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Preparing for Prayer

Preparing for Prayer

Parshat Chayei Sarah

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Proper Location and Immersion in a Mikvah

Our sages would put much effort into their prayer preparations.1 The essence of prayer is kavanah—focus and concentration. In order to achieve proper kavanah, it is important to pray in the proper place and with as few distractions as possible. This article focuses on the appropriate location for prayer, as well as the immersion in a mikvah (ritual pool) before prayer. There are additional preparations; they will be discussed in another article, G‑d willing.

In a Synagogue

The ideal place to pray is in a synagogue.2 One should always try to pray with a minyan (congregation);3 but even if one is unable to do pray with a minyan, he should still try to pray in a synagogue.4

Isaac went out of his way to pray in a special, holy placeRabbi Yochanan said5 that the reward for regularly praying in a synagogue, morning and evening, is longevity. Reish Lakish says6 that one who has a synagogue in his city and doesn't attend is called a "bad neighbor." The very air of a synagogue is sanctified due to all the prayers uttered there.7

This concept can be derived from our Patriarch Isaac's prayers. When Isaac prayed the afternoon prayer (which he instituted8), he did so in the "field."9 Some say10 that this is a reference to Mount Moriah. The Zohar11 says that this was the field of Machpela (where his mother, as well as Adam and Eve, were interred).12

Either way, we see that he went out of his way to pray in a special, holy place—where he felt that his prayers would be more easily accepted. And indeed they were, because even before he finished praying, G‑d sent him his righteous wife—Rebecca.13

A Fixed Place

Within the synagogue, or when praying at home for whatever reason, one should always pray in the same spot.14 The Talmud15 derives this from the story of Abraham,16 who, on the morning after Sodom was destroyed, went back to pray to the same spot where he had prayed the previous day to prevent its destruction.17

Various reasons are given for praying in a fixed location:

1) This allows one to concentrate on his prayers rather without the distractions posed by unfamiliar surroundings.18

2) Prayer is compared to the sacrifices offered in the Temple. Just as sacrifices must be brought in a fixed place, so too the prayers must be recited in a fixed place.19

3) A place is further sanctified by each prayer recited therein. This aids the power, and the potential for acceptance, of further prayers.20

A place is further sanctified by each prayer recited thereinIncluded in this principle is that one should always pray in the same synagogue.21 One may, however, have one fixed synagogue for the morning prayers and a different one for the afternoon prayers, or a different synagogue for Shabbat and weekdays.22

Anywhere within the radius of four cubits (approximately six feet) is considered to be within the "fixed place."23

One should not insist on praying in one's fixed place if this will cause an argument.24 Similarly if there's a disturbance that makes it difficult to concentrate, he may pray in a different spot.25

Surrounding Distractions

In order to focus on the prayers, one should not pray in front of a picture, mirror or anything else that might distract one's attention. For this reason, one should not put up pictures, etc., in a synagogue at eye level. Above eye level is permissible. If there's no choice but to pray opposite such objects, one should close their eyes or look into the prayer-book.26

Facing a Wall

While praying (the amidah), there should be nothing separating an individual and the wall.27 This minimizes distractions.28 Also, as mentioned, prayer is compared to a sacrifice brought in the Temple. Just as there could be no separation between the priest and the holy vessels of the Sanctuary, so too there may be no separation between the one praying and the wall.29 The Zohar30 says that the wall alludes to the Shechinah (Divine Presence), to whom we pray directly—with no separations.

If an object has a fixed place (e.g., a piece of furniture), it is not considered a separation. According to most halachic opinions, another person is also not considered a separation, but some are strict even in this regard.31


Immersing in a Mikvah

Ezra the Scribe instituted that a man who had a seminal discharge – during intercourse or otherwise – should go to the mikvah before praying, reciting blessings or studying Torah. The Jewish people found this decree too difficult to keep, so the Sages repealed it.32 Some say the decree was only repealed with regards to Torah study, not in relation to prayer. Although this is not the commonly accepted view, all agree that prayer is more accepted after immersion.33

Details:

  • Many chassidim have a custom to immerse every day before prayerA body of water that is the size of a mikvah and is connected to the ground is considered acceptable for this purpose, although the water was drawn through city pipes, etc.34 For this reason, a swimming pool is fine. Nevertheless, the filter should be turned off.35
  • For the purpose of this immersion, it is not necessary to remove substances which appear to be a chatzitzah (intervening substance), e.g., Band-Aids.36
  • It is best not to shower after this immersion. But doing so does not invalidate the immersion.37
  • If one is unable to immerse in a mikvah, one should take a shower for at least three minutes.38

In addition, many chassidim have a custom to immerse every day before prayer – even if they did not experience a seminal discharge – in order to add a greater dimension of purity before praying.39 This is similar to a priest who would immerse before serving in the Temple—even if they had no known impurity.40

One who is unable to immerse in the mikvah but wishes to achieve a level of additional purity should study Mishnah, especially tractate Mikva'ot.41

Footnotes
1.

See Talmud, Berachot 30b that the "early pious men" would meditate for one hour before each prayer.

2.

Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 90:9.

3.

Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 90:10.

4.

As the Talmud (ibid., 6a) says, "A person's prayers are only heard [when uttered] in a synagogue." The Anaf Yosef (on Ein Yakov Brachot ibid), based on the teachings of the Arizal, explains that the angels created by idle chatter during praying "snatch" the prayers before they reach G‑d. But when one prays in a synagogue, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is present, and the prayer immediately accepted.

5.

Talmud, ibid., 8a.

6.

Ibid.

7.

See Rabbeinu Yonah on Berachot 4a, d.h. Eimasai.

