Reconnecting Our Siddur and Ourselves

Sometimes, we tend to ignore the obvious. Perhaps this, too, is obvious. One obvious example (there seems to be a pattern here) is our davening. We pray at least three times a day, sometimes four (Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh). On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, we daven five times, with the addition of Ne’ilah. Yet, how many of us have explored the incredible treasures of these beautiful prayers? Flyers, posters, and full-page ads in newspapers have rightly been exhorting us for years to “stop the talking in shul.” Yet, the results cannot claim to be commensurate with the heroic effort. It seems (obviously?) that we may be taking our few moments of prayer completely for granted. Perhaps it is another manifestation of Yeshayahu Hanovi’s famous lament that “their fear of me is like mitzvas anoshim melumadah – rote learning” (29:13). What should we do about it?

A few of my baalei batim have been urging me for a while to give shiurim on the siddur. I finally gave in a few weeks ago and found a spot for a 45-minute weekly study of biur tefillah. The response has been incredible, the experience indescribable. All of us feel that our tefillos have been enhanced. Some expressed to me with some emotion, “Why haven’t we been doing this for years?”

Actually, there are so many wonderful works on this subject available in both Lashon Hakodesh and English that perhaps no maggid shiur is necessary. I believe that groups could get together to read from Tallelei Oros in either language, Rav Shimon Shwab’s Iyunei Tefillah, Rav Shimshon Pincus’s Nefesh Shimshon, and many more. Nevertheless, I would like to share some of our favorite discoveries and chiddushim. I hope they are not too…obvious.

The Mishnah Berurah (101:2) suggests that “it would be proper and wonderful if everyone would study the meaning of all the prayers.” Rav Chaim Kanievsky (introduction to his commentary on the siddur, edited by Rabbi Tzvi Yavrov) quotes from the Sefer Yosef Ometz (26) that “this study takes precedence over all others.” He further cites the flaming words of the Chasam Sofer that “the siddur is the barometer of every single Jew’s Yiddishkeit.” This seems to mean that the level of our davening and relationship and closeness to Hashem is measured by our understanding, commitment and proper usage of the siddur.

A few more quotes from Rav Chaim culled from his anthology Orchos Yosher help to solidify the importance of this area of study: “There is nothing greater than prayer” (Tanchuma, Mikeitz 9). Indeed “it is even greater than proper actions” (Brachos 32b). “Hashem never rejects anyone’s tefillah” (Tanchuma, Va’eschanon 4) and “every word of prayer rectifies countless things in the universe and their reward is limitless” (Seforim Hakedoshim).

In our shiur, we quoted from Rav Shamshon Rephael Hirsch about the ultimate question of why we pray. There are religions that forbid prayer because of the classic paradox that if G-d wanted us to have something, He would have given it to us. Since He did not, we must conclude that He does not want us to have it or we don’t deserve it. So why pray? Judaism teaches the exact opposite.

Rav Hirsch explains that the word lehispallel, meaning to pray, is reflexive. Now, if lehislabesh means to dress oneself and lehisrachetz means to wash oneself, what could lehispallel possible mean? To pray to oneself? He therefore demonstrates that the root of this word is actually fallel, meaning to judge (see Tehillim 106:30 with Rav Hirsch’s commentary). We now understand the process of prayer to be an intensely dynamic one. A person begins to daven and wishes, shall we say, for a refuah sheleimah, a complete cure for his illness. He is about to recite the appropriate prayer in Shemoneh Esrei – “Refoeinu – please cure me.” But then he thinks, “Do I deserve to be granted this request?” If the answer is “no” or even “perhaps not,” the one praying must engage in regret, repentance and sincere change. Then, and only then, can he even hope for a positive response. This is what we call the avodah part of prayer.

But there is much more. We also learned that even before we mention Hashem’s Name in the morning, we must thank Him for the return of our soul. This is called modeh ani. The classic translation of rabbah emunasecha is “abundant is Your faithfulness,” meaning that G-d is a faithful Guardian in that He not only restored our soul but returned it to us cleaned, rested and better than before, unlike any human shomer. However, we quoted Rav Dovid Cohen (Masas Kappai 2:7) that these words also mean that Hashem trusts us. Although there is a rule that there is never absolute certainty that any one human being can be trusted until he has drawn his last breath (see Iyov 15:15; Chagigah 5a), nevertheless, Hashem trusted in His creation as a whole (Sifri, Haazinu 32:4). This is a tremendously positive and optimistic way to begin the day. G-d trusts me and expects me to be good and do good things. What could bring a smile to our faces more than such confidence?

We also gained tremendous chizuk from the explanation of Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh Hachaim 1:6) of what is generally thought to be the first brocha of the day, applying also to every blessing before a mitzvah. We wash our hands after arising in the morning and recite the brocha of “asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu – Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding washing the hands.” Rav Chaim, the major disciple of the Gaon of Vilna, teaches us that “from the moment one [even] has the idea of performing [one of Hashem’s] commandments, he immediately makes his mark in heaven… Through this, he, even while alive, becomes attached to the Holy One blessed be He…a noble spirit entering within him.”

Let us imagine – this is even before we have fulfilled the mitzvah itself. How much more so when we have filled our day with mitzvos, Torah study and the avoidance of impropriety. Again, what a wonderful way to start the day, and all its available mitzvos, just via a careful reading of our daily siddur.

Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l (Nefesh Shimshon, page 56) adds another dimension to our understanding of why we recite the brocha on washing our hands so early in the day. He explains that the term maaseh yodayim, literally “the work of the hands,” is a catch-phrase for all that a person accomplishes. This brocha not only offers us a blessing upon all that we are about to attempt to achieve during the day, but, more importantly, adds a spiritual component to all that we do. It simultaneously reminds us to be careful about our actions, to think carefully before we do anything and also to ask Hashem’s blessing for what we actually do. So many people act or speak without thinking, let alone ask for our Creator’s blessing. A good Jew thinks ahead to all that he may encounter during the day, realizing humbly that nothing will get done without G-d’s approval, while with it, nothing can go wrong.

Finally, we explored the profound words of the Rashba (Responsa 5:51), who was asked why every brocha, but especially those on commandments, switch tenses in the middle. They begin by addressing Hashem in the first person, boruch Atah, blessed are You, and then change to the third person, “Who has sanctified us with His commandments.”

The Rashba explained that aside from the esoteric meanings inherent in this change, the simple meaning is that we address Hashem directly because He wants us to be able to speak to Him, beseech Him and feel close to Him. However, when we begin to contemplate Who He truly is, we must step back and realize that His essence is unknowable and unreachable. This constant oscillation in our lives, virtually every time we make a brocha (even shehakol ends with “His word”), enriches our lives by allowing both closeness with Hashem and establishing a proper respectful distance at all times.

Of course, all of this just scratches the surface of tefillah in general and our relationship with Hashem in particular. But it is our hope – and yes, prayer – that others will follow the Mishnah Berurah’s mandate to study the siddur and all of its various prayers. It will not only enhance our tefillos, but our lives as well, for man is considered to be a “creature who prays” (see Bava Kama 3b about maveh). In our shiur, we learned from many baalei mussar that, in truth, nothing happens if we do not pray for it, just as there was no rain in the world until Adam davened for it to fall (Rashi, Bereishis 2:5). May all of our tefillos be answered bimeheirah b’yomeinu.