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LESSON PLAN

tefillah cover page lesson plan

A suggested lesson plan outline for incorporating these resources into a 60-minute class.

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Summary

In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore the approach taken by Rabbi Sacks in his writings and speeches to Tefillah. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.

There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.

Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high school ages (15-18 years old).

In January 2018, Rabbi Sacks was a guest in the community of Rabbi Efrem Goldberg’s community in Boca Rotan, Florida. Rabbi Goldberg took the opportunity to ask Rabbi Sacks for a brief and intimate interview which he recorded for his Podcast “Behind the Bima”.

One of the questions asked was: what does Rabbi Sacks do when he struggles with his davening/prayer. You can hear Rabbi Sacks address this question from minute 9.11-12.05.

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Core Questions

  • Are you surprised to hear that a Rabbi also sometimes struggled with their tefillah?
  • What struggles do you imagine he had? Do you have the same (or different) struggles?
  • What are the three strategies / approaches he suggests to help?
  • Can you find one idea in the siddur that inspires you, that you can recommend to others to meditate on?
  • Do you find music enhances your tefillah experience? How and why?
  • What do you think Rabbi Sacks was teaching us by comparing tefillah to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?
  • What do we need to do or change in our tefillah to allow it to have a similar impact to CBT?
  • Do you find any of the three strategies Rabbi Sacks shares helpful to you and your tefillah?
  • Which one speaks to you the most?

Prayer is Service of the Heart:

  • Devarim 11:13
  • Sifrei on Devarim 41
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Core Questions

  • What does it mean to serve God?
  • What does it mean to serve God with our heart?
  • How do we make our tefillah serving God with our heart?

Post-Temple biblical prayer

  • Daniel 6:11
  • Melachim 1, 8:12-53
  • Yeshayahu 56:7
  • Hoshea 14:3
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Core Questions

  • What familiar norms of Jewish prayer can you see in these verses?
  • When these verses were written these were novel ways to serve God. What was the previously established way?
  • Why did things change?

The historical development of tefillah

  • Mishneh Torah (Rambam), Laws of Prayer, Chapter 1
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Core Questions

  • Why do you think so many rules developed to give tefillah a clear structure?
  • Can this still be described as ‘service of the heart’?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of this new post-temple form of service?

Talmudic debate over the origin of tefillah

  • Talmud Bavli, Brachot 26b
    • Shacharit – Avraham: Bereishit 19:27 and Tehillim 106:30
    • Minchah – Yitzchak: Bereishit 26:3 and Tehillim 102:1
    • Ma’ariv – Yaacov: Bereishit 28:1 and Yirmiyahu 7:16
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Core Questions

  • Do you think modern tefillah in our age reflect closer the sacrificial service or the forefathers encounter with God?
  • The argument in the Talmud concludes that tefillah comes from both sources. Where can you see that in our tefillah services?
  • Is there a message to be learned from the balance between these two sources for tefillah?

The Structure of Tefillah

In general, sequences of Jewish prayer move from the universal to the particular. Grace after Meals, for example, begins with a blessing thanking God “who in His goodness feeds the whole world.” The second blessing moves to particularities: Israel, liberation from slavery, “the covenant You sealed in our flesh,” Torah and the commandments. We thank God “for the land [of Israel] and the food.” The third is more narrowly focused still. It is about the holy city, Jerusalem.

The same pattern exists in the two blessings before the Shema in the morning and evening service. The first is about the universe (“who gives light to the earth,” “who creates day and night”), and the second is about Torah, the specific bond of love between God and the Jewish people. Look and you will find many more examples in the siddur. (The one exception is Aleinu, whose first paragraph is about Jewish particularity and whose second is a universal hope).

This movement from universal to particular is distinctively Jewish. Western culture, under the influence of Plato, has tended to move in the opposite direction, from the concrete instance to the general rule, valuing universals above particularities. Judaism is the great counter-Platonic narrative in Western civilisation.

Moving from the universal to the particular, the prayer book mirrors the structure of the Torah itself. Genesis begins, in its first eleven chapters, with a description of the universal condition of humankind. Only in its twelfth chapter is there a call to an individual, Abraham, to leave his land, family and father’s house and lead a life of righteousness through which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

There are universals of human behaviour: we call them the Noahide Laws. But we worship God in and through the particularity of our history, language and heritage. The highest love is not abstract but concrete. Those who truly love, cherish what makes the beloved different, unique, irreplaceable: that is the theme of the greatest of all books of religious love, the Song of Songs. That, we believe, is how God loves us.

