It is dawn in Jerusalem. The light is clear. A bent woman lays her head upon the stones; the men are draped in a sea of undulating black and white prayer shawls. The morning service has begun.

Prayer is arguably the most powerful image of genuine religious experience. A theme richly developed in the sacred literature, the Zohar goes so far as to refer to prayer as the "spinal cord" of Judaism, for it suffuses our religious practice with life and movement, and gives structure to our spiritual development. Kavanah, intense mental concentration, is central to the prayer experience. The word for praying in Hebrew, lehitpallel, can also be translated as the reflexive form of the word pillel, meaning "self-reflection." Furthermore, the Torah refers to prayer as a service of the heart—not of the mouth. The rabbis teach that,1 "prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul." Contemplation not only enhances prayer but is its most essential component.

Given the great emphasis by the rabbis on praying with kavanah the routine prayer of many Jews seems disturbing, even jarring. Wedging the mincha prayer in between business calls, as many Torah-observant Jews tend to do, makes prayer seem less a spiritual service and more a chore to be dispensed with as quickly as possible.

And yet, halakhic sources describing the legal framework of prayer seem to feed this attitude by focusing primarily on its technical structure. The Jew's obligation to pray at specified hours three times a day while adhering closely to the prayer book text seems antithetical to a practice ostensibly driven by deep inner spiritual seeking. The laws that focus on the physical decorum of prayer would seem to engender an artificial and pretentious piety, for few people can fully meet these halakhic expectations. For example, we are enjoined to recite the silent prayer standing, feet together, like a servant before a master. The prayer is recited silently, prefaced with the words, "My master open my lips and my mouth will utter your praises." The form of the prayer assumes that we are cognizant of G‑d's greatness, and stand before him in such trepidation that it is only by His Divine assistance that we are able to speak. Realistically, can the law expect the average person to pray three times a day in a way that genuinely matches this description?

Halakhah seems to codify for all Jews the outer trappings of a meditative experience that they are unlikely to achieve. While strictly codifying the content and frequency of prayer can appear stultifying, dictating the protocol seems to force behaviors that are faked and disingenuous. Perhaps an alternative might have been to allow these prayer conventions to emerge spontaneously from the supplications of the righteous, while allowing others to engage in rites that more genuinely mirror their spiritual level.

In contrast to the unyielding rules of protocol regarding prayer, the sages seem disinclined to demand that they be validated by deep sincerity.

Rabbinic flexibility in regard to kavanah is so generous that it appears to rob the notion of prayer of its very heart. For example, initially the law deemed a prayer valid only if the person uttering it reflected on the meaning of the words. But the rabbis realized that if they invalidated the prayers of those who were distracted during prayer, few people would ever fulfill their obligation. So they ruled that as long as one focused on the meaning of at least the first of the nineteen prayers, there was no need to repeat the silent prayer.2 Later, rabbis realized that even this diminished standard was too demanding. So they decided that even in the absence of reflection on the meaning of the text, the prayer need not be repeated.3 They settled on a much more basic definition of kavanah, in which the individual had to be aware that he or she was engaged in addressing G‑d. We find, then, Maimonides4 arguing that one who does not bear in mind that he is "standing before the Divine presence and beseeching him" is not considered to have prayed.5 In his view, one's prayers are halakhically valid even if they are said without reflecting on the content. It is sufficient to be aware that one is engaged in prayer.

But normative Jewish practice does not seem to demand even this much-diminished standard.6 For example, a number of Talmudic sages noted that they prayed on occasion while being distracted by surrounding sights.7 The implication of these statements is that while this was not an ideal situation, the prayers were not deemed invalid.

