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Jewish Story

Jun 1, 1997 - 11:26 -

I have a question:
how to pray

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Wow! This is a broad question that can be taken at many different levels!  

In Jewish tradition, an individual can pray spontaneously at any time in any language.  The only prerequisite is that one understands what one is saying and is sincere.

In addition, Judaism has fixed prayers for many specific occasions. (Those too may be said in any language that you understand well, or in Hebrew. When praying in Hebrew one need not understand every word as long as there is proper intent.) These situations occur all day long and are not confined to synagogue services.  On these occasions, balancing outward keva (fixedness of form) with the need for inward kavanah (directed intention, focussed meditation) can be challenging.  

If your question is spiritual:

One traditional source suggests that maintaining peak performance in deeds (or kavanah in prayer) is assisted by remembering where you came from (a putrid drop), where you are going (worms and maggots), and before whom you stand (the holy One who made you). This is a fine answer for one whose trust in God is already at a very high level, but what can one do if talking (i.e., prayer) feels ridiculous as a strategy for establishing intimacy with the transcendental?  

It may help to look at the first three blessings of the Amidah. The first reminds us that, by attempting to pray, one is merely continuing an ongoing activity of our parents and ancestors and community; working jointly at an effort that so many have deemed important for so long. Therefore prayer is probably reasonable even if one does not yet see how. The second and third blessings suggest that prayer is reasonable by asserting that two key prerequisites for its effectiveness are already met. The second blessing focusses on the immanance of the source of blessings, reminding us that our personal mundane needs are important, that our lives are intertwined with that which is eternal. The third benediction focusses on the transcendence of the source of all good, asserting that we have a power that helps us effect transformations when we manage to articulate deeply felt needs. The combination of immanence and transcendence makes it reasonable to expect the introspective experience of prayer to effect transformations. (In anthropomorphic terms, we say that God is close enough to care, but different enough to be able to help.)

If your question is mechanical:

There are many skills needed to feel comfortable at a traditional service. Many obstacles will be overcome just by attending regularly (e.g., learning tunes, when to stand and when to sit, etc.). The volume of material to master may be daunting at first. Don't worry about it. Just pick one or two tunes that you really like and start with those. "It is the song that makes your heart respond."

The most significant obstacle for many is the language barrier. You can use transliterations of the service (found at until comfortable with the Hebrew alphabet. Specific questions about confusing elements of the ritual can be asked here. A systematic presentation of the organization of the liturgy and siddur (prayerbook) and sanctuary, as well as synagogue customs, terminology,  and ritual objects, are presented in my book, The Synagogue Survival Kit. I hope this is useful.

--- Jordan