On Sheva Berakhot - The Seven Nuptial Blessings
This essay was originally written on the occasion of the marriage of my son, Ika Chipman, to Leeza Small-Goldberg, during the week following Parshat Hayyei Sarah in November 2003.)
This week’s Torah portion contains the first extensive account in the Bible of a marriage, in the story of Abraham’s servant’s mission to the city of Nahor to find a bride for Isaac. All the components of Jewish marriage are here: the kiddushin is executed by means of an emissary, who presents the girl with gold and silver vessels and clothing, and gifts to her mother and brother (Gen 24:53). Once she arrives in Canaan, Isaac is described as “bringing her into his tent” (v. 67)—i.e., the act of taking the woman into the huppah, which is the essence of marriage. Moreover, Tractate Kallah cites the verse, “and they blessed Rivkah, saying…” (v. 60) as a source for the Sheva Berakhot, or Birkat Hatanim. Interestingly, this blessing is not a “benediction” praising God, but an invocation of God’s blessings, so to speak, upon the bride. Thus, one might say that Sheva Berakhot has a double aspect: blessing in the usual sense of praises addressed to God, and in the sense of invoking Divine blessing upon people.
As we mentioned in our introduction to this series, Maimonides had a genius for order and logical arrangement of his texts, and the choices he made in this regard are themselves significant. His treatment of the laws of Sheva Berakhot are a prime example of this. The full text of the Sheva Berakhot are brought by him in two separate, very different settings; an analysis of these two passages is, to my mind, revealing for understanding Rambam’s conception of this halakhic institution. First, he brings them in Hilkhot Ishut, Chapter 10, among the laws describing the legal process of formalizing marriage: after detailing the laws of kiddushin (betrothal, in which a woman is set aside and sanctified to be the wife of a specific man) in the first nine chapters, he then turns to the laws of huppah or nissuin, the solemnization and actual consummation of the marriage, where the man brings his wife into his home, and there go into effect the monetary and other obligations of the partners to one another, as entailed in the ketubah (marriage document). This section begins:
2. Once the betrothed woman has entered into the huppah, it is permitted for him to have relations with her whenever she wishes, and she is completely his wife, in every respect. And once she enters the huppah she is called married….
3. And one needs to recite the Nuptial Blessings (birkat hatanim) in the home of the bridegroom before the marriage, and these are six blessings, as follows: “Blessed are You…” [there follows the text of all the blessings]
4. And if wine was available, he brings a cup of wine and blesses first over the wine, and then arranges all [the blessings] over the cup; he thus recites seven blessings…
In the Laws of Blessings, Maimonides presents the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals. After the discussing the basis obligation involved in this blessing, he enumerates the various additions made to the “bentching” on various occasions: Shabbat, festivals, New Moons, in the House of Mourning, and in the House of a Bridegroom. Thus, in Hilkhot Berakhot, Chapter 2:
9. In the house of a bridegroom one recites the Bridegroom’s Blessing after these four blessings, at every meal that they eat there. And this blessing is not recited by slaves or minors. Till when does one recite this blessing? If he was a widower marrying a widow, one recites it on the first day alone. And if he was a bachelor marrying a widow or a widower marrying a virgin, one recites it throughout the seven days of the feasting.
10. This blessing added in the house of bridegrooms is the last blessing of the seven nuptial blessings. Under what circumstances? When those partaking of the meal were the same people who were present at the nuptial blessings and heard the blessings. But if those partaking of the meal were others, who did not hear the nuptial blessings at the time of the marriage, these seven blessings are recited for them [my emphasis-JC] after Grace After Meals, in the same way as one blesses at the time of the wedding. And this, provided that there are ten present; and the bridegroom is counted among the minyan.
11. And these are the Seven Blessings: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God…” [the text of all the blessings follows].
