Connecting to Others Through Davening

Growing up in a Reform Jewish congregation, I grew up with religious services conducted overwhelmingly in English, with great musical accompaniment. They lasted about an hour, included an organ and cantor with a wonderful voice, and some responsive readings, again mainly in English. On High Holidays, our synagogue employed a professional choir, featured a violin solo and also highlighted several other impressive performances. Going to services was like going to a concert, and only done on occasions.

So davening in an Orthodox shul was a very different experience for me. The first time I walked into an Orthodox service, it was a small mincha service in the chapel of the synagogue in Birmingham, Alabama. I was one of two women there, and I completely missed the fact that there was a mechitza and that the men and women didn’t sit together. I sat down in the men’s section. The rabbi very kindly handed me a siddur opened to the correct page and pointed out the women’s section of the chapel. Although he did this in a very inconspicuous manner, I was so embarrassed that the entire service completely went by without me paying attention to a single word of it.

As time went by though, I began to see the beauty of the traditional davening – the fact that it really became a personal experience. The separation between men and women allowed me to focus much better on my prayers, on what I was saying. While I still don’t understand all of the Hebrew, there is something about the fact that people all around the world use the same language to pray to Hashem every day. And that the same Torah portion is read in shuls across the globe each week.

And that tradition transcends not only space but time as well. Throughout the centuries, the same prayers have been uttered by my predecessors and it gives me a sense of connection to those relatives of mine from many years past whom I never got the opportunity to meet.

So while davening can be hard, day after day, especially in a foreign language that I don’t fully comprehend, it is also a source of strength and unity in my life. It connects me to so many others – even those who might not wear the same clothing or speak the same language I do. Those who have lived in the past and who will live in the present. And the most important – it connects us to Hashem in a way that we can’t even comprehend.

15 comments on “Connecting to Others Through Davening

  1. I live in Monsey but I’m ready to come to Passaic or even further as long as you have at least 2 people interested. Or, I can give it in Monsey at my House and whoever wants to come is welcome.
    What do you suggest ?

  2. “If you are intersted I am ready to give a few Shiurim on the Siddur so as to increase our Kavanot/Devotion.”

    Thank you for offering. Can you elaborate a bit on how it would work to reach the mispallelim here, who are spread out geographically?

  3. If you are intersted I am ready to give a few Shiurim on the Siddur so as to increase our Kavanot/Devotion.

  4. Chana:
    That would be great to have a shiur on the siddur. One year one of my son’s Rebbeim did just that, went slowly throughout the whole year on the meaning of all the tefillos. It was great for the boys, supercharged their davening.

  5. For those davening in English, it is my recollection that you should say the shem hashem (G-d’s name) in Hebrew. I’m not a Rabbi by any stretch so I’m just raising the issue so each person can raise it with their own Rav.

  6. As I am learning more textual material at shiurim (with translations) I am finding that the translations are often misleading and usually miss nuances in the Hebrew. Sometimes the nuances have a strong impact on understanding. I daven in English mainly, since my Hebrew comprehension is so slow and I haven’t taken the time to improve it. I add a lot of my own davening as I go through schacaris, using the English translation as my springboard. But lately I worry that I am missing something crucial in the Hebrew tefilla. Well, there are many shiurim to attend and so little time…..Perhaps a future shiur will be focused on the siddur.

  7. YD

    A agree with you, I never meant avoiding learning the text itself, If someone uses the heart only , it is no good , the head and heart need to be one. my point is: As you learn the simple meaning of waht you say , take advantage of your heart, and when you will know all the meaning of the text , then don’t forget the heart, because that’s what the yetzer is going to try to block ; instead of being blocked by the language.
    I hope this time everything is clear

  8. One of my great teachers surprised me in his most recent book by suggesting that those who do not have clear understanding of the Hebrew should davven in English at least sometimes. I was startled because his own love of Hebrew is so great that I had assumed he would regard davvening in Hebrew as the greatest practice, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that he approves of davvening in English if that’s what gets one closer to Hashem.

