Last summer I received a call from a psychotherapist in Far Rockaway who wanted to start a mindfulness program in a few of the local yeshivot. He encountered resistance from many of the local rabbis who believed that mindfulness is connected with Buddhism, and was therefore prohibited since that association would make it a form of idolatry. When he asked me if that was true, I told him that I felt it is possible to take away the positive aspects of their practice of mindfulness and that it can be incorporated into the practice of Judaism and instituted into the yeshivot.
What are these positive aspects? The sincerity, the solemnity, the serenity, the focus and concentration. How greatly enhanced our Judaism could be if our observances were done with more of these qualities. In fact, one of the first brachot we say each morning is
ברוך אתה ה’... לעסוק בדברי תורה, “engross ourselves in the words [and practices] of Torah.” We can’t become engrossed by flitting, mumbling and skimming. Mindfulness is required. And even though the “M” word is relatively new, it has in fact been practiced by Torah-observant Jews for thousands of years, and can be a part and parcel of Jewish practice today as well.
Many of us are familiar with the legend of the original chasidim in Tractate Brachot.
The first Mishnah of the fifth chapter in tractate Brachot teaches:
“אין עומדים להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש”
“A person is not allowed to stand to pray unless he is in a state of mind called ‘koved rosh.’” The term literally means “heavy head” or “respectful head,” but I believe the term is actually introducing us to the concept of mindfulness.
The entire rest of the mishnah goes on to illustrate what that term actually implies,
“חסידים הראשונים היו שוהים שעה אחת ומתפללים”
“The original chasidim used to wait one hour before praying.”
The Gemara in Tractate Brachot on Daf 32b continues this discussion and teaches:
- “תנו רבנן,
- חסידים הראשונים היו שוהים שעה אחת,
- ומתפללים שעה אחת,
- וחוזרים ושוהים שעה אחת...
- תשע שעות ביום בתפילה!!”
“The rabbis taught that these original chasidim not only prayed for one hour, but they meditated before praying for one hour, they prayed for one hour, and after they prayed, they meditated one more hour before returning to their daily routine. Nine hours a day spent in prayer!!” These original chasidim spent about half of their waking hours engaged in prayer, meditation!
In our hectic and “techtic” world, we may not be able to devote three consecutive hours, three times a time, to become engrossed in prayer in order to make it more meaningful and gratifying. It can still be achieved quite simply. Let’s look at three relevant areas where mindfulness can enhance our practice: brachot, mitzvot and tefillot. These requirements necessitate keeping our minds in the present moment and focus on what we are doing and saying. That’s what mindfulness is: training the brain to pay attention:
- on purpose
- in the present moment
Think about it: you pick up an apple. You can proceed to bite right into it and savor the fruity flavor, or you can stop and think. From where does it grow? Is there a way to precede the eating by acknowledging God with a blessing? Yes, there is:
ברוך אתה ה’... בורא פרי העץ.
“Blessed are You, Hashem, Our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the tree.”
Then I bite and savor. What a difference these several seconds can make. This simple ritual is designed to train our brains to focus on the present moment and help us develop and cultivate our feelings of gratitude and appreciation. There are a myriad of such practices that are designed to teach us to stay in the present moment and focus. Here are just two of many other brachot that we can start to recite mindfully:
On hearing thunder:
- ברוך אתה ה’..שכוחו וגבורתו מלא עולם
- “Blessed are You, Hashem, Our God, King of the universe, for His strength and His power fill the universe.”
- Recited daily in Birchos HaShachar:
- ברוך אתה ה’..שעשה לי כל צרכי
- “Blessed are You, Hashem, Our God, King of the universe, Who has provided me my every need.”
As the afternoon passes each Friday, we prepare to welcome Shabbos. Typically it is the woman of the house who lights the candles and recites the brachot. That can either be done mechanically, or it can also be done mindfully by focusing on the holiness of the day, the candles, and the sanctity of the weekly gift that is about to be bestowed upon us. Here are just two of many other mitzvot that we can practice mindfully:
- Separating challah every time bread is baked
- “Laying” tefillin
Take for example this pasuk from the Pesukei D’Zimra section of Shacharit and is recited by many thousands of people each day:
וירא ישראל את מצרים מת על שפת הים
“And Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” (Exodus 14:30)
Wow, what an image! But how many of us actually envision that glorious moment? It is waiting in the siddur every day for us to experience. Simply by being mindful of that pasuk when we recite it, picturing the scene and becoming enveloped in the holiness of the event can elevate our tefillah experience. Here are two more pasukim to focus on mindfully:
Recited three times a day in the Aleinu tefilla:
- וידעת היום והשבת אל לבבך כי ה’ הוא האלוקים
- “You are to know this day and take to your heart that Hashem is the only God.”
- Recited in the Musaf Shemoneh Esrei on Shabbos:
- ישמחו במלכותך שומרי שבת וקוראי עונג
- “They shall rejoice in your kingship those who observe the Sabbath and call it a delight.”
Prayer, “tefillah,” is actually our exercise in “meditation.” When done properly, prayer can become an exercise that conditions us to stay in the present moment, focus and concentrate on every single word. When we do that on a consistent basis it can actually change how we look at the world and learn how to be grateful for all of Hashem’s gifts. May we always be mindful of our purpose and of Hashem’s Presence and place in our lives!
Rabbi Samuel Frankel, LCSW can be reached at [email protected] or (201) 906-8473, and you can follow his Facebook page @MindfulerRebbe.