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Preparations for Tefilla

  • Rav David Brofsky





            Last week, we discussed the obligation to pray three times daily.  We traced its origins, according to some, to the 'avot,' and to others, to the korbanot.  We also investigated the establishment of the shemone esre, and explored the history and ramifications of the different variant nusachim


            Before we begin our study of the laws of the shemone esre itself, i.e. the proper times, intention, insertions, tashlumin, etc. we will dedicate this shiur to the preparations before prayer, including what a person should wear during prayer, where a person should preferably pray, and what activities the rabbis deemed inappropriate before tefilla. 


Proper Attire:


            The gemara (Shabbat 10a) relates that certain Amoraim interpreted the verse "hikon likrat elokecha - prepare to meet your God" (Amos 4:12) as instructive, teaching us to first prepare ourselves before encountering God.


"Rabba son of R. Huna put on stockings and prayed, quoting, 'prepare to meet etc.' (Amos 4:12).  Rabba removed his cloak, clasped his hands and prayed, saying, '[I pray] like a slave before his master.'"


The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 5:5) subsequently writes that:


"How should one prepare his clothes? First, one should adjust one's clothes, distinguish and beautify one's self, as it says 'you should prostrate yourselves to His holiness in beauty.'  One shouldn't stand for tefilla in an undergarment, with a bare head, or with bare feet, if the local custom is to appear before important people with shoes… the ways of the wise and their students is to pray while they are wrapped (atufin) in a tallit…"


The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh adds that even one who prays alone in one's house should dress properly. 


            The Rishonim and Acharonim discuss whether "prepare to meet" requires one to dress BEYOND that which one would wear when meeting an important person, such as wearing a special belt, or 'gartel.'


On the one hand, the gemara (Berakhot 24b) teaches:


"R. Huna said: If a man's garment is girded round his waist he may recite the Shema.  It has been taught similarly: If his garment, whether of cloth or of leather or of sacking, is girded round his waist, he may recite the Shema,' but he may not say the tefilla until he covers his chest…"


Apparently, the gemara perceives standing before God in prayer without a demarcation between one's chest and lower body as inappropriate.


Interestingly, another gemara (Shabbat 10a) relates:


"R. Shesheth demurred: Is it any trouble to remove the girdle (before prayer)! Moreover, let him stand thus [ungirdled] and pray!? — Because it is said, 'prepare to meet thy God'…"


According to this source, a wearing a belt is an expression of one's preparation for encountering God in prayer.


            Interestingly, R. Simcha of Vitry, a student of Rashi, records that Rashi would pray without a belt.  When asked regarding his practice, he responded that the Amoraim's clothing was similar to our robes, without any demarcation between the upper and lower body.  Nowadays, he explained, that it is customary to wear pants no further separation is required. 


            Apparently, he did not feel that one need wear a belt to fulfill "hikon"- either because the mere separation between the upper and lower body fulfills "prepare to greet," or one fulfils this through other preparations, such as netilat yadayim.


            While the Shulchan Arukh (91:1-2) cites both reasons for wearing a belt during tefilla, and rules that "even if one pants which separate between the upper and lower body" should wear a belt because of "hikon."


            The Mishna Berura (s"k 4) writes that only one who normally wears a belt needs to wear one for tefilla, but one who ordinarily doesn't wear a belt, does NOT need one for tefilla.  He does, however, add that there may still be a "midat chissidut" to wear a belt.  Furthermore, the Mishna Berura (s"k 5) cites the Zohar, who seems it appropriate to cover one's head with a tallit during tefilla. 


            In modern times, some authorities have revisited this issue, questioning the propriety of wearing short sleeves, at least, or even shorts, during prayer (see Rav Ovadya Yosef in Yechave Da'at 4:8).  The Shulchan Arukh (90:5), for example, writes "one should not stand up for prayer… with exposed feet, if the accepted practice is to greet important people with shoes…" The Mishna Berura (91:11-13), points out, that is hot countries where it is customary to stand before important people barefooted, one need not be concerned even if one is wearing "short clothing through which the legs are visible." Furthermore, he writes that one should not pray in sleepwear (pajamas), or other clothes that one would not wear to great "important people."    


