How do you get ready to pray?
Often we walk into services, look for a seat, settle in, chat with friends, and wait for the service to begin. The rabbi or cantor says, “Shabbat shalom!” once, then again, louder, and the group replies, “Shabbat shalom!” Half of us are still mentally looking for a parking spot, and the rest are not sure where we are. A skillful service leader will settle us in with a hymn, but too often we’re looking to them for the “warmup” we need to give ourselves.
What’s the spiritual equivalent of stretching and a little cardio?
The classical answer is to pray that we will be ready to pray. And certainly, for some people that’s the way to begin. It’s like saying “hello” to God, before the service starts.
Others quiet their minds. They sit silently and breathe. They calm themselves from the road or the argument with the kids.
Others check in with friends. I knew one old gentleman who would give a little wave to people across the congregation as he saw them come in. For him, being in the service was about being with other Jews, in Jewish space, and greeting friends was a way to “warm up” to pray.
I like to get to services a bit early and sit for a while. I like to be in the physical space as people arrive. It takes time for all of me to truly arrive in the room. If it’s morning, putting on my tallit [prayer shawl] is a sign to my body that it is time to pray.
For a very restless person, a brisk walk might be a good way to start, something to consume the wiggles for a while.
How do you prepare to pray? What activity might put you in the perfect mindset for prayer?
2 thoughts on “Getting Ready to Pray”
I have only been to temple services three times, and all of those have been weekday or Friday-evening services, so it’s always been a small group. Although I feel very much a part of the group, I still stumble over the Hebrew in the siddur, and this often makes me feel out of place because I know I’m not keeping up with the group. It wrecks my ability to keep a mindset of kavanah, or even keva, yet.
So at temple, getting ready to pray doesn’t have a set plan yet apart from getting to temple early enough that I can focus myself on the (currently very difficult) task of stumbling through the prayers. I’ll get better at it, I’m sure, but I’m not in a place yet where I can daven with a group with any degree of calm.
At home it’s different. For one thing, I always have the transliterations available thanks to various websites that provide them for you. The prayers I say outside temple tend to be the brachot for meals, the Modeh Ani in the morning, the Sh’ma (which I have memorized), and the Shehecheyanu (which I’ve almost memorized). I often find myself humming the Sh’ma as I go about my daily routine, which is nice. And for me, singing is a form of prayer, and I do quite a bit of that by just singing along with my Spotify playlists (Neshama Carlebach, the Josh Nelson Project, Aryeh Kunstler).
If I could get a copy of my temple’s siddur, I would spend some time transliterating some of the prayers in it just so I could memorize how they sound and move towards keva, at least. As Michael over at Chicago Carless said, kavanah may be preferable but keva is enough to get the job done. Right now I’m not even at that point.
Learning to daven takes time. A while back I wrote a piece specifically for people for whom keeping up with difficult, New to Jewish Prayer. There is a lot to learn, and no one is born knowing how to do it. If you can, try to relax and enjoy the process of gradually getting it, becoming proficient at one or two prayers, learning (by copying) a bit of the choreography. The beauty in the slow approach is that each small discovery along the way can be wonderful if you aren’t beating yourself up for the things that aren’t polished yet.
It truly is OK to sit quietly and just soak up the prayer. It’s OK to linger over something that catches your heart while the kahal (congregation) goes on. That’s one of the reasons that Jewish prayer is normatively done in minyanim: we carry one another through the service. In doing so, we experience in prayer the principle of all Jews being responsible for one another.
Getting a copy of the siddur is a great idea. I’m sure your rabbi can tell you where to get one.