Chapter 10: Mental Preparation and Proper Attire

01. Mental Preparation

The Sages teach (Berakhot 31a; SA 93:2), “One should not stand to pray while in a state of sadness or ennui.” Prayer elevates people. Therefore, one must approach prayer out of happiness, knowing that she is about to be uplifted and brought closer to God.

The Sages further teach (ibid.), “One should not pray out of laughter,” because laughter negates one’s reverence for God, and one must pray out of a sense of awe and submission. “Nor amidst conversation,” because conversation distracts one from her inner world, and prayer is supposed to emerge from the depths of one’s soul. “Nor from frivolity and idle chatter,” because prayer is based on the recognition of one’s ability to do great things with her speech, and if she approaches prayer with idle words, she demonstrates that she does not value her speech (see Olat Re’iyah vol. 1, p. 29).

In the prayer service for men, the Sages instituted the recitation of joyful and heartwarming words prior to reciting the Amida in order to settle the mind; before Shaĥarit and Ma’ariv, we recite the berakha of Ga’al Yisrael” (“Who redeemed Israel”), and before the Minĥa Amida we say Ashrei (SA 93:2). Although women are not obligated to recite these prayers, it is at least incumbent upon every woman to pause for a few seconds, about the amount of time it takes to walk the distance of four amot, before praying, in order to settle her mind.

The pious people of yore (“ĥasidim rishonim”) would greatly augment their preparations for prayer, spending a full hour directing their hearts toward their Father in heaven before praying (Berakhot 30b; SA 93:1; MB 1). 

If a woman plans on giving tzedaka, whether by putting money in the tzedaka box in her house  or by writing a check for a donation, it is best that she does so before praying, so that she enters her prayer with the joy of having performed a mitzva (SA 92:10). 1 Furthermore, when one beseeches God for kindness and compassion, it is appropriate that she first give something of hers to the needy. Arizal recommends reflecting, before prayer, on the mitzva to love your fellow as yourself, which is a great Torah principle, as all the prayers are formulated in the plural as we pray for the nation as a whole.

  1. The Aĥaronim write, based on Rambam (Ahavat Ĥesed 1:1:14) that it is better for one who wants to give a large sum of money to tzedaka to donate money on several occasions instead of giving all of it away at once. However, this statement was made in a case where the small donation would benefit the starving poor, allowing them to buy their next meal with the money received. Nowadays, the needs of the poor have changed, there are almost no people starving for food, and the existing organizations and soup kitchens for the poor people need of large sums of money, it seems that there is no virtue in dividing the money into smaller amounts, for doing so only burdens fundraisers and undermines the primary objective, which is to help the poor. Therefore, instead of 1,000 people giving small sums of money to 1,000 charity organizations, it is preferable that each person gives their whole tzedaka donation to a limited number of places. They thereby save the trouble and the tremendous cost entailed in the collection of the funds, despite the fact that this may prevent them from being able to give tzedaka every day before prayer. Nonetheless, people often have small change, and it is appropriate to give this as tzedaka before prayer. 

02. Preventing Possible Disruptions in Prayer

While reciting the Amida, one may not hold an object that she fears will fall, such as a book, bowl, or knife, because her concern that it may drop will disrupt her kavana (SA 96:1). However, one may hold a siddur, because it is necessary for prayer (ibid. 1-2). Even while reciting other parts of the prayer service it is good to be careful about this. Le-khatĥila, one should not hold anything in her hand while reciting the Amida, not even a valueless object, about which one is not concerned for it is not respectful to stand in front of God while holding something extraneous (see MB 96:1 and 5).

Before praying, one must turn off  her cellular phone. In a synagogue or where there are siddurim available, one should not use her hand-held device as a siddur so that it does not distract her and so that she does not appear to be reading messages during prayers. One who does not have a siddur available and must therefore use a device should first disable the possibility of receiving calls or messages. One who must be available for urgent calls may leave the device on, but should set it to vibrate, so that its ringing does not disrupt prayer.

Le-khatĥila, one should not recite the Amida with a knapsack on her back, for that is not a respectful way to appear before important people, and all the more so, it is not respectful to pray in that manner. However, if she is already traveling with a knapsack on her shoulders and it is more comfortable to leave it on, she may pray with it on her it weighs less than four kabin (c. 5.5 kg or 12 lbs, 1.5 oz). If the knapsack is heavier than four kabin, she may not pray while wearing it, as it is liable to impair her kavana (SA 97:4).

Additionally, if someone holding a wallet full of money or other expensive objects fears that if she puts these items down they will be stolen, and she does not have pockets in which to put them or a friend there to watch them, it is preferable, be-di’avad, to keep them in her hands while praying, so that she will be less troubled (MB 96:6; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 7). Likewise, if someone carrying a heavy knapsack on her back is worried that it will be stolen and she has no other choice than to carry it, she may pray while wearing it.

