In the previous letter the Alter Rebbe explained how the Torah study of a group of at least ten, or a mitzvah performed by them collectively, brings about the indwelling of the Shechinah. He spoke of how even those who engage in the avodah of prayer sometimes spend the time before and after prayers in idle chatter. Indeed, the Mishnah calls such a group “a company of scoffers,” since they are not studying Torah. The Alter Rebbe therefore urged that regular times be set aside between Minchah and Maariv for the group study of Ein Yaakov and of laws of practical application in the Shulchan Aruch.

In the present letter the Alter Rebbe goes on to condemn those who during prayer services engage in mundane conversation — not only on idle matters, but even on matters that are necessary for their livelihood. Such conversation at any other time would of course be permitted. During prayer services, however, it demonstrates that the speaker has no desire to behold the G‑dliness that is revealed specifically during that time. This insensitivity is depicted by a parable drawn from the Zohar. For years on end, a terrestial king hides his majestic splendor behind locked doors; those of his subjects who have the discernment to value that splendor, eagerly wait there for years on end until they are granted a glimpse of it; others are so foolish and so brazen that they show no interest.

For the time of prayer is a precious time below, echoing a propitious time Above. Above, as the Alter Rebbe states in ch. 12 of Tanya, it is a time of Mochin deGadlut, a time of sublime illumination in the upper worlds; below, therefore, it is the time when every individual can respond to the call which the King issues to His subjects.

If one is to receive the revelation which becomes possible at the time of prayer, that time needs to be utilized for meditation on the greatness of G‑d. But if this meditation is to be fertile, and give birth to the spiritual emotions of love and awe, it still needs to find its way into the worshiper’s heart. This is the message of the following brief teaching of the Alter Rebbe.

There is an expression of our Sages:1 אם כיון לבו — “If one had the proper intention (kiven libo), he has fulfilled his obligation.” Now כיון shares a root with the Aramaic כוין (kavin), meaning “windows”.2 Accordingly, in the above-quoted teaching of the Sages, the Alter Rebbe read the following message: A man fulfills his obligation during prayer only if he has made a window in his heart, so that the revelation that illuminates his mind during prayer will radiate its warmth into his heart.

אהוביי אחיי

My beloved ones, my brethren:

אל נא תרעו, ריעים האהובים ליוצרם ושנואים ליצרם

I beg of you, friends who are beloved unto their Maker and hateful unto their evil inclination: Do no wrong!

Surely one should respect the wishes of his Beloved, and not of his enemy.

ואל יעשה אדם עצמו רשע שעה אחת לפני המקום, אשר בחר בה מכל היום

Let no one make himself wicked before G‑d during that one hour (i.e., the hour of prayer) that He has chosen of all day,

להקהל ולעמוד לפניו בשעה זו, שהיא עת רצון לפניו להתגלות, לבוא אל המקדש מעט

so that [people] can congregate and stand3 before Him during that hour. For this is an auspicious time for Him to be revealed and to come into the “miniature sanctuary,” as a synagogue is called,4

לפקוד לשכינת כבודו, השוכן אתם בתוך טומאותם

to visit the Shechinah of His Glory,5 “that dwells with [the Jewish people] in the midst of their impurity,”

Even in the impurity of exile, the Divine Presence abides among the Jewish people. And at the auspicious hour of prayer the Almighty Himself comes, as it were, to visit the Shechinah that resides constantly among His people.

ולהמצא לדורשיו ומבקשיו ומייחליו

and to be accessible to those who seek Him and entreat Him and yearn for Him.

והמספר בצרכיו, מראה בעצמו שאינו חפץ להתבונן ולראות בגילוי כבוד מלכותו

At this auspicious time of prayer, he who speaks of his needs, demonstrates that he has no desire to contemplate and to behold the manifestation of [G‑d’s] majestic glory.

ונעשה מרכבה טמאה לכסיל העליון

Thus he becomes an impure chariot (i.e., a subservient vehicle) to the “Supernal Fool” (i.e., to the kelipah),

שנאמר עליו: לא יחפוץ כסיל בתבונה כו׳, כמו שכתבו הזהר והאריז״ל

of whom it is said,6 “The fool does not desire understanding...,” as stated in the Zohar7 and by R. Isaac Luria, of blessed memory8

דהיינו, שאינו חפץ להתבונן ולראות ביקר תפארת גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים, הקב״ה

This means, he has no desire to contemplate and to behold the glorious splendor of the greatness of the King of kings — the Holy One, blessed be He —

הנגלות למעלה בשעה זו

which becomes revealed at this hour above, for the hour of prayer is a propitious time above.

וגם למטה, אל החפצים להביט אל כבודו וגדלו, המתעטף ומתלבש בתוך תיבות התפלה הסדורה בפי כל

It is also [revealed] below, to those who earnestly desire to gaze upon His glory and greatness, which garbs and vests itself in the words of the liturgy which is known to all,

ומתגלה לכל אחד לפי שכלו ושורש נשמתו

and which becomes revealed to every individual, according to his intellect and according to the root of his soul;

כדכתיב: לפי שכלו יהולל איש

as it is written,9 “A man is praised (yehulal) according to [the measure of] his intellect,”

יהלל כתיב

As spelled, [the word could be pronounced] yehalel.

The verse would thus mean, “A man praises (i.e., prays) according to the measure of his intellect,” i.e., in proportion to his comprehension of G‑d’s greatness.

ומלכותא דרקיע כעין מלכותא דארעא

Now the kingdom of heaven is similar to a kingdom on earth.10

שדרך המלך להיות חביון עוזו בחדרי חדרים, וכמה שומרים על הפתחים

It is customary for a king to have his might concealed11 in [his] innermost chambers, with many guards at the doors,

עד אשר כמה וכמה מצפים ימים ושנים, לראות עוזו וכבודו

(so)12 that many people wait for days and years [hoping] to behold his might and glory.

