Bless Us

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Q: What do righteous, learned Torah scholars and newly observant Jews, or baalei teshuva, have in common?

A: The way they recite blessings.

No, it’s not funny, nor meant to be. It’s simply an easily confirmed observation – and one that holds a thought worth thinking.

A Jew is enjoined by Jewish religious law to pronounce scores of blessings, or brachot, each day, acknowledging the Creator’s glory and gifts to His creations. Many of the blessings are part of the prayer service; others are offered throughout the day, like before and after eating – the blessings varying according to the type of food. There are brachot to be made upon seeing lightning and hearing thunder, on a rainbow, before smelling flowers or fragrant spices, after using the bathroom.

But ironically, so many opportunities to express gratitude to G-d make it easy for reverence to devolve into rote. Many of us bracha-making Jews find ourselves pronouncing the nine words meant to thank G-d for the beauty, tastiness and nourishment of an apple, for example, as a string of slurred semi-words, taking perhaps two seconds rather than the five or six needed to actually say all the words clearly and focus on their meaning.

BlessedareyouHashemourG-dkingoftheuniverseWhocreatesthefruitofthetree.

Call it an occupational hazard of religious observance. When something is done regularly and often, it is only natural for the quality of the experience to become degraded with time. But natural needn’t, and here doesn’t, mean acceptable. And watching a true Torah scholar (who has succeeded in routing rote) or a baal teshuva (who is more attuned to his religious actions than some of us who are more “experienced”) say a bracha can help remind us of how things are meant to be – and inspire us to make them right.

A funny-sad story (considerably less humorous in writing than in my father’s telling of it at the Sabbath table when I was a child) concerns a Polish Jewish peasant who owes a powerful landowner, or poritz, a good sum of money. Yankel somehow convinces the poritz to forgive the debt if he, the Jew, can teach a bear how to pray.

Faced with the need to produce results, Yankel obtains a cub and hands him a prayer-book with a drop of honey on its cover and on each of the book’s pages. The bear wipes up the first drop of honey with its paw and puts it on his tongue. Bright bear that he is, he opens the book and locates and eats the other drops of honey too.

The next day, Yankel gives Boo-Boo the same prayer book, this time with a drop of honey only on every other page. The bear, with a murmur of disappointment at each page bearing only words, still manages to service his sweet tooth from the others. The following day the honey is only on random pages. The bear goes through the book, wiping up what drops of sweetness he finds and licking his paw, murmuring all the rest of the time.

The Jew is now ready. Presenting the cub to the poritz, he declares the animal synagogue-worthy and hands him the here-and-there-honeyed prayer book. The bear opens it, turns a few pages, murmuring all the while, then stops a minute to lick his finger before resuming the page-turning and murmuring. The poritz is not impressed. “That’s not praying,” he says sternly.

“Come with me,” says the Jew, leading the poritz to the local synagogue. Morning services are underway and the Jew opens the door. Lo and behold, the poritz gazes upon an entire congregation of supplicants doing an excellent imitation of the bear. The poritz has no choice but to forgive the debt.

And everyone lived happily ever after. Well, other than those listening to the story, left to wonder whether their own prayers are something more than page-turning and mumbles.

Brachot, like prayers, are essential to Judaism. The very word “Jew” derives from the name “Judah”, which the Talmud teaches is rooted in Judah’s mother Leah’s declaration that she was the beneficiary of “more than my share” of blessing. That refusal to take blessings for granted, that sense of gratitude to God, is what brachot embody.

And they can be accessed by all Jews, whatever their levels of observance, whatever their understanding of Judaism. Saying the required blessings throughout the day is not very difficult, nor does it offend any contemporary sensibilities. And there are many English-language guides to the pertinent laws. The practice of saying brachot may not currently be a common practice in most of the non-Orthodox Jewish world, but what is the future for – for any of us – if not to better the present?

What is more, were brachot more widely embraced among Jews, those of us who have always been saying them and are so “expert” at doing so that we slur our words and forget to think of what we’re saying would have more examples from whom to learn and derive inspiration.

What a blessing that would be.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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14 Responses

  1. Dotan says:

    I am not the least bit convinced that “righteous, learned Torah scholars” generally have more success with kavanah than anybody else. I say this having spent decades in close association with a huge spectrum of the Torah world.

    Kavanah is extremely hard for many reasons, and unfortunately neither tzidkus nor high-level learning have much to do with overcoming the obstacles. Some world-class Torah scholars seem (at least to the outside observer) to have serious kavanah, but the same may be said of many “average” Jews. And many don’t.

  2. barry says:

    Years ago, in Silver Spring where my wife’s family davens, there was an upper/lower limit set on davening speed at at least one morning minyan after several regulars complained that some davened at the amud at too quick a pace.
    The gabbaim developed a set of guidelines, by ‘benchmark’…
    “reach Mizmor Shir by, but not before…” Yishtabach by, not before, etc…
    If you couldn’t ( wouldn’t)conform, you would not be allowed to daven for the amud at that minyan–but were encouraged to go to one of that shul’s other minyanim.
    I do not know if that rubric is still followed (Perhaps it simply became the norm?)

  3. Steven says:

    At the shul I go to, it takes 40 minutes (regular morning service without Torah reading). I am in a similar position; slow Hebrew reader and frustrated. I sometimes wonder if people take auctioneering courses as they learn to read Hebrew ;). Even when reading English, I simply cannot make my mouth move that fast. On the other hand, I also recognize that there are multiple considerations.