Understanding Prayer, in The Koren Sacks Siddur, pp. xx-xxi

Creation, Revelation, Redemption

The metaphor that, to me, captures the spirit of prayer more than any other is Yaacov’s dream in which, alone at night, fleeing danger and far from home, he saw a ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending… Prayer is a ladder and we are the angels. If there is one theme sounded throughout the prayers, it is creation–revelation–redemption, or ascent–summit–descent.

Creation – Pesukei DeZimra

In the Verses of Praise (Pesukei DeZimra), we climb from earth to heaven by meditating on creation. Like a Turner or Monet landscape, the psalms let us see the universe bathed in light, but this light is not the light of beauty but of holiness – the light the Sages say God made on the first day and “hid for the righteous in the life to come.” Through some of the most magnificent poetry ever written, we see the world as God’s masterpiece, suffused with His radiance…

Revelation – Shema / Amidah

By the time we reach Barechu and the blessings of the Shema we have neared the summit. Now we are in heaven with the angels. We have reached revelation. The Divine Presence is close, almost tangible… Now comes the great declaration of faith at the heart of prayer, the Shema with its passionate profession of the unity of God and the highest of all expressions of love, “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”… Then comes the Amidah, the supreme height of prayer. Three traditions fuse at this point: the silent Amidah said by individuals, reminding us of prophetic prayer; the Leader’s repetition representing priestly worship and prayer as sacrifice; and then the Kedushah, prayer as a mystical experience.

Redemption – Concluding Prayers

From here, prayer begins its descent. First comes Tachanun in which we speak privately and intimately to the King. At this point, with a mixture of anguish and plea, we speak not of God’s love for Israel but of Israel’s defiant love of God… Then comes Ashrei and the subsequent passages, similar to the Pesukei DeZimra but this time with redemption, not creation, as their theme. The key verse is “A redeemer will come to Zion.” The section closes with a prayer that we may become agents of redemption as we reengage with the world… We are now back on earth, the service complete except for Aleinu, Kaddish and the Shir shel Yom. We are ready to reenter life and its challenges… We are not the same after we have stood in the Divine Presence as we were before. We have been transformed. We see the world in a different light. Perhaps we radiate a different light. We have spoken to and listened to God. We have aligned ourselves with the moral energies of the universe. We have become, in Lurianic terminology, vessels for God’s blessing. We are changed by prayer.

Understanding Prayer, in the Koren Sacks Siddur, pp. xxxix-xli

From Love to Awe

The supreme religious emotions are love and awe – in that order. We are commanded to “Love the Lord your God.” We are also commanded to experience the feelings associated with the Hebrew word yira, which means “awe, fear, reverence.” This is how Maimonides puts it: “When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom, which is incomparable and infinite, he will immediately love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great name… And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil frightened, and realise that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of He who is perfect in knowledge” (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2).

The supreme expression of love in Judaism is the Shema with its injunction: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The supreme expression of awe is the Amidah prayer, when we stand consciously in the presence of God. The basic movement of the morning and evening prayers is first, to climb to the peak of love, the Shema, and from there to the summit of awe, the Amida.

Understanding Prayer, in the Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xxviii
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Core Questions

  • What lessons does Rabbi Sacks say we can learn from the structure of tefillah?
  • Why do you think the Rabbis taught us these lessons through the structure and order of the siddur (rather than through a book on the philosophy of Judaism)?
  • How will an awareness of these structures change your tefillah experience?

Prayer and Faith

The siddur is also the book of Jewish faith. Scholars of Judaism, noting that it contains little systematic theology, have sometimes concluded that it is a religion of deeds not creeds, acts not beliefs. They were wrong because they were searching in the wrong place. They were looking for a library of works like Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. They should have looked instead at the prayer book. The home of Jewish belief is the siddur…

The fact that Jewish faith was written into the prayers, rather than analysed in works of theology, is of immense significance. We do not analyse our faith: we pray it. We do not philosophise about truth: we sing it. Even Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith – the most famous creed in the history of Judaism – only entered the mainstream of Jewish consciousness when they were turned into a song and included in the siddur as the hymn known as Yigdal. For Judaism, theology becomes real when it becomes prayer. We do not talk about God. We talk to God.

