Essays Print
Real Davening: Chasidic Answers to the Crisis in Prayer by Yitzhak Buxbaum
Real Davening: Chasidic Answers to the Crisis in Prayer by Yitzhak Buxbaum

Volume 4 , Issue 3

Prayer is one of the main pillars of Judaism. Yet today that pillar is tottering. The praying in many synagogues is lifeless and many people are not attracted to prayer at all. What can be done? Perhaps Chasidism can provide us with some help.

Prayer Versus Torah in Chasidism

Because prayer involves more of a direct relation to God than Torah study, it was originally emphasized by the chasidim, who sought d'vekut, an immediate experience of the Divine Presence. The Baal Shem Tov himself devoted great efforts to prayer; he said that he was told from heaven that he attained his exalted spiritual level not because of Torah study, but because he prayed with fiery intensity.' Another reason why prayer was preferred by the chasidim is because of its egalitarian nature: while not everyone can be a Torah scholar, even a simple person can pray fervently and experience God's closeness.

The Difficulty of Prayer

In one sense, then, prayer is superior to Torah in establishing direct contact with our Father in Heaven. But perhaps that is also why it is in such a low state today. Real prayer is uniquely potent, but it is very difficult, even more so than Torah study ? at least for our generation. The Talmud, for example, may be intellectually difficult, but prayer is emotionally difficult; it is the demanding service and labor of the heart. Most people certainly prefer Torah study to prayer. Indeed, most Jews naturally like to learn. And we find it much easier to exercise our minds than to work with our emotions. Rote davvening may indeed be relatively easy. In real davvening, however, you have to pass beyond a mere recitation of the words to establish an actual, living relationship with God. That is why real prayer will always include personal conversation with God, petitions, expressions of gratitude, and other additions to the prescribed prayers. Moreover, in prayer you not only have to face God, you have to face yourself ? what your true desires are, what your true spiritual situation is?and that makes most of us uncomfortable. It is agonizingly hard to do. Nevertheless, the reward is proportionate to the pain.


But lest we become overly pessimistic, we should realize that the current dismal situation with regard to Prayer is nothing new. It recurs regularly in Jewish history; or, perhaps more accurately, it is the normal situation, but there are sporadic revivals when people strive for real prayer, when they seek to break through the shell of the forms to reach the living content. The Baal Shem Tov's Chasidism instigated one such revival. Before the arrival of the Baal Shem Tov, prayer was held in relatively low esteem. Everyone knows the famous story about how the Besht once stopped at the door of a synagogue saying he could not enter because it was so full of prayers. When his astonished disciples asked him if that was not a recommendation for a synagogue, the Besht answered that when prayers are said with love and fear they ascend to heaven ? but here they did not ascend, but rather they entirely filled the synagogue. Today also, people find it difficult to enter some synagogues for this reason. But when the chasidim, in the early days of the movement, found the synagogues spiritually stifling, and the prayer services dull and rote, they broke away to create their own vibrant houses of worship. Everything possible was done to inject new life into prayer. Sincerity and spirituality were the keys. The vain performances of the chazanim were replaced with services led by learned laymen or the rebbes themselves. They began using a prayer-book based on the Sephardic rite, as adapted by the Ariz?l, the great kabbalist. Preparation for prayer, including mikveh immersion, was stressed. Sometimes the prayers were even delayed until appropriate inwardness was achieved.

The Parable of the King's Orchestra

The following early chasidic parable provides valuable insight into the process by which this chasidic prayer-revival occurred:

There was once a king who so loved music that he directed his musicians to play before him at a certain hour each morning. Those who came at the appointed time and performed received a reward, and those who arrived early, even before sunrise, received twice the reward. But whether they arrived at the appointed time or earlier, they came not for the sake of the reward, but only out of love for the king. For many years all went well. The musicians delighted in playing each morning before the king, and the king delighted in hearing their music.

