Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer (Zalman Shachter-Shalomi) – notes on the book

These are my personal notes that I made when I read: Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi  (2012) Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, Jewish Lights . When I make notes, they are just to jog my own memory of the book, so I am aware that they may not always make sense to the general reader. However, I hope they are of some use to you, and perhaps also inspire you to read the book itself. The ideas that I put in square brackets do not come from the writer of the book, but are my own responses as I read.

Intro
  • Ex 25:8 Set aside a place and I will come
  • First my God, then ancestors’ God
  • Ps 34:9 Taste and see that God is good [experience for yourself]
  • Daven your insights and learning in
Intention
  • Live consciously in the presence of God
  • Perfect kavanah [God-centric intention and attention] impossible, so what’s the minimum?
  • Chochmah [wisdom] – koach mah = the power of [the question] ‘what’
  • Why pray? Rabbis command; God commands [Rightness and necessity command it]
  • [Prayer is a response to God’s primary existence, and call]
  • Ps 16:8 Shviti Adonai l’negdi tamid. Hasid refuses to be student of rabbi who doesn’t have shviti principle
  • Adon Olam – use as a text for meditation
  • Deut 4:39 YHVH is elohim, Adonai is God. (opening of shema) Know; today; God of Judgment and Compassion are One; none other; bring this into your heart. Meditate on YHVH: God – breathe in – straighten spine (earth-heaven connection) – breathe out. Goal is not to leave the world to go to Ein Sof, but to make God King, Malkeinu and Shekhinah [in-dwelling Presence] here.
  • Ps 73:22 “I am always with you” [God to us, or us to God?]
  • 1/20 Sufi students doesn’t kill bird at master’s order because he knows he is seen by God
  • Ps 139 God knows everything about me [So God to Adam ‘ayeka?’ (where are you?) is about asking does Adam know where Adam is]
  • Is 59:2 “It is your sins that come between you and your God”
  • Kavanah watching kavanah
  • [yetzer tov is the meta-kavanah, and yetzer ra, ours, can be aligned with it]
  • Why: madua = “where’s this from?” [looking to the past] and lamah ‘what’s the purpose of this?’ [looking to the future]
Niggun
  • “A slow deep melody, full of learning, full of yearning”
  • chazan must remember nigun is next door to teshuvah
  • [‘Oy’ can be a  whole nigun when expressing God-yearning]
  • [What will warm us up to prayer?]
  • Activate aesthetic side of Judaism
  • Song of Songs 5:2 “The voice of my Beloved comes knocking (pulsing)” Kol dodi dofek
  • 2 Kings 3:15 Musician becomes instrument, therefore channel for the Divine, then Elisha prophesies
  • music adds meaning
  • music accesses a unique part of us
  • some fast nigunim were originally slower
  • trad nigunim borrowed from non-Jewish music, but original tunes had lofty intention
  • tunes are prayers
  • you’re not ‘singing’, you’re davening (praying-meditating)
  • nigunim have specific kavanah
  • ‘Preparation’ nigun
  • Write English words kavanah for nigunim, so we know where our mind/heart should be directed when chanting them
  • Words can limit a tune
  • Melodies might warm people up, but conflict with kavanah of words
  • Yearning’ nigun
  • nigunim shift us to yetzirah [2nd world – emotion]
  • the psalmist made songs, why not us?
  • Ps 137:4 “How can we sing the Lord a new song in a strange land” Zalman: “The answer is to adapt the music of the land where you find yourself and make it holy.”
  • Don’t have to finish the composition ….
  • Start a gathering with a nigun
  • Kavanah more important than vocal quality
  • Nigun tunes the soul to God, and us to our praying companions
  • Hakohneh = preparation
  • Repeat many times. Sway, involve the body [and breath?]
  • Touch partner’s shoulder – love your neighbour
  • Each reading can reveal a new meaning [so can a musical setting]
  • A nigun [or any sacred song] must be a path of ascension to God [shir hama’alot]
Davening in the four worlds
  • God of prayer is transformational
  • Invitation to prayer: “come as you are”
  • Gratitude [thank]
  • Song [Wow]
  • Knowledge [promise, hineini, sorry]
  • Petition [ouch, please, bless, no]
  • Descent [yes]
  • All the ‘faces of God that we pray to point to the presence of an Infinite God beyond”
  • [The body prays, expresses and communicates. The mind has needs in a service. The Heart needs to be moved, needs relationship.]
  • [Create a lyric and nigun for morning blessings and body] [Thanks]
  • Yetzirah = heart opening to God [wow & thanks] and each other
  • Beriyah = thought. Wonder, wow [and ‘what] [ wow & bless]
  • 2nd shema blessing – we are loved into life [feel it individually from God, our nearest and dearest, our community]. “The very fact that I exist is because I am being loved in to life.”
  • Atzilut – no separation of individuals
  • Amidah – intense, precise, heartfelt prayers – from our highest place of awareness. List prayer items and bring them to God.
  • [Tallit – 4 corners for 4 worlds]
  • complete God experience must accept physical as much as spiritual. ‘Thinking’ God is insufficient.
