Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An Immodest Proposal- How schools can help students find meaning in tefillah

I recently wrote about the misconception that schools are responsible for teaching students how to daven. I suggested that the real onus falls upon the parents. This does not mean that schools do not play a role in helping to produce Jews who take davening seriously. It just means that schools have a different role. While the parents role is largely mimetic, the schools role is, or at least should be, educational. The problem is that overwhelmingly, tefillah is treated simply as tefillah, with schools copying that which is done in shuls, rather than treating it as an educational endeavor. I do not mean to suggest that nothing educational goes on during tefilla at most schools. Rather I am suggesting that the whole endeavor is not addressed educationally. What follows is an 'immodest proposal' for an educational approach to tefilla.

The challenges

For the average English speaking student, tefillah has many challenges. They include the language, fluency, the poetic style of some of the tefillot, the length of tefillah, a lack of quiet/God centered space, as well as a lack of understanding of what tefillah is about (which is somewhat connected to the challenge of the words being repetitive).

Any educational attempt to help students engage in prayer needs to address these challenges. I will address each one after an introduction of my proposal.


Tefillah needs to be something that is worked on throughout the years of schooling (in this essay, I address Modern Orthodox high schools, although certainly, some of what I write could possibly be adjusted for younger students, or students in other educational settings). It also needs to be dealt with outside of the time of actual tefillah. That way, tefillah is a time when the lessons learned, can be tried and practiced. Additionally, it will not only be addressed in one particular class, but across the curriculum as well.

Addressing the challenges


If I were to give you a beautiful prayer in Chinese, with the words written phonetically in English, you would be unable to pray with much kavanah. You might be able to think of yourself as standing before God (omeid lifeni HaMakom, which is no small thing), but you would certainly be unable to do anything beyond that. For many of our students, that is what davening feels like. They can read the words, but have no idea what they are saying.

The solution is not to merely teach them the meaning of the words. The ideas behind the words, including the pesukim from which they come, and the ideas that Chazal put into them, have to be taught as well. Teachers might make use of the Avudraham or a gemara from Megillah or Brachos.

Let's not fool ourselves. Our students will not learn every word and idea, but by teaching them some of these things, we begin to make it possible to engage in serious tefillah.


For any of us who have heard a chazzan struggle with the words, it is clear that fluency in pronouncing the words needs to be addressed. A simple bu effective way to do so would be to take the Sephardic approach of saying the whole tefillah (except the amidah) out loud. 

Poetic style

Hebrew poetry is already part of the curriculum in many Modern Orthodox schools, as is Tanach. In at least one of those classes, preferably the latter, the pirkei Tehillim which make up davening should be taught, with an emphasis on understanding the ideas and poetry contained therein. While these perakim will be treated as Tanach, in these classes they will also be dealt with from a literary standpoint.

Length of tefilla

The gemara says “Better less said with kavanah, than more said without kavanah” (Rav Hutner humorously changed it to “Better less said without kavanah, than more said without kavanah”). It only makes sense to say all of shacharis, if we are trying to mimic a shul. If, however, tefillah is meant to be educational, than just as we adjust the curriculum for those who struggle, we can do so with tefillah, concentrating on removing the less essential parts of pesukei d'zimra and parts of v'hu rachum. We would of course, make it clear to our students the idea behind this change.

Additionally, we should make clear to the students that the current goal is not kavanah throughout the whole shemoneh esrei. If that is the goal, they will fail each time (as will I). At first the goal should be to have kavanah for one bracha (an idea which comes from this thoughtful essay which includes some ideas of how to work on kavanah from a practical standpoint ). Alternatively, students could focus on one phrase that is meaningful for them, making it their own.

Lack of quiet/God centered space

We are all surrounded by constant background noise and activity. Entering the God focused, or meditative space which helps set the tone is a challenge.

A few moments of silence before tefillah (preferably at least several minutes), breathing exercises, or asking everyone to think of something or someone that they are grateful for, are some possible ways to deal with this issue.

What is tefillah?

In many (most?) Modern Orthodox high schools, Jewish philosophy is not taught. For many reasons, this needs to change. Among the things which our students must know, are the various approaches to why we pray and how it works. As with all areas of Jewish philosophy, various approaches should be taught so that our students have the best chance to find an approach which for them.

Teachers might make use of aggados from the gemara (perhaps with an explanation from Rav Kook's Ain Ayah), Rishomnim such as the Rambam (primarily the Moreh), Rabbeinu Bachya's Chovos Halevavos, Rav Albo's Sefer HaIkarim, and Achronim such as the Mabit, Rav SR Hirsch and chassidic literature, as well as Rav Soloveitchik and Heschel.

