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Prayer is an element that dominates the life of a Jew. Many of us grapple with the challenge of ensuring that our prayer encounter be a meaningful experience. People search for ways to boost their prayers: singing, dancing, meditating or selecting a choice location. Our sages speak of a way to improve our supplications that many of us overlook; the most effective way to enhance one's personal prayers is simply to join in with others.
Our sages describe two prayer scenarios of Rabbi Akiva (T. Berachot 3:5; B. Berachot 31a). When Rabbi Akiva prayed with the congregation he would limit his supplications, finishing the set text with haste - perhaps even concluding before the others - so as not to burden those praying with him, who would have waited for the sage before beginning the Amida repetition (Rabbi Yehonatan Hakohen of Lunel, 12th century, Provence).
This, however, appears not to have been Rabbi Akiva's ideal setting for turning to God. When praying alone, with no congregational considerations to constrain him, Rabbi Akiva's ecstatic-style of prayer would have him moving from one corner of the room to another as he bowed and prostrated himself while entreating God. Prostrating involves lying full length with arms and legs outstretched, thus Rabbi Akiva moved from his original upright position customary during the Amida and made his way across the room.
Commentators discuss these prostrations, trying to understand when Rabbi Akiva was involved in these ambulations. Elsewhere the sages mandate four bows during the Amida, while additional bows at the end of each blessing are discouraged (B. Berachot 34a). Moreover, the Amida should be recited while standing in one place, not while moving about.
Some commentators suggest that though frequent bowing at the end of each benediction of the Amida is proscribed, such bowing is permitted in the middle of the blessings. It is the latter timing to which the sages refer when describing Rabbi Akiva's private prayer (Ri, 12th century, Germany).
Other commentators conclude that Rabbi Akiva's frenzied prayer was part of additional supplications he offered at the end of the authorized Amida (Rashba, 13th century, Barcelona; Rosh, 12th-13th centuries, Germany-Spain).
Rabbi Akiva's conduct, however, is still somewhat puzzling. Assuming that the ritual of prayer is directed at communion with the Almighty and that Rabbi Akiva achieved this lofty ideal by lengthening his supplications and enhancing them with bows and prostrations, why did he curb this experience in favor of communal considerations? Was he not forgoing the primary goal of the prayer enterprise for the secondary objective of community union?
One of the saintly hassidic masters, Rav Uri of Strelisk (d. 1826) offered a creative reading of Rabbi Akiva's two prayer settings. Rav Uri, who was opposed to the hassidic wonder-workers of his day, was known for his ecstatic mode of prayer and this may have been the reason he was known by the name Rav Uri the Seraph. In fact, every day upon departing for the synagogue, Rav Uri would bid his family farewell, lest he die of ecstasy during his zealous and devout prayers.
Rav Uri once arrived at a certain village and, as was his custom, he prayed with vivid excitement and fervor. The local rabbi, spying Rav Uri's lengthy prayers, approached the hassidic master at the conclusion of the service and respectfully inquired: "Is the master not concerned about placing a burden upon the congregation as they wait for the completion of your lengthy service?" The rabbi continued, citing our talmudic passage as a support for his query: "Even Rabbi Akiva would be brief, shortening his prayers so as not to inconvenience fellow supplicants!"
Rav Uri replied, presenting a problem with the report of Rabbi Akiva's conduct: "As we know, Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 disciples (B. Yevamot 62b). Surely, amongst the myriads of students, he could find a quorum of 10 who would be prepared to patiently and uncomplainingly pray with the sage and would not feel saddled by their teacher's protracted supplications! Why then did Rabbi Akiva feel the need to shorten his prayers?"
Rav Uri continued, answering the question he had posed: "Rabbi Akiva was not coerced by the congregation into cutting the length of his prayers; rather, he did not feel the need to draw out his supplications when he prayed with the community. Praying with those around him, however, was not just a matter of having others present during the service. When the congregation would pray with Rabbi Akiva - not just in the flesh, but emotionally and spiritually - lengthy individual supplications were deemed unnecessary, for communal requests are instantly received."
Turning to Rabbi Akiva's other prayer scenario, Rav Uri continued: "Despite physically standing with other people, Rabbi Akiva at times prayed unaccompanied, a lone voice of concentration and devotion, isolated from those surrounding him. In such instances, Rabbi Akiva was burdened with the task of raising the prayers of those around him and was, therefore, forced to prolong his supplications."
Thus praying with the congregation not only serves the ancillary goal of binding individuals into a community, it also serves the principal aspiration of the service by making the prayers more efficacious.
Another aspect of Rav Uri's conduct in the synagogue also highlights the advantage of communal prayer. It is reported that the master would pray at the back of the synagogue so that as he ascended through supernal worlds he would virtually embrace the entire congregation standing before him. Thus Rav Uri would take those present in the synagogue on a spiritual journey to the Divine. Rav Uri felt that had he stood at the front of the synagogue - as many leaders do - those present would be relegated to grasping his coat tails in a bid to benefit from the hassidic master's powerful ability to commune with God. In this account another beneficial facet of communal prayer is underlined.
Having a less successful venture into the prayer realm - a reality many of us experience - can be compensated by joining the community. Attaching our supplications to those of the congregation may increase their effectiveness and offset the testing challenge of daily heartfelt prayer.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.