A woman may not pray while holding a baby in her arms, because the child requires constant attention to make sure he does not fall. Furthermore, the baby is likely to disturb her kavana. Even when the baby is wrapped inside an infant carrier or sling, it is not respectful to pray with him on her. Still, if no other option exists and the woman praying knows that she will be able have kavana in her prayer while holding the baby, she may pray with him on her. When there is concern that she will not be able to have kavana, she may not pray in that manner; instead, she fulfills her obligation by reciting Birkhot Ha-Torah and Birkhot Ha-shaĥar, which may be recited even while holding a baby.  1

  1. Le-khatĥila, one must not pray while holding a weapon  nor even enter the synagogue with it, for it is inappropriate to pray about life and peace while wearing an instrument of death. However, he may enter the synagogue and pray with it on him if he is carrying it for security reasons (see Tzitz Eliezer 10:8).

03. Appropriate Attire for Prayer

One must prepare herself for prayer, revere God’s majesty and glory, and rejoice at the opportunity to stand before the King of kings in prayer. This preparation should also be apparent in her dress; one’s clothes should be respectable, fitting for one who stands before the King.

The laws of prayer are not like the laws of other matters of sanctity. Regarding all other matters of sanctity, such as Birkhot Keri’at Shema, as long as one’s nakedness is covered, they may be recited (SA 74:6). However, regarding prayer, since one is standing before the King, she must dress in a respectable manner (SA 91:1). With regard to women, as long as her clothes are modest in accordance with the halakha, they are indeed valid for prayer. 1

Le-khatĥila one should enhance the mitzva by wearing respectable clothing for prayer, so that one honors God at least as much as one honors human beings. Just as one is careful to wear dignified attire when meeting important people, so too, she must dress at least as respectably for prayer. Indeed, one who goes out once in her life to greet a king makes sure to wear her nicest clothing. However, one who sees the king every day does not wear her fanciest garments; but she does make sure to wear clothes that suit her profession and status. Similarly, we come before the King three times a day, and we therefore dress nicely for prayer, but save our finest apparel for Shabbatot, festivals, and joyous celebrations.

  1. Regarding men there is a question: What does one do if he finds himself in a place in which there is nothing but underwear to cover his nakedness and he does not have a blanket to cover the rest of his body? Some say that since he is in a situation beyond his control, he should pray the way he is (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 91:3). Others say that he may not pray in this manner (BHL 91:1). This issue is clarified in Peninei Halakha: Prayer, 5:4 n. 6. However, it is clear that a woman in the same set of circumstances may not pray in that manner, because her lack of clothes is much more severe. Furthermore, there are poskim who maintain that women can fulfill their obligation of prayer by reciting only Birkhot Ha-shaĥar and Birkhot Ha-Torah. Yet, if she has a blanket, she can, under extenuating circumstances, use it to cover her whole body and pray.

    It is worth noting that these laws are more complex for men because rules governing their modesty are less strict. Therefore, there are men who throughout the day walk around in clothes that are not considered respectable, such as shorts and undershirts, but for prayer they must come in distinguished attire, as explained in Peninei Halakha: Prayer 5:4-5. In contrast, women must dress modestly throughout the day, and the modest clothes that they wear during the day are certainly valid for prayer.

04. Attire Fit for Prayer

Although le-khatĥila one must wear respectable clothing for prayer, when it is difficult to change one’s clothes, it is permissible to pray in everyday clothing, as long as they are not undignified. Therefore, a woman who is engaged in household chores and is caring for her children, and does not have time to dress for prayer, may pray in her regular clothes or a nice robe that she wears around the house. As long as she is not embarrassed to open the door to her house in these clothes, they are not considered disgraceful.

One should not pray in pajamas (MB 91:11). However, one who is ill may pray in pajamas, because it is accepted that one who is not feeling well wears pajamas, even when important people come to visit her.

One should not stand in prayer wearing a raincoat, boots, and gloves, because that is not the way to stand before important people (MB 91:12). Yet, when it is very cold, it is permissible to pray in a raincoat and gloves, because this is not an affront to the honor of prayer. Moreover, in a place where everyone regularly wears boots, one may wear them while praying.

