Mishnah Insights: Berachos 5:1

Mishnah Berachos 5:1 – Preparation Before Prayer

Continuing with prayer, the Mishnah addresses the recommended state-of-mind to acquire, before the Shemonah Esrei, standing prayer, when we stand before H’Shem as if standing in front of a king. (And how much more so, since He is sovereign King of the Universe). The required state to foster is one of seriousness, denoting humility and awe before H’Shem. This is based upon the following pasuk (verse): serve the L-RD with fear [awe], and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11, JPS 1917 Tanach). In other words, the psalmist relates the understanding that even while rejoicing, we should still simultaneously tremble with fear, so that we do not get carried away with the nature of our rejoicing. This is true and essential reverence, in service towards H’Shem. There is not laxity permitted in regard to this manner of approaching H’Shem; yet, too often this ideal is diminished by our sense of expediency, casualness, and distractedness.

How can a sense of gravity be acquired, before approaching H’Shem in prayer? The Mishnah states that it was the practice of pious men, to take an hour ahead of time to prepare for prayer. They would focus their hearts on HaMakom, the place where G-d resides in Shomayim (Heaven). Today, not many are able to cordon off an hour of time before prayer; however, there is a custom, particularly amongst Chassidim to study an inspirational text from chassidus before prayer, in order to elevate one’s thoughts toward G-d. Thus, by meditating on G-d’s greatness, calming the mind through breathe work, or drinking a cup of tea while reflecting on kitvei kodesh (holy scripture), these may all be acceptable means of preparation before prayer. (However, on a personal note, I do not recommend the use of a mantra; the idea is to uplift our thoughts, not numb the mind).

Mishnah Insights: Berachos 4:5

Mishnah Insights: Proper Concentration for Prayer

While riding on a donkey, what is appropriate in regard to prayer? Specifically, for the Shemonah Esrei prayer? Anyone riding on a donkey would find prayer challenging, especially the type of prayer alluded to in the Mishnah, namely the Shemonah Esrei that is recited while standing. Yet, the Mishnah covers this, noting several options:

If someone else can hold the donkey while one is praying, this is acceptable. Although, a more authoritative ruling explains that because one is traveling, even if another person holds the donkey, the person praying will be distracted, worrying about the journey, so as to not have proper concentration; for this reason, one should continue riding on the donkey, and pray while doing so.

The gist of the Mishnah actually has to do with the requirement to pray the Shemonah Esrei, while facing Jerusalem, if living in Israel; or, facing in the direction of Israel, for those living outside of Israel. Thus, one should turn his head towards Jerusalem, while riding on a donkey.  If one can not turn towards Jerusalem while riding on a donkey, for the sake of prayer, he should focus his heart energy towards the Temple mount. (Keep in mind that these rulings were recorded in the third century; however, the oral tradition predates the written accounts by at least several hundred years).  

Mishnah Insights: Berachos 4:4 – prayer & travel

“Redeem, L-rd, Your people, the remnant of Israel, at every transition. May their needs be before You. Blessed are You, L-rd, Who listens to prayer.”

– Mishnah Berachos 4:4, sefaria.org

The Mishnah discusses fixed payer; and, the inability to pray a complete prayer, while walking in a place of danger. Fixed prayer, that is to say, prayer viewed as an obligation, whereof prayer may seem like a burden, and done only to fulfill an obligation is discouraged. For that type of prayer will not be sincere, as the person praying only seeks to relieve himself of what is considered a burdensome obligation.

In regard to prayer while traveling through an area that might be dangerous, it is assumed that the person’s mind is unsettled, hence, an inability to foster proper concentration. In this situation, a person is not required to say a complete prayer (e.g., the Shemonah Esrei). Moroever, there is not even a requirement to say Havineinu, a shortened version of the Shemonah Esrei; rather, an even briefer prayer may be recited (see above-mentioned prayer). Incidentally, I imagine that the reason the prayer is in the plural is because, prayers including oneself with others are more likely to be answered.

These considerations are made, for the sake of the safety of the traveler. Consider Moshe, who at the Sea of Reeds began to pray to H’Shem, when Pharaoh’s army posed a significant threat to B’nei Yisrael. To paraphrase the passage, H’Shem told Moses, now is not the time to pray; rather, I will deliver the people now. Certainly, in any given situation wherein imminent harm is at hand, the time would appear to be a time to act, rather than pray.

However, a brief prayer for deliverance is in total accord with what is right in the eyes of G-d, who would like us to put our trust completely in Him. At times like those, a brief prayer, like, “H’Shem, guard me against evil,” would be appropriate. The Mishnah, in discussing prayer here, Is only referring to traditional prayers recited on a daily basis, as opposed to impromptu heartfelt prayers that may be said at any time, in any situation.

