By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
In your last column [May 6, p. 26] you mentioned that an incident happened while you were in Israel that inspired you to begin giving classes on prayer which lasted 10 years and transformed your own prayers. If it’s not too personal, I would be fascinated to hear what kind of incident would inspire someone to take on a project of that magnitude! Could you please share that story?
Dear Very Curious,
I’ll tell you the story, but it first needs a bit of background to be able to understand it, so I’ll try to fill you in:
Maimonides, the classical authority on Jewish law (Spain/Egypt, d. 1204), makes the following statement referring to the silent Amidah prayer: “Any prayer which is missing kavanah (concentration) is not a prayer.” This statement is referring to the entire Amidah prayer. In a different chapter of his work, Maimonides seems to contradict himself by saying “the lack of kavanah disqualifies the Amidah if it is missing in the first blessing.” The commentaries question the meaning of his statements; is it the first blessing or the entire prayer that the lack of kavanah disqualifies?
The accepted answer is one offered by Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (popularly known in yeshivot as “Reb Chaim”), that there are two concepts are included in kavanah: the understanding of the meaning of the words, and the cognizance that one is uttering those words while standing before the Presence of the Shechinah. The first is important, but only disqualifies if missing in the first blessing. The second is the “cheftzah of tefillah” or the essence of prayer itself. To utter words of prayer without realizing one is speaking to the King is to rob the prayer of its very spirit; it is not a prayer at all.
Many years ago I was praying in a very special service in Jerusalem known as a vatikin minyan, one which is exactly timed so that the Amidah begins at the moment of sunrise. There was a famous rabbi at the front, one known for his piety and scholarship, a Holocaust survivor, who was praying with a fervor, concentration and love unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I resolved to approach him upon the conclusion of the service and ask this sage how one achieves such an elevated level of prayer.
I went over to him immediately after the service; his head was already buried in a book, and he did not notice my presence for a while. When he finally looked up, I asked him, in Hebrew, how does one merit to kavanah in tefillah. When he fully understood what I was asking him, his entire body began to tremble. He looked at me with penetrating eyes and loudly exclaimed with great emotion and trembling: “To have kavanah in tefillah! That’s the Reb Chaim! Standing before the King! That is the essence of tefillah!”
I sort of crawled out of the shul with my head between my legs, realizing how far I was from where this man was holding. I thought that I needed to do something drastic to even have a chance to get anywhere near that rabbi’s level. That’s when I resolved to begin a weekly class on prayer in a neighborhood yeshiva. The preparation for that class became the greatest joy of my week; I spent many hours on each prayer. I began at the beginning of the siddur (prayer book), and after 10 years got up to Kabbalat Shabbat. (It ended at that point; that’s when I moved to Dallas and became too busy with DATA to find the kind of preparation time I had invested in Jerusalem to go further.) My dream is to continue one day, redo the notes of those 10 years and publish them as a commentary to the siddur. Mainly, I still hope, one day, to achieve the level of that rabbi in his prayers!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.