Similarly, girls who are on a field trip are permitted to pray as they are, as long as the clothes conform to the laws of tzni’ut. Although these clothes would not be considered respectable attire at home, and perhaps may even be considered slightly disgraceful, on a trip they are acceptable, and even if an important person would appear before them they would not feel a need to change their clothes. Therefore, as long as the clothes are modest, they may be worn for prayer for the duration of the field trip. 1

  1.   Regarding men, a question sometimes arises: Which is preferable, respectable clothing or praying in a minyan? See Peninei Halakha: Prayer 5:4-5, which states that if the clothing is merely “not respectable” it is preferable to pray in them with a minyan; however, if they are truly disgraceful, it is best to change them and pray individually. Additionally, see earlier in this chapter, n. 3, which mentions that since for men the limitations of modesty are less strict, there are gray areas. For example, a man who is going on a hike may wear shorts. However, if it is not accepted for him to wear shorts before and after the hike, he must wear long pants for prayer. Concerning women, who are bound by rules of tzni’ut, these laws are not applicable, because the modest clothing that they wear all day is valid for prayer. 

05. Head Covering for Men

In order to assess whether women are required to cover their heads when praying or reciting berakhot, we must first clarify the law regarding men. Originally, a few eminent sages practiced the extra pious custom of not walking four amot bareheaded. Rav Huna b. R. Yehoshua is praised for not having walked four amot without a head covering (Shabbat 118b). He said, “Indeed the Shekhina is above my head, so how can I go around with it uncovered?” (Kiddushin 31a). Similarly, the Talmud teaches (Shabbat 156b) that after it was made known to Rav Naĥman bar Yitzĥak’s mother that he would become a thief according to his astrological sign, she was extremely meticulous about keeping his head covered constantly, enabling him to grow in Torah and mitzvot. Once, when his head covering fell, the evil inclination attacked him and his temptation to steal dates from the palm tree overtook him. He then understood his mother’s strictness. In time, this extra pious act became accepted in all of Israel until it became an obligatory custom (SA 2:6).

Some poskim say that there is an obligation to cover one’s head while mentioning God’s name and reciting berakhot. Others maintain that while there is no specific obligation for men to cover their heads when mentioning God’s name and reciting berakhot, accepted custom requires the covering of one’s head throughout the whole day, including when mentioning God’s name. Shulĥan Arukh cites the stringent opinion as halakha, according to which one is required to cover his head when mentioning God’s name and reciting berakhot (91:3; 206:3). 1

  1. Sofrim 14:15 states that according to the tanna kama it is permissible to mention God’s name bareheaded, whereas others forbid it. Rabbeinu Yeruĥam and Or Zaru’a 2:43 rule that it is forbidden to recite berakhot without a yarmulke, and this is also the ruling of SA 91:3 and 206:3. However, Or Zaru’a states that the rabbis of France customarily recited berakhot bareheaded. Rambam’s opinion (MT, Laws of Prayer 5:1 and 5) is that a head covering is necessary for the Amida, but when reciting berakhot there is no need. Pri Ĥadash 91:3 and Gra 8:6 state that a head covering is not technically required for reciting berakhot, as implied by the Gemara’s explanation of the order of Birkhot Ha-shaĥar (Berakhot 60b): all the berakhot recited before Oter Yisrael are recited without a yarmulke. Thus, Rosh, Mikhtam, Rashba, and other Rishonim, as well as Beit Yosef §46 and Responsa Maharshal §72, who interpret the Gemara to mean that each berakha of Birkhot Ha-shaĥar was said immediately upon performing the action, would agree that there is technically no requirement to wear a yarmulke to say God’s name. However the practice for men is clear: they need a yarmulke for all matters of sanctity, as SA rules. It has even become the accepted custom not to walk four amot without a yarmulke (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 5 n. 3).

06. Head Covering for Women

Women do not customarily cover their heads in order to arouse fear of heaven within themselves. As a matter of tzni’ut, married women must cover their hair, but single women, who are not required to cover their hair for reasons of tzni’ut, do not normally walk around in a head covering like men. Perhaps the reason that women do not need a yarmulke is that they naturally find it easier to improve themselves. Men are perhaps bolder, and therefore they need yarmulkes on their heads to restrain and focus that trait. Women, who by nature are more reserved and more modest, have no such need.

Another possible explanation is that by observing the laws of tzni’ut in the way they dress, women more clearly convey acceptance of the yoke of heaven upon herself and therefore do not require a head covering to express their fear of God. In contrast, even if a woman who does not abide by the rules of modesty were to wear a yarmulke, it would be to no effect, for her transgression of the laws of tzni’ut is very severe; by neglecting to observe the halakhot which pertain to her, it is as if she is declaring that she is not bound by halakha, the word of God.

There are, however, poskim who maintain that single women, too, must cover their heads when reciting God’s name and saying berakhot. They maintain that in this matter there is no distinction between men and women; rather the command to cover one’s head when mentioning God’s name is a separate obligation (Ish Matzli’aĥ, Yaskil Avdi). Others say that at the very least, women must cover their heads while reciting the Amida (Yabi’a Omer 6:15). However, in practice, single women are not strict concerning this, and even while praying the Amida they do not normally cover their heads. The reason for this is that men have adopted the pious custom of covering their heads all day in order to inspire their fear of God. Therefore, there is ample reason to require them to wear a head covering when mentioning God’s name. But for single women, who do not practice this custom, a head covering does not demonstrate fear of God, and hence they are not obligated to wear one while praying and reciting berakhot.