Understanding Prayer, in the Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xxxiii-xxxiv
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Core Questions

  • Where is their Jewish philosophy or statements of Jewish belief and faith in the siddur?
  • What impact does it have on us to “sing about faith” in our prayers rather than talk or debate about it in the academy?
  • Do you think Jewish faith is intellect or emotion based? How does that help understand the point Rabbi Sacks is making?

Prayer and Sacrifice

The connection between prayer and sacrifice is deep. As we have seen, sacrifice is not the only forerunner of our prayers; many prayers were spoken by figures in the Bible. These were said without any accompanying offering. Yet the sacrificial system is a major tributary of the Jewish river of prayer. After the destruction of the second Bet HaMikdash, prayer became a substitute for sacrifice. It is avoda shebalev, “the sacrificial service of the heart.” Yet it is just this feature of the prayers that many find difficult to understand or find uplifting. What, then, was sacrifice?

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, which comes from a root that means “to come, or bring close.” The essential problem to which sacrifice is an answer is: how can we come close to God? This is a profound question – perhaps the question of the religious life – not simply because of the utter disparity between God’s infinity and our finitude, but also because the very circumstances of life tend to focus our gaze downward to our needs rather than upward to our source. The Hebrew word for universe, olam, is connected to the verb meaning “to hide” (see Vayikra 4:13; Devarim 22:1). The physical world is a place in which the presence of God is real, yet hidden. Our horizon of consciousness is foreshortened. We focus on our own devices and desires. We walk in God’s light, but often our mind is on other things.

How then do we come close to God? By an act of renunciation; by giving something away; specifically, by giving something back. The sacrifices of the biblical age were ways in which the individual, or the nation as a whole, in effect said: what we have, God, is really Yours. The world exists because of You. We exist because of You. Nothing we have is ultimately ours. The fundamental gesture of sacrifice is, on the face of it, absurd. What we give to God is something that already belongs to Him. As King David said: “Who am I and who are my people that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from You, and we have given You only what comes from Your hand” (Divrei HaYamim I 29:14). Yet to give back to God is one of the most profound instincts of the soul. Doing so, we acknowledge our dependency. We cast off the carapace of self-absorption. That is why, in one of its most striking phrases, the Torah speaks of sacrifice as being rei’ach nicho’ach, “sweet savour” to God.

Understanding Prayer, in the Koren Sacks Siddur, pp. xxxiv-xxxv
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Core Questions

  • Were sacrifices more for God or for us?
  • How does that affect the way we understand prayer in Judaism?
  • How does sacrifice bring us closer to God? How does prayer?

Kavana: Directing the Mind

Prayer is more than saying certain words in the right order. It needs concentration, attention, engagement of mind and heart, and the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Without devotion, said Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, prayer is like a body without a soul. The key Hebrew word here is kavanah, meaning mindfulness, intention, focus, direction of the mind.

In the context of prayer, it means several different things. The most basic level is kavanah le-shem mitzvah, which means, having the intention to fulfil a mitzvah. This means that we do not act for social or aesthetic reasons. We pray because we are commanded to pray. Generally in Judaism there is a long-standing debate about whether the commandments require kavanah, but certainly prayer does, because it is supremely an act of the mind.

At a second level, kavanah means understanding the words (perush hamilim). At least the most important sections of prayer require kavanah in this sense. Without it, the words we say would be mere sounds. Understanding the words is, of course, made much easier by the existence of translations and commentaries.

A third level relates to context. How do I understand my situation when I pray? Rambam states this principle as follows: “The mind should be freed from all extraneous thoughts and the one who prays should realise that he is standing before the Divine Presence.” These are essential elements of at least the Amidah, the prayer par excellence in which we are conscious of standing before God. That is why we take three steps forward at the beginning, and three back at the end – as if we were entering, then leaving, sacred space.

The fourth level of kavanah is not merely saying the words but meaning them, affirming them. Thus, for example, while saying the first paragraph of the Shema, we “accept of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” – declaring our allegiance to God as the supreme authority in our lives. In the second paragraph, we “accept of the yoke of the commandments.” The word Amen means roughly, “I affirm what has been said.” In prayer we put ourselves into the words. We make a commitment. We declare our faith, our trust, and our dependency. We mean what we say.

Understanding Prayer, in the Koren Sacks Siddur, pp. xxxvii-xxxviii
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Core Questions

  • What are the four types of kavanah Rabbi Sacks describes?
  • Which one do you find most challenging to achieve and why?
  • How can we become better at each of these four?

