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What’s the Point of Saying Words?

What’s the Point of Saying Words?

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Note: This response uses the words daven and davening rather than the English pray and praying. The word prayer brings its contextual baggage with it, and daven brings very different baggage. The best I could say is that praying is a religious act, whereas davening is a tribal ritual—and the meaning of that ritual can sometimes get lost. Which is what this response is about.

Question:

How could I seriously get myself to pray? I have no problem putting on tefillin every day and saying the Shema Yisrael along with a few prayers, but I just don't have the patience for the entire prayers. This whole "just say the words thing" for an hour seems less than meaningless to me - even if I were to understand the actual translation of the words.

Answer:

I'm with you completely.

Let's start from the beginning. On the most essential level, prayer is a time to talk to G‑d about whatever you need. That's right. The Biblical mitzvah is to simply talk to G‑d. Over the years, the rabbis enhanced this mitzvah and added a specific liturgy to help formulate our ideas. But for so many, like you, what has been the result? Lip-service. Taking the icing and leaving out the cake. Better: Leaving out the cake with its icing and just taking the cardboard box it came in. A real tragedy.

I'll always remember the story of my friend back in yeshiva who one morning walked up to our mashpia (a teacher who also serves as a sort of spiritual counselor) and told him point blank that he was not in the mood for prayer. He saw no meaning in it all and besides…he was upset about a terrorist bombing that just occurred in Israel and couldn't get himself to pray to a G‑d that allowed such things to happen.

The mashpia surprised me. He told my friend, "That's okay. Just put on your tefillin and tell G‑d exactly that. Explain to Him you are having difficulties connecting during davening. Express your frustration about the recent events in Israel. Tell Him just what you told me."

Over an hour later, the student returned and thanked his teacher for his best prayer of the year. He had not only thought those ideas but actually expressed them while saying the regular prayers.

So step #1 towards a meaningful prayer is being ready to talk to G‑d just as you would talk to a close friend. Only that this friend creates worlds when He speaks.

Then comes step #2: Knowing the general theme of each particular section and then plugging in your own thoughts and prayers that relate to that idea. Now this is far easier than learning the specific translation of every word and phrase. And you'll be surprised to see just how practical this can make prayer.

Want an example? Let's refer back to the above story. These two ideas come up in davening. In the Amidah, there is a specific prayer for Jerusalem. So when you say those words, simply think your own thoughts about Israel. In the blessing before Shema, we ask G‑d to provide us inspiration, feeling and excitement about His Torah and mitzvahs. While saying this, think your own prayer about being able to pray better.

All this begins by learning about the meaning of just one part of the prayers. Once you've mastered that, you can move on to the next. Let me know if you'd like some suggestions on where to begin.

There's one last important step. Really it comes before anything else:

The moments before prayer set the tone for what's going to occur in the next 45 minutes. Run into the synagogue after playing football or listening to talk-radio and your prayer is going to be an uphill climb. You just can't shift 180 degrees in one minute. That's why our rabbis suggested in the Mishna1 to spend a few moments before each prayer thinking about the fact that little you is about to stand before a very big Him and chat. Trust me, it makes a huge difference.

Now, there's a lot to be said about this last step. But first, are you familiar with the study of Chassidic teachings? The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760, founder of the chassidic movement) came to teach that every Jew can awaken the hidden love for G‑d that's buried inside his or her heart. There's a popular little book called the Tanya which was written over two hundred years ago to show just how to do this. And then there are so many Chassidic discourses, really meditations, that are meant to make the deepest experience of prayer accessible to all. If you really want to get into prayer, my recommendation is to get into Chassidism.

Asking this question was already the first step to a more meaningful prayer. If you honestly put yourself too it, making this a priority, you'll be amazed to see just how relevant prayer will become...

Footnotes
1.

Berachot 5:1.

