Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Children's Siddur to Buy or Not to Buy

So I have small children and my wife and I are trying to educate them to be connected to tefilla.  We started with the basic one used in our shul:
It has its advantages and disadvantages - one disadvantage being that it doesn't have "Ashrei" - one of the most popular parts of tefilla.  Another disadvantage is that the spine is very thin and won't survive intensive prayer nor play davening. Meanwhile the graphics are good and my kids love to use it (while it lasts).

Koren Publishers came out last year with a more developed version of a children's siddur.
Seems to me like similar graphics and approach to tefilla, but with some more structure and meat to the siddur.

Today I came across what I must think is the worst siddur that I have come across yet, and that is saying much considering the two dimensional nature of Artscroll publishing.

Apparently Dudu's Fisher's siddur comes with an CD (featured above - same cover on the siddur) and lots of spirit and excitement. I am in some very weird way embrassed by this siddur and its efforts to solely teach the peformance of the prayers without much mention of a self-reflective or mediatiive dimension.  Indded my frustration may stem from my more exclusive focus on teenagers and adult tefilla experiences, but oh how I loathe that this approach is exclusivley pushed as if prayer is a team sport!

Of relevance is Daniel Rose's query in today's Lookjed in which he is reseraching about children's siddurim:
I am doing some initial research into Jewish Day School Siddur use. I am interested in understanding what a school looks for in a siddur for grades 1-4 (ages 6-10). Which siddur do use in your school in these grades? In your school is the siddur primarily used for its text (to learn the tefillot) or do you (or do you think you would like to) use a school siddur as a teaching resource for teaching tefilla? What do you/would you teach from the siddur (Reading? Tefilla skills? Hilchot tefilla? Tefilla themes and ideas?) Does the siddur you use (or would you like it to) come as part of a curriculum with a teacher's resource packet/booklet?
Any feedback you could give is gratefully received (
I encourage you to share your expreinces of what your kids or students may be using to daven and hope that it will benefit other parents and teachers.  And if you are in the process of writing or publishing a new children's siddur, let us know!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tefilla Question of the Year

My seven year old son asked the following question tonight, right before bedtime:
I know that there is a 'song of the day' for each of the days of the week in our siddur, but why isn't there different davening for each day - why do we daven the same thing each day? 
Good questions - any good answers out there?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Guest Post: Chief Rabbi Sacks - Encountering God

Encountering God - Yayetze
24 November 2012 - 10 Kislev 5773

It is one of the great visions of the Torah. Jacob, alone at night, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, lies down to rest, and sees not a nightmare of fear but an epiphany:
He came to a certain place [vayifga bamakom] and stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream. He saw a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching heaven. G-d’s angels were going up and down on it. There above it stood G-d . . .
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “G-d is truly in this place, but I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d; this is the gate of heaven.” (28:11-17)

On the basis of this passage the sages said that “Jacob instituted the evening prayer.” The inference is based on the word vayifga which can mean not only, “he came to, encountered, happened upon” but also “he prayed, entreated, pleaded” as in Jeremiah 7: 16, “Neither lift up cry nor prayer for them nor make intercession to Me [ve-al tifga bi].”

The sages also understood the word bamakom, “the place” to mean “G-d” (the “place” of the universe). Thus Jacob completed the cycle of daily prayers. Abraham instituted shacharit, the morning prayer, Isaac minchah, the afternoon prayer, and Jacob arvit, the prayer of nighttimes.

This is a striking idea. Though each of the weekday prayers is identical in wording, each bears the character of one of the patriarchs. Abraham represents morning. He is the initiator, the one who introduced a new religious consciousness to the world. With him a day begins. Isaac represents afternoon. There is nothing new about Isaac – no major transition from darkness to light or light to darkness. Many of the incidents in Isaac’s life recapitulate those of his father. Famine forces him, as it did Abraham, to go to the land of the Philistines. He re-digs his father’s wells. Isaac’s is the quiet heroism of continuity. He is a link in the chain of the covenant. He joins one generation to the next. He introduces nothing new into the life of faith, but his life has its own nobility. Isaac is steadfastness, loyalty, the determination to continue. Jacob represents night. He is the man of fear and flight, the man who wrestles with G-d, with others and with himself. Jacob is one who knows the darkness of this world.

There is, however, a difficulty with the idea that Jacob introduced the evening prayer. In a famous episode in the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua takes the view that, unlike shacharit or minchah, the evening prayer is not obligatory (though, as the commentators note, it has become obligatory through the acceptance of generations of Jews). Why, if it was instituted by Jacob, was it not held to carry the same obligation as the prayers of Abraham and Isaac? Tradition offers three answers.

