Simanim 97-100 Appropriate Demeanor for Prayer

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion


SHIUR #55: Simanim 97 - 100

Pages 256-260


by Rav Asher Meir






            Is it permissible to pray carrying a light backpack?  See se'if 5.  Note that a kav is around a liter and a half, so if you can stick six quarts of milk (six liter-bags, in Israel) in your backpack, it seems that you may not pray while wearing it as it is too large.


            A large load needs to be put down before praying, since it is a distraction to pray with it.  What if one would be even more distracted putting it down?  It seems that the rule of siman 94:4 would apply.  If one has valuable objects or documents in a valise, one would probably not be able to keep one's mind on prayers if one were to put the valise down in a crowded place.  The same applies to a rifle - more about this in siman 150.






            At the very beginning of the Shulchan Arukh (SA), in siman 1:1, the Rema explains that it is a fundamental principle of the Torah that (Tehillim 16:8) "I place HaShem before me constantly."  The Rema explains that this means that one should have a constant awareness of being in God's presence, and this will lead to punctiliousness and devotion in God's service, just as a subject works diligently in the presence of an earthly king due to his devotion and fear of the king.


            Here in siman 98, the SA seems to say almost the identical idea, but limits it to Tefilla: If a person were to make his case before a worldly king he would summon the utmost concentration and presence of mind.  Yet, it is obvious that a greater degree of devotion is demanded during prayer than while one is conducting his everyday actions. Wherein lies the difference between the devotion required for Tefilla and the that which is obligated for the remainder of the day?


            [I mentioned in an earlier shiur that in our day, when the awe of political leaders is diminished, it may be that a better example is standing before a judge, who can determine whether the accused will be convicted or acquitted, and whether his sentence will be heavy or light.  In a moment's reflection, a judge decrees what will be the future of years of a person's life, and every effort must be made to make a positive impression.  Army commanders may also be a good example.]


            The answer is simple: all day long, our actions are observed by the holy King - we are in His presence, and carrying out His work.  But this is not the same as having an audience with Him.  Sometimes high commanders come to observe more or less routine maneuvers, and of course this inspires the soldiers to better performance. But the level of concentration and involvement is not comparable to that of a court martial.






            An earlier shiur dealt extensively with the different levels of "kavana" - intention - in performing mitzvot.  Briefly, ALL commandments require an intentional act (not a mistake), ALMOST ALL require the one intends that the act fulfill a mitzva requirement, whereas PRAYER requires that one has intention in the sense of "meaning."  A person may intend to say something and yet not mean what he says, but this level of intention is insufficient for davening.  One who prays needs to put his very self into the words he is saying.


            The word "mitpalel" according to many commentators is the reflexive of "palel," meaning "to discern" or "clarify."  So prayer means "discerning one's self."  There is a difference between asking a person what he wants from life and asking him what he prays for - the latter is likely to be an inner desire, not something that one wants because of convention.  Rav Kook (Musar Avikha, entry on "Tefilla") refers to prayer as "berur ha-chayim" - clarification of life.


            Without this element of meaning and self-involvement, the act is not an act of prayer at all.  Any person, Jew or non-Jew, who utters a prayer without such intention is simply not praying.  Thus, the requirement for "meaning" is not a rule pertaining to the commandment of prayer, but simply a part of the definition of the act of prayer.  (See Rabeinu Chayim HaLevi on Rambam, Tefilla 4:1.)


            Furthermore, the ability to "discern one's self" by speaking meaningfully to God is inseparable from belief in God.  For this reason, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC II 24) says that non-Jews are required to pray.  All of mankind must believe in God, and this belief must find expression in one's daily life.


            Of course, it is easier to attain this level of "meaning" when one formulates one's own prayer.  Summoning up such intention in the established prayers is not always easy, and a person who has only the vaguest idea of what resurrection is and what its importance is in Judaism may have difficulty "meaning" his praise of God as the "Reviver of the dead."  It is not necessary to exaggerate this requirement - while every Jew should deepen his knowledge of the foundations of faith, fulfilling the demands of our siman requires basically that one understands that the description "Reviver of the dead" applies to God, and that one means to praise Him by this description.




