April 20, 2024
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Teaching Meaningful Tefillah: Directions and Guidelines

(Part III of III)

Teaching children to daven and embrace tefilah is at the heart of our Jewish identity and life experience. Thus far in the articles I have written, I have described a step-by-step approach to teaching our children the mechanics of tefillah on Shabbat.

This week I share how we can instill the sense of value and importance of tefillah in our children, and how we can create a meaningful tefillah experience for them.

How can we instill the sense of value and importance of tefillah in our children:

The home environment has the lead role in achieving this goal. Your child’s day school is your partner, as daily davening is a regular part of the regimen; tefillah is emphasized by teachers through stories, lessons and discussions.

Parents should not delegate the responsibility of tefillah education to the school. A child who davens every day in school, but does not daven on Sundays, Shabbat or during vacation, is a child who thinks that tefillah is something we do in school but not in our “real lives.” Our children must participate in tefillah on Shabbat, Sundays and all holidays.

Modeling appropriate behavior is essential in instilling a sense of the value and importance of tefillah in our children. When our children see us taking davening seriously, they learn the importance of davening. When we require our children to stay in shul during davening, but then spend much of our time in shul talking, what message are we sending our children? At best, the message is that taking davening seriously is important for children but not for adults. More likely, our children will sense our hypocrisy and not take seriously the lessons that we want them to learn.

Our choice of shuls is a factor in modeling appropriate behavior for our children. If we are quiet during davening, but everyone around us is talking, the environmental influence will impact on our children. We have a responsibility to our children to ensure that the environment in our own shul is one where tefillah is taken seriously.

Consistency is also important. If we only go to shul sometimes, but other times decide to sleep in on Shabbat morning, or skip Friday night or Shabbat afternoon davening, it is hard to instill a sense of importance of tefillah in our children. If we are not able to attend minyan during the week because we have to be at work early, or need to prepare our children for school, we can take advantage of this opportunity to talk to our children about balancing values in life so they are understanding of the choices we make and the values that underlie those choices.

How to create a meaningful tefillah experience:

This goal is arguably the most difficult for both children and adults. Many observant adults understand the value and importance of tefillah, but still struggle to find meaning beyond a sense of fulfillment of obligation in their own tefillah experience. To expect advanced levels of understanding of the complexities of tefillah in our children is unrealistic. Yet we can give our children a head start in their personal challenge to find meaning in tefillah.

Work on emphasizing kavana, which in this case we translate as proper concentration. I like to think of three levels of meaning.

1. Awareness that I am davening to Hashem, even if I don’t understand what I am saying, is a base level of kavana, and that is a good place to begin with young children.

2. Understanding, in a general sense, the topic and central theme of each tefillah. Shabbat tables are an ideal place to have discussions about these topics.

3. Deeper grasp and understanding of the words being recited. Your child’s school will play an important role in this realm in providing a strong Hebrew-language curriculum.

Parallel to these three important goals, a parent can open the eyes of his or her child to Hashem’s presence in this world. The higher the level of awareness of this presence, the easier it will be for the child to create a relationship with Hashem.

I close this series with a comment found in Sanhedrin 110b:

Rav Meir is asked, “At what point do children merit a portion in the World to Come”? His response is, “From the time that they respond amen” (to a blessing he or she hears). The Rema in Shulchan Aruch 124:7 quotes this source in the context of emphasizing the importance of tefillah for our children.

Let us take the responsibility of tefillah education seriously and help our children merit their place in the World to Come.

We can give them the opportunity to create a lifelong relationship with Hashem through daily conversations during tefillah.

By Rabbi Daniel Alter

Rabbi Daniel Alter is the head of school of the Moriah School. He was the founding rabbi of the DAT Minyan and was the head of school at the Denver Academy of Torah where he founded the DAT High School as an extension of their elementary school.

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