Is Prayer Answered?

Is prayer answered? If God is changeless, how can we change Him by what we say? Even discounting this, why do we need to articulate our requests? Surely God, who sees the heart, knows our wishes even before we do, without our having to put them into words. What we wish to happen is either right or wrong in the eyes of God. If it is right, God will bring it about even if we do not pray. If it is wrong, God will not bring it about even if we do. So why pray?

The classic Jewish answer is simple but profound. Without a vessel to contain a blessing, there can be no blessing. If we have no receptacle to catch the rain, the rain may fall, but we will have none to drink. If we have no radio receiver, the sound waves will flow, but we will be unable to convert them into sound. God’s blessings flow continuously, but unless we make ourselves into a vessel for them, they will flow elsewhere. Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the Divine.

Speaking from personal experience, and from many encounters with people for whom prayer was a lifeline, I know that our prayers are answered: not always in the way we expected, not always as quickly as we hoped, but prayer is never in vain. Sometimes the answer is, “No.” If granting a request would do us or others harm, God will not grant it. But “No” is also an answer, and when God decides that something I have prayed for should not come to pass, then I pray for the wisdom to understand why. That too is part of spiritual growth: to accept graciously what we cannot or should not change. Nor is prayer a substitute for human effort: on the contrary, prayer is one of the most powerful sources of energy for human effort. God gives us the strength to achieve what we need to achieve, and to do what we were placed on earth to do.

Understanding Prayer, in the Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xli
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Core Questions

  • Is it enough for you if God is listening, even if He doesn’t answer?
  • According to Rabbi Sacks, does God answer our prayers?
  • If our prayers cannot necessarily ‘change God’s mind’, then what is the point of praying

Changing the World Through Prayer

Prayer changes the world because it changes us. The Hebrew word for “to pray” is lehitpallel, which means “to judge yourself.” That is what we do when we pray. We pray not simply for God to fulfil our desires but in order to know what to desire. All animals act to satisfy their desires. Only human beings are capable of standing back and passing judgment on their desires. There are some desires we should not satisfy. Junk food is bad for us. So is smoking. So are many drugs. So is wealth illicitly obtained. So is ambition achieved by betraying others. And so on. To be humanly mature is to know what to desire.

Prayer is the education of desire. Take the weekday Amidah as an example: It teaches us to seek knowledge, wisdom and understanding – not just a new car, an exotic holiday or expensive clothes. It teaches us to want to return to God when, as happens so often, we drift in the winds of time, blown this way and that by the pressures of today. It teaches us to seek spiritual healing as well as physical health. It teaches us to seek the best not just for ourselves but also for our people and ultimately for all humanity.

In Birkot ha-shachar, the Dawn Blessings, prayer opens our eyes to the wonders of the physical world. It trains us to give thanks for the sheer gift of being alive. In Pesukei dezimra, the Verses of Praise, we learn to see the Creator through creation.We sense the song of the earth in the wind that moves the trees, the clouds that dapple the sky, the sun that melts the snow. We hear God’s praise in the breath of all that lives.

Letter 13: Prayer, in Letters to the Next Generation 2

Prayer changes the world because it changes us. At its height, it is a profoundly transformative experience. If we have truly prayed, we come in the course of time to know that the world was made, and we were made, for a purpose; that God, though immeasurably vast, is also intensely close; that “were my father and my mother to forsake me, the Lord would take me in”; that God is with us in our efforts, and that we do not labor in vain. We know, too, that we are part of the community of faith, and with us are four thousand years of history and the prayers and hopes of those who came before us. However far we feel from God, He is there behind us, and all we have to do is turn to face Him. Faith is born and lives in prayer, and faith is the antidote to fear: “The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”

Understanding Prayer, in the Koren Sacks Siddur, pp. xli-xlii
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Core Questions

  • What impact can prayer have on us as individuals?
  • How can prayer change the world?
  • Who do we pray for? What should our objectives be?

Further videos

Further articles

To thank God is to know that I do not have less because my neighbour has more. I am not less worthwhile because someone else is more successful. Through prayer I know that I am valued for what I am. I learn to cherish what I have, rather than be diminished but what I do not have.

Celebrating Life, p. 15

Making a blessing over life is the best way of turning life into a blessing.

Celebrating Life, p. 16

Prayer is the act of listening to God listening to us.

