Rabbis Respond (Jewish Ledger): Prayer

Do I Have to Pray the Standard Cycle of Prayers?

Is it okay to pray only when the spirit moves me? What I need from God changes depending on my situation. I don’t feel particularly moved by what is written in the prayerbook and often I find it repetitive and boring. Are regular synagogue prayers really necessary?

I read this as related, but distinct, questions. Regarding prayer, the rabbis place prayer on a continuum between two values—the fixed nature of prayer (keva) and the individual nature of prayer at any specific moment (kavana). The more fixed a prayer is, the harder it is for an individual to bring themselves into it. Jewish liturgy seems to fall clearly on the keva end of the continuum, since we have a fixed cycle of prayers with day-to-day variations (however, there are much more variations than one imagines. For those who like math puzzles and liturgy see p. 2 of Steven Schach’s Structure of the Siddur, where the author stops counting unique services partly through the year after finding over 3,000 variations). Despite the fixed nature of our prayers, the rabbis clearly wanted intentionality in our daily prayers—we are supposed bring our hearts and souls into the fixed liturgy.

In order to fulfill the kavana value in a keva-oriented liturgy, I view the prayers as hypertexts. Each time I pray a psalm or prayer, I either intentionally focus on one or two phrases or allow for it to happen on its own as I pray. This requires fluency in Hebrew and liturgy since translations rarely allow for the linguistic or conceptual connections that make prayer different for me each day.

As to whether synagogue prayers are necessary at all, I view prayer in a minyan as occurring in six directions—each direction placing me within overlapping contexts. On my left and right sides are other members of the Jewish community who join together for a common purpose. These connections extend far beyond our location to encompass other Jews praying around the world. I view front and back as placing me in a historical context. My prayers are part of a history of Jews praying that extends back to our earliest ancestors and will continue through our descendants. The remaining directions, up and down, place me within two very important contexts. The down direction reminds me about my connections to the earth and that my prayers are taking place in a particular place (and time) on earth. Up reminds me that I pray in the presence of God (although of course God is not literally up). Without participating in regular synagogue prayers with other Jews, these six contexts would either not be present or would be greatly diminished in meaning.

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