MISHNAH: One should not rise to pray [the Shemoneh Esrei] except with an attitude of koved rosh (in a serious frame of mind). The pious ones of old would wait for an hour and then pray in order to direct their hearts toward God. Even if the king greets [one who is praying the Shemoneh Esrei], that person should not respond to him. Even if a snake curls around his heel, that person should not interrupt [recitation of the prayer].
When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, God was worshiped by bringing a complex array of sacrifices ranging from meal offerings to incense to animals to its altar. The sacrificial cult ended in 70 C.E. with the Destruction of the Second Temple, but in its day, it afforded worshipers stunning sights of crowds, animals, and priests; sounds ranging from animals to the music of the Levites; the smell of animal flesh and blood, as well as incense; and often involved the feel and taste of the sacrifices, as well. The Book of Leviticus is devoted to detailing the many required sacrifices, the occasions on which each was to be brought to the Temple, and the precise procedures the kohanim (priests) were to follow. Other portions of the Torah focus on the sacrificial cult, as well. Torah is concerned with the state of mind of the priests offering the sacrifices, but nowhere is the attitude or state of mind of the ordinary Israelite mentioned. Perhaps this is because the sheer drama of the sacrificial cult—involving all the physical senses—commanded one’s full attention.
In the vacuum left by the Destruction, the Rabbis determined that prayer would function as the primary mode of worship replacing communal sacrifices: Shacharit in place of the morning offering and Minchah in place of the afternoon offering. Ma’ariv, the evening prayers, were initially voluntary, but came to be considered obligatory. Prayer is an entirely different experience than offering a sacrifice. Even when performed communally, prayer is far more private, inward, and contemplative and, arguably, far more difficult. There is no show to watch, no drama unfolding. Prayer requires focus, concentration, and effort. In the mishnah above, the Rabbis discuss the desirable state of mind when engaged in prayer.
The Shemoneh Esrei, the central prayer of the Jewish prayer service, is an amalgam of numerous blessings. On weekdays, it was composed of 18 blessings (now 19)—hence the moniker Shemoneh Esrei (“eighteen”)—organized in three sections: praises, petitions, thanksgiving. It is also called the Amidah (“standing”) because it is recited while standing.
In the mishnah above, the Sages teach that one should achieve the state of mind they term “koved rosh” to pray the Shemoneh Esrei. Koved rosh is so important that the early Sages spent an hour in meditation to achieve this frame of mind to prepare themselves to pray the Shemoneh Esrei properly. Once achieved, nothing should be permitted to interfere with one’s concentration, not even a king’s greeting or a threatening snake. These are curious examples of the extent to which one should focus on the Shemoneh Esrei. Ignoring the greeting of a king is politically dangerous; ignoring a snake is physically dangerous. (The Rabbis likely believed that God would protect one engaged in prayer from harm.)
But what is the attitude of koved rosh, which literally means “heaviness of head,” that the Sages adjure us to acquire? Rashi (11th century, Provence) understood the term to connote a mindset of awe and reverence. According to Natan b. Yechiel (11th century, Rome) koved rosh alludes to physical posture: bowing one’s head in prayer. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789–1866), the third rebbe of Chabad offered a creative interpretation based on an alternative meaning of the root kaf-bet-daled, “sweep”: one should sweep from one’s mind all extraneous and worldly thoughts in order to focus only on the meaning of the prayer. These explanations might be viewed as differing aspects of prayer that could apply simultaneously, or as differing and incompatible understandings of prayer. (You might wish to consider how each of these three explanations of koved rosh aligns with the mishnah’s praise for lengthy preparation for prayer and instruction to ignore the dangers of both kings and snakes while reciting the Shemoneh Esrei.)
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Menachem Mendel Schneersohn’s interpretation of koved rosh, which encourages one to sweep away all extraneous thoughts and focus solely on the words of the Shemoneh Esrei, seems to contradict the generally understood purpose of prayer, which is to share with God one’s concerns and request from God what one needs. How do you suppose Schneersohn conceived of prayer? How did he understand God? Is your prayer a conversation with God or a time for meditation? How do the words in the siddur help or detract from your prayer?
- The Talmud (BT Yebamot 105b) recounts that R. Chiyya and R. Shimon b. R. Yehudah were sitting and talking. One said, “Those who prays should direct their eyes downward [focused on the Temple]” while the other said, “Those who prayer should direct their eyes upward [toward heaven].” R. Yishmael b. R. Yose, however, said, “My father taught that when praying, we should direct our eyes downward and our hearts upward, fulfilling both requirements.” How do you understand the concerns of the first two sages? Is R. Yishmael’s father’s teaching helpful to you?
- There is a tension in Jewish prayer between keva (formal, fixed prayer) and kavanah (intentional, spontaneous prayer). Keva privileges formality and provides a framework, but spontaneous prayer is often the most heartfelt. Which form of prayer is most meaningful for you? Are you able to combine the two when you pray?