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A Meditation On Prayer

  • Rosh Hashanah
  • 5760

A Meditation on Prayer

By Dr. Ismar Schorsch | Chancellor Emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Professor of Jewish History

posted on September 11, 1999 / 1 Tishrei 5760

According to the Shulhan Arukh, the 16th-century halakhic code which still governs much of Jewish practice, Jews in the synagogue on the High Holy Days are permitted to raise their voices while praying. The reason given intrigues me: because everyone has a mahzor, our neighbor's voice will not confuse us. Elsewhere, the Shulhan Arukh makes it clear that on all other days of the year, we are expected to address God in the synagogue silently, so as not to disturb those sitting nearby. And this despite a general counsel to actually pronounce the words of our prayers as we recite them. They are to be audible but only to us (Oreh Hayyim 582:9; 101:2-3).

Joseph Karo, the Spanish refugee from Toledo who authored the Shulhan Arukh in an era of wrenching persecution and dislocation, died in 1575, more than a century after the introduction of movable type into Europe. Despite the swift adoption by Jews in many corners of the world of this revolutionary technology, Karo's code still reflects a society dependent on the copying of manuscripts for the dissemination of its cultural and religious literature. Prior to printing, it seems, Jews struggled only to acquire a manuscript copy of the mahzor for the holiday liturgy. The daily and weekly cycle of prayers they often knew by heart through constant repetition.

Some 400 years earlier, Judah Halevi in The Kuzari, his luminous philosophic defense of Judaism, tried to account for why Jews sway when they read the Bible. The habit was a born of necessity, he says. Often ten people would hover over a single large codex laid on the ground. Each one in turn bent down to see the page or to read a passage. By the time more manuscripts became available, swaying and reading were irremediably linked (Bk. II, par. 80). Of interest to me is not whether Halevi has explained the origins of the Jewish habit of "shuckling" but rather its depiction of a textually based culture short of books. I have been told by an Israeli acquaintance from Yemen that such paucity still prevailed in his childhood, requiring of him at first to learn to read Torah upside down. Clearly, in Karo's day Jews were still managing without benefit of a personal siddur.

But that was impossible for the High Holy Days, except for the most learned. In the set of Heidenheim mahzorim which I have from my father, Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur each merits a stout volume of its own. Again halakhah mirrors the complexity of the occasion. Whereas the normal function of the hazzan in his or her public repetition of the silent devotion (the amidah) is to pray for those present who could not recite it for themselves, on the High Holy Days the hazzan prays for everyone. The intricacy of the High Holiday amidah, especially of musaf, levels the distinction between competent and incompetent daveners. We all stand in need of assistance to make this formidable medium express our most intimate thoughts (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 4:9).

Indubitably, then, the services for the High Holy Days are long, a symphony as compared to a concerto, which is the standard form for the rest of the year. For many they are far too long. The abundance of words soon numbs their religious sensibility, too much repetition, adoration and self-flagellation. I confess that at times these sentiments also assail me. We all face the same challenge: to transform Judaism's heavy emphasis on prayer into a life-giving force for us personally.

By way of preparation, I wish to share with you three very personal insights that I have garnered from a lifetime of trying. First, in Judaism, prayer is a discipline that must be practiced regularly. If we turn to God only in moments of dire need, we will find to our dismay that we lack the facility to connect. No worthwhile human endeavor yields an iota of satisfaction without constant effort. There is no peak experience without drudgery. Only when the choreography, language and music of the siddur and synagogue become second nature to us will God appear in our daily lives as a soul mate. The words with their rich resonance remain the same, but the feelings and meanings we invest in them each day change with our disposition.

Second, Jewish prayer is a profoundly communal ritual. The ideal is to cultivate our individual relationship to God within a minyan of praying Jews. Their presence often helps us overcome the inertia that keeps us grounded. More important, the setting reminds us of concerns and tasks that go far beyond our own immediate needs. We gather to pray not just for ourselves but for the welfare of others.

By way of example, I might cite the fourteen berakhot which begin every morning service and are recited out loud by the hazzan. Originally these blessings were intended for home recitation upon rising in the morning. As we regain consciousness, discover that our body still functions and the world still stands and don the clothes that make us human, we offer a series of short prayers of thanksgiving. I find them full of wisdom and power. Neither renewal nor existence is taken for granted. The mystery of God's handiwork confronts us in the most ordinary of experiences. Once incorporated in the synagogue service though, we utter these berakhot whether they apply to us directly that morning or not. In their new setting, they constitute a communal plea to God to attend to all who are infirm, sightless and deprived. The siddur makes us more human because it extends our vision (Shulhan Arukh, Oreh Hayyim 46:8).

Finally, the core component of Jewish prayer is contemplation. Beyond the prayers of praise and petition, of thanksgiving and creedal affirmation, there is a pervasive quest to penetrate the darkness that encompasses us. In reverence and silence, we await a flash of light from the Master of wonders and the Mother of all souls to ease our burden, to enhance our understanding or to show us the way. How often have I finished praying uplifted and enriched by an idea that came to me from "nowhere"! To see, we need to stop running. Without this vital dimension of contemplation, the time spent in prayer for me would be unwarranted.

In the morning, while donning our tallit, we bring it briefly over our head. Prayer requires the exclusion of all distractions. We withdraw from the world to take refuge beneath God's sheltering wing. In an instance of perfect harmony between form and content, we recite in our seclusion four verses from Psalm 36 (8-11) redolent with meaning. For me, the key line is the conviction that "by Your light we will see light." That is the essence of Jewish prayer.

In closing let me assure you that despite the size of the mahzor, the Rabbis put no special premium on length. At Yavneh after the Temple's destruction they often counseled: "It does not matter whether you [pray] a lot or a little. What counts is that you direct your heart to Heaven (B.T. Berakhot 17a)."

Shabbat Shalom ve-Shana Tova,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch's commentary on Rosh Hashanah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.

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