Our sages instruct that we should only pray the Amida prayer with an attitude of koved rosh (M. Berachot 5:1). Literally, the phrase koved rosh means heaviness of head, and one commentator suggests that the instruction is referring to the correct posture for prayer (Aruch, 11th century, Rome). People should bow their heads in prayerful concentration, as a person experiencing pain is forced to double over.
Elsewhere in the Talmud we find a discussion regarding the appropriate stance during prayer (B. Yevamot 105b). Two sages were sitting together when one suggested: "One who prays must look down, as it says: My eyes and My heart shall be there - referring to the earth - all the days (I Kings 9:3)." His colleague retorted: "The worshipers' eyes should be raised, as it says: Let us lift our hearts with our hands to God in heaven (Lamentations 3:41)."
A third sage chanced upon the duo: "What are you talking about?" "We are discussing prayer." The third sage, quoting his father, suggested a teaching that hit upon a middle ground: "One who prays must look down, while the heart should be directed heavenward, in order to fulfill the implication of both verses." Thus the instruction to pray with koved rosh - meaning that we should hang our heads in prayer - fits this rabbinic exchange.
Another commentator, however, saw the koved rosh directive as reflecting more than posture (Rashi, 11th century, France). According to this approach, koved rosh should be contrasted with kalut rosh - lightheadedness. Prayer, therefore, should be an endeavor that is undertaken with reverence and awe.
A later authority innovatively suggested focusing on another meaning of the Hebrew root of k'v'd - sweeping clean (Tzemah Tzedek, 19th century, Byelorussia). People are enjoined to sweep their minds from foreign thoughts and mindless pondering before the onset of prayer. The mind should be clean and pure for the prayer experience.
The talmudic sages seek a source for this requirement: Perhaps it is sufficient to focus on the meaning of the words? Different biblical paradigms of prayer are offered, and from the thrust of the passage it appears that koved rosh is understood as awe and veneration (B. Berachot 30b).
Hannah was childless, and when she came to the Tabernacle she offered a heartfelt prayer that she be blessed with a child. The verse depicts the scene in which she was bitter of spirit and she prayed to God (I Samuel 1:10). Our sages understand that her prayer was offered in the manner of a bitter spirit, and from here we may derive the koved rosh requirement.
This paradigm is rejected: Perhaps Hannah, being extremely distraught at not having been blessed with children, should not be taken as a model. Her exceedingly bitter circumstances suggest that she should hardly be the yardstick for all.
A second possible exemplar is entertained: King David the psalmist sang: As for me, through Your abundant kindness, I will come to Your house, I will prostrate myself toward Your holy sanctuary, in awe of You (Psalms 5:8) - we see that prayer necessitates awe.
Again this source is challenged: Perhaps King David was different, for his approach to prayer went beyond what is demanded of a regular person (see B. Berachot 3b-4a). How can we draw a conclusion from his conduct? Moreover, the king himself indicated that he was referring only to himself - as for me... - and not setting a standard for all.
A third biblical source is offered, once again from Psalms, only here King David is addressing others not describing his own practice: Bow before God in holy splendor (Psalms 29:2). The word for splendor should be read with the Hebrew letter het instead of the almost silent heh - herdat instead of hadrat - meaning trepidation. Thus King David is instructing people to prostrate themselves before God in awe and we have a source for koved rosh in prayer.
The sages, however, were still unsatisfied with this source: Perhaps King David really did mean that people should bow with splendor, meaning that they should adorn themselves with appropriate clothing before prayer? Indeed we have accounts of sages who would don their finest attire before beginning prayer.
A final offering is suggested: Serve God with awe and rejoice with trepidation (Psalms 2:11). Though the verse refers to the Temple service, our prayer services stand in place of the lost Temple service and must be conducted likewise with awe. Thus the rule that prayer requires koved rosh can be attributed to a biblical source.
Returning to the unique turn of phrase koved rosh, hassidic masters sought to artistically offer more depth to the rabbinic directive. Our sages were not merely defining appropriate posture or even requiring a reverent attitude; the requirement of koved rosh demands far more.
Rosh in esoteric parlance can be understood as referring to the Holy Presence, the head of everything. The hassidic ideal of nullifying the self in favor of grasping the entirety of the divine, found a voice in this passage: Prayer is no longer aimed at beseeching the Almighty to grant our earthly requests that are based on the supposition of our own existence and the assessment of our material needs.
True prayer, say the hassidic masters, entails overcoming this outlook. Our prayers should not be filled with requests connected to our subsistence, rather they should focus on the pain of God who is troubled by the unredeemed state of the world. The pain of Israel should be felt as the anguish of the Almighty, not as our own temporal aching. Prayer should be undertaken with the weight of God on our shoulders. This is a challenging level of prayer.
To be sure, we have here a creative reading that goes beyond the intent of the rabbinic instruction. Moreover, this approach changes the entire landscape of prayer: its central path, its byways, its challenges and its ultimate goals. Yet one master suggests that mastering this level of prayer guarantees a positive response to our requests, for we ask not for ourselves; we ask for the sake of the Almighty.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.