When, at last, the musicians died, their sons sought to take their places. But, alas, they had neither mastered the art of their fathers nor had they kept their instruments in proper condition. Worse still, the sons no longer loved the king as did their fathers, but set their eyes only upon the reward, blindly following their fathers' custom of arriving early each morning at the palace to perform. But the harsh sounds that emerged were so offensive to the ear, that after a time the king no longer listened to their music. Intent upon the reward, however, the sons closed their eyes to this reality because of their greed and continued to come each day to play as usual. Still, there were among the sons of the old musicians, some who recognized that they were not worthy to play before the king. And they were determined to correct the situation. They set about the difficult task of relearning the forgotten art. Before coming to the king, they would now first try to tune their instruments, and in so doing would often arrive late. Upon entering the king's court and hearing the racket of the other musicians who were already present, they sought out an obscure corner for themselves where they could play undisturbed in accordance with their ability. It was there that they gathered each morning to perform, remaining long after the other musicians had departed so that they might improve their skill. And long before leaving their homes for the palace each morning they continued to struggle with their poor instruments. The king was aware of their efforts and it found favor in his eyes. For even though they did not play with the same talent as their fathers, still they strove, within their limits, to once more bring joy to the king. Thus was their music received by the king with favor.2

This exceptionally beautiful parable is from the great chasidic rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. The Berditchever was one of the early heroes of chasidic prayer. He used to rise well before dawn to prepare for davvening, and was renowned for his ecstatic prayer. Our situation today is not very different from what he describes in the parable. But do we have the determination to "relearn the art" of prayer? In the parable, prayer is compared to making music and the congregation to an orchestra. Everyone knows the extraordinary effort people will make to learn a musical instrument. But does anyone exert himself to learn how to pray? Indeed, there is little recognition that there is anything to learn. When a newcomer, unfamiliar with prayer, arrives at a synagogue, it is more than likely that someone will simply put a siddur in his hand, as if to say: Prayer is easily done ? one just mouths these words! It is as if a person walking into a music school were to be given an instrument and told: "Just play it. Blow in that end, or, just bow those strings!"

The Parable of the Magic Walls

But though there arc many chasidic spiritual practices for prayer3 , learning how to davven is not just learning a "skill." Even playing a musical instrument requires soul, not just technique ? how much more so praying! Let us consider one aspect of chasidic prayer as taught by the Baal Shem Tov. According to the Besht, real davvening must be with the fiery in?tensity of mesirat nefesh ? self-sacrifice. In the Besht's Chasidut, all our activities must be directed to attaining d' vekut ? a constant, loving awareness of the Divine Presence ? but prayer is particularly effective in achieving it. In the corpus of teachings of every great religious leader there are always a few sayings or parables that poignantly express what is most basic in his insight. There is one parable of the Baal Shem Tov that contains the very essence of chasidic mysticism and illustrates his teaching about the quest for d'vekut. I call it the Parable of the Magic Walls. It is significant that the Besht sometimes used this parable specifically with regard to prayer.4

A king, using magic, surrounded his palace with many walls, one inside the other, and hid himself within. The formidable walls grew increasingly larger as one came closer to the center; they had fortified battlements and were manned by fierce-looking soldiers who guarded from above; wild animals ran loose below. All this was so that those who approached would fear the king and not all who desired to come close would be allowed to do as they pleased.

Proclamations then went out throughout the kingdom that whoever came to see the king in his palace would be richly rewarded; he would be given a rank second to none in the king's service. Who would not desire this? But when many came and saw the outer wall's awesome size and the terrifying soldiers and animals, most became afraid and turned back. There were some, however, who succeeded in scaling that wall and getting past the obstacles, but then the second wall loomed before their eyes, even more imposing than the first, and its guards even more terrible. Seeing that, they too turned back. So none reached the king.

