Lots of people associate Judaism with synagogues, and synagogues with prayer. But some of the most important praying that I do has nothing to do with a synagogue.
See, Jewish prayer breaks down into three categories:
- Formal praying done at synagogue, with a minyan*, in Hebrew
- Formal praying done elsewhere, without a minyan, in Hebrew
- Spontaneous, organic praying, in English or any language
*A minyan is a when 10 adult Jewish men join together for prayer or other religious services. 10 is the tipping point where they are considered a community.
Formal praying is done with a siddur (prayerbook) in Hebrew, at the following designated times.
Shacharit – the morning service. Done from sunrise till midday. Midday is determined by taking the daylight hours and finding the midpoint, so it changes somewhat each day. Takes about 45 minutes.
Mincha – the afternoon service. Done from midday till sunset. Takes about 10 minutes.
Maariv – the evening service. Done from nightfall till just before sunrise. Takes about 10 minutes.
There is a certain advantage to praying with a minyan, and certain advantages to praying in a synagogue, even where there is no minyan. Spiritually speaking, the very walls absorb the holiness of the services that have taken place there. There’s also an advantage to praying in Hebrew – the words are kabbalistically arranged, for the biggest punch (so to speak). And even if you don’t make it to synagogue very often, there is a decided advantage to using the words in the siddur, that were selected by prophets, scholars, and mystics, to unlock to gates of prayer in ways that we don’t even understand.
But my focus here is going to be on spontaneous, organic prayer. For me, the formal praying feels very important, as it’s my anchor in a crazy day to stop and access ancient wisdom; to tie myself to the spirituality of yesteryear and add my link to the chain in a millenia-long conversation with God. And the organic prayer – that’s my handwritten love note to God that I made up all by myself.
Here’s what it might sound like:
(Note: when talking to God organically, I use the Hebrew word “Hashem” to refer to God. It means, literally, “the name” and is a way of referencing God respectfully without actually invoking a holy name – which is used in formal prayer only.)
(As carpool drives off) Hashem, please let my kids have a good day at school today. Please let them learn well and have positive interactions and associations with their friends.
(As I drive to a class) Hashem, please let this go well. Please give me eloquence and wisdom, and allow me to always remember that all successes in life are thanks to you. Thank you for allowing me to be involved in learning and teaching.
(As I look for a parking spot) Hashem, please let me find a spot! Thank you!!
(As I hang up the phone with a friend who is struggling with something) Hashem, please help my friend to find her way. It’s so hard for her. Please bless her with clarity and strength.
(As I notice that the cop behind me is actually following someone else) Thank you Hashem! I really, really appreciate that!
I find that it is these conversations, sprinkled throughout my day, that deeply forge my relationship to God – in a way that when something truly significant happens… we’re in touch. And sometimes, days go by where I forget to talk to God that way.
And then, I remember again, and it’s a reunion.
Is prayer foreign to you? Do you relate more to formal or spontaneous prayer?