Mishnah Insights: Berachos 4:2-3 – study & prayer

Mishnah Berachos 4:2-3

4:2 – One of the sages “would recite a brief prayer upon his entrance into the study hall and upon his exit” (sefaria.org), for the sake of the sanctification of his study time. He would say a prayer, before studying that he would not negatively influence others, by way of sharing a wrong understanding (G-d forbid), having the adverse impact of causing someone to err in his ways. After studying, his prayer encompassed an appreciation of having the opportunity to study, and his gratitude towards G-d for that opportunity.

Reflecting on this, I think about how much I take for granted, in regard to my ability to study with concentration, and the time allotment that I have for doing so. I have taken these studies upon myself, and though at times they feel like an arduous chore, at other times, I find an almost instantaneous reward, for having learned something of unique value.

Yet, I am too preoccupied, most of the time, to thank G-d for these opportunities. Furthermore, when I take creative license for my explanations, instead of going strictly “by the book,” I wonder if I have permitted myself too much of an interpretive rendering of my own. I should offer more thanks to G-d, and always pray for guidance in my words.

4:3 – Regarding a shortened version of the Shemonah Esrei prayer, this version may be said when one is lacking in concentration. The point is that it is better to recite less with kavannah (intentional focus) than to recite the full prayer without doing so in a meaningful way. Thus, as a side note, I would add that another way to put this would be to focus on “quality, rather than quantity.” Much consideration is given elsewhere, such as in the Mesillas Yesharim (Way of the Upright), concerning the importance of kavannah. This is something that I should always try to emphasize.

Mishnah Insights: Berachos 3:6 – 4:1 – Prayer Times

The Mishnah continues with details, in regard to removing spiritual impurity through immersion in water, before praying or studying. Then, chapter four begins with laws in regard to the shemonah esrei. Prayers must be recited in a timely fashion, corresponding to the hours of the day, specifically, the position of the sun in the sky. This harkens back to Biblical passages concerning prayer in the Torah and the Book of Daniel (see Genesis 19:27, 24:63, 28:11; and, Daniel 6:10).

The prayer times generally correspond to the times that offerings were made during the day, based upon passages in the Torah. However, unlike morning and afternoon prayers, that are akin to the offerings, the evening prayer is not fixed to a specific time. Even though the ideal time is at twilight, when three stars appear in the sky, as mentioned previously in Berachos, the prayer can be said throughout the night.

Of course, G-d will listen to prayer of the heart at any time throughout the day and night. Rather, the above-mentioned prayer times have to do with the liturgical prayers found within the pages of the traditional Jewish siddur (prayerbook).

Mishnah Insights: Spiritual Cleanliness

Mishnah Daily Study: Berachos 3:4-5


In regard to prayer and study, in that order, to what extent is spiritual purity required? The Mishnah addresses this question in specific terms, while I will attempt to draw a broader perspective. Various views range from distancing oneself from prayer and study, until one has become spiritually cleansed (through immersion in water), thus freeing his conscience from guilt, versus permitting oneself to engage in prayer and study in a less direct manner, such as forming the words of prayer in one’s mind, and studying without reading aloud, even before immersion.

I ask myself, what is the concern at hand, in regard to engaging in prayer or study, with unclean hands (see Psalm 24:4)? Perhaps, because G-d is a consuming fire, as is mentioned elsewhere, so that if we approach Him in a condition less than pure, or a state of mind that is not reconciled to Him, we risk the occurrence of having our soul singed. Thus, approaching G-d in an unworthy manner, could have the effect of bringing judgment upon ourselves (G-d forbid).

Moreover, both prayer and study require concentration; so, so the soul needs to be recollected, in order to engage in these meaningful spiritual activities. This is not to say, that we can not approach G-d in our unworthiness, and ask Him to cleanse us. Rather, the traditional times of prayer and study that we are accustomed to would be diminished in their effectiveness, if we are still wallowing in the dirt of our aveiros (transgressions).

In the time of King Solomon, a large vessel made of brass, described as a “molten sea” was placed on twelve oxen, also cast of brass, placed in proximity to the entrance of the Beis HaMikdash or Temple. The waters contained therein were for purification. Before we enter into dialogue with G-d, we need to cleanse our hearts through teshuvah (repentance).

Mishnah Insights: Berachos 3

Mishnah Berachos 3:2

“After they buried the deceased and returned, if they have sufficient time to begin to recite Shema and conclude before they arrive at the row, formed by those who attended the burial, through which the bereaved family will pass in order to receive consolation, they should begin [even if they will only have an opportunity to recite the first verse (Deuteronomy 6:4)].” – sefaria.org

From this we learn in the commentary, that the main part of the Shema prayer is the first verse; and, that this verse is minimally permissible to recite by a comforter, between the time after the deceased is buried, until reaching the line, where one would line up to approach and comfort the mourners, by offering one’s condolences. Seemingly so, the only motivating factor, according to halacha, to say the Shema at this time if necessary, would be if one was not able to do so that morning prior to the funeral. Incidentally, the Shema is a comforting prayer, in and of itself, and, if said, quietly to oneself, can offer divine consolation, regardless of who may take the opportunity to recite the prayer. Yet, it is forbidden to say the Shema while walking; so, this more or less throws a monkeywrench, figuratively speaking, of course, into the entire discussion.

