The following is adapted from Relics for the Present, a collection of inspiring mini-essays that explore the parameters and depths of prayer. In this two volume series, author Levi Cooper of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies uses Tractate Berakhot as the foundational text and combines rabbinical commentary and Hassidic lore to create inspiring vignettes for everyday life.
A possible pitfall of habituation is that it may breed complacency. Innovation and variation, on the other hand, lend excitement and generate interest. This reality makes the challenge of set prayer – set texts and set times – all the more formidable. It is therefore curious that the Talmud adds a third element to the fixed nature of prayer – a set place for prayer (B. Berakhot 6b, 7b).
Not only is there prescribed wording for prayer to be recited at fixed intervals, but our sages add: “If someone has a set place for prayer, his enemies will surrender to him.” Similarly: “If someone has a set place for prayer, the God of Abraham will assist that person. Further- more, when this person dies, people will lament: ‘Woe for the loss of this humble person; woe for the loss of this pious person, this person who is of the disciples of Abraham our forefather.’”
Why is a set space for prayer linked to Abraham? The passage continues, citing biblical verses to indicate how Abraham had a designated place for prayer. One who designates a location for prayer is therefore following in the footsteps of our illustrious forefather.
Though our sages laud setting aside a place for prayer, the Talmud does not indicate where one should designate this space. It appears that four possibilities exist, and each possibility leads us to a different understanding of the importance of this fixed location.
First we might suggest that the sages are encouraging people to patronize a specific house of prayer. Following this line of thought, designating a particular synagogue can be seen as an act of association with a community.
A second approach sees the set place as referring to a designated seat within the synagogue, and argues for assigned seating (Hagahot Maimoniyot; Rosh). What is the advantage of having your own seat in a synagogue? On this point the commentators offer a variety of approaches.
One commentator offers a technical explanation. Our prayers replace and mirror the Temple service. Thus we pray Shaĥarit, the morning prayer, and Minĥa, the afternoon prayer, when the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices were offered. Ma’ariv, the evening prayer, corresponds to the nighttime burning of limbs and fats from the daytime sacrifices. Just as the Temple sacrifices had to be slaughtered and offered at a designated location, our prayers should be recited in a designated spot (Riaf).
Alternatively, our passage could be related to the rabbinic directive not to view prayer as a burdensome task. If the obligation to pray is considered onerous, then supplicants are likely to rid themselves of this obligation at the earliest possible moment regardless of where they find themselves. Making one’s way to a designated place demonstrates that prayers are not a burden (Riaf ). Turning to the core of prayer, another commentator suggests that a predetermined location for prayer increases the likelihood of concentration (Meiri). Indeed, one is less inclined to survey the surroundings of an oft-visited place. With nothing fascinatingly new in the environs, the supplicant has fewer distractions and is more likely to focus on the prayers.
Reflecting a different aspect of prayer, another commentator maintains that a reserved place for prayer invokes awe and respect, the appropriate disposition for prayer (Rashba). It would follow from this that the selected location needs to evoke such feelings.
A set location for prayer also encourages regular attendance at services. People who do not have their own seat may feel less inclined to show up, knowing that they will have to contend with the challenge of finding a place to pray (Rashba).
As we can see, there exists a plethora of justifications for allocated seating in a synagogue. Indeed, a parallel statement in the Jerusalem Talmud supports this second approach, declaring that people should designate a particular place for prayer in the synagogue (Y. Berakhot 8b).
It is this understanding that receives normative expression, as the codifiers rule that not only should one choose a synagogue, but even within that house of prayer a specific seat should be selected. Practical considerations lead this directive to be tempered by a license to pray within a four-cubit radius of one’s designated place (Shulĥan Arukh, Oraĥ Ĥayim 90:19; Magen Avraham).
Let us move on to the third possibility for the location of this designated space. One scholar suggests an entirely different understanding, which is based upon an alternative version of our passage in the Jerusalem Talmud: “If someone designates a place in his house for his prayer, it is as if he has surrounded it with walls of iron.”
This approach notes that the entire interior of a synagogue is designated for prayer; hence there is no significance in selecting one particular place within the four walls of this house of prayer. In a case where one cannot reach the synagogue, it is praiseworthy to set aside an area for prayer within the home. At the very least, this may minimize disruption of prayers by household members.
Lastly, we turn to the fourth and most innovative approach. Despite the existence of a synagogue filled to capacity with people, a miniature replica of the Temple, one should designate a site outside of the walls of this communal place of prayer (Riaf ). What type of location is implied here? One might suggest that we have here a license to leave the central synagogue and pray in a more personal and intimate setting, such as the classic shtibel.
Alternatively, a bolder reading of this approach might acknowledge special locations for prayer outside of any synagogue. Such personal spaces would be places that facilitate and stimulate communication with God.
Of course, the four paths offered are not mutually exclusive; an allocated seat in the synagogue does not preclude a lonely cliff top over- looking the ocean. A common theme that emerges from this passage and its possible interpretations is that spatial considerations play a role in the quality of the spiritual experience of prayer. The Talmud chooses to leave the location of that safe space unspecified. That choice challenges us to locate and frequent the area where we feel most comfortable communicating with the Almighty.
Relics for the Present is available in two volumes from Maggid Books.