Celebrating Life, p. 78

The world we build tomorrow is born in the prayers we say today

From Optimism to Hope, p. 74

Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God. It is the most intimate gesture of the religious life, and the most transformative. The very fact that we can pray testifies to the deepest elements of Jewish faith: that the universe did not come into existence accidentally, nor are our lives destined to be bereft of meaning.

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xv

In prayer we speak to a presence vaster than the unfathomable universe, yet closer to us than we are to ourselves: the God beyond, who is also the Voice within.

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xv

For God who made the world with creative words, and who revealed His will through holy words, listens to our prayerful words. Language is the bridge joining us to Infinity.

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xv

We need space within the soul to express our joy in being, our wonder at the universe, our hopes, our fears, our failures, our aspirations – bringing our deepest thoughts as offerings to the One who listens, and listening, in turn, to the One who calls. Those who pray breathe a more expansive air.

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xv

The siddur is the choral symphony the covenantal people has sung to God across forty centuries, from the days of the patriarchs until the present day. In it we hear the voices of Israel’s prophets, priests and kings, its Sages and scholars, poets and philosophers, rationalists and mystics, singing in calibrated harmony.

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xv

We use the words of the greatest of those who came before us to make our prayers articulate and to join them to the prayers of others throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xvi

Speaking from personal experience, and from many encounters with people for whom prayer was a lifeline, I know that our prayers are answered: not always in the way we expected, not always as quickly as we hoped, but prayer is never in vain. Sometimes the answer is, “No.”

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xli

Prayer changes the world because it changes us. At its height, it is a profoundly transformative experience.

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xli

However far we feel from God, He is there behind us, and all we have to do is turn to face Him. Faith is born and lives in prayer, and faith is the antidote to fear: “The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xlii

When, at the end of his vision, Jacob opened his eyes, he said with a sense of awe: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” That is what prayer does. It opens our eyes to the wonder of the world. It opens our ears to the still, small voice of God. It opens our hearts to those who need our help. God exists where we pray. As Rabbi Menaĥem Mendel of Kotzk said: “God lives where we let Him in.” And in that dialogue between the human soul and the Soul of the universe a momentous yet gentle strength is born.

Understanding Jewish Prayer in The Koren Sacks Siddur, p. xlii

Prayer is our intimate dialogue with Infinity, the profoundest expression of our faith that at the heart of reality is a Presence that cares, a God who listens, a creative Force that brought us into being in love. It is this belief more than any other that redeems life from solitude and fate from tragedy. The universe has a purpose. We have a purpose. However infinitesimal we are, however brief our stay on earth, we matter.

Prayer: Speaking to God – Introduction to Unit 2 of the Ten Paths to God

In Judaism, we do not analyse our faith, we pray it. We do not philosophise about truth, we sing it, we daven it. For Judaism, faith becomes real when it becomes prayer.

Prayer: Speaking to God – Introduction to Unit 2 of the Ten Paths to God

In prayer God becomes not a theory but a Presence, not a fact but a mode of relationship. Prayer is where God meets us, in the human heart, in our offering of words, in our acknowledged vulnerability.

Prayer: Speaking to God – Introduction to Unit 2 of the Ten Paths to God
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Core Questions

  • How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the value of the family in Judaism?
  • How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
  • Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Hitpallel, from which “Tefillah” is derived, originally meant to deliver an opinion about oneself, to judge oneself or an inner attempt at so doing such as the hitpa’el (reflexive) form of the Hebrew verb frequently denotes … Thus it denotes to step out of active life in order to attempt to gain a true judgment about oneself … about one’s relationship to God and the world, and the world to oneself …

In English we call Tefillah “prayer,” but this word only incompletely expresses the concept “to pray,” i.e., to ask for something is only a minor section of Tefillah.

S. R. Hirsch, Horeb Part IV

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

To the extent that the individual approaches God, his finite mortal existence is negated. The finite is swallowed in the Infinite and expires in its depths. Man sometimes flees from God or hides from Him – “And Moshe hid his face for he was afraid to look at God” (Shemot 3:6) – lest he be swallowed. Man’s independence and self-confidence are nullified before God’s splendor and glory. If so, then the question arises: How can prayer exist at all? Prayer is standing before God, before the Divine Presence. How can a person be in God’s presence without losing his individual existence…

Prayer is a vital need for the religious individual. He cannot stop the thoughts and emotions, deliberations and troubles which surge through the depths of his soul, his hopes and aspirations, his despair and bitterness – in short: the great wealth that is concealed in his religious consciousness. It is impossible to halt the liturgical outpouring [of these feelings]. Prayer is essential. Fresh, vibrant religious feeling cannot exist without it. In other words, prayer is justified by virtue of the fact that it is impossible to exist without it.

