my energy to.

When people say davvenen, where does that word come from?

Some people say it means, it’s a Lithuanian word for gift.

Some people say it is d’avinon / it comes from our parents.


They’re wrong.

There are a lot of words that come in from Latin: When we have finished eating, we are Bentshen from benediction, in Portuguese, is bênçion, Bentshen.

In Frankfurt Am Main, you would say [in Yiddish] “ich bin oren gegangen” I went to “oren“, (as in oratorio), to pray. They had that word. We borrowed that [from latin].

And I think the word [davvenen] comes from divinum: “What are you about to do?” “I’m going to do my divinum – my davvenen.” So you’ll now know about that.

I am running out of energy now and I will not be in the last circle with you – Eve had to go and I’m pretty tired, so I just want to say the following prayer:

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְפָנֶיךָ יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי הורנו,
שֶתּוֹלִיכֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם וְתַצְעִידֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם וְתַדְרִיכֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם,
וְתַגִיעֵנוּ לִמְחוֹז חֶפְצֵנוּ לְחַיִים וּלְשִמְחָה וּלְשָלוֹם.
וְתַצִילֵנוּ ? לשלום
וְתַצִילֵנוּ ביקר כָל אוֹיֵב וְאוֹרֵב וְלִסְטִים וְחַיּוֹת רָעוֹת בַדֶרֶךְ,
וּמִכָל מִינֵי פֻרְעָנֻיּוֹת הַמִתְרַגְשׁוֹת לָבוֹא לָעוֹלָם,
וְתִתְנֵנוּ לְחֵן וּלְחֶסֶד וּלְרַחֲמִים בְעֵינֶיךָ וּבְעֵינֵי כָל רֹאֵינוּ, ותשמע כל תפילתנו
כִי אתה שׁוֹמֵעַ תְפִלָה ?.
בָרוּךְ אַתָה שׁוֹמֵעַ תְפִלָה:

That’s the prayer for a safe journey home.

So go to the next whatever you’re going to do.

If the Ribono Shel Olam is going to grant me another year to be with you here, it’ll be a joy!

And if not:

Yai diddle diddle dai.


Zaide, you are a blessing. I love you and miss you. Gabbai Seth Fishman

המקום ינחם אותנו בתוך אבלי ציון וירושלים, אמן!

בו יברך ישראל לאמר: ישמך אלקים כהרב משולם זלמן חייא הכהן שחטר-שלומי זצוק”ל, אמן!

המצא מנוחה נכונה תחת כנפי השכינה, בגן עדן תהא מנוחתך ויצרור בצרור החיים את נשמתך, אמן

2 Responses to “Oh Davvener, Adieu!”

  1. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat Says:

    I just want to thank you again for posting this. I returned to it this morning and it is such a gift.

  2. Jewish Renewal Hasidus » Blog Archive » Why Theologians Have Trouble with Prayer Says:

    […] the final public lecture of his life which you can read here, Reb Zalman, (a’h) […]

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