Thoughts on Teaching Tefillah

WRITTEN FOR A DISCUSSION GROUP OF MECHANCHIM, ‘TEFILLAH WORKING GROUP’

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It’s important to define specific concepts, priorities, chiyuvim, perspectives and questions:

  1. There is the doing of Tefillah and the learning of (about) Tefillah
  2. Parallel to the above, there is the chiyuv to daven and the chiyuv to understand what we are davening (Kavanah)
  3. In addition to the (minimum & upwards) Kavanah required by halachah during the doing of Tefillah, there is our desire as mechanchim and the desirable state of affairs in general that children (and adults) have a broader understanding of Tefillah, which we expect and hope will enable all of us to find deep meaning and connection with the Tefillot and so with Hashem
  4. There are the effects of Tefillah, on us, on others, and the power of Tefillah to activate the spiritual realms (Nefesh Hachaim)
  5. There is davening which is practised by adults with a full chiyuv, and the davening of children in their chinuch years, each type with its own potential and power
  6. Children learn how to daven properly not only from direct instruction from teachers, but also (and primarily) from the example they see in the devotional Tefillah of their parents, teachers and other adults, at home, at shul and at school.  Conversely, too, in respect of children seeing bad examples, including rushed, disrespectful davening, talking during Tefillah, etc.

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As mechanchim, as parents, and as adult bnei Torah, we have the multiple responsibilities to train children in the doing of Tefillah, to teach them the minimum comprehension for Halachic Kavanah (whether of the content of the tefillot or of the very fact that they are engaging in tefillah, or a balance of the two, or whatever – see the literature…), to give them a broader and deeper understanding of Tefillah, to set the right example for them to follow, to motivate them to daven regularly and properly, to provide inspiration to ignite their spiritual engagement with Tefillah, and . . . to get them davening!

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We may ask questions such as the following:

– What balance is there in the way we and our schools think about the relative places of the Doing and the Learning of Tefillah in the school day and in children’s lives?

– What thought do we give to the impact on children’s perception of the importance of the Doing of Tefillah by cutting it short or interrupting it with explanations?  This is not to say that adding explanations into Tefillah is not a valuable exercise, just that we need to be cognizant of achieveing the right balance.  Is it the case that the Doing isn’t really so worthwhile until it is adequately (how much is that?) endowed with knowing and understanding?  There is a danger that we can, especially as teachers, with our teacher hat on, emphasise Tefillah knowledge, skills and understanding above the habitual (in the most positive sense – yes, it has a positive sense, too) regular practice of Tefillah as a daily mitzvah.

– while (and because) both the doing and the learning of Tefillah are crucially important, should either ever be at the expense of the other?  For example, should actual davening be shortened in order to give some instruction, to tell an inspirational story, or to have a discussion?  That is, should the doing of Tefillah be ringfenced, so that:

  1. the children learn the absolute importance of regular, daily davening, and
  2. the potential power and effects of the children’s tefillot are not diminished – after all, who are we to decide whether the children are yet producing tefillot that will cause spiritual events in the Upper Worlds?  When will we ever be ready (or qualified) to make such judgements?

– how clear do we make it to children that there is a chiyuv to daven, that davening is a valuable exercise in and of itself, even when we may not fully understand everything we are saying?  To what extent do we, ourselves, realise this, and daven the best we can despite our own (I can speak here only for myself) limited understanding, Kavanah and connection?  Chazal have given us a Nusach HaTefillah (granted, it varies with Ahk., Sef., etc.) and it is Their sublime and inspired compositions which have intrinsic power when uttered by us with at least the minimum intention to daven.  Even this knowledge (I find) can inspire children to take Tefillah more seriously.  In other words, the very BEYONDNESS of Tefillah, its power, and related concepts of Kedushah and connection with Hashem should be enough to open a doorway to inspired engagement with Prayer – yes, even for children.

– In what sense are the DOING and LEARNING of Tefillah somehow interdependent? Would we keep children from davening until they are ‘ready’ (because we have now taught them enough about it)?  How long would we keep children from davening?  When (and how?) would we judge that we have taught them enough that they are now ‘ready’ to daven?  How ready are we (I) ourselves (myself) to daven?  What is the right curriculum for giving children enough information and inspiration to be ready to daven – who of us could make such a judgement?  Would we steadily reduce the learning of Tefillah and increase the doing of Tefillah as the children become more Tefillah-ready?

– Are we qualified to judge the extent to which our children and pupils are capable through their tefillot of having an impact of some kind – on those requiring a refuah, for example?

– To what extent do we exemplify devotional Tefillah simply through our own actions?  Do we put as much confidence in the power of children seeing adults daven in a quiet, still, thoughtful manner as we do in delivering explicit instruction in the meaning and purpose of Tefillah?

There is no question that finding the right balance between the Doing and Learning of Tefillah will always be a challenge, as will finding the right balance between putting explanations into ‘davening time’ and giving separate Tefillah study / Bi’urei Tefillah lessons.

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It could well be that, despite some of what I have implied above (regarding the possible dilution of actual davening with explanations, discussions, etc.) the best time for inspiring the children (and adults??) to engage in really ‘good’ davening may well be just before actual Tefillah – after all, did not the ‘Chassidim Harishonim’ (the ‘Early Chassidim’) pause for thought for an hour prior to Tefillah, daven for an hour and then pause to meditate on their prayers for another hour?  (Berachot 32b)  Preparation is key, and even one or two inspiring messages, thoughts, or a quick story can certainly set the right tone.

Regarding inserting a meditative moment before Tefillah, I have found that an hour doesn’t always work, but even ‘ten seconds of thoughtful silence’ can be a powerful lead-in.

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In terms of igniting children’s general engagement with the purpose and power of Tefillah, and whipping up a general ‘Tefillah Readiness’, I have found a short pre-davening discussion to be effective.  I have used these questions mainly with Yrs.5/6 (approx. ages 10/11) but the exercise is worthwhile with younger ages, too – with these or any other questions to stimulate their minds, hearts and souls.

Yes, Tefillah is of the soul.

Just a few thoughts.

May our deepest tefillot always be answered, letovah.

JR

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See:

https://www.lookstein.org/professional-dev/kings-presence-teaching-tefillah-communal-responsibility/

Nefesh HaChaim: Rav Chaim of Volozhin Judaica Press – Translated by Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Finkel

Tefilla: Creating Dialogue with Hashem – Rabbi Reuven Leuchter – Based on the Nefesh Hachaim

Shemoneh Esrei – The Depth and Beauty of Our Daily Tefillah – Rabbi Zev Leff – Just a fantastic book, beautiful Torah, packed with Rav Leff’s knowledge and wisdom

Rav Schwab on Prayer – The sublime, deep, unique Torah of Rav Shimon Schwab…  on Prayer – essential