The king's son, however, had only one desire: to see the face of his beloved father. When he came and viewed the walls, soldiers and wild animals, he was astonished. He could not understand how his dear father could hide himself behind all these terrifying barriers and obstacles. "How can I ever reach him?" he thought. Then he began to weep and cried out, "Father, Father, have compassion on me that I not be kept away from you!" His longing was so intense that he was willing to risk his life to attain his goal. By the courage of his broken heart which burned to see his father, he ran forward and scaled one wall and then another, and fought off soldiers and wild animals. Although his situation became increasingly desperate, he refused to give up. Again and again he called out to his father. Then his father, the king, hearing his pathetic cries, and seeing his total self-sacrifice, suddenly removed the walls and other obstacles. In a moment they vanished as if they had never existed. Then his son saw that nothing separated him from his father; there were no walls, soldiers, or animals? just peaceful gardens and orchards surrounding the palace on all sides. Multitudes of the king's servants stood before him to serve him and choirs sang his praises. The king himself sat on his throne in all his majesty, and the whole earth shone from his glory. Everything was tranquil, and there was nothing bad or te?rible at all. The son realized that the walls and obstacles were a magical illusion, and that his father the king had never really been hidden or concealed, but was with him all the time. It was all just a test to5see who truly loved the king.

The simple meaning of this profound and beautiful parable is that we arc always in God's presence. The "walls" that seem to separate us from Him are illusory; if we don't see Him, if we don't have the Divine Vision of the Godliness of all reality, it is because of our own spiritual deficiencies. However, the lesson is that if we single- mindedly seek our Father in Heaven, we will find Him. The son in the parable succeeds because his love overcomes his fear. So must we increase our love of God until all barriers fall before us. Once, when I was discouraged about my own lack of spiritual progress, I asked a great tzaddik how one can achieve something spiritually. He said that the person who is most desperate is the one who gets somewhere. There is a story about a disciple who posed this same question to his rebbe. The rebbe took him to a river and asked him to immerse. When he did so, the rebbe held his head under water until his lungs almost burst. When he let him up, he told him that when he wanted God as much as he wanted that breath of air, he would find Him. In the parable, the son's forlorn cries of "Father, Father!" represent prayer. His readiness to die in his quest teaches the general importance of mesirat nefesh for spiritual advance, but also specifically applies to prayer. The chasidic way of prayer, founded by the Baal Shem Tov, is to pray with mesirat nefesh ? complete self-sacrifice and willingness even to give up one's life to God in prayer. The Besht taught that you should think before praying that you are ready to die during the prayer because of your intense kavvanah (God-directed intention). You should say to yourself: "Why should I have any pride or egoism in this prayer, given that I'm prepared even to die after two or three words?" He said that the kavvanah of some who prayed in this manner was so great, that sometimes, according to the natural course of events, it would be expected that they would die after saying only a few words before God. (Certainly he was talking about himself, also!) It was only God's compassion that allowed them to praz a whole prayer like this and remain alive. If this is the way you pray, said the Besht, willing to die for each word, then you must have intense concentration on each word of the prayers. He said that every word is something in its own right, and you must put all your energy into saying it.

One of the early chasidic rebbes most famous for praying with mesirat nefesh was Rabbi Uri of Strelisk. Once he specifically asked someone to do something for him before he prayed, and not after, for he said to him: "I'm going to pray now with the intention of giving up my life during the prayer, and I don't know if I'll return again to my home."8 His son reported that every day before the Morning Prayers his father would go to the kitchen to say good-bye to his wife and children, in the event that he expired during the prayers from his great d'vekut with the Creator, blessed be He.

Reb Arele

In more modern times, Reb Arele Roth of Jerusalem, who founded a new chasidic group, revived the Besht's fiery way in prayer. I had always found the radical teachings of the Besht and the vivid stories about the Strelisker fascinating, but I never understood the matter on a level deep enough to make personal and practical use of it until I read about Reb Arele. His experiences and teachings made this chasidic way of prayer come alive for me.9

At a certain point in his life (while still a young man) Reb Arele lost the sweetness he had always felt in prayer, until his prayer had no vitality, and he became depressed and aggrieved by his woeful situation. In his search for spiritual support, Reb Arele read the chasidic teachings: how one must pray at length, praying with a loud voice and all one's energy, and with kavvanah and mesirat nefesh. He read how the Besht, himself, had reached his own high spiritual level by praying with strenuous exertion, with actual self-sacrifice and willingness to give up his life. Then he tells of a turning point, when he remembered his former days of spiritual happiness, and he felt such bitterness that he thought: "Why should I continue to live any more if this is my lot, to be like an ox eating grass, without a true service of prayer, without holy vitality?" So he decided that he would pray with such self-sacrifice that his soul would depart in prayer, for his life no longer meant anything to him without true service of God. He was left almost without life. When he felt himself near death, God took pity on him. Suddenly he was bathed in a Divine light, almost like that of the World-to-Come, beyond anything he had ever previously experienced.