The Proper Place for Prayer:


            In a previous shiur we discussed those places in which one should NOT pray, due to the presence of foul odors or substances, or the presence of 'erva.'  However, the gemara also enumerates places in which it may be preferable to pray, at times because of the holiness of the place, or due to the positive or negative effect of the environs on one's 'kavana.'  I'd like to bring a few of them to our attention. 


Chazal strongly suggest praying in a Beit Kenesset. 


            To begin with, one can usually join a minyan in a Beit Kenesset, and participate in 'tefilla be-tzibbur.'  While we will devote a different shiur to tefilla be-tzibbur, suffice it to say that not only does a minyan afford one the opportunity to hear "devarim she-bikedusha" (kaddish, kedusha, etc), but the pray offered by a community is qualitatively different, and maybe even more 'affective,' than an individual pray. 


However, the Rabbis also teach (Berakhot 6a):


"A person's prayer is heard [by God] only in the Synagogue… Rabin b. R. Adda says in the name of R. Yitzchak: How do you know that the Holy One, blessed be He, is to be found in the Synagogue? For it is said: God standeth in the congregation of God…"


The Shulchan Arukh (90:9) even rules that if one must pray without a minyan, preferably one should still daven in a Beit Kenesset! 


In addition, the gemara (Berakhot 6b) teaches:


"R. Helbo, in the name of R. Huna, says: Whosoever has a fixed place for his prayer has the God of Abraham as his helper.  And when he dies, people will say of him: Where is the pious man, where is the humble man, one of the disciples of our father Abraham! — How do we know that our father Abraham had a fixed place [for his prayer]? For it is written: And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood.  And 'standing' means nothing else but prayer.  For it is said: Then stood up Phinehas and prayed…"


The Shulchan Arukh implies (90:19), as the Mishna Berura confirms (59), that ideally even when one prays in one's house, he/she should preferably designate a place for prayer. 


Finally, the gemara (Berakhot 34b) also teaches:


Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: "A person should only pray in a house with windows, as it says: 'And the windows of his upper chamber were open toward Jerusalem' (Daniel 6:11)." Rav Kahana says: "A person who prays in a valley is brazen."


Regarding a room with windows, the commentators disagree as to why one should pray in a room with window. 


            Rashi, on the other hand, explains that "the (windows) cause him to direct his prayers, to focus one's thoughts to the heavens, and his heart is humbled…" The Talmidei Rabbenu Yona (Ri"f 24b), in their first interpretation, also explain the outside light while "settle his thoughts," allowing him to pray with greater kavana. 


            However, he offers another interpretation, suggesting that the windows should be open towards the east, towards Yerushalayim, and "through gazing in this direction he will direct his prayers more accurately towards God and his prayer will be desirable and accepted."


            As for prayer in an open valley, Rashi explains that an enclosed, more modest place is more conducive to feeling fear of the King. 


            Interestingly, Tosafot (d"h Chatzif) asks why Yitzchak went out to the field to converse with God (Bereishit 24).  At first, he suggests that he prayed on Har Ha-moria, implying that at times the sanctity of a place may override the desire to pray in an enclosed area.  This is certainly relevant to those who pray at the kotel ha-maaravi.  Secondly, he adds that gemara is referring to a "valley" through with many people traverse.  Seemingly, according to Tosafot, it is simply difficult to concentrate in a "valley" due to the traffic of people. 


            I recommend reading Rav Yitzchak Blau's ( shiur on this passage, in which he presents Rav kook's comprehensive approach to this aggada.


Eating and Drinking Before Tefilla:


            The gemara (Berakhot 10b) teaches that one should not eat and drink before prayer:


"R. Yose son of R. Chanina also said in the name of R. Eliezer b. Jacob: What is the meaning of the verse, You shall not eat with the blood? Do not eat before you have prayed for your blood.  R. Yitzchak said in the name of R. Yochanan… if one eats and drinks and then says his prayers, of him the Scripture says, 'And hast cast Me behind thy back' Read not gavekha [thy back], but gekha [thy pride].  Says the Holy One, blessed be He: After this one has exalted himself, he comes and accepts the kingdom of heaven!…"


The gemara views those who tend to their own physical needs before prayer, i.e. those who eat and drink before tefilla, as haughty and overconfident. 


            The Rishonim enumerate a umber of situations in which one wuld be permitted to eat or drink, as in their situation eating or drinking would not be considered "ga'avah."