It clearly follows from this that the Rambam perceives the seven blessings recited under the huppah, and those recited at the festive meals during the following week, as stemming from two different obligations. In Hilkhot Berakhot he even uses a different terminology to refer to them: the former are called Birkot Nissuin (“Nuptial Blessings”); the latter, Birkat Hatanim (“the Bridegroom’s Blessing,” in the singular)—albeit he is admittedly inconsistent, using the latter term in Hilkhot Ishut. I discussed this problem at some length a little over a year ago (HY IV: Bereshit), when I wrote a long essay about Sheva Berakhot in honor a friend’s daughter’s wedding. I will briefly summarize my conclusions; the full text of that essay is available upon request.
As I understand it, the core of Sheva Berakhot, the essential reason for their recitation at a wedding, is to provide a theology, an in-depth religious context, for the union of man and woman, and by extension for the marriage of this particular couple. Adam and Eve are the archetype for every couple; every couple on their wedding day are in some sense an embodiment, in some mystical sense perhaps even a reincarnation, of that first couple. Under the huppah, the blessings are an obligation incumbent upon the hatan and kalah: to thank God for their zivvug, their own union, and to meditate upon the long-term, cosmic meaning of that union. At the feasts, the blessings are for the benefit of the guests gathered for this occasion, for whom the union of this couple conjures up memories of that first wedding in Eden. The rules governing their recitation all relate to the idea of newness, of freshness: there must be at least one individual who is in fact hearing these blessings, for this particular couple, for the first time; and, except on the wedding day itself, at least one of them must be marrying for the first time. Thus, what creates the obligation is both the newness of the union and the newness of those experiencing it as celebrants.
Before turning to my main subject, two questions for further thought, to which I have no ready answers: 1) First, where does the notion of there being two distinct obligations come from? In reading the Talmudic sugya on this subject (Ketubot 7a-8b), we see no indication of a separate “wedding ceremony” at which the seven blessings were recited. One must remember that in ancient times the betrothal or kiddushin, and the actual marriage or “bringing into the huppah,” were two events that more often than not were separated by an interval of several months, a full year, or even more. The impression gleaned from the Talmud is that the huppah was a festive canopy erected within the groom’s home, perhaps a canopied bed (as in seventeenth and eighteenth century European homes, as can be seen in museums or English castles) or a temporary pavilion adjacent to the home, where the newlyweds consummated their marriage, and during the course of the day the friends of the bride and groom feted the young couple with non-stop feasting, drinking and singing. Indeed, there is some discussion and disagreement among the rishonim as to whether or not these blessings must precede “entering into the huppah.” 2) Secondly, there is room for broader speculation about the historical origin of the sheva berakhot. What lies behind the Talmudic discussion about the requirement of a minyan of ten for these blessings, down to deriving it from a special verse? And were they connected in any way to early Jewish-Christian polemics about the role of sexuality in human life?
Finally, Rambam’s identification of birkat hatanim with the one concluding blessing, and its description as a kind of norm, with the recitation of the full set of seven at the wedding feasts as the exception to the rule, is quite different from the way things are presented in the Talmud, the Tur and Shulhan Arukh. Both the order in which he presents these laws and the exact phrasing used by him suggest that the Rambam had a definite conception of the special position enjoyed by Asher Bara among the nuptial blessings. In the balance of this essay, I would like to explore the specific meaning of this final blessing, and try to understand why it enjoys the special status of being recited at all wedding feasts, regardless of whether or not “new faces” are present. The text is as follows:
Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who created joy and happiness, bridegroom and bride, gladness and joyful song, amusement and gaiety, love and camaraderie, peace and friendship.
Speedily, O Lord, our God, may we hear in the cities of Judaea and the courtyards of Jerusalem: the voice of joy and happiness, the voice of bridegroom and bride, the voice of joyous shouts of bridegrooms from their wedding chamber and of youths from their feasting and song.
Blessed are You, O Lord, who rejoices the groom with the bride.