8.

Talmud, ibid., 26b.

9.

Genesis 24:63, Rashi ad loc.

10.

Talmud, Pesachim 88a, as explained by the Eitz Yosef on the Ein Yakov.

11.

Parshat Bo, quoted in the Rif in the Ein Yakov Berachot 6a and in the Me'am Loez on the verse.

12.

According to the Me'am Loez, Isaac's fixed place for prayer was in this holy field. (See later in this article regarding having a fixed place for prayer.)

13.

See Kli Yakar on the above verse that Isaac was praying for a wife. He also brings this episode as additional proof that the Minchah (Afternoon) prayer is most potent.

14.

See Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4:4.

15.

Berachot 6a.

17.

The Rif (on the Ein Yakov, ibid.) explains that Abraham went back to the same spot to pray even though since the last time he prayed he had discovered the field of Machpelah. This teaches us that keeping one's fixed place for prayer is more important than praying in what appears to be a holier location.

18.

Piskei Teshuvot s. 90 no. 24 in the name of the Shitah Mekubetzet Hachadash on Berachot, ibid.

19.

Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 88:4.

20.

Rif on Ein Yakov, ibid. See also Piskei Teshuvot, ibid., note 264.
The opposite is also true; an area wherein a sin was committed becomes "contaminated" as a result of that sin. We can derive this from a story cited in Sefer Chassidim (no. 771) of a righteous man who refused to pray while sitting in a chair whose previous occupant was wicked.

21.

Aruch haShulchan, Orach Chaim 88:23.

22.

Halichot Shlomo 5:2.

23.

Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch (from Magen Avraham) s. 34.

24.

Piskei Teshuvot, ibid., 24.

25.

Kaf HaChayim, Orach Chaim 88:118.

26.

Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 23; Mishnah Berurah no. 63
Regarding pictures in a synagogue, see Divrei Malkiel vol. 6 s. 2 – quoted in Rivavot Efrayim vol. 4 s. 3 and Tzitz Eliezer vol. 19, s. 8 – that pictures of people, holy individuals, etc., should not be put up in synagogue even above eye level, so that it should not appear that we are praying to them. This concept is mentioned in the Mishnah Berurah, ibid., no. 71 regarding praying in front of a mirror.

27.

Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 21.

28.

Mishnah Berurah, ibid., 63.

29.

Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 98:4.

30.

Parshat Chayei Sarah 132a (according to the explanation of Matok Midvash).

31.

Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 20 and 21.

32.

Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 88, from the Talmud, Berachot 22a and the Rif on Berachot 13b.

33.

Rabbeinu Yonah on Rif, ibid., d.h.. Ki Asa, quoted by the Alter Rebbe in Likutei Torah Ki Tavo 43b.

34.

Machatzit Hashekel on Magen Avraham 88:1.

35.

Based on the Mishnah, Mikva'ot 5:6.

36.

Sha'arei Teshuva, ibid., 1.

37.

Piskei Teshuvot 88:8.

38.

Luach Kollel Chabad regarding Erev Yom Kippur, based on Magen Avraham ibid., Taz ibid. 1, and Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch 88:1.

39.

Sha'arei Halachah Uminhag vol. 1 pg. 99.

40.

Talmud, Yoma 30a.

41.

Ibid., pg. 95.
Or he can wash his hands in a special way—see Piskei Teshuvot, ibid., 4, for how to do this hand washing.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was educated in Chabad yeshivahs in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and Australia. He was the Rosh Kollel of The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida, and is now an adult Torah teacher in Surfside, Florida. He teaches classes on Talmud, Chassidism, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish law.
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Ethan Los Angeles, CA August 2, 2010

Still Wondering I have been thinking about this for a while and I still can’t say that this makes sense to me. In every major prayer we say "Baruch Atah YKVK" which to me indicates G-d as the source that is beyond the "H" of the Schechina.

I am sure you know that we are not allowed to pray to any intermediary. I understand that the Schechina is part of G-d but I still don’t understand why we would pray to the Schechina, when we can pray to G-d as he is himself, before he chooses to contract into the world.

Perhaps you might say that at that level He doesn't care about the creation. But we know that is only on a superficial level, because isn't He from that Place the only One who can enable teshuva to work?
What about the 13 attributes? Aren’t they from beyond the Schechina? What about Shabbat when the world retracts deep into G-d, isn’t that beyond the Schechina? Wouldn’t praying to the Schechina only result in us receiving exactly what is judged to be worthy for us? Reply

Aryeh Citron Surfside, Fl July 12, 2010

Shechinah Certainly when one prays one need not specifically intend to pray to the Shechina and not the limitless G-d. The point is that the Shechina is the level of G-d that is intimately involved with our needs and thus our prayers. This level is at one with G-d's infinite aspect. For more information, please see an article on chabad.org by Tzvi Freeman titled: Why Don't We Call G-d Mother? Reply

Sol KTZ July 12, 2010

Dear Ethan When we say the Schechinah we DO mean the limitless G-D! The Shechinah is G-D Himself as he interacts with us. G-D is One.

G-D is truly limitless and hence not “limited” to infinity – to G-D infinity and finitude are absolutely equally close and distant.

This is the core theme of the “Shema”. Reply

Ethan Piliavin July 11, 2010

Praying to ? You write "The Zohar says that the wall alludes to the Shechinah (Divine Presence), to whom we pray directly—with no separations."

I find this puzzling. Why would we pray to the Shechinah as if it is the ultimate power? Why aren't we be praying to the limitless G-d as He Is, beyond all limitations and boundaries? Reply

izzy ny, ny November 13, 2009

amazing article!!! these are awesome!!! Reply

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