By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I recently spent some time with my friend, the singer Matisyahu (yes, the famous one), and his beautiful family in their tour bus before a concert in Dallas. I was telling his kids a story about the requirement of reciting 100 blessings a day when Matisyahu raised a concern that unless one is a great tzaddik, it is nearly impossible for a person to truly concentrate on so many blessings every day. It would make more sense to make one or two blessings every day and really focus on them rather than doing so many. It seems that Judaism prefers quantity over quality, which is disturbing to him. I told him it’s a great question, and I will respond to him in my column. Here it is:
Your question is one that I, personally, have grappled with and has been the source of much discussion among the Baalei- Mussar, the ethicists of the mussar movement. Mussar emphasizes self-development and growth, stressing brutal honesty with one’s self with regards to character traits and areas such as prayer. They grapple with the challenge of spontaneity and emotion versus repetitiveness and praying by rote.
This question, or disturbance, comes across my mind almost daily when praying with a minyan, when I often feel like I’m holding on for dear life to the back bumper of a car speeding down the road with my knees banging on the pavement.
In fact, I nearly never finish my Amidah, silent prayers in time to answer the Kedushah recitation with the congregation. I brought the question before the (recently passed) leading sage of our generation, Rav Elyashiv; is it better I should speed up my Amidah in order to answer the Kedushah?
His response: “There are plenty of people answering Kedushah but not enough praying with kavanah (concentration). Keep on praying at your own speed and let the others answer the Kedushah.”
Why, then, don’t these rabbis, who are very practical, recommend we shorten the service or minimize the number of daily blessings from 100 to a few a day, as you suggest?
The answer to this penetrating question, as in all such questions, is multi-layered; we will try to offer some food for thought.
Imagine a musician who wasn’t able to muster up enough emotion to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony all the way through with full concentration; he always felt he was finishing the second half by rote. Could anyone imagine he could actually shorten the symphony in order to be in sync with his emotions? To shorten or change the notes of the maestro? That would be musical blasphemy.
Any musical enthusiast would tell him that, although the music would certainly sound better if he could invest his full emotion all the way through, it’s still a piece that stands on its own right. The complete masterpiece, even without full emotion, is still greatly superior to a modified one that doesn’t convey the intention of its composer.
The authors of the Siddur were 120 sages at the time the Second Temple was built — the “Men of the Great Assembly.” Among them were the last prophets of the Jewish people. They prophetically peered into the deepest secrets of the heavens and the Torah, seeing how the Temple offerings and prayers offered there affected the upper, spiritual worlds and the soul of man. The words they composed were the notes to a grand symphony, the song of the Jewish people, the poetry of the Jewish soul.
It is true that any and every blessing or prayer uttered stands on its own right and is beautiful in the eyes of God; it’s not an all-or-nothing deal. To get the complete picture, however, and to have the optimal impact, it takes all the notes together to hear the symphony.
The challenge is to use the notes of that symphony to express the emotions of the soul rather than to recite it with lip service only. This is a work of a lifetime; indeed, I have seen the world’s leading sages, including my mentor Rabbi S.Z. Aurbach, whose blessings and prayers were legendary, to work until his final days to achieve higher and deeper levels of feeling and concentration.
The recommendation of the Baalei Mussar is that everyone picks something small: one daily blessing, or verse, to be their avodah, their focal point of concentration, feeling and service of God. Only after that berachah or verse (such as the Shema, etc.) has become part of one’s very essence, one should move on to the next one.
In this way, every Jew has that level of intense concentration daily that you seek, but also remains with the entire symphony. And, as personal experience has borne out, when one fully concentrates on one section of the prayers, it has a ripple affect across not only the prayers but everything one does to serve the almighty throughout the day.
That effort, that struggle and that achievement are the hallmark of the Jewish people.
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.