08. Prayer: Communal and Personal Elements

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Based on what we have learned, it is possible to better comprehend the significance of women’s prayer. Two elements come into play in prayer, one personal and one collective. The personal is the individual’s appeal to the source of life, to her God, to petition Him for mercy. The collective element gives expression to the permanent connection between God and the Jewish people, thereby sanctifying His name in the world and drawing blessings down upon His creation. The collective element of prayer is the perpetuation of the sacrificial rites in the Temple, and therefore the prayers were instituted to correspond to the daily Tamid offerings.

Sometimes there is some tension between the personal and collective aspects of prayer. From the individual perspective, prayer should theoretically be poured out from the heart with no limitations, without any fixed formulas or set times, so that it can spontaneously and emotionally express one’s yearning and longing to be close to God. That is how people prayed during First Temple era. However, the Men of the Great Assembly, in their enactments, emphasized the collective element, for they understood that without a fixed prayer rite, most people would become stuck in their routines and would not recite even a personal prayer. Moreover, personal feelings are often flawed and deficient. However, when one prays with a community, his prayers are complemented and perfected by virtue of the collective. Therefore they instituted the recital of prayers at set times, corresponding to the bringing of the Tamid offering in the Temple. They established a fixed formula for prayer, including in it all the values important to the people of Israel as a whole. They composed the prayers in the plural and instituted communal prayer – in a synagogue with a minyan – for the essence of Israel’s greatness is that they can express sanctity publicly, thus revealing God’s name in the world and bringing it closer to perfection.

As a result of the emphasis on the collective and fixed aspects of prayer, the personal component, with its intense and fervent passion, is liable to be pushed aside. This is the meaning of R. Shimon’s warning: “Do not make your prayer fixed, but [make it] a plea for mercy and supplication before God”(Avot 2:13). Rabbi Eliezer similarly said: “If one renders his prayer fixed, his prayer is not supplication” (Berakhot 28b).

Nevertheless, the Sages emphasized the collective component in their enactment, thereby instituting the fundamentals of faith within life. From this standpoint, prayer is a continuation of the Temple service, and just as the korbanot expressed the connection that the Jewish people and the entire world have with God, so too the prayers give public expression to this connection in every Jewish community. Even in the Temple Mount precincts, there was a synagogue for prayer in the time of the Second Temple. Although this emphasis is likely to result in the sidelining of personal feeling, the general impact of fixed public prayer on the entire world as well as each individual is tremendous. Therefore, the Sages preferred to set a defined framework for prayer (see 1:8 above). 1

  1.   In recent generations, the greatest Ĥasidic leaders tried to find ways to reintroduce long-neglected personal feelings and kavana into prayer, even sacrificing halakhic details to this end. Some introduced melodies into prayer, which is not halachically problematic whatsoever. Others repeated words over and over until they felt that they had enough kavana, a practice which poses a halachic problem. Some would shout their prayers, which also goes against the Sages’ guidance. Some delayed the time of prayers until they felt that they were sufficiently prepared to concentrate properly; if in the interim the deadline for prayer passes, this goes completely against halakha. Still others would pray alone so as to arouse kavana (on the value of minyan, see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 2:1,2, and 5). Consequently, opposition to their practices arose. However, they insisted that individual kavana is so important that they warrant ignoring halakhic details. In actuality, after a few generations, most Ĥasidim returned to observance of halakhic rules in accordance with Jewish tradition.
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