            Anyone who comes to unify the holy Name and does not properly intend, with will and awe, that everything, above and below, should be blessed [with this unification], his prayer is cast out, and he is denounced, and the Holy One, blessed be He, declares, (Yeshayahu 1:12), "When you come to see My face, who asked this of you, to trample My courtyards?!"  (Zohar Beshalach p. 115, cited in Magen Avraham 98:1)


            Some kabbalistic traditions - include that of the Ari (A-doneinu R-av I-tzchak Luria, a contemporary and colleague of Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Arukh) involve certain mystical intentions during the performance of commandments and especially during prayer.  This is what the MB is referring to in s.k. 1.  I would prefer not to get involved with this delicate subject in a shiur on this level, especially since my understanding of the subject is limited, but I am informed that sometimes novices try to involve themselves in these exercises, so I feel an obligation to explain the MB's intention here.


            Many places in the Talmud refer to the study of "Ma'aseh Merkava" - the work of the chariot, or as we would say today, the vehicle.  Certain people, acts, and thoughts are a vehicle for bringing holiness into this world.  We see from the different Talmudic passages that this process is one which bears study, suggesting that the bringing of holiness into the mundane world involves intricate processes.  These processes should be studied by a student at the appropriate level of piety and understanding.  This much is uncontroversial.


            According to the tradition to which the Ari belongs, the "vehicle" for "transporting" holiness involves a definite number (ten) of specific channels (sefirot) through which Divine influence finds expression in those aspects of creation which humans can apprehend or conceive (worlds).  One who UNDERSTANDS the process is also capable of STIMULATING the process.  One way in which this is done is by "directing" (the literal meaning of "kavana") specific blessings to (or at) specific channels through which the request of that blessing works.  This is supposed to improve the effectiveness of the prayer by concentrating its influence in the appropriate direction.  To take a mundane metaphor, if we could pray that the rain should fall specifically in the fields and the reservoirs, even a little rain would be enough for us.


            However, if there is a misunderstanding, this method of prayer borders on actual idolatry.  (To be blunt, some authorities rule that this kind of prayer is capable of frankly transgressing the prohibition on idolatry.)  By virtue of misconception, one could be praying to a channel of providence (a sefira) and not to God at all!  It goes without saying that one can, in the words of the MB, "mekalkel ba-zeh harbeh" - cause great ruin.  Furthermore, even an initiate who prays in this manner without careful attention can fall into this error, and for this reason even accomplished Kabbalists do not always pray in this manner, especially if they are rushed or preoccupied.




            This subject arose in siman 5.  There, the SA explained that when we utter the four-letter name, we should intend its spoken meaning - God's sovereignty, and also its written meaning - God's eternity.  When we say the name "Elokim," we should intend God's omnipotence and might.  A few authorities say that this intention should PRECEDE saying the name - one needs to "launch" the berakha on the correct "trajectory," with an exact idea of where it has to go, but in mid-flight there is no time for philosophizing.  See Eshel Avraham (Buczacz, not the section of the Pri Megadim) on the SA on siman 5.  But most agree with the MB there who says that this intention must be "be-et amirato" - at the moment of saying.  In other words, a general awareness of which aspect of God's dominion which is being referred to is not enough, rather at the actual moment of saying the name one should specifically MEAN this aspect.


            How does this square with what the MB says here in s.k. 1 in the name of the Penei Yehoshua?  It seems there is a difference between the MEANING of a word and its SIGNIFICANCE.  When a groom say "harei at mekudeshet li" he needs to MEAN that he is betrothing the bride.  But of course this act should be performed with a deep sense of the cosmic SIGNIFICANCE of the fact that two people are thereby being joined into a single household.  However, in the few seconds it takes the groom to say the fateful nine words, he probably is not able to ponder these matters.




            Here is the continuation and culmination of my kids-in-shul tirade.


            First, let us discuss the Rema here.  The Rema's ruling is an accepted one, so as a matter of practical halakha you should be aware that kissing children in shul is inappropriate.  In addition, those readers who find this ruling surprising, or even disturbing, should consider just what it is about their conception of Beit Knesset which should be re-examined.  Many people view a house of worship instrumentally - the family, and the society, which prays together, stays together.  The fact that God is (or is supposed to be) worshipped there is viewed only as a means to an end.  How many people join a place of worship only when their children reach the age when they need - in the parents' view - a good dose of socialization!  From this point of view, the Rema's ruling would place the end above the means!


