On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Jewish Law Question – How do I start praying?

We can look at the question of prayer from a couple different angles.  The first is “What should I be thinking about while praying or what should I be praying for?”  The second question is “What prayers should I be saying?”  For the purposes of this article, I’m going to deal with the second question.  Hopefully, I’ll write another article to address the first question later.

Why handle it this way?  I have a couple reasons…  There are a lot of books out there on how to give meaning and inspiration to prayer.  I haven’t seen any books or instructions for someone who’s just starting to pray for the first time.  I’ve also seen situations where Baal Teshuva’s got advice, that wasn’t right for them and it didn’t work out so well. 

About 8 years ago, I was with another BT who was a year or so behind me in learning.  We were with a Rabbi who I respect very much and the BT told the Rabbi that he wanted to start saying morning prayers and asked what should he say.  The Rabbi, who was very well intended, started pointing out enough prayers that would have taken this guy an easy 45 minutes to say every morning.  The problem was that this guy was only ready to devote about 5 minutes every day at this point.  The result was, he felt overwhelmed and didn’t say any morning prayers for quite a while.  As another inspiration for this article, when I started praying, I was basically left alone to figure it out by myself.  I made a lot of mistakes and learned from them.  I’ve seen people go too long without praying, because they didn’t know how to start.  I’ve also seen people try to do too much, burn out and walk away from everything.

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce different levels to the morning, afternoon & evening prayers depending on how much time one has to devote.  Before we get started, I want to point out a couple things. 
1. There are many different prayer books out there, but since it is probably going to be the most commonly used, I’m going to be referring to page numbers in the brown Artscroll Ashkenaz prayer book (Siddur Kol Yaakov.) 
2. I’m going to be referring to everything by their English name with the English page number. 
3. Pray in whatever language is most comfortable to you.  G-d understands English too.  If you really want to start praying in Hebrew, start out saying one paragraph in Hebrew and the rest in English.  As your Hebrew grows, increase the paragraphs.
4. In reference to prayer, please note the following… When I say day, I mean the time from sunrise to sunset.  When I say morning, I mean from the time the sun rises until the 1/3 of the day passes.  When I say afternoon, I mean a half hour after midday until sunset.  When I say night, I mean when it’s dark enough outside to see 3 stars if you live in a place where there is a so little pollution that one could see 3 stars.   
5. It goes without saying that the best thing is to complete the entire prayer service.  That being said, someone who’s taking up running for the first time, doesn’t start with a marathon.  Running down the block is enough and the distance can grow as your stamina grows.

With all that in mind, here are the levels that I’ve come up with:

Level 1 – The 5 minute version:  As far as mornings go, the most important things to do are to put on tefillin and say the Shema (Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one) A couple quick notes.  Only Jewish men above the age of 13 put on tefillin.  I’ll try to tackle why there is a difference between men and women in a different article.  Instructions for putting on tefillin are on page 7.  If you don’t have a pair, ask your local orthodox Rabbi.  If you have nobody to ask, email me and I’ll help you get a pair.  The Shema starts on page 91 and ends on page 95 with the words “Hashem, your G-d, is true.  If you cant even devote the 5 minutes, at a bare bones minimum, say the first line “Hear, O Israel… to the end of the first paragraph on page 93 “…and upon your gates.”  After nightfall, say the Shema again on page 259-261.  It’s the same words, but it’s good to get used to the prayer book.

Level 2 – The 15 minute version: If you want to do more, start on page 85 with the blessings of the Shema and continue until after the Shemoneh Esrei – Amida which stares on page 99 and ends on 119.  The Shemoneh Esrei is high point in the prayer service where we praise G-d, ask for help for us individually and for others.  It’s best to insert any personal requests in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer.  There are lots of instructions on those pages.  At night, start on page 257 and continue through 279.  The nighttime prayer is much shorter then the morning prayers and doing this will cover most of it.

Level 3 – The 20 minute version: In the morning, start on page 15 towards the bottom with the first “Blessed are you…washing the hands” and continue through the middle of page 21 stopping at “…strength for the weary”  Then say the paragraph that starts with “Blessed is he” on page 59.  Then “Praiseworthy are those” on page 67-69.  Then “May your name be praised” on page 83.  After that continue with what you’ve done on Levels 1 & 2.  You can also start adding the afternoon prayer which starts on page 233 with “Praiseworthy are those and you can stop at the end of Shemoneh Esrei on page 249. 

Level 4 – The 35 minute version: In the mornings, after page 21, skip to “Blessed is he” on page 59 and keep going from there until after Shemoneh Esrei on page 119.  After that, say “It is our duty” on page 159 through “will be One on page” 161.  This prayer “It is out duty” is also at the end of the afternoon and evening prayers on pages 253 & 281. At this point, you’re saying most of the morning prayer, most of the afternoon prayers and all of the evening prayers.

Level 5 – The whole Shebang: Start at page 1 and go until the end on each of the respective prayer times.  It’s important to note that the time estimations are exactly that.  The actual time will be determined by how fast you read and how much meaning you put behind each of the prayers.  I know people that can say  everything in under 30 minutes, while others take well over an hour to say morning prayers.  Go at a pace that feels right for you.  Unfortunatly, the more one says the prayers the greater the chance of them falling into the trap of just “getting through them” without any meaning at all.  The best advice that I can give is try to find at least one prayer that moves you and spend a little extra time with it each day.

Prayer can be one of the toughest things to start doing, but it’s also one of the most rewarding.  When we acknowledge G-d in prayer, all at the same time we’re saying that G-d is good, G-d has the ability to change things and G-d listens to us when we speak.  Now it’s our job to speak wisely. 

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