Further evidence for the validity of distracted prayer can be found in the discussion of the laws regarding the recitation of the Shema. The Code of Jewish Law asks what is to be done if one is reciting the Shema and has reached the word "ukshartam" which appears twice in the text. It is imperative that each word of the Shema be articulated. But in this case, the supplicant, having been distracted in his prayers, is not sure whether he has reached the second instance of ukshartam, or whether he is only up to the first instance. Such thoughtlessness during the recitation of the Shema would seem to render the prayer unacceptable. Yet the law only requires that he assume that he is up to the first instance and that he continue from that point on, in order to ensure that no word of the prayer is missed.8 This law derives from a narrower criterion than that of Maimonides (because the awareness that one is addressing G‑d would never result in the dilemma of distracted prayers) and establishes a minimal requirement of kavanah. The definition of kavanah that seems to be operative in this case is that the supplicant started his prayer with the intention of fulfilling his obligation. So long as this initial thought is present, the prayer is valid.9

While prayer has the potential of embodying the most sublime religious dimensions, it also appears to be, in its halakhic formulation, an act more concerned with procedural technicality than spiritual contemplation.

The traditional notion of prayer, then, seems almost paradoxical in nature. While on the one hand it has the potential of embodying the most sublime religious dimensions, allowing us to "talk" with G‑d, it also appears to be, in its halakhic formulation, an act more concerned with procedural technicality than spiritual contemplation. This perceived dichotomy between the legal and the spiritual is rooted in a common misconception about the nature of prayer. We view its reflective, emotional aspects as its heart. In fact, however, the mitzvah of prayer does not call upon us to undertake great spiritual journeys, and as such, a spiritual experience will not necessarily translate to a communication with G‑d; it may be uplifting, but it is ultimately personal and subjective in nature. The essence of prayer is that it is an actual encounter between mortals and an infinite G‑d.

Maimonides illustrates this distinction between a subjective and an objective encounter with G–d in his discussion of the nature of prophecy. Philosophers of the time argued that prophecy was the inevitable result of spiritual training, much as current practitioners of meditation claim to achieve spiritual enlightenment as a result of their ability to induce a state of heightened mental awareness. Maimonides disagrees with this view. While a certain mental frame of mind is a prerequisite for receiving prophecy, he believes that actual prophecy occurs only when G–d initiates this process by choosing to grace the prophet with revelation.10 Similarly, the most notable aspect of prayer, as defined by Maimonides,11 is that G‑d commands us to appear before Him and to address Him. When we pray, it is our response to a genuine G–dly summons.

Prayer becomes a possible vehicle to connect the human with the Divine only because G–d has established it as the medium for this purpose, and not because of the individual's creative initiative. The holiest saint and the most ordinary of individuals, insofar as they both respond to the summons by "showing up" and uttering the words of the prayer text, are equally engaged in an encounter with G–d. Kavanah, then, does not constitute prayer itself, nor is it a means to the actualization of the prayer encounter. Rather, it is the result of the degree to which one is conscious that a meeting with G‑d is in progress. To fully appreciate the nature of what transpires during this encounter, the individual must devote all of his emotional and intellectual energy. An appropriate reflection, according to Maimonides, includes extensive meditation on the endless greatness of G‑d on the one hand, and the utter insignificance—by comparison—of the human being, on the other. The degree of appreciation for the prayer opportunity will be commensurate with the effort and inclination to engage in such meditation. Those with lesser spiritual qualities will appreciate prayer as an opportunity to ask G‑d for one's physical and material needs. Those with greater meditative capacity will be thankful for the privilege to connect with the divine. Judaism regards as reprehensible the absence of kavanah during prayer not because the prayer becomes invalid, but, on the contrary, because an encounter between human and G‑d is in progress regardless of the degree of kavanah or lack thereof. Thoughtless prayers show disregard for the presence of the One being addressed, and are therefore offensive to G–d.

This aspect of Jewish prayer is well illustrated in a Talmudic anecdote about a sage in the times of Roman rulership over Israel.12 The sage was traveling and when it was time for mincha, he stopped at the side of the road to pray. A Roman officer passed by and greeted the sage, but the sage did not respond. The officer waited until the sage finished his prayers and then said, "Why did you not respond to my greeting? As an officer of the crown, I have the power to kill you."