This blessing consists of two main parts. The first part thanks God for creating the joy of this occasion, enumerating its various aspects (it is rather difficult to translate accurately, as several of these nouns are near synonyms). It is a kind of celebration of the fulness of life, of the epitome, the quintessence of joy, represented by marriage. Not only is it a kind of reliving of Creation, of the wholeness of Adam and Eve’s existence in Eden, but it is also a kind of contagious joy, that makes all those around them happy as well. The celebrants sing and dance, rejoice and feast and laugh—life lived in the present, in the fullness of the moment. (Twelve nouns are brought in all; an old, larger defunct Zoharic- Sephardic tradition mentioned in Seligman Baer’s Siddur Avodat Yisrael has only ten, corresponding to the ten sefirot)
The second half is a prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem. Its presence here is a bit puzzling: the full version of Sheva berakhot already contains a blessing (sos tasis) devoted to hopes for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the comforting of the “desolate woman” who awaits the return of her children. Perhaps there is a sense in which the very joy of the wedding festivities are somehow a reminder that Jewish national life is as yet incomplete.
There is also a verbal association between the four nouns mentioned at the beginning of the blessing—sasson simhah hatan vekalah—“joy and happiness, bridegroom and bride”—with a series of verses in Jeremiah. These phrases appear in almost identical form in four separate passages in Jeremiah. Three of these are prophecies of doom, in which the cessation of marriages is seen as emblematic of the end of all normal life, as symptomatic of the dark cloud of destruction and exile: “I will cause to cease from the cities of Judah and from the courtyards of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of happiness, the voice of bridegroom and the voice of bride, for the land shall be laid waste” (Jer 7:34; cf. 16:9, 25:10). Only in the fourth of these verses, Jer 33:10-11, are the same words used to prophesy redemption and the renewal of life: “There shall yet be heard in this place, which you say is desolate, with neither man nor beast, in the cities of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem… the voice of joy and happiness... of groom and bride…. a voice saying, ‘Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts, for God is good, for His lovingkindness endures forever,’ bringing thanksgiving offerings to the House of the Lord.”
Similar ideas appear in other prophecies: the sign of God’s favor being restored is not necessarily in the grand, dramatic events of the ingathering of myriads of exiles from every corner of the world, or the rebuilding of the Temple, or of upheavals of nature, but in the minor, everyday things that signify the return to everyday life: weddings, planting and enjoying the fruit of vineyards (Jer 31:4), or simply the sight of old people sitting on park benches with their canes and children playing in the streets (as in Zechariah 8:4-5).
There is a kind of dialectic here: for the Jew, even at the height of joy one always remembers that something is missing. There is a hole in the center of the religion, so to speak; just as our daily payers are suffused with the absence of the Daily Burnt-Offering, or the liturgies for Yom Kippur or Pesah give prominent place to the missing Temple ritual, so too the very joy of the wedding reminds us of that which is missing. On a certain level, one might say that this sense of lack is almost existential: the joy of Adam and Eve in Eden was also short lived—some midrashim say, only a matter of hours. Perhaps one may even draw a parallel between the expulsion from Eden and the exile from Jerusalem.
Actually, there is an anomaly in this blessing. It seems strange to hear it phrased in the future tense, when the voices of joy and gladness, of bride and groom, are heard right here in Jerusalem, today!
In any event, what is it about this blessing that makes it a sine qua non of every wedding meal, regardless of who is there or how many people? Essentially, as already mentioned above, it is a blessing for the festivity of marriage. The basic idea is that a wedding is the very quintessence of joy; that a wedding feast is sui generis a “joyous occasion.” Therefore each feast, each meal per se, is an occasion for thanking God for the existence of joy in this world (Some authorities suggest that the very recitation of this blessing is part of the mitzvah of “rejoicing bridegroom and bride”). The “reliving” of the Edenic experience is, so to speak, exhausted by the blessings recited at the huppah, unless newcomers come to revive that feeling of reliving Bereshit; but that the wedding feasts are an occasion for rejoicing per se is a fact. This is also reflected in the halakhah that mourners are proscribed from participating in such feasts and that, on the other hand, the “seven days of feasting” are treated as a private festival, a seven day yom tov, for the newlywed couple; even if a parent of one of the principles dies, the feasts go on, and mourning is postponed till after shivah—and there are many other like laws.
