Jewish Prayer: What About the Pray – er?

Jewish Prayer: What About the Pray – er?

Congregation Beth Israel

Tuesday, August 25 & Thursday, September 3, 7:00 – 8:00pm

Rabbi Neil Sandler

In a recent issue of Ha’shofar Walter Ziffer helped us to understand the
keva (fixed or routine)/kavannah (spontaneous or deeply – felt)
dialectic in Jewish worship.

In a two–part, pre–High Holiday program, “Jewish Prayer: What
About the Pray – er?,” we will delve further into this issue with Rabbi
Neil Sandler. In the first session on Tuesday, August 25, 7:00 – 8:00pm,
we will study primary Jewish sources on the issue of keva and kavannah
in prayer. What is the role and relative importance of each
characteristic? The Zoom link for this class is here.

In the second session on Thursday, September 3, 7:00 – 8:00pm, we will
pursue the worship direction that Walter has urged. Rabbi Sandler will
guide us through a process of creating our own prayers. The last
number of months provides us with one significant source for our
prayers as we look forward to the beginning of the new year. Perhaps
your prayer will be a heartfelt one to engage your family. Perhaps your
prayer, along with those of other Beth Israel congregants, can find its
way into an upcoming communal worship service. The Zoom link for
this class is here.

If you have read this far, you are probably asking, “So, who is this rabbi
and why should I study with him?” Rabbi Neil Sandler served as Senior
Rabbi of Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta for fifteen years. After a
thirty seven-year pulpit career, Neil now serves as a part–time
member of the congregation’s rabbinic team. He loves his interaction
with people and, most especially, the pastoral moments he has shared
with his congregants. Rabbi Sandler is married to Susan Hart Sandler, a
hospice social worker. Their adult children are married/engaged, and
the Sandlers look forward to the birth of their first grandchild in
October. Neil is a sports fan and especially enjoys his Atlanta Braves
(and Minnesota Twins from his youth)!
These programs are sponsored by Carol and Bob Deutsch.

Here is some recommended reading for the first session:

Congregation Beth Israel – Asheville, NC
Jewish Prayer: What About the Pray – er?
Session 1 – August 25, 2020 | 5 Elul 5780

Rabbi Neil Sandler

The Challenge
“The problem is not how to fill the buildings but how to inspire the hearts …
The problem is not of synagogue attendance but one of spiritual
attendance. The problem is not how to attract bodies to enter the space of
a temple but how to inspire souls to enter an hour of spiritual concentration
in the presence of God.”
(Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the 1953 Rabbinical Assembly Convention)

What is Keva?
We learned in the Mishna that Rabbi Eliezer says: One whose prayer is
fixed, his prayer is not supplication. The Gemara asks: What is the
meaning of fixed (keva) in this context? Rabbi Ya’akov bar Idi said that
Rabbi Oshaya said: It means anyone for whom his prayer is like a
burden upon him, from which he seeks to be quickly unburdened. The
Rabbis say: This refers to anyone who does not recite prayer in the
language of supplication, but as a standardized recitation without
emotion. Rabba and Rav Yosef both said: It refers to anyone unable to
introduce a novel element, i.e., something personal reflecting his
personal needs, to his prayer, and only recites the standard formula.
(Talmud B’rachot 29b)

The Role of Keva in Worship
At first sight, the relationship between halacha and agada in prayer
appears to be simple. Tradition gives us the text; we create the kavannah.
The text is given once and for all; the inner devotion comes into being
every time anew. The text is the property of all ages; kavannah is the
creation of a single moment. The text belongs to all Jews; kavannah is the
private concern of every individual. And yet, the problem is far from being
simple. The text comes out of a book, it is given; kavannah must come out
of the heart. But is the heart always ready – three times a day – to bring
forth devotion? And if it is, is its devotion in tune with what the text
proclaims? …
How to maintain the reciprocity of tradition and freedom; how to retain both
keva and kavannah, regularity and spontaneity, without upsetting the one
or stifling the other? …
Prayer becomes trivial when ceasing to be an act in the soul. The essence
of prayer is agada. Yet is would be a tragic failure not to appreciate what
the spirit of halacha, Jewish law, does for it, raising it from the level of an
individual act to that of an eternal intercourse between the people Israel
and God; from the level of an occasional experience to that of a permanent
covenant. It is through halacha that we belong to God not occasionally,
intermittently, but essentially, continually. Regularity of prayer is an
expression of my belonging to an order, to the covenant between God and
Israel, which remains valid regardless of whether I am conscious of it or

How grateful I am to God that there is a duty to worship, a law to remind my
distraught mind that it is time to think of God, time to disregard my ego for
at least a moment! It is such happiness to belong to an order of the divine
will. I am not always in a mood to pray. I do not always have the vision
and the strength to say a word in the presence of God. But when I am
weak, it is the law that gives me strength; when my vision is dim, it is duty
that gives me insight. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Spirit of
Jewish Prayer” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)

Kavannah in Worship
Rav Hamnuna said: How many significant halakhot (laws) can be
derived from these verses of the prayer of Hannah? As it says: “And
Hannah spoke in her heart, only her lips moved and her voice could not be
heard, so Eli thought her to be drunk” (1 Samuel 1:13). The Gemara
elaborates: From that which is stated here: “And Hannah spoke in her
heart,” the halakha that one who prays must focus his heart on his
prayer is derived. And from that which is stated here: “Only her lips
moved,” the halakha that one who prays must enunciate the words
with his lips, not only contemplate them in his heart, is derived. From
that which is written here: “And her voice could not be heard,” the
halakha that one is forbidden to raise his voice in his Amida prayer as
it must be recited silently. From the continuation of the verse here: “So Eli
thought her to be drunk,” the halakha that a drunk person is
forbidden to pray. That is why he rebuked her.
(Talmud Berachot 31a)

Prayer without kavannah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without
kavannah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or
occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental
composure. Hence, on returning from a journey, or if one is weary or
distressed, it is forbidden to pray until his mind is composed. The sages
said that upon returning from a journey, one should wait three days until he
is rested and his mind is calm. Then he prays.
(Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Laws of Prayer 4:6)

Keva and Kavannah – A Reconciliation?
“There is a specific difficulty with Jewish prayer. There are laws: fixed texts.
On the other hand, prayer is worship of the heart, the outpouring of the
soul, a matter of devotion. Thus, Jewish prayer is guided by two
opposite principles: order and outburst, regularity and spontaneity,
uniformity and individuality, law and freedom. These principles are the
two poles about which Jewish prayer revolves. Since each of the two
moves in the opposite direction, equilibrium can be maintained only if
both are of equal force. However, the pole of regularity usually
proves to be stronger than the pole of spontaneity and, as a result,
there is a perpetual danger of prayer becoming a mere habit, a
mechanical performance, an exercise in repetitiousness. The fixed
pattern and regularity of our services tends to stifle the spontaneity of
devotion. Our great problem, therefore, is how not to let the principle of
regularity impair the power of devotion. It is a problem that concerns not
only prayer but the whole sphere of Jewish observance. He who is not
aware of this central difficulty is a simpleton; he who offers a simple
solution is a quack.”
(Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Spirit of Jewish
Prayer” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)

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