Soloveitchik, J. B. Raayonot al HaTefillah, 244

Contemporary man is unaware of his needs. Man is surely aware of many needs, but the needs he is aware of are not always his own. At the very root of this failure to recognize one’s truly worthwhile needs lies man’s ability to misunderstand and misidentify himself, i.e. to lose himself. Quite often man loses himself by identifying himself with the wrong image. Because of this misidentification, man adopts the wrong table of needs which he feels he must gratify. Man responds quickly to the pressure of certain needs, not knowing whose needs he is out to gratify. At this juncture, sin is born. What is the cause of sin, if not the diabolical habit of man to be mistaken about his own self? Let me add that man fails to recognize himself because he is man. As man, he was cursed by the Almighty; condemned to misuse his freedom and to lose his own self. In other words, adoption of a wrong table of needs is a part of the human tragic destiny…

The case of existential slavery is, however, different: it is up to man, who is charged with the task of redeeming himself from a shadow existence. God wills man to be creator – his first job is to create himself as a complete being… Man was commanded to redeem himself in order to attain full being. This can be achieved only through prayer: “And we cried unto God.” The redemption from Egypt was initiated through prayer.

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to’ pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness.

Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person’s own need-awareness is dull, and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence…

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about…

We do not know the exact semantics of the term ‘tefillah’. Yet one thing is clear: the term is related to thinking, judging, discrimination. In short, prayer is connected with the intellectual gesture. The hierarchy of needs, clearly defined and evaluated, is to be found in the text of the tefillah, where not only the emotional need-awareness, but also the logos of need and with it the human being himself are redeemed. The outpouring of the heart merges with the insights of the mind. To pray means to discriminate, to evaluate, to understand, in other words, to ask intelligently…

Prayer [is] self-acquisition, self-discovery, self-objectification and self-redemption.

Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah

Judaic dialectic plays “mischievously” with two opposites, two irreconcilable aspects of prayer. It announces prayer as self-acquisition, self-discovery, self-objectification and self-redemption. By sensitizing and logicizing the awareness of need man delivers himself from the silence and from non-being and becomes an I, a complete being who belongs to himself. At this level, prayer makes man feel whole: at this level, prayer means self-acquisition. Yet there is another aspect to prayer: prayer is an act of giving away. Prayer means sacrifice, unrestricted offering of the whole self, the returning to God of body and soul, everything one possesses and cherishes. There is an altar in heaven upon which the archangel Michael offers the souls of the righteous. Thrice daily we petition God to accept our prayers,. as well as the fires – the self-sacrifices of Israel – on that altar. Prayer is rooted in the idea that man belongs, not to himself, but that God claims man, and that His claim to man is not partial but total. 

Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah

Rabbi A. J. Heschel

Prayer may not save us, but prayer makes us worth saving

Prayer clarifies our hopes and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification, a quarantine for the soul. It gives us the opportunity to be honest, to say what we believe, and to stand for what we say. For the accord of assertion and conviction, thought and conscience is the basis of all prayer.

Prayer teaches us what to aspire to. So often we do not know what to cling to. Prayer implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish. Redemption, purity of mind and tongue, or willingness to help, may hover as ideas before our mind, but the idea becomes a concern, something to long for, a goal to be reached, when we pray.

A. J. Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, 1954

As a tree torn from the oil, as a river separated from its source, the human soul wanes when detached from what is greater than itself…

Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God to join the movement toward Him, which surges unnoticed throughout the entire universe. 

We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. God is the center toward which all forces tend. He is the source, and we are the flowing of His force, the ebb and flow of His tides.

The focus of prayer us not the self… it is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts, which constitute the art of prayer… thus, in beseeching Him for bread, there is one instant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to His mercy. This instant is prayer. 

We start with a personal concern and live to feel the utmost.