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar is a Chabad rabbi in Cary, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Chabad.org Ask the Rabbi team.
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leon roiter barranquilla July 21, 2017

Dear rabbi, good morning. Prayer makes the jew part of a very old jewish experience. Jewish prayer guides you through a jewish life and into a joyfull spiritual existence.Prayer will make you feel as good as our ancestors felt.We are a neshama wrapped in a mortal coil. Reply

Joseph Solomon Renwick June 19, 2017

prayer I feel a greater connection to G-d when praying in English as I understand each word, whether it is out loud or silently. As we traditionally pray in Hebrew I feel I do not have as much feeling if I were to say a barucha. In not being able to say the blessing in Hebrew does one still convey the full meaning if said in English (from the heart) Reply

Leopold Johannesburg September 16, 2016

Dear Rabbi
I have been reading your suggestions on how to pray. I have a very difficult time trying to pray. It's almost like I have times when I have something to pray and sometimes nothing. I have just came out of charismatic after finding the truth that they're not teaching us to obey and follow Yahweh. Please help me grow and love for prayer and pray the correct way. Thank you
Shalom Reply

Krystyne Wraye May 31, 2013

What;s the point of saying words? Thank you Rabbi Cotlar

I have a terrible time praying as I think they are "only words" and can G-d actually hear me. Your teaching has opened my eyes to how much I really want to Pray from my heart to G-d. and to have him hear me. I will take time out for a few minutes beforehand to stop my mind wandering on outside things and start reading from the Siddur to start me off - and then proceed to tell G-d everything I wish to say. I know G-d wants to hear from deep inside my soul and I will believe that I shall hear G-d speak to me also. Being in the Eternal's presence and communicating with Him is where I will get the strength for each day. Shalom Reply

raziela August 15, 2010

praying Thank you Rabbi Cotlar,

Rabbis are truly teachers of God's will. It is an incredible mitzvah that you do, helping to clarify the minds of a lot of confused but sincere Jews ( and people at large). Truly beautiful.

I love to pray as it channels my deep emotions. Often when I pray or read Torah it pushes buttons in my entire being. Often it is just hard to relate as the words are written in old english. Sometimes the concepts are jarring and I just don't get it. Inside I guess at those times I am questioning Judaism. God, Truth.

Thank you for clarifying that it is ok and even beneficial to pray our insides too while we follow the formal prayer structure which gives us strong guidelines as to what is truly important in a jews life. Israel, Jerusalem, Teshuvah etc not a new surfboard.

A truly beautiful mitzvah with your words you have done. Pretty sure ministering angels are singing up high. Reply

J March 12, 2009

My experience I, like many had the same problem with praying. But then I heard that the Men of the Great Assembly, who wrote these prayers, had all of our future needs in mind. So I started praying and asking for things relevant to me; for example, during the Amidah we ask for wisdom-so I asked for wisdom on life and wisdom in whatever class I had an exam in. When praying for a good year, I thought about being able to have enough money and having good friends and happy events throughout the year. Thus, even though I was saying words designed for specific things while praying, I was able to connect those prayers to very legitimate and pressing concerns of my own. Now I pray no matter what because I feel like I'm using holy words to help me in my own life and it makes talking to G-d that much easier. Reply

leon roiter barranquilla July 21, 2017
in response to J:

Add a comment...the words of the prophets are NOT written on the subway walls. They are written in the sidur. Reply

Laya February 20, 2009

prayer Due to turmoil in my life I have investigated (superficially) Unitarianism Science of Mind , Zen and had anger at G-d. Always the core of me is a Jew. I worry that my prayers are not heard and that I am not praying right. I am distracted easily when I pray as many things are a problem. People tell me to meditate and I really do not know how. The Shama brings comfort. The English stuff seems hollow.Long tracts on David etc are not what I need now. Help is appreciated.What are the mediative things that Jews do? Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY February 19, 2009

Lip Service This is some of the best advice I've seen on this subject on this or any other site.
The introductory and ending paragraphs are the most essential parts
Thank You Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, ny February 19, 2009

WOW I always felt so guilty for having a lot of the same issues with my praying as the author of this question.
I have found that over time I've developed my own interpretation of the different sections of the prayers and that helps me pray with a lot more connection.

Thank you for your wonderful response to this age old question.
I'll be printing copies and distributing this to friends and family. Reply

Moishele Fort Dix, NJ February 19, 2009

Great The best part of this response was the introductory note. I LOVE the definition of davening as a tribal ritual! Davening certainly has very little to do with praying. Reply

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