    While the ideal may be to take as much time as is necessary for exact pronunciation, concentration and kavana, the reality is that people have obligations / restrictions (work, family, distance they must come, etc.) that limit how much time they can devote to prayer. And so a balance has to be struck. If the service takes more time (an extra 10 minutes?) it can have a ripple effect on every other part of the day and on other people. Is waking up the kids a bit earlier and them being cranky all day OK? Is possibly missing your commute connections (i.e. car pool, bus, etc.) a reasonable risk?

    My ‘solution’ was to speak to my shul rabbi about the importance / priority of each section (I’m still sorting it out). I also try to show up early and get a ‘head start’ so I can join for the Amidah. There are some parts that I say in English and some that I skip all together.

    Other people I know take different approaches; they simply go at their own pace and stay longer, defer sections until later in the morning (at work, if circumstances allow) or some mornings stay home so they don’t ‘feel’ the pressure to keep up.

    In time, hopefully my (and your) Hebrew reading will improve and we will be able to do more and/or keep up. I found that reading about the history / development of the avodah gave me confidence that G-d does not reject prayers that are not ‘exact’; that my intent is also critical.

  4. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The thing to do is the hard thing, and I don’t do it. But what you should really do is come to shul early and say psukei d’zimra at your own pace so that you get to yishtabach with or before the shaliach tzibur. If you determine that you will end up lagging behind afterwards, start birchot kriat shema ahead of the ShaTz, stopping to answer 1)amen yhei shmeh rabba in kaddish 2)amen at end of 1/2 kaddish and 3)baruch to barechu. Then you continue on, trying to time shema and amidah with the minyan. Not easy and frustrating, but that’s the way it goes. At yeshiva I can keep up, and mostly so by now at mincha and maariv in shul. But shacharit I mostly do at my own pace and get whatever I get. My own fault for not getting up early.

  5. jason berg says:

    I am also learning to read a bit late in life and the speed makes it more challenging.
    But, I think it is critical to kavanah that things don’t grind to a halt or slow down needlessly.
    When things are going fast, even if I don’t know every word, there is no loss of concentration possible.
    I’ve learned to let go of the minor frustration that I have in keeping up in exchange for true focus.

    Two congregants at our shul came to the rabbi. One said, “The davening is too slow.” The other said, “The davening is too fast.” Our rav is very wise and said, “You’re both correct!”

  6. Phil says:

    According to
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Words_per_minute#Speech_and_listening

    (Books on tape are recommended to be 150–160 words per minute, which is the range that people comfortably hear words. Slide presentations tend to be closer to 100 wpm, while conversations are maintained at around 200 wpm. Although research by Ronald Carver has demonstrated that adults can listen with full comprehension at 300 wpm, even auctioneers can only speak at about 250 wpm. Another study demonstrated that full comprehension is only maintained in people at 210 wpm when speech is compressed.)

  7. dovid says:

    Laurie, this “top speed” business reminds me of a drasha by Rabbi Mttisyahu Salomon. Quote: “We should not think that it [prayer] is a formula, a system, that this is how it works, like putting a coin into a vending machine, pressing the button and waiting for a can to pop out.” Prayer is an endeavor that requires serious investment in time and mental effort that can’t be achieved at “top speed”. The best for you is to talk with a rabbi that knows you and also knows the resources available in your community. This way, you will get advice suited for your needs. I want to assure you that we all root for your success. We have a stake in it.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    1. Even allowing for differences among people and minyanim, speeds too fast to allow the average person present to say all the words would defeat the whole idea of tefilla b’tzibur.

    2. The rav, gabbai or other person in charge of a minyan should normally choose a shaliach tzibbur who is known to follow a reasonable pace. However, he can’t simply ignore mourners with chiyuvim who may not be well-calibrated yet. Ideally he would guide such people tactfully to prevent problems.

  9. Isaac says:

    A Rabbi once told me that he timed Pesukei Dezimra at his shul and calculated that they say 4 words per second!

  10. Big Maybe says:

    Different shuls daven at different speeds. A minyan at a Yeshiva will generally daven at a pace better suited to your current speed.

  11. mb says:

    “I would love to see our rabbinical leadership take a stand to set and enforce standards for the minimum length of time each section of the davening should take.”

    And maximum. The Shliach ha Tzibbor is not allowed to drag things out.

  12. dovid says:

    Laurie: “Do they need to slow down or do I need to practice until I can read/pray at top speed?”

    They won’t slow down even if they should as sometimes it may be the case. Practice at your own pace. As you practice, you will pick up speed. But sped should not be your goal. Two suggestions: (1) A good place to ask such questions is http://www.asktherabbi.org/ run by Gateways Organization. (2) Buy “Praying with Fire”, a 5-Minute Lesson-A-Day by Rabbi Heshy Kleinman. It’s about $10-$12. He does not say a thing about speed. He urges us to focus on the content. With best wishes.

  13. YM says:

    This problem derives from the shaliach hatzibur at most shuls, who davens faster than most baa’eli teshuva (and probably most everyone else) can bear. I would love to see our rabbinical leadership take a stand to set and enforce standards for the minimum length of time each section of the davening should take.

  14. Laurie says:

    I am a jew who is learning to read Hebrew for the 1st time so that I can read the daily blessings in hebrew from the Siddur. I am a very slow reader & I am very careful to try to pronounce all correctly. When I am at shul I can’t keep up w/ the reading because it is so fast. Do they need to slow down or do I need to practice until I can read/pray at top speed?