A person should only pray in a serious state of mind. The chasidim harishonim (early saints) used to wait [in meditation] one hour and then pray in order to fully direct their thoughts to their Father in heaven . . .” – Talmud Bavli, Berachot, 30b, quoting the Mishna
One Sabbath, I was praying in a certain synagogue, and the Rabbi used the above quotation as the subject of his weekly sermon. He spent approximately twenty minutes expounding the above cited quotation with flourish and oratorical artistry. Pondering publicly what these righteous Rabbis could have been doing for a full hour in advance of prayer, the Rabbi beautifully described the importance of preparation and contemplation as a transformative tool for a person’s prayer. I was sold. However, what I took away from that day wasn’t primarily or even mainly the sermon but the congregation’s reaction and lack of reaction to it. Though many in the congregation were whispering (it was still the middle of the prayer services, after all) about how they had thoroughly enjoyed the sermon, I fear the message was still lost. The Rabbi’s sermon was followed immediately by Mussaf, an additional prayer said privately at first and only on the Sabbath and holidays. Looking around, I noticed people taking the ritual three step jog, first backward, then forward, and immediately beginning their usual bow and shuckle routines. Even the Rabbi was racing ahead and finished his prayer a mere minute and a half after it had begun.
As Jews, we love to learn and study about Jewish spiritual practice. We write and read books, philosophize, study, and discuss spirituality on a regular basis; niggun (spiritual song), rikud (spiritual dance), and meditation (there are a variety of Hebrew words used with slightly different connotations) are incredibly well documented as central parts of both mystical and non-mystical Jewish religious practice. When it comes to the praxis, I’d politely suggest that we’re not nearly as thorough as in our study. The tension I experienced that Sabbath morning is not an unusual occurrence but the rule rather than the exception.
I don’t know why we seem to prefer a sermon about meditation to the actual practice. Some would say it’s the time involved, but that can’t be right. Synagogue services are frequently hours long and filled with divrei Torah (words of Torah study). In fact, the Rabbi’s sermon is usually given before seminal parts of the service as a type of preparation. On a weekly basis, it’s before Mussaf, one of the two central private and then publicly repeated prayers. On Rosh Hashana, the Rabbi speaks before the Shofar is blown, and on Yom Kippur, the Rabbi usually speaks before Kol Nidre, Yizkor, and Neilah, the most central parts of the holiday services.
More likely, the reason there’s a gap in our practice has to do with the combination of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and embarrassment. For many, meditation has simply never been a part of the Jewish ritual experience, not formally and not informally. We’re not sure what to do or how to do it, and it feels a little bit too new-age or Buddhist for traditionalist sensibilities. We’re uncomfortable and wondering at the same time how we’ll be judged.
The truth, however, is that Judaism isn’t as Western a religion as we in the West seem to think it is, and meditative practices were central even to opposing mystical and rationalist streams of classical Judaism.
In our synagogue, before the final prayer, Neilah, on Yom Kippur, the Rabbi doesn’t speak. Instead, the Chazan harmonizes our thoughts with contemplative humming as we contemplate and bask in the power of the moment. It empowers individuals, transforms the service, and actively allows and invites the public to own their penitence.
Personally, I’ve taken to trying to wait five minutes before the Amidah, the central private prayer, whenever it occurs. What do I do? Precisely what I imagine the early sages to have done and what they advise (if not mandate) that we do! I simply focus on my natural breathing by tracing my breath as it fills my lungs, pauses, and then changes course and leaves my body. For me, this provides tremendous calm and brings on the onset of a contemplative mood that changes my prayer in a way that no study, speech, or sermon ever could. Truthfully, the longer I wait, the more concentrated and sincere my prayer, and I wish that the realities of time and job (and I’m a Rabbi!) didn’t require my prayer to be so rushed. Still, even a few minutes changes the world. Since it’s worked so well for me, I want to encourage others to give it (or something similar tailored to personal preferences) a serious try in the hope that we can increase “metaphysical fitness” and transform our prayer and synagogue services into quality “gym” time. If you’re concerned that it’s too “new-age,” try to think of it as “old-school” instead.