וכשעלה ברצונו להתגלות לכל, והעביר קול בכל מלכותו להקהל ולעמוד לפניו, להראותם כבוד מלכותו ויקר תפארת גדולתו

Now when he wishes to be seen by all, and proclaims throughout his kingdom [that his subjects] should assemble and stand before him, so that he can show them his majestic glory and the exalted splendor of his greatness,

מי שעומד לפניו ואינו חושש לראותו, ומתעסק בצרכיו

whoever will stand before him and not care to see him, busying himself at that time with his own needs, —

כמה גרוע וסכל ופתי הוא, ונמשל כבהמות נדמה בעיני כל הבריות

how lowly, foolish and senseless is he; he resembles an animal in the eyes of all.

וגם הוא בזיון המלך, בהראותו לפניו שאינו ספון בעיניו לקבל נחת ושעשועים מהביט אל כבודו ויפיו, יותר מעסק צרכיו

Moreover, it is a dishonor to the king, when he demonstrates before him that to have pleasure and delight from gazing upon his glory and beauty is of no more esteem in his eyes than busying himself with his own needs.

וגם הוא מתחייב בנפשו למלך, על הראות קלונו ובזיונו את המלך לעין כל רואה

Moreover, it is a capital offense towards the king, to exhibit how he disgraces and dishonors the king in the eyes of the public.

ועל זה נאמר: וכסילים מרים קלון

Of this it is written,13 “And fools raise the insult.”

כלומר: אף שהוא כסיל, לא יהיה מרים קלון, שיהיה נראה הקלון לעין כל

This means to say, that though he is a fool, he should not “raise the insult,” making [it] apparent to all, for this not only dishonors the king, but also constitutes a capital offense.

* * *

ועל כן קבעו חז״ל בתפלה: כאלו עומד לפני המלך

For this reason our Sages, of blessed memory, ordained that with prayer one should [conduct himself]14 “as if he is standing before the king.”

Now if he is standing before the King of kings, why do our Sages say “as if”? This means:

על כל פנים יהיה מראה בעצמו כאלו עומד כו׳ לעין כל רואה בעיני בשר אל מעשיו ודיבוריו

At least he should make himself appear as if he is standing [before the king] in the sight of all who look with physical eyes at his actions and words,

אף שאין לו מחשבה לכסיל

even though a fool has no thought — although he does not have even an intellectual realization that while standing in prayer he truly is standing before the King.

ועל זה הענין נתקן כל התפלות, למתבונן בהם היטב

It was concerning this matter — the realization that one is standing before the King at the time that He appointed to reveal His glory to those who seek Him — that all the prayers were instituted,15 [as is evident] to whoever meditates deeply upon them.

ומי שאינו מראה כן, מתחייב בנפשו

But he that does not show this [realization] is guilty of a capital offense,

ועליו אמרו בזהר הקדוש, דאנהיג קלנא בתקונא עילאה, ואחזי פרודא, ולית ליה חולקא באלקא דישראל, רחמנא ליצלן

and of him it was said in the sacred Zohar16 that “he brings disgrace into the Supernal Order, and shows that he is separate [from holiness], and has no share in the G‑d of Israel,” heaven forfend.

על כן שליחותייהו דרז״ל קא עבידנא

Therefore, declares the Alter Rebbe, I am hereby acting as an agent of our Sages, of blessed memory,

לגזור גזירה שוה לכל נפש, שלא לשוח שיחה בטלה, משיתחיל השליח ציבור להתפלל התפלה, עד גמר קדיש בתרא, שחרית מנחה ערבית

to enact a decree17 to apply equally to everyone: No idle talk is to be spoken from the moment the Reader begins to recite the prayers until the end of the last Kaddish, at Shacharit, Minchah18 and Maariv.19

והעובר על זה בזדון, ישב על הארץ ויבקש משלושה אנשים שיתירו לו נידוי שלמעלה

And he who disobeys intentionally shall sit on the ground and beg of three people to release him from the supernal excommunication that results from disobeying a Rabbinic decree.

ושב ורפא לו, ולא חל עליו שום נידוי למפרע כל עיקר

“He should repent, resolving to change his ways, and he will be healed,”20 and retroactively, no excommunication whatever will have applied to him.

כי מתחלתו לא חל כי אם על המורדים והפושעים, שאינם חוששים כלל לבקש כפרה מן השמים ומן הבריות, על העון פלילי הזה

For from the very outset it applied only to those who rebel and are willfully sinful, and who do not care at all to seek atonement (as they ought) from heaven and from man for this grievous sin.

וגם דוקא כשמדברים בזדון, בשאט נפש

Also, [this excommunication applies] only when people speak deliberately and brazenly,

ולא על השוכח, או שנזרקו מפיו כמה תיבות בלא מתכוין, שאינו צריך התרה כלל

but not to a person who forgets, or unwittingly uttered a few words, for he does not require a release [from the excommunication] at all.

ובוחן לבות וכליות אלקים צדיק

“And G‑d Who is righteous examines the heart and the kidneys”:21 He probes a man’s inner integrity, and is able to discern a deliberate offense from an unwitting one.

הטיבה ה׳ לטובים, ולישרים בלבותם

The Alter Rebbe concludes with a prayer:22 “Be benevolent, O G‑d, unto the good,” i.e., to those who refrain utterly from idle speech, “and unto those who are upright in their hearts”; i.e., also to those whose hearts meant well, but from whose lips a few words inadvertently escaped.