World of the Sages: Fine-tuning our prayers

With the advent of the hassidic movement in the late 18th century, the contours of the regnant prayer endeavor were challenged and many new paths to heartfelt communion with God were explored. One of the popular innovations was delaying the beginning of the service to provide the opportunity for mental, emotional and spiritual preparation for the prayer journey. Undeniably, preparations for prayers were not the invention of the 18th-century Hassidim; our sages tell us that the pious people of old - who also bore the moniker Hassidim - would tarry for one hour and only then pray so that they might direct their hearts to the Almighty (M. Berachot 5:1). One sage adduces scriptural support for the practice of preparatory meditation (B. Berachot 32b): "Fortunate are those who bide in Your house" - readying themselves for prayer, and only afterwards - "they will yet praise You" (Psalms 84:5). Following this mold, some Hassidim would spend much of their day ensconced in prayer. Many traditionalist opponents of the fledgling movement viewed this preoccupation with prayer with distaste, asserting that such lengthy prayer preparation went beyond the rabbinic paradigm (Rabbi Ya'acov Emden, 18th century, Altona). Hassidim, for their part, felt that preparation was no indulgence; indeed, it was a necessity for successfully and effectively venturing into the Divine world of prayer. To highlight the importance of attaining the right mindset before embarking upon prayer, hassidic masters composed prayers that were to be recited before the onset of the service. The idea of a prayer to precede prayer can already be found in the Talmud. Though the Amida originally began with the blessing recalling the unique relationship between our forefathers and the Almighty, we herald the prayer with a biblical verse (Psalms 51:17): "God, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise" (B. Berachot 4b; 9b). This verse is not considered essential, and if one were to inadvertently omit it there would be no need to repeat the Amida (Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin, 19th-20th century, Poland). Nevertheless, our sages tell us the verse which requests Divine guidance does not constitute an unnecessary interruption and is a valid extension of the prayer. Drawing on this talmudic passage, the much-loved hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809), explained that this additional line was a later addition, born of the need to focus before commencing the Amida. According to the Berditchever, the former greats had no regular need for this preparatory formula. Nevertheless, even the heroes of old had occasion to turn to God before beginning their prayers. Thus the Berditchever expounds the claim of Moses: "And I pleaded with God at that time, saying…" (Deuteronomy 3:23). Having exhausted known prayer avenues, Moses turned to God with beseeching guidance as to how to effectively pray. Moses was therefore saying: "And I pleaded with God at that time" - having unsuccessfully tried to pray - "as to what to say." A disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, Rabbi Yosef of Nemirov related a wonderful parable in his correspondence with an anti-hassidic activist: There was a king who delighted in music. He chose musicians who would visit the palace daily to play for his enjoyment. The musicians were handsomely rewarded for their efforts and those who arrived before the appointed time were awarded a bonus. For the musicians this was a labor of love, for they were driven by adoration for the king, paying little attention to the reward. As nature would have it, some of the musicians were more talented and diligent than their counterparts, arriving well before their peers with instruments that were in splendid condition. Yet they all arrived by the appointed time, playing out of love for their master and enchanting the king with a magnificent daily musical routine. Time passed and the children took the place of their ancestors. The children, alas, lacked the talent and the pure motives of their predecessors. They were single-mindedly interested in remuneration for their services, paying little attention to the quality of the music. Indeed, some of the new musicians followed the example they had seen in their youth, arriving early at the palace. Sadly, their instruments were not tuned properly nor had they adequately practiced; all that concerned them was the monetary bonus for early arrival. The others also followed in the footsteps of their predecessors, arriving at the appointed time, regrettably with no preparation. Their musical achievements were also sorely lacking. Their late arrival meant they hurriedly went through the routine, all the while eying their wages. When the king heard the cacophony of these so-called musicians, he walked out. Unfortunately, the musicians were so oblivious to reality they did not perceive the displeasure of the king and continued the daily ritual. Among these charlatans were a few worthy people, who realized their instruments were not in good working order and that they lacked the necessary talent to please the king. They decided to devote time and energy to fixing their instruments and improving their skills. This investment meant they would arrive at the palace after the appointed hour. When they entered, they heard the racket of their colleagues and could not concentrate on the task at hand. They found a quiet corner where they were able to play. Having fulfilled their daily quota and having earned their coveted reward, the purported musicians left the palace while their earnest peers lingered, trying their utmost to improve their melodies. The king beheld their sincere efforts and was pleased. True, they lacked the talent of their predecessors and their instruments were not as finely tuned, yet they were troubled by these blemishes and had gone to great lengths to rectify them. Preparing for prayer is like tuning a musical instrument; a necessity before any quality performance. It is the difference between a harmonious symphony and a discordant cacophony. Preparation for the prayer journey can be as simple as a biblical verse beseeching God for Divine assistance, or it can constitute hours of meditation. It is this groundwork that enhances the melodious harmony of our prayers. 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.