  • God as an esoteric concept cannot be prayed to [we have to make it personal]
  • Accept the Jewish myth of a God and work with it to deepen devotion and meaningful life
  • “a person who does not have a romance with God cannot really enter into the mystery”
  • “I thought first of nature and how perfect she is. I thought of the heart and how perfection translates there to love. I thought of the mind which experiences perfection as complete transparency and clarity. And finally I thought of the world of Atzilut, where perfection is knowing that ‘Ahhh, I am holy. The Divine is manifest in me.” “It is perfect / You are loved/ All is clear / And I am holy.”
  • Assiyah – God in everything. Atzilut – God is nothing. We can’t address either, but need yetzirah, emotional forms, and beriah mind forms.
  • In Atzilut there is no I-Thou.
  • Having I-Thou enables us to ‘log on’ to the Compassionate One
  • I-Thou workshop.
  • [Do an I-Thou sitting exercise with God – that’s prayer!]
Following the map
  • Morning: “let us open our hearts and stretch our souls as well”
  • Siddur [prayerbook] is metaphor
  • Daven on a time budget
  • Siddur is a resource, not a rule book
  • Morning blessings
    • Physical blessings before all else
    • Do morning blessings in the order you experience them (Rambam)
    • Can link some physical blessings to metaphors
    • Finish with blessing for shaking sleep from eyes
    • Dwell for longer on a blessing that has pastoral or personal relevance
    • YHVH meditation: Y-empty, H-inhale, V-spine/whole body, H-exhale
    • Allow yourself to create or experience personal meanings for tallit, tzitzit etc
    • Morning blessings must be done when getting up
    • Thanks for the miracle of normal healthy functioning
    • Ps 30 – praise for God’s home.
    • Rachamim, rechem = womb
  • P’sukei d’zimrah tuneful verses
    • Baruch she’amar – blessed is the one who spoke the world into being. Thanks for creation of the world, our home
      • Focus on goodness of God and the good things is not naiviety. It is about affirming the God and world we would like, ie intentional [and creational] prayer.
      • Song of the Sea – Zeh Eli – this is the God we want.
    • Ashrei – Happy [upright – yashar]
      • Ashrei is the happiness when we go / feel straight yashar, and tall, when we ‘dwell in God’s house’
    • Halleluyah – praise God. Praise psalms are there to be sung and played – don’t fall silent!
  • Verses from Chronicles and Nehemiah
    • Chronicles – “yours is the greatness”. Sefirot and faces of God
    • Nehemiah: you made everything and gave us life. We can give forward.
    • Yishtabach – Your name be praised. YH=15 – 15 types of music [we must/can have variety in musical liturgy]
  • P’sukei d’zimrah energise us for the shema section
  • Piyutim are sometimes commentary on particular prayers
  • [Creation: what part of the physical world do we notice we trust or marvel at right now?]
  • [Revelation: what insight, truth or learning have I received recently?]
  • [Redemption: who or what brought help, rescue, good fortune recently?]
  • [Rest: what do I hand to God for safe keeping?]
  • Barechu is a gateway.
    • “unlocking the knees can unlock the heart as well”
  • Shema and its blessings
    • Yotzer Or situates us in the cosmos
    • Kadosh 1 = experienced, kadosh 2 = highest conceivable, kadosh 3 = beyond comprehension
    • Prayers draw God-energy towards us
    • [Yotzer – creating, creating, creating, creating …]
    • Love is a creative force – it makes things happen [cf my poem ‘God has said it’]
    • Shema is singular – each person of whatever faith is addressing One and the same God
    • Meditation: say shema 4 times: 1) Moses to all, 2) Moses to me, 3) me to another, 4) my deathbed
    • Rashi – intensive (2 beit’s in l’vavekha) à yetzer tov and ra must love God
    • M’odecha – with all your ‘very’
    • Emet has 15 adjectives – remember gematria of Yah, YH=15
  • Amidah
    • First and last 3 blessings never change; middle ones sensitive to time of day, week and year
    • 1) ancestors and their merit; 2) help sick, sustain and restore life [God constantly creates the cycle of life and death, transforming matter and energy continuously]; 3) You are holy / separate, acknowledging duality is our reality / perception, within underlying Oneness.
    • 1) Abraham began commitment to our God, 2) Isaac was restored from death on the mountain, 3) Jacob kept family together in the faith.