            The Rosh (Berakhot 1:10), for example, permits one to drink water in the morning before praying, as "water doesn't not indicate haughtiness…" Similarly, the Beit Yosef (89) cites the Semag who permits one who is thirsty to drink before tefilla, as "it is better to drink water than to be uncomfortable during one's prayer…" Furthermore, the Beit Yosef also cites the Mahari Abuhav who permits eating and drinking before shacharit for "refua," as it does not indicate self-importance or pride.  In fact, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 5:2) writes that one who is hungry or thirsty is considered sick, and if they are unable to concentrate during their prayers, they should eat and drink.


The Shulchan Arukh (89) rules that:


"It is prohibited to tend to one's needs, or to travel, until one recites the shemone esreh… (similarly) one should not eat or drink, however water is permitted to drink before tefilla, on a weekday and on Shabbat and Yom Tov, as is eating or drinking for medicinal purposes… "


Furthermore, he cites the Rambam:


"One who is hungry or thirsty s considered sick, and if he is able to pray with proper intention he should, and if not, he may eat and drink before praying…"


The Mishna Berura comments on this passage, and adds a number of practical points.  Firstly, while he permits drinking tea or coffee in order to enable one to pray with the proper intention, he strongly opposes those who add milk or sugar to their drinks, as well as those who eat "mini targima" (probably cake or cookies) while drinking.  He suggests that those who permit sugar with tea must be referring to sugar which is placed in one's mouth while drinking, and not which is added to one's drink.  Secondly, in his "Bi'ur Halakha," the Chafetz Chayim rules that it may be preferable to pray alone and then eat, and join the minyan later, than to eat before tefilla! On the other hand, he does (s"k 26) rules that if one truly cannot concentrate on one's prayers, one may eat or drink before tefilla.


            The Arukh Ha-shulchan (89:23) notes that the custom is to add milk to tea and coffee before shacharit, 


            Regarding children, the Mishna Berura (106:5) writes that a child may eat or drink before tefilla, as one is enjoined to prevent a child from eating only when the food itself is inherently prohibited.


            On Shabbat, in addition to the prohibition to eat before tefilla, it is also forbidden to eat or drink before reciting kiddush.  Before shacharit, one may drink water, or as mentioned above, coffee or tea, as the obligation to recite kiddush begins only upon completion of shacharit.


            However, the authorities disagree whether a person who must, for medical reasons, or in order to ensure the proper intention during tefilla, eat before shacharit, must recite kiddush. 


            The Mishna Berura (Bi'ut Halakha 289 and Rav Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe O"Ch 2:28) rule that one SHOULD recite kiddush, even before tefilla, if one intends to eat.  Others disagree, and the minhag seems to be in accordance with the second view.


            Interestingly, our previous discussion regarding a women's obligation to pray becomes extremely relevant.  Women who are accustomed to recite the shemone esreh every morning would be obligated to recite the kiddush only AFTER praying shacharit, similar to a man.  Those, however, who are accustomed to merely reciting a daily supplication (Magen Avraham's interpretation of the Ramba) would become obligated in kiddush almost immediately, and would therefore be prohibited to eat or drink, even before shacharit, until reciting the kiddush!  


Conclusion- Spiritual Preparation:


            Just as one should prepare 'PHYSICALLY' for prayer, our sages also insist that one should prepare 'SPIRITUALLY.'


For example, the mishna (Berakhot 30b) teaches:


"One should not stand up to say tefilla unless one is in a reverent state of mind.  The pious men of old used to wait an hour before praying in order that they might concentrate their thoughts upon their Father in the heavens…"


Furthermore, the gemara (Berakhot 31a) relates:


"Our Rabbis taught: One should not stand up to say Tefilla while immersed in sorrow, or idleness, or laughter, or chatter, or frivolity, or idle talk, but only while still rejoicing in the performance of some religious act…."


In fact, as we noted in a previous shiur, some explain that we recite ashrei before mincha, in order to create the proper mindset for prayer. 


            Rabba's insightful remark, that he "clasped his hands and prayed, saying, '[I pray] like a slave before his master.'" Should serve as a model for all aspects of our prayer experience, not just while praying, but even while preparing fro prayer. 


            Next week we will study the laws of "zmenai tefilla," and when are the proper times to pray.