June 22, 2024
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Mindfulness and Tefillah

My first encounter with Teaneck was when I moved in with my sister, Renee, and her husband, Irv Rubinson, in 1969. At that time the only shul with a building was the Teaneck Jewish Center and a small Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, which was housed in a basement next door to its present location. My father passed away that year and I remember my brother-in-law, Irv, calling daily to make sure I had a minyan to say Kaddish. Boy, have we come a long way!

In 1970 I left for college at YU, volunteered in Israel after the Yom Kippur War and then married my soulmate, Sharon, in 1975. After starting our family in Washington Heights we decided to return to Teaneck in 1986 to raise our children. What a great choice. We never regretted it for a moment! Sharon was a teacher at Moriah, so Teaneck was an obvious option. There were so many choices of schools, shuls and now restaurants. What more can a Yid want?

Some of the most impressive aspects of this community was its welcoming atmosphere, willingness to accept people from different backgrounds with new ideas, and our commitment to Torah. In The Jewish Link, an edition doesn’t go by without someone wanting to upgrade how we act as Jews. The topic of improving our tefillah was recently raised in an article by Ira Buckman as well as by others, because our community has a sincere desire to make tefillah more meaningful and impactful in our lives, rather than an ancient required ritual that has no real connection to our everyday existence. It is toward that end that I present the following series of questions and suggestions. My hope is that we all continue to grow in our own religious development so that we can bring Moshiach soon in our day.

The following are some questions and suggestions to demonstrate how mindfulness and tefillah combine to support our overall wellbeing.

1) How can mindfulness impact tefillah and mental health?

In order to fully understand and explain how mindfulness impacts prayer and mental health, I’d like to give a brief overview of the concept of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a training program that is designed to train your brain on how to do three things. Pay attention:

in the moment,

on purpose and

non-judgmentally.

By utilizing those three skills you will be more able to improve your ability to concentrate and focus during prayer. Conversely, the very act of prayer itself is therapeutic and beneficial for your brain and your overall mental health. By approaching prayer in the moment, on purpose and non-judgmentally we become more open to allowing the prayers to come alive rather than the old boring, rote and repetitive text.

2) How can mindfulness enhance your tefillah?

Mindfulness is a brain-training tool that improves concentration and heightens ability for kavana. When you daven with kavana you focus on every word you’re saying, and when you know what the words means and what that prayer is trying to convey and instill inside of you, then your overall well-being will be heightened. When I wake up in the morning and I’m thanking the Creator for giving me back my soul, it’s not something that I’m just mumbling as I rush out of bed—but I’m actually understanding the power of waking up, and realizing that at the age of 68 that’s not something I should be taking for granted. That’s what it means to pray mindfully.

When I first started talking about mindfulness I blamed the lack of mindfulness on the internet and cell phones. The real issue is our difficulty in maintaining kavana and focus. This problem existed in the time of the Mishah (Masechet Brachot: Perek 5, Mishnah 1) up until modern times.

This has been a concern and struggle for centuries. But it’s not something that we cannot conquer. I believe that the mind is designed to be trained. It operates almost like a computer. When you can learn to get into its hard drive you can start practicing techniques to improve your state of mind and help you to take control of your feelings, your thoughts and your actions.

3) How does mindfulness impact your behavior and decision making?

Behavior follows the following route. First you think, then you feel and then you act. When you act mindfully, rather than behaving first, you think first, then you emote and then you respond.

Mindfulness gives you the ability to respond rather than react.

Let me clarify the difference between those two words: reacting vs. responding.

A reaction is like a knee-jerk reaction. It is instantaneous and doesn’t register to your brain. It’s something that’s an automatic reaction.

On the other hand, a response is something that takes time and thought. Oftentimes the difference between reacting and responding can be the difference between regretting what you said or did, or making a better decision by slowing down your reaction time by thinking so that you can respond differently. When mindfulness is practiced and implemented it also can improve self-awareness, patience and enable alternate perspectives to be engaged.

4) Why is praying meaningfully so difficult and what can we do to improve our tefillah?

I remember when I grew up, and I learned prayer in yeshiva (RJJ), it was something taught by rote; you memorized songs, and it was done quickly. However, I didn’t know much about what I was saying. It wasn’t until adulthood that I actually became interested in understanding more about what it was that I was saying ritualistically, by rote, by memorization and by sing-song.

I imagine this might have been the way some other people were also introduced to tefillah. Tefillah has become for some a required activity rather than a desired activity. It may have become a routinized part of our tradition, pressured by time and written in an unfamiliar language. Additionally, for some of us, instead of focusing on our prayers, we may be thinking about what we have to do afterward. That’s not what I think meaningful prayer is designed to be. Also, sometimes, prayer is not given the respect and attention it deserves. It’s almost like we check it off a to-do list. 8:00 OK, I did Shacharis. 5:00 OK, I did Mincha/Maariv.

I think that in order to improve the status quo we may need to rededicate ourselves to improving tefillah by teaching tefillah in school, shul and home differently. We need to emphasize what the words mean so that when we daven we actually connect to the meaning and intent of each word, its context and the emotions connected to it. This supports one of the techniques of mindfulness: meditation. Meditation gives you the ability to better control your mind, think with greater clarity and improve decision making. Mindfulness when introduced in schools not only improves tefillah, but also can support improvement in children’s behavior, peer interactions and learning.

We are lucky! We have meditation instituted as part of our tradition three times a day! If we utilize these opportunities the way they were intended we will be improving our spiritual wellbeing as well as our mental health. Meditation gives you the ability to better control your mind, think with greater clarity and improve decision making.


Rabbi Sam Frankel, LCSW, has been a psychotherapist for over 40 years and has had a teaching career at Yavneh Academy for over two decades. He has made numerous presentations on mindfulness and how it can impact your mental health and enhance your tefillah as well.

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