    • Make the Amidah your own – it is only a template
    • Pray to whatever ‘face’ of God you can connect to
    • I, who pray, am a channel through which the Creator can act
    • Prayer helps me, renewing hope, energy, clarity, acceptance, non-acceptance
    • ‘Open my lips’ [of my heart and mind, as well as body, so that I speak what really needs to be shared]
    • 4 Atah chonen: wisdom
    • 5 Hashiveinu – return me to You
    • 6 selach lanu – forgive, correct, wipe the slate clean
    • 7 reeh – support / strengthen me
    • 8 refa-einu – healing
    • 9 barech aleinu – give me my daily bread, a living
    • 10 teka b’shofar gadol – gather and focus us, and direct us to a higher purpose
    • 11 hashivah shofeteinu – bring justice and give us discernment
    • 12 la-malshinim – disrupt evil
    • 13 l ha-tzadikim – increase goodness and righteousness
    • 14 v’li yerushalayim – bring people to highest destiny
    • 15 shema koleinu – listen compassionately and add anything not yet mentioned
    • 16 retzeh – restore Temple [ ie shekhinah to central place]
    • 17 Modim – thanks
    • 18 sim shalom – peace
    • 19 elohai n’tzor – guard my speech, open my heart to teachings, soul pursue right principles
    • Thwart evil intentions against me [including my own!]
    • May my words be acceptable
  • Closing prayers: bringing down abundance
    • Come down Jacob’s ladder [out of the davenen] into the world [ordinary reality] and integrate into worldly life
    • What did I learn from prayer today, and how will I action it?
    • Tachanun – confession and supplication
    • Kaddish: articulates movement to each level of prayer in the service
    • Aleinu – praise God one last time
      • Originally from malkhuyot at Rosh Hashanah
      • [channeled by merkavah (chariot) mystics in the 2nd century]
      • each paragraph ends with ‘no other’, and Oneness
  • Psalm of the day – 6 through the week. On Shabbat, 95-99, not 100 (Temple), but ps29 for peace. Use as a mirror for each day. [so at Shabbat, reflect on each day]
  • Twenty minute davenen: Asher Yatzar (miracle of limbs and organs); thanks for world; baruch she’amar, ashrei and yishtabach, OR yehi k’vod (digest of 18 psalms), OR Ps 100 (5 verses) including ‘serve God with joy’; shema & baruch shem, love with heart soul might; 3 Amidah blessings + shema koleinu (and bring personal requests); amidah 17-19 (modim/thanks, guard my lips, oseh shalom); aleinu; idea from day’s psalm; line of Torah
  • Summary: 1) Always in our bodies Assiyah. 2) Davening is an act of loving, Yetzirah. 3) Always thinking, Beriyah. 4) Aspire to full awareness and devekut, Atzilut.
At home in shul
  • [Shed expectations and be with What Is Here in the service]
  • [Mah tovu – synagogue is a mishkan, dwelling for shekhinah. We must become a prayer-oriented mishkan for shekhinah to arrive]
  • wash / raise hands before prayer
  • [create a book of inspiring sentences or paragraphs for shelf of beit t’fillah]
  • begin davenen by loving the neighbours praying around you
  • give yourself permission to space out, to be taken by a moment of text
  • get caught up in a song
  • feel free to improvise personally in communal prayer
  • choose to connect to those around us, and know why
  • Ps 100:3 – He created us a) and not we ourselves, b) and we are for Him, c) He created us and (through our lack of devotion) we are ‘not’ His flock, OR He created us and (through sincere devotion) we are for Him His flock
  • Amen! – emunah = faith/loyalty. With amen, we cast our vote. Saying amen with the right kavanah is a spiritual discipline in itself.
  • If I lose the shviti, then I am no longer the ba’al t’fillah (master of prayer)
  • Shliach tzibbur (representative of the community) needs to feel the community is there to be represented. They must make their support palpable.
  • Invite people to paraphrase out loud a section of prayer.
  • Community can pray for prayer leader
  • Pray to be receptive to all that happens in the service
  • Sing in shul as though in shower or at birthday
  • All pray out loud at own pace, and let it be cacophonous
Who am I to give blessings?
  • Gen 12:2-3 – “I (God) will bless who you will bless.”
  • Mi sheberach  – blessing for person with aliyah. Make it mean something.
  • Ish chesed – man of kindness
  • Ba’al berakhot – master of blessings
  • Tune in before you bless
  • When we bless we become a channel for God
  • Make blessing specific and targeted, not generic
  • Those who say blessing are not blessing, but bringing God’s blessing down.
Advanced practice
  • Take time to make the prayer journey properly, to be at each stage, and not just intellectualise it
  • God, I want You!
  • Don’t watch clock
  • “Intend in your heart what you release from your lips” Shulchan Aruch
  • [Energy gift of transmitting your davenen energy to others.]
  • Use your sensory imagination to intensify kavanah
  • Address the Presence directly
  • Do a 2 hour study of a layered teaching; relate the teaching deeply to yourself; let the new insights infuse action
  • What you meditate on first will infuse the prayers that follow
  • Find what ideas have enduring resonance for you
  • When distracted, consider what is the higher God-principle at work here
  • Balance energy expenditure through the service
  • Sit after praying, and take stock of the experience
  • What will I take forward from prayer into action?
  • Prayer can transform me into an agent for God
  • God fills us to give us life and withdraws so as not to overwhelm
  • Prayer can and should improve behaviour, but it also improves us internally, in ways invisible to the outside world
  • Choose one prayer to do slowly
  • Go there – do it – not just think it
  • Nachman: teach your body what your soul knows
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