Nonetheless, married women certainly must cover their hair for prayer, since without a hair covering they are not dressed in accordance with the laws of tzni’ut; certainly if they were to pray in that manner it would be disrespectful. One must come to prayer in distinguished clothing, befitting someone who stands before the King of the universe, so certainly one must properly observe the halakhot of modest attire. Therefore, even women who do not abide by the law and do not normally cover their hair should cover it while praying. 

When mentioning God’s name, some poskim say that married women must be strict about head-covering, even in complete privacy. Others say that since single women are not obligated to do so, married women are not obligated either. The rationale is that the obligation of married women to cover their hair is a function of tzni’ut alone, and since there is no obligation to dress in a respectable fashion when reciting berakhot, there is no reason to distinguish between married and unmarried women, so married women may recite berakhot and Shema without a hair covering. 1

  1. Responsa Ish Matzli’ach OĤ 24-25, and Yaskil Avdi vol. 7, p. 289 state that single women must cover their heads when reciting berakhot. Yabi’a Omer 6:15 provides a comprehensive summary of the issue and concludes that single women should not be prevented from reciting a berakha bareheaded; however, it is proper for them to cover their heads while praying the Amida, as Rambam says. Married women, even when reciting a berakha, must cover their heads, as indicated in Ĥesed La-alafim 2:8.

    However, the widespread custom is that single women pray, whether at home or in the synagogue, without a head covering. The rationale behind Rambam’s ruling that a head covering is necessary when praying is that by covering one’s head, one expresses his or her fear of God, and therefore certainly this is how one must pray the Amida. Yet, for single women, the yarmulke does not symbolize fear of God, and hence they may pray bareheaded. Tzitz Eliezer 12:13 reinforces the practice of praying pare-headed with the reason offered by Ĥatam Sofer: since gentile women customarily cover their heads in their houses of worship, Jewish women should be careful not to imitate that custom.

    Nevertheless, if a married woman, who must cover her hair for reasons of tzni’ut, stands in prayer while not dressed in keeping with the mandatory parameters of tzni’ut in front of others, it certainly constitutes an affront to the honor of Heaven.

    Reciting berakhot is not considered to be standing before the King, so a woman in private, when the laws of tzni’ut do not require her to cover her hair, there is no need for her to cover her head while reciting a berakha. However, Yabi’a Omer 6:15 and Halikhot Bat Yisrael 5:3 state that married women must cover their heads when mentioning God’s name, even when in complete privacy. Still, in practice, many married women normally recite the bedtime Shema and Ha-mapil without a head covering. It seems that the reason for this is what I wrote above, that the obligation to wear a yarmulke when reciting berakhot is based on the pious custom to cover one’s head throughout the entire day. Since the yarmulke inspires fear of God all day, it follows that one must also wear it while invoking God’s name. However, women, who do not customarily wear a yarmulke to inspire fear of God, need not wear one when mentioning God’s name either. There is proof for this in m. Ĥalla 23: “A woman may sit and separate the ĥalla while nude.” Nude here obviously means bareheaded, for it would not make sense that she is required to cover her head but allowed to recite the berakha while nude. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach rules this way too, saying that women’s custom to cover their heads in the mikveh while making the berakha on immersion does not obligate them in this practice for all other berakhot (Halikhot Bat Yisrael 5 n. 6). Therefore, a woman who wakes up in the middle of the night to relieve herself is not obligated to cover her head while reciting Asher Yatzar. Likewise, a woman who walks around her house bareheaded (when there are no strangers around) and wants to drink something is allowed to recite She-hakol and Borei Nefashot without a head-covering.

07. Wearing a Belt

A man may not recite sacred words (devarim she-bikdusha) while there is no separation between his heart and his erva (nakedness). Thus, one wearing a long cloak or robe without underwear who wishes to recite sacred words must wear a belt to divide between his heart and his erva. However a woman’s nakedness is lower down, and her heart naturally cannot “see” her erva. Hence, a woman may recite sacred words while dressed in a robe, even without a separation between her heart and her erva.

Prior to the Amida, a man must put on a belt. Some poskim maintain that the reason for this is to create a division between one’s heart and one’s erva, in which case wearing underwear is sufficient and there is no need for a belt. Others say that specifically a belt must be worn in honor of the Amida, so as to more effectively emphasize the division between one’s heart and one’s erva (SA 91:2; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 5:3).

However, women, who are not required to create a division between their hearts and their erva, do not need to wear a belt when praying.