On Prayer

Reb Zalman says (from “The Space Within” and “Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including” both available from Aleph): 

“When I ask myself, ‘What should I do?  Should I write some more finesses in Kabbalah or should I translate another piece of Siddur / prayerbook that people will need?’ And the answer is, I want to translate the Siddur instead.  

“How many people have Jewish names, Jewish ancestry and have no current connection to their Jewish spirituality.  And if they could, they would like to do a something, but it’s not the something that’s connected with shul, or with the people with the black hats and so on and so forth. 

“Imagine for a moment a picture drawn by Norman Rockwell, (Saturday Evening Post, you know?),  a Jewish family at the breakfast table all with their kippahs on, not yet eating because papa is saying, ‘Avraham.  You read us this chapter from the Psalms, or from the Scriptures beforehand,’ and then, ‘A little bit of the sedra today we are reading from rivii of this sedra.  Read that little stickele.’  And people discuss it at the table.  And then they make those prayers that they want to do for the day.  ‘I’m going to be writing a quiz today.’  ‘Yes.  Dear God, help Johnny to be able to write the quiz well.’  They pray around the table.  Can you imagine that?  

“I feel that that sense of the American Judaism hasn’t quite yet gotten the tools and so I felt that you had to do something with the freeze-dried stuff.  But I tried to already give you not just freeze dried but canned.  But you still have to warm it up yourself.  So in this way, if you will take the material and look at those words that are there:  ‘Dear God:  Just like my parents – you helped them to live life so they could serve your purpose – please help me also.’

“When you say it in this way, you don’t need any more stuff; you just need to have the feeling.  That’s why we go back to the focusing part.  If I can say it from the place where I’m  hurting, I can say it from the place where it’s real for me, then I don’t need to put more hot water in there.

“We were so clear at one time that we wanted our prayer to be in Hebrew, ‘Because,’ they said, ‘The angels, who have to take our prayer to God will garble it.’  It’s so absurd, almost like saying there are certain files you can’t send AOL or it will come out garbage at the end, that you had to say it in Hebrew because the angels couldn’t handle that kind of procedure, and if you said it in any other language, ‘di malochim fershtein nish kein targum loshen‘ / ‘the angles don’t understand Aramaic.’ 

“We also said that in private, you davvened in Hebrew, but in public you could do it in English, because in a minyan, the Shechinah is there and then you don’t need the angels to translate it.  Also, we said that when you’re davvenen on your own at home, just go through to get done fast.

“These were the the old understandings.

“If you don’t know what you’re saying, it doesn’t make sense. Today I feel the thing is the opposite.

“The new understanding is that for you when you’re alone, psychologically, the vernacular is a better way of davvenen. I want to say that the simple Jew in America today needs the vernacular very badly, and it’s helpful.  But when I come to shul, I want to davven mostly in Hebrew, because that is what Salomon Schechter (the founder of Conservative Judaism) used to call catholic Judaism (by that he meant universal Judaism).  A Yemenite Jew would come in or a Moroccan Jew would come in, and you would davven in Hebrew.  He knows where you are, even if he doesn’t understand your language. So that’s an important element to keep.”

Gabbai Seth Fishman, Blog Editor

One Response to “On Prayer”

  1. Leah Vaks Says:

    Wow! I can’t even imagine a Jewish family just praying around the table in their own words unless they are Messianic or something. But it would be wonderful if all Jews could do that.

    Rebbe Nachman of Breslov zt”l, made a huge point of saying that praying in one’s native tongue is acceptable to God, and even necessary for us, since we can express our heart more truly that way, and “Rachamana liba boi”–God desires the heart. He also said that holiness can be found in everything, even in a “goyish” language. But of course he meant not to change the Hebrew of the liturgy but to add to the liturgy one’s own hisbodedus or spontaneous prayer throughout the day. I have learned from Rebbe Zalman, however, that even the Shema and the Amida may be recited in the vernacular if that will add one iota of kavannah to one’s davenning (and especially if one simply doesn’t know Hebrew). Thank you for openning the doors for me to experiment with prayer and to reach a higher level of kavannah!


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