The first is that the view that arvit is non-obligatory according to those who hold that our daily prayers are based, not on the patriarchs but on the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. There was a morning and afternoon offering but no evening sacrifice. The two views differ precisely on this, that for those who trace prayer to sacrifice, the evening prayer is voluntary, whereas for those who base it on the patriarchs, it is obligatory.

The second is that there is a law that those on a journey (and for three days thereafter) are exempt from prayer. In the days when journeys were hazardous – when travellers were in constant fear of attack by raiders – it was impossible to concentrate. Prayer requires concentration (kavanah). Therefore Jacob was exempt from prayer, and offered up his entreaty not as an obligation but as a voluntary act – and so it remained.

The third is that there is a tradition that, as Jacob was travelling, “the sun set suddenly” – not at its normal time. Jacob had intended to say the afternoon prayer, but found, to his surprise, that night had fallen. Arvit did not become an obligation, since Jacob had not meant to say an evening prayer at all.

There is, however, a more profound explanation. A different linguistic construction is used for each of the three occasions that the sages saw as the basis of prayer. Abraham “rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before G-d” (19:27). Isaac “went out to meditate [lasuach] in the field towards evening” (24:63). Jacob “met, encountered, came across” G-d [vayifga bamakom]. These are different kinds of religious experience.

Abraham initiated the quest for G-d. He was a creative religious personality – the father of all those who set out on a journey of the spirit to an unknown destination, armed only with the trust that those who seek, find. Abraham sought G-d before G-d sought him.

Isaac’s prayer is described as a sichah, literally, a conversation or dialogue. There are two parties to a dialogue – one who speaks and one who listens, and having listened, responds. Isaac represents the religious experience as conversation between the word of G-d and the word of mankind.

Jacob’s prayer is very different. He does not initiate it. His thoughts are elsewhere – on Esau from whom he is escaping, and on Laban to whom he is travelling. Into this troubled mind comes a vision of G-d and the angels and a stairway connecting earth and heaven. He has done nothing to prepare for it. It is unexpected. Jacob literally “encounters” G-d as we can sometimes encounter a familiar face among a crowd of strangers. This is a meeting brought about by G-d, not man. That is why Jacob’s prayer could not be made the basis of a regular obligation. None of us knows when the presence of G-d will suddenly intrude into our lives.

There is an element of the religious life that is beyond conscious control. It comes out of nowhere, when we are least expecting it. If Abraham represents our journey towards G-d, and Isaac our dialogue with G-d, Jacob signifies G-d’s encounter with us – unplanned, unscheduled, unexpected; the vision, the voice, the call we can never know in advance but which leaves us transformed. As for Jacob so for us, it feels as if we are waking from a sleep and realising as if for the first time that “G-d was in this place and I did not know it.” The place has not changed, but we have. Such an experience can never be made the subject of an obligation. It is not something we do. It is something that happens to us. Vayfiga bamakom means that, thinking of other things, we find that we have walked into the presence of G-d.

Such experiences take place, literally or metaphorically, at night. They happen when we are alone, afraid, vulnerable, close to despair. It is then that, when we least expect it, we can find our lives flooded by the radiance of the divine. Suddenly, with a certainty that is unmistakable, we know that we are not alone, that G-d is there and has been all along but that we were too preoccupied by our own concerns to notice Him. That is how Jacob found G-d – not by his own efforts, like Abraham; not through continuous dialogue, like Isaac; but in the midst of fear and isolation. Jacob, in flight, trips and falls – and finds he has fallen into the waiting arms of G-d. No one who has had this experience, ever forgets it. “Now I know that You were with me all the time but I was looking elsewhere.”

That was Jacob’s prayer. There are times when we speak and times when we are spoken to. Prayer is not always predictable, a matter of fixed times and daily obligation. It is also an openness, a vulnerability. G-d can take us by surprise, waking us from our sleep, catching us as we fall.

Shabbat Shalom,
This article was published with permission of the Office of the Chief Rabbi.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Prayer and Psalms

I, like many of you, have been a bit preoccupied with headlines and news updates.  With the rise in tension and rocket attacks, I can also say that my kavanah in my tefilot has also improved (a fortunate byproduct of an unfortunate time).  What psalms or prayer are you adding?  One shul suggested 83, 130 and 142.

How are your prayers managing in this time of turmoil?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Guest Post: The Potty Prayer

When I teach youth about prayer or blessings, and how to connect to these potentially abstract ideas, I always share what my favorite prayer is and why.  Initially, when students hear about it they giggle or think I'm actually joking.

When I was a freshman in high school I first heard about 'The Pee Prayer', or 'Asher Yatzar', the prayer said after going to the bathroom.

The text of the prayer is almost mechanical in the way it describes the functioning of the body. The basic gist of the prayer is, 'Thanks G-d!  You created my body with all of its valves, tubes, and plumbing.  If just one of these various parts stopped functioning, even for an hour, it would be impossible for me to exist.'