I cannot leave this subject without quoting the famous aggadic passage about the five “voices” mentioned regarding the wedding feast. Berakhot 6b:
Rav Helbo said in the name of R. Huna: Whoever enjoys a nuptial feast and does not rejoice the bridegoom, violates [i.e., shows contempt for—Rashi] five voices, as is said: “the voice of joy and happiness, the voice of bridegroom and bride, the voice saying, ‘Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts, for God is good, for His lovingkindness endures forever’” [Jer 31: 11]. And if he does rejoice him, what is his reward? Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: He merits to the Torah, which was given with five voices. As is said, “And on the third day, when it was morning, there was the sound of thunder and lightening and thick cloud upon the mountain, and the sound of the shofar” [Exod 19:16]. “And the sound of the shofar was increasingly loud… and God answered him with a voice” [ibid., v. 19].
This parallel between the voices, or sounds, of the Sinaitic revelation and those of rejoicing at a wedding is striking. Torah Temimah (at Exod 19:16; §33) suggests that this is based upon the fact that marriage (and, by extension, bearing children and family life generally) and Torah are the two things upon which the very existence of the world depends. One who rejoices at a wedding thus demonstrates, so to speak, that he cares about the existence of the world.
The use of the number five is also suggestive. One wonders whether the non-biblical phrase used at the end of this blessing, “the joyous shouts of bridegrooms from their wedding chamber and of youths from their feasting and song,” is a deliberate substitute for the phrase in Jeremiah, “a voice saying, ‘Give thanks… to the Lord for He is good…,’” was specifically introduced to maintain the same number of mentionings of “voices.”
As in many other areas of observance today, the question is raised as to whether or not women may recite one of the sheva berakhot—at a wedding meal in honor of the couple, or perhaps even under the huppah. Offhand, there seems to be no reason why they should not do so. The above-cited Rambam, as well as the Shulhan Arukh, specifically stipulates that slaves and minors may not recite these blessings—seeming to imply by silence that women may do so. One well-known rabbi was reported as saying that it is permissible, but that the public is not yet ready for a woman to recite it under the huppah. Slowly, slowly, there seems to be a modest grass-roots movement to recite it at seudot during the week; then it will no doubt gradually find its way into the wedding celebration itself—first at the meal, and finally at the huppah.
Rabbi Daniel Sperber referred me to several articles on the subject by Rabbi Joel Wolowelsky, an important American modern Orthodox halakhist and pro-feminist thinker, in which he reaches similar conclusions: in Modern Judaism 12 (1992), 157-165; in his book Women, Jewish Law and Modernity (Hoboken NJ, 1997), pp. 56-66; in Tehumin 6 (1985), 118-120; and in Amudim 31:3/444 (1983), 86-88. There is also an important article on this topic, with reactions and discussion by four prominent rabbis, in Geranot 3 (published by Beit Morasha Yerushalayim), which I have not yet had the opportunity to read.
It seems to me that this could be an important symbolic gesture: if today’s young re’im ha [ve]-ahuvim (“loving friends” or “friends and lovers”) are embarking upon a more shared, egalitarian path, building a less sharply role-differentiated life together than did their forebearers, might this not be expressed by their receiving blessings from both men and women who are close to them?
More on Public Prayer and Private Prayer
(The following is by way of belated conclusion to our discussion of prayer in the Rambam, the first parts of which appeared in HY V; Ekev and Nitzavim. My apologies for the long delay)
Towards the end of Parshat Hayyei Sarah, we encounter the figure of Yitzhak, who “went out toward evening to meditate [la-suah] in the field” (Gen 24:63). Rashi interprets the phrase la-suah as implying prayer, as in the phrase, “he shall pour out his entreaty” (Psalm 102:1)—from whence the notion that Isaac introduced the Minhah Prayer. Isaac is thus a kind of paradigm for the individual who engages in meditative, inward prayer. There is something mysterious about this lone figure, ambling through the desert while the sun is setting, perhaps enwrapped in profound thoughts about the secrets of creation, or crying out to his Maker from the depths of his heart. Such figures reappear, in varied and different forms, throughout the spiritual history of the Jewish people.