Other areas of learning

Tefillah needs to become more than a cerebral exercise (at best). Modern Orthodox educators are often moved by ideas, and teach in a cerebral way. Not all students will respond to this approach. Art, music, dance and creative writing are some of the ways where tefillah can be more experiential.

Practically this might include putting a tefillah to music, painting a scene based on a Mizmor Tehillim, or writing an essay on the struggles of tefillah or writing their own tefillah, an idea which Rav Nachman (the Chassidic Rebbe, not the Amora) suggested.

Possible objections to this proposal

Isn't this a lot of time to spend on tefillah?

In most schools, a minimum of one and a half hours are spent each day on gemara (I have suggested elsewhere that this is not ideal). If our students never pick up a gemara after high school (and lets be honest, some, at least, won't) they can still be serious members of the Jewish community. If our students spend the rest of their lives praying as they currently do, that would be tragic. If triage is needed, it should be clear which one should get more of our attention.

How does this address the most difficult students and those who are struggling with emunah issues?

As educators, we have all dealt with students who refuse to daven. Some of them go beyond this and disrupt tefillah. A few might even enjoy getting their teachers upset.

I know this is radical, but shacharis in school should be optional. Yes, optional. We will not tell the students that davening is not required. We will simply give them a choice between davening at school or at home. While some, no doubt, will not daven at home, that is no different than what they are doing at school. We will also make it clear that schacharis at school is only for those who wish to try and work on what they are learning in class. Those who are repeatedly disruptive will be asked to daven at home.

With all of this, isn't it difficult to daven with kavanah?

I can't speak for you, but I can speak for myself. For me davening with kavanah is a big challenge, even though I do not have most of the challenges I have addressed above. We must make it clear to our students that davening will take a lifetime to master and that we, at times, struggle to make it meaningful. By doing so, we give them permission to struggle and permission to be imperfect. In many ways, this is an important lesson, and one which needs to be emphasized in discussing Avodas HaShem.

Practically, a teacher might get up to tell how they deal with the difficulties of davening with kavanah, a student might tell a story, or discuss a strategy that works for them. Inspiring speakers could be brought in from time to time to connect the dots on some of these issues.

Although my proposal involves many components, I am not suggesting an all or nothing approach. Even if time does not allow for all of them, or you consider some of my ideas to be mistaken or misguided, please consider making use of the rest.

Comments, critiques and suggestions can be made below or by email, which can be sent to


  1. Great essay. Regarding "Shacharis as optional", I think that having it be the formal beginning of the school day gets the student into the routine of davening with a minyan.

    As an aside, this is an excellent essay written by talented outreach Rabbi in the Chicago area. Sadly, had I read this essay 25 yrs ago, my davening would be in a much better place.

  2. Thank you Neil. Students who do not or will not daven do not get into any routine. I'm going based on the book "Summerhill" where students are given the choice to engage in that which speaks to them. I believe, that in many cases, the simple choice to attend minyan, without any coercion, will by itself lead to a more meaningful tefillah experience.

  3. Sad that with only an hour and a half a day, Gemora is where you should be taking the extra time. Not math or some social program. Each student is individual and it would work better if school could concentrate with each student where they want to go with secular subjects as well. I also think that all of these problems have their root with the enduring fantasy that a proper Jewish education can be given with the amount of time allotted. I have written educational programs and there is much frustration that meaningful information, necessary for a girl to develop spiritually, is not given the priority or hours to do it justice. This includes tefilla, the ability to be truly fluent in Ivrit and bekiut in Tanach and practical halachot, including duties of the heart such as ahavat HaShem and yirat HaShem. To become proficient at anything one must first master the prerequisite skills. Tefilla is not primarily an intellectual endeavor and philosophy is not what will bring kavanna. It is much more important that the intellect direct the heart, and here the avoda takes place.

    1. Rivka,

      Did you read the article I linked to on gemara? It explains my reason for choosing gemara.

      While some might there might well be a need for more Torah time in MO HSs, the first step is using the time they have available correctly. Additionally, no such school will give away secular studies for Torah.

  4. Although several of the points are debatable (which is quite normal, of course), I am truly fascinated by this post. Your tone is so very warm, and each word flows with care and compassion. Your thoughts and reflections are based on sound reasoning, and your insightful suggestions are filled with wisdom. While prayer means different things to different people, religious backgrounds and experiences, we could all learn a great deal from this post. Many thanks!

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Which points did you find to be debatable?