The sage responded, "If you were standing before the Roman emperor, and a fellow officer came to greet you, would you return the greeting?"

"I would not," replied the officer.

"And what punishment would you receive if you did respond to your friend's greeting while standing before the king?"

"Decapitation!" answered the officer.

"If the offense, when committed against a mortal king is so serious, imagine the gravity of this offense when committed against the immortal King of Kings!" concluded the sage.

The Roman official accepted this explanation, and cordially sent the sage on his way.

The story appears to make a rather obvious point. The officer knew that the sage was not ignoring him to be spiteful. Undoubtedly, he also knew that prayer constitutes communication between man and G‑d. Why then, the analogy of the officer standing before a human ruler? If the officer respected prayer, he should not have become enraged at the sage's failure to return his greeting. If, on the other hand, he did not appreciate the concept, what additional insight did the words of the sage offer?

While the officer was aware of the sage's preoccupation with prayer, he perceived it as an arbitrary exercise—one that he ought to have abandoned in the face of what he understood to be a real encounter with the king's officer. The sage's words helped the officer understand that his prayers were no less an objective encounter with G‑d than his meeting with the officer; just as the officer would not respond to a friend's greeting while standing before the Emperor, the sage could certainly not interrupt his audience with G‑d to greet the officer.

The idea of prayer as an encounter with G–d demands a high degree of spiritual awareness, as the preceding story illustrates. By the same token, it highlights the indisputable spiritual value even of cursory prayers.

This contrast is wonderfully illustrated in a story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, known for his great love for every Jew, and his ability to positively interpret even their most blatantly negative behaviors.

R. Levi Yitzchak once saw a wagon driver leaving the synagogue in the middle of the service to grease the wheels of his wagon in preparation for an important journey. The man, apparently pressed for time, did not bother to take off his tallit and tefillin but rather continued to utter the words of prayer while greasing his wheels. When R. Levi Yitzchak saw this, he raised his eyes heavenward and said, "You see, Master of the Universe, how precious are Your people! This man loves you so much that he serves you not only inside the synagogue but also outside when he greases his wagon!"

To be sure, R. Levi Yitzchak was not endorsing the wagondriver's deplorable way of praying. What redeeming good did he perceive in this Jew's behavior to have praised him thus?

It is true that by his behavior, the wagondriver showed greater concern for his business than for engagement in prayer. At the same time, however, he was absolutely unwilling to abandon his spiritual obligations. The wagon driver's sensitivity of this awareness, so well illustrated by his contradictory behavior was precious to R. Levi Yitzchak.

Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezerich, embraced the Chasidic tradition late in life. Previously, he devoted most of his day to Torah study, but from that point on he began to spend the better part of his day in devotional prayer. After many years, he met up with a friend from his youth who expressed surprise at Rabbi Dov Ber's new routine.

"Why does it take you so long to daven?" he asked. "I also meditate on the spiritual significance of prayer as described by the kabbalists, but I manage to finish in a much shorter amount of time."

"Tell me," said the Maggid, "How do you earn your living?"

"Actually most of the year, my wife runs a fabric stand, and I am able to devote almost all of my time to study. Once a year, I take off three weeks to travel to the fair in Leipzig, and there I buy the goods that she will need for the year."

"Why three weeks?" probed the Maggid. "I can trace the road to Leipzig in my mind in just a few moments."

"Come now," retorted his friend. "If you want to bring back merchandise, it is not enough to think about the route. You have to actually make the trip."

"Then you can understand why it takes me so long to daven," concluded the Maggid. "It is not enough to simply think about the mystical effects of an encounter with the Divine. To actually go there takes more time."

The words of the Maggid illuminate the Chasidic perspectives regarding prayer. It is not about conducting a mental exercise. It is about living a reality.

And in the face of these words, we can imagine the Maggid's response to those who would question the value of davening a mincha by rote and then rushing back to business. He might well have said, "So what if your mind is a million miles away? You can still get to Leipzig, so long as you get on the train and make the trip."