The meaning of this dramatic scene is that when Reb Arele followed the Besht's teachings about prayer, he reached the mystical goal as described in the Besht's Parable of the Magic Walls. He saw the light of the Divine Presence everywhere and saw how all existence is alive with Divine vitality. Reb Arele realized the promise in the Besht's parable. He said that this mystical revelation of the Divine light is available to anyone who desires it; even a completely wicked person, who exerts himself over an extended period of time without giving up, will eventually achieve it. When he reflected upon his own extraordinary experience, he came to understand that there is no concealment of God; it is simply that the Holy One, blessed be He, wants a person to fully exert himself before Him, and only then will He will show him mercy.

According to Reb Arele, the proper attitude for prayer is to be like a submissive laborer and a simple workman before God, like a hewer of wood or a drawer of water, without any special wisdom at all, and without any falseness or crooked cleverness.10 Prayer requires not only kavvanah, butexertion. You can learn this kind of exertion, he said, from someone who chops wood for a living. Regardless of whether it is summer or winter, hot or cold outside, he won't tire at his hard labor, because he knows that his livelihood depends on it. So when you pray, you should consider yourself to be like a simple woodcutter before God, and resolve to pray with kavvanah and bodily exertion, knowing that your spiritual life depends on it.

Just as the early chasidim broke away to create their own congregations, Reb Arele formed a new group to carry out his ideals about prayer. In Reb Arele's synagogue the congregation prayed with the most strenuous and animated exertions. During the time of prayer, the whole synagogue burned with awesome fervor and the clothes of all present would become wet with the sweat that poured from them from their vigorous exertions in prayer. it

The ultimate goal in this kind of prayer is to fulfill the saying of the sages: "How much energy should we put into our prayers? ? So much that we squeeze out our soul [fromour body]." When you pray with total mesirat nefesh you reach a state of hitpashtut ha-gashmiyut ? where you are removed from bodily awareness and materiality. Your soul leaves the body and enters the soul-world. That is how you achieve d'vekut with the Soul of all souls, the Holy One, blessed be He, and achieve the mystical Divine Vision.

Perhaps not many of us can reach the ultimate, but we should not be afraid to try! Only the holy few will be able to readily risk death to achieve the highest spiritual aims. But all of us can take a few steps forward in spiritually renewing our prayers. When we prepare for prayer we can inspire ourselves by considering how our spiritual life hangs in the balance. We can say to ourselves, "I'm going to exert myself like a simple woodcutter, for I know that my spiritual life depends on this prayer. And if I don't achieve the spiritual purpose of my life, why should I continue to live?" We can also think of the great holy people ? such as the Besht, the Strelisker and Reb Arele ? and inspire ourselves by reflecting on their self-sacrifice in prayer. In their merit may we achieve sincerity in praying, and come closer to our Father in Heaven, and may the day soon arrive when we all shall see the Divine Vision, with the coming of our righteous Messiah. Amen.


1.                   Keter Shem Tov, p.22b.

2.                   S. Dresner, The World of a Chasidic Master: Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (New York: Shapolsky, 1986), p.16, from Vikuha Rabba, p.38.

3.                   See the chapter on prayer in my book, Jewish Spiritual Practices (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1990).

4.                   lie sometimes told it before the shofar blowing on Yom Kippur.

5.                   In Sefer Baal Shem Toy (vo1.2, p,235f.) there are 8 versions of this parable. My version is a composite.

6.                   Tzavaat ha-R I bash, p.12, #42.

7.                   Ibid., #34.

8.                   Imrei Kodesh ha-Shalem, Chap.14, p.76.

9.                   The following material about Reb Amite is taken from Told of A haron, pp. 114, 211, 220,227, 228, 267.

10.                Ibid., p.228.

11.                Ibid., p.214.

Yitzhak Buxbaum is a maggid and storyteller who lives in New York City. His new book, Jewish Spiritual Practices, was recently published by Jason Aronson, Inc.



All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011