Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden
Psychology, Medicine, Science, Politics, Oppression, Integrity, Philosophy, Jews

Jewish prayer, what is it?

Illustrative. Jewish boys and men in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878. (Wikipedia)
Illustrative. Jewish boys and men in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878. (Wikipedia)

The Sages tell us that prayer needs [to be said with] attention. Rattling off the words of old is but a shadow of what Jewish prayer should be. “Prayer without attention is like a body without a soul.” But, attention to what?

  1. We should know Who we are talking to

Most people would say, that’s obvious: G^d. Actually, it’s not the full answer. Yes, we surely should speak to our Father, our King. We should talk as we would to a loving, all-powerful, all-understanding father. But also we need to address a classical king who may let his subjects address him but is free to do as he sees fit. But, Jewish Prayer talks to two more.

We should also overhear ourselves. To pray is in Hebrew a reflexive verb. It’s therapy with the best Therapist. We don’t just want a therapist to hear and understand us. (G^d doesn’t need our prayer. He’s not an idol that needs to be placated.) In therapy, we need to listen to and get ourselves.

And, last but not least, when we say the Sh’ma’ and repeat the Standing Prayer, we want other Jews to hear us (Israel, hear!) and agree (Amen!).

Prayer is us talking to G^d. The Torah reading is G^d talking to us. And Jewish learning is us having a dialogue with G^d.

  1. We should know what we are saying

To understand the set words. Israelis who understand Hebrew think that we should mean what we are saying. For non-Hebrew speakers, it’s OK to use a proper (not a too free) translation of the original in a language that they understand. But, surprisingly, it is also kosher prayer when we say it in the Holy Tongue if we don’t know Hebrew because the Language that G^d created the world with is so Holy that it will reach our Soul anyway.

  1. We should choose constantly to be with it

To pay attention. Not to rattle off the words on the automatic pilot. To slow down may help. Not to just sing them and go with the flow (of the notes). Israelis – who easily understand the Hebrew – often take prayer with attention to mean, not to rush through the words as a typewriter.

  1. We should notice how we feel about our prayer

We are not supposed to read the prayer emotionless, as if it doesn’t concern us. We should reflect on what feelings these words give us when we mean them.

  1. We should contemplate the implications of what we pray for

When we grant that wind and rain come from G^d, we accept His Kingship. When we ask for beneficial rain, we show that nothing is a given or to be taken for granted and that G^d is also our merciful Father in Heaven.

  1. We should know why we are praying

As I mentioned above, G^d doesn’t need our prayer. He wants our prayer but for our good only. Our prayer texts sometimes show us how we should feel, talk or act. Sometimes, they tell us not to take things for granted by letting us ask and thank (not because He wouldn’t know our needs). Not to just think about ourselves but pray for everyone’s well-being. G^d gives us a chance to partner with Him in what He does or at least to have our say considered before something would happen that we don’t want to occur (Please, heal). And our prayers constantly remind us that G^d is leading the world to perfection as we speak and that despair is always misplaced.

  1. Our prayer should be fresh

We should say the prayer as if we never said it before. (This actually is true for that moment. Children don’t pretend that every day is a new one. It actually is.) We should be surprised and spontaneous in saying our prayers. We should insert our own thoughts and words that come from the heart. There never was and there never will be a prayer like this.

In daily life, it is generally not good to complain. “You think you have it bad — I’ll show you,” may the Satan respond. But saying how good we have it is a mostly good thing (if we note that we don’t necessarily deserve so much goodness but are grateful for it). Then, the Satan may reply, “You think this is good — I’ll show you what is good.” But in prayer, it is excellent to pour out our hearts. To say it as it comes. Our unpolished feelings are expected.

About the Author
MM is a prolific and creative writer and thinker, a daily blog contributor to the TOI. He is a fetal survivor of the pharmaceutical industry (, born in 1953 to two Dutch survivors who met in the largest concentration camp in the Netherlands, Westerbork, and holds a BA in medicine (University of Amsterdam). He taught Re-evaluation Co-counseling, became a social activist, became religious, made Aliyah, and raised three wonderful kids. He wrote an unpublished tome about Jewish Free Will. He's a vegan for 8 years now. He's an Orthodox Jew but not a rabbi. * His most influential teachers (chronologically) are: his parents, Nico (natan) van Zuiden and Betty (beisye) Nieweg, Wim Kan, Mozart, Harvey Jackins, Marshal Rosenberg, Reb Shlomo Carlebach and lehavdiel bein chayim lechayim: Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, Rav Zev Leff and Rav Meir Lubin. * Previously, for decades, he was known to the Jerusalem Post readers as a frequent letter writer. For a couple of years he wrote hasbara for the Dutch public. His fields of attention now are varied: Psychology (including Sexuality and Abuse), Medicine (including physical immortality), Science (statistics), Politics (Israel, the US and the Netherlands, Activism - more than leftwing or rightwing, he hopes to highlight Truth), Oppression and Liberation (intersectionally, for young people, the elderly, non-Whites, women, workers, Jews, GLBTQAI, foreigners and anyone else who's dehumanized or exploited), Integrity, Philosophy, Jews (Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust and Jewish Liberation), Ecology and Veganism. Sometimes he's misunderstood because he has such a wide vision that never fits any specialist's box. But that's exactly what many love about him. Many of his posts relate to affairs from the news or the Torah Portion of the Week or are new insights that suddenly befell him. * He hopes that his words will inspire and inform, reassure the doubters but make the self-assured doubt more. He strives to bring a fresh perspective rather than bore you with the obvious. He doesn't expect his readers to agree. Rather, original minds must be disputed. In short, his main political positions are: anti-Trumpism, for Zionism, Intersectionality, non-violence, democracy, anti the fake peace process, for original-Orthodoxy, Science, Free Will, anti blaming-the-victim and for down-to-earth optimism. Read his blog how he attempts to bridge any discrepancies. He admits sometimes exaggerating to make a point, which could have him come across as nasty, while in actuality, he's quit a lovely person to interact with. He holds - how Dutch - that a strong opinion doesn't imply intolerance of other views. * His writing has been made possible by an allowance for second generation Holocaust survivors from the Netherlands. It has been his dream since he was 38 to try to make a difference by teaching through writing. He had three times 9-out-of-10 for Dutch at his high school finals but is spending his days communicating in English and Hebrew - how ironic. G-d must have a fine sense of humor. In case you wonder - yes, he is a bit dyslectic. November 13, 2018, he published his 500st blog post with the ToI. If you're a native English speaker and wonder why you should read from people whose English is only their second language, consider the advantage of having a peek outside of your cultural bubble. * To send any personal reaction to him, scroll to the top of the blog post and click Contact Me. To see other blog posts by him, a second blog - under construction - can be found by clicking on the Website icon next to his picture.
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