The difficulty emerges when the Yitzhak mode is counterpoised with the great emphasis placed by the halakhah upon public worship. The ideal, perfect prayer is always thought of as being recited in public, with a minyan of ten Jews—whether on festive days, such as Simhat Torah or Purim; on days of high solemnity, such as the Days of Awe, when there is hardly a serious Jew who doesn’t find his way to the synagogue; in times of crisis and trouble, as on the public fast days of ancient times, when the entire community gathered in the city square; or simply on ordinary weekdays, when it is a mitzvah to pray with the public. The subject is succinctly presented in Rambam’s Hilkhot Tefillah 8.1, as follows:
The prayer of the public is always heard; and even if there were sinners among them, the Holy One blessed be He never rejects the prayer of the multitude. Hence a person must join himself with the public, and should not pray by himself so long as he is able to pray with the public. And a person should always go to the synagogue morning and evening, for his prayer is only heard at all times in the synagogue. And whoever has a synagogue in his city and does not pray there with the public is called a bad neighbor.
Maimonides devotes more than half of Hilkhot Tefillah, his “Laws of Prayer” —Chapters 8-15—to public manifestations related to prayer: the order of tefillah betzibbur, the synagogue (whose sanctity derives from the regular presence therein of public worship), the public reading of the Torah, and the priestly blessing. In many places, the Sages likewise emphasize the importance of public prayer (see Berakhot 8a). Moreover, according to Hazal’s world-view, in public worship the merits of the public somehow compensate for the shortcomings and lacks of each individual therein. Indeed, they even find a certain note of arrogance or haughtiness in the behavior of a person who does not feel the need to pray with others, as if he is confident that his prayer will be accepted by the Master of the Universe on the basis of his own righteousness alone.
It is my own admittedly subjective impression that daily public worship is one of those mitzvot honored largely in the breach, and is less universal than it was two or three generations ago. Outside of the Haredi world, whether “yeshivish” or Hasidic, it seems that many religious Jewish men, quite possibly the majority, do not attend synagogue daily, unless saying Kaddish. The reasons for this are many: the pressures of modern life, especially of long commutes to work in often congested traffic; readying small children for school or day-care in two-career families with an egalitarian, non-traditional approach to division of tasks; “night-birds,” who may work in intellectual pursuits and utilize the late hours of the night to concentrate without disturbance; and, related to this, those whose “biological clock” cannot easily adjust to rising for early morning minyanim (and who don’t have a late minyan in their neighborhood); not to mention those who live in a city where there is no daily minyan at all.
Yet the centrality of public worship is rooted in basic Jewish concepts. The covenant is seen as in essence being made between God and the Jewish people; even when the Almighty speaks with individuals, as He does constantly in the Book of Genesis, which we read during these autumn months, the covenant is made “between Me and yourself, and with your seed after you throughout the generations” (Gen 17:7) —that is, with a collective which will come into being through the patriarchs, and not with them as individuals per se.
On this count, there is a striking difference between Judaism and Christianity. As Soren Kierkegaard phrased it: “’The individual’—that is the decisive Christian category, and it will be decisive for the future of Christianity.” He even eschewed marriage with the love of his life, Regina Olsen, because he saw his religious calling as somehow fulfilled through his remaining “the Single One. “ (Psycho-historians will doubtless add that this must have been connected with a fear of sexuality, the “thorn in the flesh” that supposedly causes a person to compromise his spirituality by enjoying carnal pleasure.) Admittedly, his approach was an extreme one even within Christianity, but the attitude itself is in some way integral to that faith. Hence the institution of monasticism, and the requirement of celibacy even among lay priests in the Catholic Church, in contrast to Judaism’s emphasis on marriage, family, and the mitzvah of procreating and educating children.