    For what it’s worth, I share your frustration with the kind of Reform worship you describe. I know people who really love it and who find it deeply moving, but I am not one of those people; I want to be singing or chanting along with everyone else! :-) I feel fortunate to have found a Reform shul where the worship is entirely participatory, there is no cantor nor choir nor organ, we do a lot of singing in Hebrew (my favorite thing), and there’s a warm and vibrant congregational ruach…

  9. Michoel Noach-

    You wrote: “Actually I think that we as Baaley Teshuva, due to the language blockage , we focus already from the very begining on the heart, because that’s all what we have”

    To me this reads as follows: BTs don’t undertand what the words of Shmone Esrei mean due to our poor Hebrew language skills. Therefore they can “freestyle” and pour out the yearnings of their hearts even if they have absolutely nothing to do with the texts that we are reading. This is what I don’t understand. There is plenty of room for spontaneous prayer or even for the the insertion of personal requests in Shmone Esrei. This is no substitute for understanding the simple meaning of the words as we recite them. Maybe davening in english is preferable but I can’t construe permanently davening in the original with no comprehension to be a brocha. Did I understand you correctly or do I suffer from Michoel Noachese blockage?

  10. man of the great assembly:
    I agree totally with you, what I wrote doesn’t contradict anything you say.

  11. michael noach –

    Maybe I’m a “block” head or a “block” heart but I just don’t get it. Why not just meditate and dispense with spoken prayer altogether? Of course our unblocked hearts must be in it but isn’t davening about using our faculty of speech to connect with H*? And isn’t it just a wee bit frustrating to read a script without understanding it? The Yetzer hoRa emphasizes text!?!? Doesn’t the Shulchan Aruch emphasize it? Isn’t the baseline kavannah Pirush Hamilos-the meaning of the words. Our hearts are already heart-y IMO the challenge is to make our words heartfelt!

  12. From the “Heritage Chats” D’var Torah from 10.28.02:

    Elana said that she felt connected both to Jewish history and to Jews around the world by praying in words that have been used around the world and throughout the generations. She felt that those “innovators” who had deleted some of the traditional prayers from their services were missing something very precious. As for the major criticism that can be leveled against all proponents of prayer in Hebrew. To wit: for Diaspora Jews who lack fluency in Hebrew is it really worthwhile pouring your soul out to G-d in a language that you neither understand well nor enunciate properly? In fact, the same holds true even for the majority of Israeli Jews whose spoken Hebrew relates to the classical Hebrew of the prayer book, much as the text of a daily tabloid relates to a Shakespearean sonnet. Elana said that even if she did not understand the Hebrew liturgy on a dictionary level, she did on an intuitive level. She felt that she understood Hebrew as though she was inborn with the knowledge as a baby and that she just “had a feel” for language.

  13. Beautifully written Shoshana. I’ve often thought about what you’ve pointed out about actions connecting us with others, both present and past. When we light Shabbos candles, there are Jews all over the world doing the same exact thing, in different dress, language, manner, etc. but we are all ushering in Shabbos Kodesh together. Have a good one everybody.

  14. It’s not for nothing that prayer is called “the service of the heart, we tend to forget it , but with such experience as yours we come back to it.
    Actually I think that we as Baaley Teshuva, due to the language blockage , we focus already from the very begining on the heart, because that’s all what we have…
    But then when we start to turn towards the intellectual part of davening , with time the Yetzer Hara makes us think that the text is the main focus of Davening. Let’s be careful and always focus on the primary element : the HEART.
    We in a sense have to take advantage of the hebrew blockage , which makes us different fom FFBs. The blockage can be now seen as a Bracha
    thank you Hashem for the blockage you give us at the begining!
    Have a Good Shabbes everybody!

  15. Are you sure?

    Perhaps you ought to think about this again. Don’t you think it’s poosible to turn this into a rant against Ortho shuls and their rabbis for not understanding how to reach out to potential BT’s?

    Just kidding. You’re attitude sums it up. Sometimes it’s hard for those joining late to accept that there’s a certain structure that’s not familiar, rather inflexible, and will require lots of time to assimilate but in the end it will be worth it.

    I salute your ability to do so. I’m not sure I’d be as intellectually honest given the choice.

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