Perforce, to say that these and similar guidelines within perek (chapter) 3:2, have to do with being exempt from performing a mitzvah, while engaged at the time with the performance of another mitzvah; for example, consoling a mourner. That so much consideration is given, in regard to the exact details of the situation, compels me to have more respect and appreciation of such a mitzvah. The gravity of the situation at a funeral, would certainly elicit proper respect towards the mourner and the mitzvah of consolation itself; yet, knowing that consoling a mourner takes precedence over the most important prayer in Judaism, demonstrates the kindness and compassion that we are to show to mourners. Also, this priority demonstrates as well, the kavanah (proper focus and intention) necessary to offer a meaningful consolation, without the distraction of having another mitzvah preoccupying one’s thoughts.

As an afterthought, I would add that Jewish mysticism teaches that every person has a divine spark within their soul, that originates with G-d. By treating others with respect, we are also honoring others as being created in G-d’s image. Therefore, I would imagine that G-d would not feel the least bit slighted in any way, if we set aside the obligation to say the Shema, for the sake of consoling a mourner.

Mishnah Berachos 3:3 has to do with more general exemptions and obligations, in regard to the following: tefillin (phylacteries), Shemonah Esrei, mezuzah, and Birchas HaMazon (Grace after Meals). Amongst the discussion on mezuzot is a commentary that obligates a father to make sure that a mezuzah is placed upon the doorpost of a child that lives alone. This is emotionally moving to me; and, I imagine the father himself placing the mezuzah on the doorpost of his child’s place of residence. For myself, this speaks of the continuity of values and traditions, within the framework of Judaism.

motzei Shabbos: parashas Vayechi 5782

havdallah service
parashas Insight on prayer

How to combat two impediments to prayer:

1). arrogance & pride, 2). sin & negative thoughts.

note: based on the teachings of Nachman of Breslov, and his contemporary student, Mohorosh.(Lekutei Mohoron, Part 1, Lesson 97; The Inner Stream: Insights on the Parsha of the Week)

the antidote to arrogance and pride: sur meira (avoid evil) – Self-Abnegation (Bitul)

“For G-d has made me forget all my toil an all of my father’s household.” – Genesis 41:51

the antidote to sin and negative thoughts: asei tov (do good) – Holy Thoughts in prayer

“For G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” – Genesis 41:52

Exilic Prayer

“Oh my lord, let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in my lord’s ears.”

– Genesis 44:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

The divine yearning within ourselves seeks to be consoled by eliciting our concern for the part of ourselves that seeks to unite with the L-RD. Therefore, rather than ignore the natural affinity that the soul has for the Creator, we should acknowledge this vital element in our personal makeup. That is to say, that without nurturing the soul’s need to connect to H’Shem, we deprive ourselves of the true source of our life. Yet, the question remains, how to properly access this source, the root of our essential selves.

In parashas Vayigash, Judah makes an impassioned plea, for the sake of Benjamin, while addressing the Egyptian prince (Joseph) that stands before him. Nesivos Shalom renders the passage in a symbolic manner, ascribing Judah’s words to an imagined conversation with G-d, as if instead of addressing the prince that stands before him as lord, he is addressing H’Shem. Within this framework, we can understand through a nuanced perspective, the essence of prayer during the current exile; inasmuch that our prayers should be for the sake of the Shechinah, Who suffers with us during exile. By seeking to console the Shechinah, we console ourselves as well.

Therefore, in recognition of Joseph’s suffering, as well as the suffering of his brothers – who see the troubles that fell upon themselves in Egypt as divine recompense – as akin to our nisyanos (troubles), during this current exile, we may seek consolation through prayer; and, G-d’s presence will be with us, in the midst of our suffering. Let us speak in G-d’s ears, all that troubles us, offering our very selves as servants, as Judah offered to be a servant in place of his brother, Benjamin. Let us serve as surety for our brethren, K’lal Yisrael (All of Israel), and lead the way, towards redemption from Galus (Exile). Just as Joseph was reconciled to his brothers, may all of Israel be reconciled to H’Shem, through the unity that will be brought only by Moshiach (Messiah).

parashas Vayigash 5782

heirloom

An unmeasured amount of blessings,

found within these two leather boxes;

a treasure beyond compare to things,

discarded after wear & tear, and disuse.

My tefillin contain the keys to life,

divinely-inspired words for my heart,

to contemplate, while setting aside strife;

and permit my soul to regain its art.

These pearls of lasting value,

bestowed upon me by my mother,

after my father’s transition to shomayim,

so that I can carry on the sacred task.

How many generations were these passed

down from father to son, until I received

them at last, that wearing them might mend

my fractured soul, and renew my strength?

Every morning before sunrise, I bind

the leather straps seven times around my arm;

and, place the second box upon my head,

carefully above the hairline, according to halacha –

a repository of tradition, to safeguard my faith.