At 14, I thought, 'Cool! There's even a prayer for peeing!'  And I began saying it diligently every time after I had gone to the bathroom.

Six years later, when I was 20, my favorite uncle, Johnny Goldberg, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Johnny was 46 years old and had three children. His youngest daughter would be celebrating her bat mitzva in just a few short weeks.

I went to say goodbye to him before I left for my sophomore year of college.  All of us (he too), knew his death was imminent.  I sat next to him on his bed and I knew it would be the last conversation with him.  I felt comfortable and curious enough to ask him, 'If you could have one thing right now, what would it be?'

I was sure he would say, 'To live to see Judy's bat mitzva', or 'To feel well',  or 'To have the pain go away.'  But without missing a beat he said, 'I would like to be able to go to the bathroom again.'

He died two days later.

And finally, for the first time, after years of saying the pee prayer, I understood just how miraculous our bodies are. How intricately they function.  And how when they breakdown, just how debilitating and devastating it is.

As unbelievable as it seems, ever since that September afternoon in 1989, I have said Asher Yatzer with more intention, understanding, and appreciation.

One of the many things that I love about connecting to various Brachot is how they can compel us to go through our lives with 'deliberateness'.  Brachot force us to recognize the miraculous in the seemly everyday, routine, and pedestrian.

For 6 years I said the Bracha, and it meant something.  But then the switch was thrown, and the Bracha became illuminated for me - I finally GOT IT.

Which of the Brachot that you often say 'speaks' to you?  Why?  And what does it say?

Rachel Goldberg was born and raised in Chicago and now lives with her family in Israel. Rachel's teaching experience includes Judaic Studies at the Oakland Hebrew Day School, the Endangered Spirits program, she has lectured for Hebrew University's Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, WUJS, and recently wrote and published an awesome curriculum on Jewish Identity for Birthright groups. She is one of the finest Jewish role models and informal educators that I have met.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Prayers & Sacrifices

In light of yesterday's post about prayer and the Temple worship, I wanted to share the Lubavitcher Rebbe speaking (in 1984 and in yiddish) about selfless prayer and the lessons we can learn from biblical sacrifices. Follow this link to watch and listen to the Rebbe's perspective (or at least six minutes of his perspective).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Prayers Have Been Cancelled

The following email was sent to a shul during Hurricane Sandy:
Dear Community,
In light of the deteriorating situation resulting from "Sandy", and based upon the directives issued by local authorities for people to stay home this evening and thereby protect themselves from the teeth of the storm, in my capacity as Posek for our community, I have instructed the shul to cancel tonight's Maariv service. Pikuach Nefesh is a consideration that allows even for Shabbat violation in order to preserve life so that future Shabbatot can be properly observed. It stands to reason that Tefilla B'Tzibbur, even when one has the obligation to say Kaddish, should be governed by a similar consideration. What is of paramount importance is that everyone stay safe and current conditions constitute a real danger to life and limb. May we all get through the next few days so that we can once again resume our normal lives and serve HaShem as we are meant to.
There are two main arguments about the source of the commandment to daven.  One argument links us back to the patriarchs who each is credited with establishing a tefilla - the other approach connects to the practical worship of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  While I am more inspired and perhaps persuaded that the Avot started the davening project, I think that the formulated worship, ritualized practices with codes and dogmas are more powerfully connected to the historical experience of the Temple.  One of the key concepts underlying this service was the tamid offering, that it was perpetually brought regardless of the weather or political conditions, and reflected the community's ideals much more than the individual's personality or situation.

I think that the above email reflects the spirit of davening even if it reflects an interruption of the community's service to Hashem. It also serves as a good reminder that form and function are the ideal combination for a tefilla.  Wishing everyone the best of weather and a speedy return to normal life to those effected by the storm. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Bike and a Prayer

People have many different motivations to pray, but as the saying goes, there are no atheists in a fox hole; so when the going gets tough, the tough start to daven.

Well, that might be most people, but not Yarden Frankel who is not just settling at davening for ill.  I implore you to read the heart wrenching story of Stella and Yarden and their struggles with late stage stomach cancer. I encourage you to donate and to participate in Yarden's amazing voyage to bike from the highest point in Israel to the lowest and then to his home in Neve Daniel and to see how one person becomes a moving prayer.  This is the second time around for treatment and as someone who has participated in a minyan that recited special prayers every weekday for her (and others) behalf, I can admit that when we heard that she was first in remission I cried with immense gratefulness that our hopes and prayers were working.  So Yarden begins his second great ride, for an incredible cause - please help spread the word.

