GEMARA: Whence this law [that one should achieve a state of koved rosh to pray the Shemoneh Esrei]?  R. Elazar said, “Scripture states: Bitterly dispirited, she (Hannah) [prayed to Adonai] (1 Samuel 1:10).” How do you know this? Perhaps Hannah was different in that she was very bitter at heart.  Rather, R. Yose the son of R. Chanina [derived it] from here: But I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy temple (Psalm 5:8). How do we know this? Perhaps David [the presumed author of Psalm 5] is different because he tormented himself asking for mercy.  Rather, R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “From here: Prostrate yourself before Adonai בְּהַדְרַת-קֹדֶשׁ in holy splendor (Psalm 29:2). Do not read בְּהַדְרַת (in splendor) but rather בְּחֶדְרַת (in trembling).” How do you know this? Perhaps I will tell you that בְּהַדְרַת (in splendor) is, in fact, meant, just as Rav Yehudah would first adorn himself (by dressing up) and afterward pray.  Rather, Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak said, “It derives from here: Serve Adonai with awe and rejoice with trepidation (Psalm 2:11).”
TMT #97 examined Mishnah Berakhot 5:1, which claims that one should achieve a certain state of mind—koved rosh—for prayer. Three interpretations of koved rosh were explored in TMT-97. With TMT #98, we now turn to the Gemara’s discussion of the mishnah. The Rabbis seek the Mishnah’s source for claiming that one must achieve a state of koved rosh to pray the Shemoneh Esrei. The amora’im (the Sages who wrote the Gemara) offer four opinions concerning what the tanna’im (the Sages during the period of the Mishnah who preceded the amora’im) meant, supporting their claims with scriptural verses. (For clarity, I have numbered the four opinions.) The Gemara questions the legitimacy of the first three but offers no further commentary on the fourth.
A question underlies the four opinions presented: when can the example of one individual be deemed representative of a broad principle concerning the behavior everyone should aspire to, rather than be seen as the behavior of that particular individual on that particular occasion in that particular circumstance?
Mishnah did not provide a source for its claim that one should achieve a state of koved rosh to pray the Shemoneh Esrei, which is not unusual. Gemara offers four opinions. The first is ascribed to R. Elazar. He cites the story of Hannah in First Samuel because it recounts the experience of an individual explicitly praying to God. R. Elazar understands marat nefesh (“bitterly dispirited”) to mean “in an extremely serious mood.” The Gemara challenges this suggestion, asking whether Hannah’s state of mind can serve as a general rule for all who pray, or rather pertains only to Hannah on this particular occasion, which seems a more reasonable explanation.
Next, R. Yose offers the example of King David, credited with authoring Psalm 5 (see verse 1). He understands “bow down in awe” as an expression of prayer in which the request is for mercy is central. Indeed, this is the thrust of the entirety of Psalm 5: David beseeches God to save him from his enemies because his life is endangered. The Gemara reasons that David was in a state of personal torment rather than koved rosh. Thus this example, like the first, concerns an individual’s personal state of mind and should not be generalized prescriptively to all people when they pray.
R. Yehoshua b. Levi offers a third explanation. Drawing on Psalm 29:2, he instructs us to read b’hadrat kodesh as b’chedrat kodesh, changing the letter hay (ה) to the letter chet (ח). Hay and chet are visually similar, distinguished only by a tiny stroke of ink. Read this way, R. Yehoshua instructs us to be so keenly aware of God’s power that we tremble when we pray. In other words, fear (yirat Adonai) should dominate our mental state during prayer. The Gemara counters that we could just as reasonably not exchange the hay for a chet and understand the verse to instruct us to dress up to pray (look splendid) as we would do when meeting a powerful human sovereign. Indeed, Rav Yehudah would don good clothes for prayer, his time to “talk with God.”
Fourth and last is Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak’s interpretation based on Psalm 2:11. He understands “serve” to connote prayer. He says that our attitude in prayer should combine awe, joy, and trepidation. It’s not clear if he means that one should aim for all three states of mind simultaneously, or draw on whichever emotion most honestly reflects one’s state of mind at the moment. The Gemara does not challenge his view, communicating that a spectrum of emotions are all appropriate and conducive to prayer.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Which do you think is preferable and more appropriate: (1) prescribing a specific state of mind for prayer, or (2) encouraging people to channel their personal emotional state into prayer? What are the advantages and disadvantages to each approach in theory and for you personally?
- Rambam (Moses Maimonides) was an advocate of strict kavanah (intention) in prayer. He counsels us to train ourselves to expel all extraneous thoughts and focus solely on the words of the prayers. (See below.) How does this strike you? What is gained? What is sacrificed?
- What mood or state of mind do you find most conducive to prayer? What other factors (e.g., environment, music or silence, public or private) do you prefer? How do you prepare to pray?
“Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read the Shema or during the [Shemoneh Esrei] prayer… After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing, and to have your attention directed exclusively to the perception and the understanding of what you utter.” (Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed III:51)