The Snake Mishnah

Image: A non-poisonous California King Snake, black with yellow stripes. They eat small rodents. (pixabay)

[One] should not stand up to pray unless he is in a serious frame of mind. The early pious ones used to meditate for one hour and only then pray, in order to properly direct their hearts towards the God. [While one is reciting Shemoneh Esrei*,] even if the king greets him, he should not respond to him. And even if a snake wraps around his heel, he should not interrupt. – Mishnah Berakhot 5:1

I remember reading this mishnah for the first time. The line about the snake made quite an impression, so much so that I tend to remember it as “the snake mishnah.”

What sorts of things distract you most during prayer?

What do you do when you feel distracted?

Are some distractions holy distractions?

*Shemoneh Esrei is the Amidah, the serious part of the service we recite with most of the congregation standing.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

6 thoughts on “The Snake Mishnah”

  1. I would have to say two thing distract me most, first, my children. And yes, I would call them a holy distraction because I see them as the biggest blessing in the world, and my first directive in life is to teach them in the ways of Torah, including how and why we pray and they often distract me as I pray. But that means they see me praying, so this is a good thing. I don’t tell them not to inturupt me while I’m praying because I want to let them see me praying. I want to make sure they know about it. I dont want to segregate myself. They know that service is a sacred time and space, and i have taught them to respect it as such. Every morning they get up and wash their hands in the basins by their beds just like I do, and say Netiyla yadayim, and Sh’ma, other morning prayer. We aren t orthofox, but we do strive to be obvervant, and we see this as two different things.

    The second distraction I face is during communal prayers, and that is tears. I feel like I am the only one who is moved by emotion. To the point of crying. I know this is my own self conciousness, and I do not think this is kadosh. It is my mind getting in the way of my heart connecting with the Holy One, blessed be He!

    1. I agree – children are distracting, and they are good distractions! Even when I have been very frustrated with mine, I also feel blessed by their existence. It is wonderful that you are raising them with some of the routines of observance; those will stand them in good stead over their lives.

      Tears – you aren’t the only one! I used to cry buckets during services. I’d take a linen handkerchief with me to services, and just mop them up. My take on it is that they aren’t good or bad, they just are how my body is reacting to the moment. Nowadays it very seldom happens – I think of it as a stage I went through and occasionally return to again, and I don’t need to analyze it.

      Scientists tell us that some tears actually contain stress hormones, and that crying is a way our body sheds the consequences of stress. Perhaps that’s some of what’s happening with us when we cry at prayer.

  2. To be honest, the most distracting issue is prayer itself. Who am I praying to? Do I really think my prayer makes a difference? Are these the right words? Can I go “off script” and just think about things I care about? Should I be praying about people who are suffering the most, the people who are dearest to me, or myself? The most uplifting times are those when the whole congregations seems as one. Private prayer is a very difficult undertaking.

    1. Richard, very good questions all! I think what HaZal (the ancient rabbis) are teaching us is that prayer isn’t easy, and your questions underline that fact. I agree, those moments when the congregation prays as a whole are uplifting.

      Sometimes when I am praying privately I listen instead of talk. I see what thoughts show up and where they lead. Sometimes I learn something about myself. Sometimes I have insights about others. No two times we pray are exactly the same.

    1. Those three are very understandable. I’m grateful for my hearing loss, sometimes, because things that bother other people don’t get through to me. My own thoughts, though – ha! They wander all over. Sometimes they head down a useful path, and sometimes they just wander and have to be dragged back to the business at hand.

      Wondering – I think that many, if not most people wonder that sometimes. I find comfort in the teaching that one of the functions of prayer is for ME to hear the words. The question is, am *I* listening?

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