Rava bar Rav Huna would put on fine shoes and pray. He said, “Prepare to meet [your God, O Israel] (Amos 4:12).” Rava (Abba b. Yosef bar Chama) would cast off his cloak, clasp his hands, and pray. He said, “[One should dress for prayer] like a servant before his master.” Rav Ashi said, “I saw Rav Kahana [do the following]: When there was suffering in the world, he would cast off his cloak, clasp his hands, and pray. He said, ‘One [should dress for prayer] like a servant before his master.’ When there was peace, he would get dressed, covering and wrapping himself, and pray. He said, ‘Prepare to meet [your God, O Israel].’”
Fashion changes quickly but in any age clothing communicates many things: socio-economic status, profession, respect or disrespect. The story of Tamar in Genesis chapter 38 makes it clear that when she donned the clothes of a prostitute, her father-in-law Judah failed to recognize her on the road; he saw only her clothing.
Similarly, body language communicates many things. Consider what these gestures communicate: arms crossed over the chest, clenched fists, fake smile, looking down at the ground rather than making eye contact, furrowed eyebrows
Prayer is conceived by the Rabbis as one’s time to communicate with God. The Amidah, in particular, was conceived by the Sages as a time, metaphorically, when one has a private audience with God in the divine Throne Room.
It seems that every generation, as fashions change, some older folks object to the way some younger folks dress, accusing them of wearing “inappropriate” or “disrespectful” clothing. We all learn as youngsters what is considered appropriate, but times, standards, and sensibilities change. The Talmud reminds us that clothing and body language communicate to the beholder, but also reflect the thoughts and feelings of one who presents them—hence there is no one right way.
The Gemara compares the differing prayer styles of two Babylonian rabbis, both named Rava. Rava bar Rav Huna was a third generation amora, the son of Rav Huna who headed the academy of Sura. The second is Abba b. Yosef bar Chama (known throughout the Talmud as just “Rava”) a fourth generation amora who lived and established a yeshivah in Machuza. Rav Ashi, born the year Rava died, headed the academy in Sura. He attempts to reconcile the two divergent views.
Rava bar Rav Huna dressed up for prayer, donning fine shoes. Why shoes? Perhaps because shoes, hidden beneath a long robe, are the least visible sartorial item. If he paid so much attention to shoes, imagine how scrupulous he was about everything else he wore for prayer? In quoting the prophet Amos (4:12), he yanked the verse out of its context. Amos warned the people to prepare themselves for the coming punishment that God would inflict on the northern tribes. For Rava bar Rav Huna, however, “Prepare to meet you God” means dress as you would to meet a president or king—express respect through dress because talking to God is a great honor.
In contrast, Rava did the opposite. He removed his g’limah (a cloak that signaled his status) and clasped his hands together as one who is helpless in the face of a far greater power. Rava explained that for him, the experience of prayer was akin to that of a servant appearing before his master. Updating a bit: One would not appear before one’s boss wearing far dressier or costlier clothing and behaving as if the employee were the boss in the relationship.
Rav Ashi followed the model of Rav Kahana, who followed the models of both Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava, depending upon the circumstance. When times were bad and people were suffering, he adopted the humble style of Rava, removing his g’limah and clasping his hands in petition. When times were good, however, Rav Kahana followed the model of Rava bar Rav Huna and dressed up to pray. Rav Ashi confirms that there is no one single appropriate way to pray—either with respect to clothing or body language. Circumstances and needs change—and vary with individuals—and prayer should be a sincere expression of the one who utters it.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- There was a time when people dressed up to attend a synagogue service. Many still do, but today many congregations encourage people to “come as you are” in casual dress. What do you think is gained by loosening the requirements? Is anything lost?
- In Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava’s day, Jews conceived God on the model of a powerful king. Today, Jews conceive God in widely divergent ways. How does your conception of God influence your thoughts about clothing and body language during prayer? What prayer experience (e.g. liturgy, venue, rituals) or style (e.g., meditation, movement, music, chanting) is most meaningful to you?
- Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Ein Eyah vol. 3) explains that differing styles of Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava reflect two types of prayer: Petition and Praise: “Rava emphasized the aspect of prayer that corresponds to Yirah, the awe and reverence of a self-effacing servant before his master. Rava bar Rav Huna, on the other hand, stressed prayer as an expression of Ahavah, out of love for God. He conducted his prayers in the manner of a loving and favorite son, proudly wearing his finest clothing before his father.” Yirah instills humility and makes the worshiper aware of God’s kindness and mercy; Ahavah lifts up the soul and makes the worshiper receptive to spiritual truths. What are your thoughts on Rav Kook’s interpretation of this Talmudic passage?