A. J. Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, 1954

Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz

תְּ֭פִלָּה לְעָנִ֣י כִֽי־יַעֲטֹ֑ף וְלִפְנֵ֥י יְ֝הוָ֗ה יִשְׁפֹּ֥ךְ שִׂיחֽוֹ  (Tehillim 102:1) is diametrically opposed to “Let him gird up strength like a lion to rise in the morning for the service of his Creator” (first line of Shulchan Aruch – an introduction to the laws of prayer)

The first is a human-psychological phenomenon, the expression of an impulse from within, an action which springs from man himself, from an experience he has undergone, or from the circumstances in which he finds himself. It is an action performed for man’s own need, whether material, intellectual, or emotional. This is prayer for one’s own benefit, a service to oneself. There is nothing worshipful about it. it does not represent acceptance of “the yoke of Heaven/” in other words, it is not essentially a religious act although.

Prayer as shaped in the prayerbook, is an entirely different matter. It is obligatory and fixed. Consider what these two properties imply. As obligatory, it is not what a person desires but what is demanded of him; not prayer initiated by him, but one imposed on him. as fixed, it does not vary with the changing circumstances or states, objective or subjective, in which the praying individual finds himself. Hence it does not reflect the state of mind or situation of the praying person. such a prayer is not intended to satisfy a need. No two people have identical needs or perceive their position before God in the same way. Their needs and perceptions could not be expressed in the same words at the same moment. Moreover, in the life of a single person no two moments are identical in respect of what he feels or needs. Yet the prayerbook does not take these differences between individuals or between the varying circumstances of the same person into account. The same morning, afternoon, and evening prayers are imposed upon the Jew every day of his life, the only variation being the additional prayers of Sabbath and holidays and Ne’ilah service of Yom kippur. The Jewish prayer – inasmuch as it is a distinctive religious institution, determined by religious considerations and a constitutive element of halakhic Judaism – is not intended to serve as an outlet for the feelings and thoughts of man. It is not the spontaneous outpouring of one’s soul which necessarily varies with individuals, their moods and states of mind. It is more than an expression of psychological need which has been granted due place in the religious life. 

The sole meaning of prayer as a religious institution is the service of God by the man who accepts the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. His acceptance becomes real through his assumption of the burden of Torah and Mitzvot. Only the prayer which one prays as the observance of a mitzvah is religiously significant. The spontaneous prayer a man prays of his own accord is, of course, halakhically permissible, but, like the performance of any act which has not been prescribed, its religious value is limited. As a religious act it is even faulty, since he who prays to satisfy his needs sets himself up as an end, as though God were a means for promotion of his welfare. As in the case of any Mitzvah, prayer-especially prayer-is religiously significant only if it is performed because it is a Mitzvah. Its religious value is minimal when it is performed out of free inclination.

The grandeur and power of prayer, prayer that is mandatory and fixed by Halakha, lie precisely in setting aside all of man’s interests and motives out of awareness of man’s position before God, a position which is always the same regardless of any personal circumstances. Man relinquishes his own will in the recognition of the duty of worship. The same set of eighteen benedictions is required of the bridegroom as of the widower returning from his wife’s funeral. The same series of psalms is recited by one enjoying the world and one whose world has collapsed. The identical supplications are required of those who feel the need for them and those who do not.

Y. Leibowitz, Of Prayer

Suggested Lesson Plan – Tefillah in the Thought of Rabbi Sacks

The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age students. This will focus solely on one particular idea within the thought of Rabbi Sacks. There are many other themes found in this unit which would take more classroom time to explore with your students

tefillah cover page lesson plan

Tefillah in the Thought of Rabbi Sacks

Download our 60-minute class for high-school aged students.


Bet Nidrash on ‘Tefillah’

Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash” is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us. Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.

Our tefillot (prayers) are always written in the plural, focusing on the collective and not just the individual and our own personal needs and relationship with Hashem. In this light, a Bet Nidrash initiative for tefillah needs to be focused on the community and how we can enrich tefillah for us all as a community.

In the opening activity to this unit we heard a short clip from a podcast interview where Rabbi Sacks gave three suggestions for improving our tefillah. The first was to slow down and find just one thing to focus on during each tefillah. This could be a phrase or idea contained in the text of the siddur, paying more careful and full attention to just one sentence or one prayer, or focusing on one wider philosophical or spiritual idea. To help with this, students could create posters based on the ideas and words they want to focus on, to hang on the wall of your synagogue / prayer space, or smaller postcards to distribute to help the members of your school / prayer community to find inspiration during their tefillot. Use the siddur text to find inspiring quotes, as well as the short quotes from Rabbi Sacks found here.