            The Rema is reminding us that the Beit Knesset is erected as a place of sole devotion to God.  Raising children is definitely God's will, so it is a means to the ultimate end, but ends and means, while mutually reinforcing, need to be appropriately distinguished.


            Now let us turn to the MB, s.k. 3.  The Shelah cited is mentioned in almost all of the commentators on the SA.  The Shelah makes basically three points:

1. Young children disturb the concentration of others - this is an extension of the point made in MB 96:4.  According to this reason, if no one were in shul it would be permissible.

2. Children's play desecrates the sanctity of the Beit Knesset, which is a "miniature Sanctuary," before which awe - "mora mikdash" - is required.

3. The children receive "negative chinukh" - they learn that Beit Knesset is a place to make noise.


            I can not arbitrate for parents who want to decide whose synagogue experience is more important.  Some couples decide that since the man has a responsibility to pray in shul, this responsibility should be fulfilled as punctiliously as possible, even at the expense of the wife's prayers - after all, the man is (or should be) praying on behalf of the whole household.  In others, the husband makes a slight sacrifice by praying in an early or late minyan so that the wife may have an uninterrupted and uplifting experience.  Other couples may decide that the man has to skip a minyan altogether now and then - it's not obvious that a man's obligation to pray in a minyan overrides his wife's obligation to pray with intention, which may be possible for her only if she gets to daven once in a while in a proper environment.


            Whatever arrangements are made, if there are (barukh HaShem) young children, one parent should watch them some place other than in the synagogue proper.




            The Gra on the above Rema refers us to Zohar I:132b.  We find there:


"Come and see, that the ruling is thus: A person should not pray behind his Rav.  And it is said: This is in accordance with the verse "Fear the HaShem your God" ("Et HaShem Elokekha tira").  The word "et" (indicating a definite object, but also meaning "with") comes to teach that awe of one's Rav is like the awe of the Holy Presence, and a student's awe is towards his Rav.  Therefore, during prayers, this particular awe should not be before him, rather the awe of the Holy One blessed be He alone, and no other awe."


            Why does the Gra mention this?  Didn't we already learn in siman 90:24 that one should not pray behind his Rav?  Furthermore, why did the Gra refer us to the Zohar, when this rule is found in the gemara - Berakhot 27?


            The ruling in Berakhot has to do with honoring one's Rav.  One may not be overly familiar with him, nor disturb him.  The ruling the Gra is referring to is the opposite: we are not worried that he is overly familiar with his Rav, on the contrary, our concern is that the excessive awe he feels towards his Rav will distract him from feeling the awe of God.  This is parallel to the ruling of the Rema that one's love for his youngsters, if given too open an expression in Beit Knesset, can distract a person from love of God.






            The plain sense of the ruling, and the accepted custom, is that even though a large amount of wine is necessary to void one's berakha - only when one is completely drunk - even a small amount is enough to void one's tefilla, an amount which would prevent him from standing before a king.  Even slight drunkenness would mar one's ability to make one's best impression before the king.


            One Purim Rav Kook made a different explanation, which is "Purim Torah" in a double sense: on the one hand, it is Purim Torah because it uses accepted principles of learning to reach a surprising and even amusing result, but in addition it is Purim Torah because even as pure Torah, it is appropriate for the state people are in at Purim.  (Many halakhot - including rules of damages, cross-dressing, etc. - are modified for Purim to account for the way we celebrate this holy day.)


            According to Rav Kook's explanation (brought down by Rav Neria in "Moadei Ha-Ra'aya" in the section on Purim), for blessings a normal drunken person is disqualified, because he lacks the composure to address God.  However, such a person, if he were to suddenly meet the king, would gather his wits and sober himself up in no time because of his awe of the king.  (Imagine getting stopped by a police officer when one is only slightly tipsy.)  Since a person during Amida is standing in awe before God, his prayer is acceptable.  Only a person who is so drunk that he can't stand before the king - that is, can't sober himself up even when he is seized by awe of the king - is unable to pray.


[I write these lines on a Friday Shushan Purim, when the Jews of Jerusalem will have to get drunk during the day but still be able to gather their wits and pray Mincha in the late afternoon as Shabbat enters.]