In principle, one might say that Christians are converted to the faith, while Jews are born into the covenant community. Conversion, as a cognitive act, is by definition individual (hence the requirement for adult baptism and consciously “accepting Christ” in many Protestant groups), while birth is a matter of belonging to a certain family, to a group—so much so that even giyyur is understood as being “born” as a Jew, the mikveh and the womb being symbolically equated.
Nevertheless, there are various values in halakhah that at times came into conflict with that of public prayer. Thus, some of the Sages saw Torah study so central to their being that they preferred to worship in solitude where they studied, rather than with the public in the synagogue. Thus, it is told of Rav Assi and Rav Ami that “Even though there were thirteen synagogues in Tiberias, they only prayed between the pillars where they studied” (Berakhot 8a). I have heard that there were great sages closer to our own time, such as the Vilna Gaon, who also followed this approach.
Another aspect of prayer that may lead to conflict with public prayer—one that takes us to the very essence of the meditative, “Yitzhak” model—is that of kavvanah, of the need for spiritual focus or concentration during prayer. Prayer is defined as avodah shebelav, “service of the heart”; hence, by its very nature it must be an expression of the person’s heart and soul. If prayer is lacking in kavvanah, in the inner feeling of standing before the Almighty, it is no more than a heap of words. Here, too, Rambam’s words, based upon the Talmudic discussion, are both clear and insistent: “intention of the heart” is defined as among the “five things whose absence disqualify prayer” (Tefillah 4.15), alongside the laws pertaining to basic physical obstacles to prayer. This, in contradistinction to those things that, while desirable, are not essential, such as the direction faced during prayer, bodily posture and gestures, being dressed in a dignified manner, etc. Thus, by rights, a person who prays without kavvanah ought to recite Shemonah Esreh a second time. The only reason we don’t require this is that the poskim considered it likely that the person will pray by rote the second time around as well! (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim §101). In a similar vein, the Talmud says that a person must devote time to preparation prior to prayer itself: “The pious men of old would wait one hour and thereafter prayed, so as to focus their hearts upon their Heavenly Father” (Mishnah Berakhot 5.1).
Indeed, there were more than a few great Torah sages, particularly within the Hasidic movement, who found themselves on the horns of this dilemma. Many Hasidic rebbes were in the habit of praying in solitude: some prayed in a separate, side room, with the door slightly opened so that they might hear Kaddish and Barkhu and Kedushah and so on, while there were others who prayed in complete seclusion.
In quite a few synagogues, prayer is conducted in a rapid, perfunctory manner—in some cases even on Shabbat, all the more so on weekdays—that in many cases may disturb those seeking to pray in a more serious manner to properly fulfill the mitzvah of “service of the heart.” Or they may find a certain problem with the “energy” of Orthodox prayer, which at times, in certain places, may somehow seem too nervous, jerky, almost compulsive. Prayer is a very subtle business. Some people are easily disturbed and lose their ability to concentrate if they need to keep up with someone else’s pace, and hence prefer private devotions.
Part of the problem may be put down to the “individualism” of our age: that is, that we value too greatly our own subjective prayer experience and its needs; were people to appreciate the importance of tefillah be-tzibbur, of public prayer, and its cardinal role as a symbolic expression of belonging to the community, they would make a greater effort to, say, pray with a minyan daily.
But that is not a complete answer. Although at times it may seem that the decline in the status and dignity of public prayer is a problem of recent generations, it is in fact not a new problem. Already two hundred years ago this issue was discussed in the writings of Habad Hasidism. The Habad approach, as is well known (see HY IV: Vayishlah, Vayakhel), greatly emphasizes prayer as a central part of a person’s avodah—wherever possible, protracted, meditative prayer. The worshipper is called upon to reflect upon the sublime greatness and majesty of the Holy One blessed be He; to prepare himself by studying a chapter or two of a Hasidic devotional text, and thereafter to pray slowly, word by word, with a melodious chant and with focused attention. The psalms of Pesukei de-Zimra and the first two blessings of Shema in the Morning Prayer are seen as playing a special role, their purpose being “to awaken the love hidden in the heart of every Jew” so that it might thereafter “be openly manifested in his heart at the moment of reciting Shema, which is the mitzvah of love implied by the verse ‘and you shall love [the Lord your God].’”