I personally have great admiration for Yarden although never having met him, but think he, riding on his mountain bike down the Jordan Valley, very much embodies the idea that an individual is their own personal prayer - ואני תפילתי - I am my prayer, and hope that our prayers for Stella's health and wellness be received by the Almighty.  And if you around, you can catch the morning minyan that is forming at Almog right be for Yarden makes his climb to Jerusalem.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Do You Write in Your Siddur?

Some people think it is wrong to write in a siddur - sacrilegious was the word I recently heard.  The approach I presume is to treat a siddur like a Torah - we do kiss both and abstain from letting them touch the floor.  I rather think this is one effective way to teach your students how to respect and personalize a prayer book.  Part of the great innovation that the Artscroll siddur brought to the marketplace was incredibly clear (calisthenic) instructions and historical or meaningful notes to gain context. What about personalizing the instruction, to highlight important words or draw focus to themes, motions, or grammar?  Perhaps part of disconnect felt by some young people today at tefillot is a feeling of a it all being scripted and repeated over and over again.

This is my siddur, well worn from daily use over the past 15 years.  I find that each of the marks I made still resonate with me even now and causes me to pause or focus as I scan them. The additions I made were to add to the holiness (kedusha) and context of my personal prayers.

Did you ever write in your siddur?  What did you add?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tefilla, Resilience and Sandy: Suggestions for Educators

The following is a post by Chana Zweiter, Founding Director of The Rosh PinaMainstreaming Network. She is presently travelling in NY and shares this reflection 

Of all the times to be in NY.  I was there this week during the angry throes of hurricane Sandy.  And I did feel the anger. I watched trees fall into windows and rip out of the earth with sidewalks.  Friends were flooded and lost important and precious items that can never be replaced – memorabilia from parents and photos of kids.

I thank God for that we are all well and were never missing much , even as I wonder and ask Him, “What’s this all about?”

Dr.Aaron Antonofsky, of Ben Gurion University was a noted Israeli physician who focused much of his efforts on helping people to be resilient, overcome challenges in their environment. Our job, he said, was to help individuals/children to develop the inner skills with which “function in the face of changes in themselves and ...their environment.”  There is no one way to respond to what has happened. We need to take the time to reflect on Sandy and not rush to draw conclusions or messages.  But right now, we as family members and educators need to be sure that our children have those inner skills.

A few years ago, Dr. Martin Seligman, leader in the field of Positive Psychology, conducted an empirical study focused on understanding what psychological interventions provide those inner skills .  He and his colleagues examined responses of individuals who were depressed to five exercises. I want to share with you here insights about the following two most effective exercises:

  1. “THREE GOOD THINGS IN LIFE”. Participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week. In addition, they were asked to provide a causal explanation for each good thing.”
  2. “USING SIGNATURE STRENGTHS IN A NEW WAY.” Participants were asked to take our inventory of character strengths online at and to receive individualized feedback about their top five (“signature”) strengths (Peterson et al., 2005a). They were then asked to use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.”
The study required the participants to complete the exercise for one week, but some continued for six months or longer. They attributed that to the fact the participants who continued to benefit from the exercises did so because “these two interventions involve skills that improve with practice, that are fun, and that thus are self-maintaining.”

Much has been said about the power of tefilla/prayer during this difficult period. I share this in Davenspot because I know that our tefilla provides us with those two exercises, we just need to find them. I suggest that we make daily tefilla more meaningful and connected to our daily lives  immediately,  helping our children to deal with the overwhelming helplessness that Sandy has brought:

  1. The source of “THREE GOOD THINGS IN LIFE” are tefillot such as, Ma tovu, Modeh Ani, Modim Anahnu Lakh, and all the Berachot that we say on an ongoing basis. When you daven/pray tomorrow with your kids, stop before you say Ma tovu and ask them to write three things that are tov, good, in their lives. Ask them to explain why. This exercise can be adapted later on when you ask them to list what they would like to be good and how they can make it happen. Similar activities can be done when reading Modeh Ani – “for what am I grateful – to God, to my parents... “ Guiding the kids in preparing a Grateful Diary in which they record what they are grateful for every day is another exercise that will achieve this focus on what is good, taking away some weight from what is not.
  2.  The source of “USING SIGNATURE STRENGTHS IN A NEW WAY”  can be  found in tefillot/prayers such as the first paragraph of the Amida/Shmone Esrei, which reminds us of Avraham, Yizhak and Yaakov,  forefathers, each of which is noted for a particular characteristic. Conduct a discussion about these characteristics. What were they? What do we learn from them? Then ask the students to make a list of their strengths, how they have used them in the past, and how they can adapt them to meet the immediate needs of the storm.
These are just a sampling of exercises our Ohr Hadash Tefilla Initiative provides. And their benefits are more far reaching than dealing with Sandy.

For more information about the  Ohr Hadash Tefilla Initiative, please write to us at