In two passages in Tanya, the basic text of Habad Hasidism, the “Alter Rebbe,” R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, relates to this conflict: i.e., between the need for proper kavvanah during prayer, and the requirement of public prayer. His optimal solution is to try to assure that every minyan in every town is hospitable to seriously spiritual prayer—placing his own considerable prestige and stature behind a campaign to do so. In the first chapter of Iggeret ha-Kodesh (the fourth section of Tanya), and again on the final pages of Kuntres Aharon (the fifth and final section), he refers to reports he has heard of places where “businessmen,” who hurry to complete their prayers so as to go about their affairs, serve as prayer leaders, determining the pace of the daily prayer, thereby preventing others from praying slowly and attentively. He protests against this phenomenon, and counsels that;
Only those who have the time…. who are able to pray the morning prayer for about an hour and a half all the days of the week (!) shall be the prayer leaders…But on Shabbat and festival days, when also those who have businesses are at leisure, it is a suitable time for them to pray at leisure, at length, with concentration of their heart and directing their soul toward God (would that this were true today!-JC), [they too may lead the prayers]. All the more so that the obligation is imposed upon them with greater force… as is written in the Torah of Moses, “Six days shall you work … and the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God”—specifically, that it is entirely for God. (Iggeret ha-Kodesh, Ch 1; in Tanya, p. 103a)
How many people can we imagine agreeing to spending an hour and a half davening every weekday morning?! We live in an age when certain minyanim pride themselves in finishing in 25 minutes! I have even heard of a certain synagogue that made a rule that Shaharit on Shabbat morning may not exceed 45 minutes in length—Heaven forbid someone should get home much after 10:30! Nevertheless, our synagogues could stand a certain slowing of pace; perhaps the popularity of “Carlebach minyanim” and other new ways of conducting the service with a slower, more musical or meditative style of prayer, will be the first “swallows” heralding a spring of renewed Jewish spirituality.
The second solution to this problem, current today in Habad, is a kind of fall-back position, in which the two obligations, of public prayer and of kavvanah, are performed separately. The “ba’alei avodah” who daven at length come to synagogue with everybody else, sit quietly and study something while the public worships, meanwhile stopping to fulfill the various mitzvot connected with public worship: Kaddish, Barkhu, Kedushah, and listening to the Torah reading on days when it is read. To these I would add: listening to the entire repetition of the Amidah, and answering “Amen” to each blessing, preferably while standing, given that Hazarat ha-Shatz is considered by Rambam to be the very essence of tefillat hatzibbur. Only thereafter do they pray at length by themselves, with love and fear of God, each one according to their inner resources.
It seems to me, that this approach on the part of Habad is an interesting effort to maintain both values at once: on the one hand, participation with the public, expressing the sense of common destiny, the notion that “all Israel are responsible bound to one another,” that finds concrete expression in public worship; on the other hand, the spiritual goal of kavvanah, of emotion, of prayer as service of the heart—things that, by their very nature, occur within the soul of each individual, and which are rooted in his/her own inner life.
On another level, there is a tension here between “fixity” and “beseeching mercy.” We read in Pirkei Avot 2.16, “Do not make your prayer a fixed thing, but compassion and entreaty before the Omnipresent, blessed be He.” The late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to say that Judaism, in effect, rejected this mishnah, preferring fixity and constancy in the mitzvot, including that of prayer, to innerness and emotion, which are by definition subjective and transient. But unlike Leibowitz, I believe that it is both possible and desirable to make every effort to maintain both, and that there is broad support in Judaism for both constancy and for emotion, for participation in the religious life of the congregation and for the outpouring of the soul of each individual.