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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Home  /  Worship, Music and Spirituality  /  iWorship Wisdom Archives  /  Prayer in Silence; Silent Prayer  / 
Prayer in Silence; Silent Prayer

  1. Has anyone dealt with the issue of Silent Prayer (with a musical background) versus Prayer in Silence?

    We are currently grappling with this issue. While there are many who would prefer Prayer in Silence, there are some musicians who see this as one more erosion of their opportunity to "perform."

    Has anyone developed a model which incorporates elements of both, i.e., having an instrumental lead-in to a period of total silence for personal prayer and reflection?

    Is there any justification for continuing the practice of background music during the silent prayer greater than we have always done it this way? Or at least since that period of Jewish Music lovingly referred to as the Church Organist from down the street, as the late Jason Tickton referred to it.

    If you have transitioned from Silent Prayer to Prayer in Silence, what hurdles and obstacles did you have to overcome?


  2. Sometimes we have thirty to sixty seconds of silence before singing Oseh Shalom or Yihyu L'ratson; other times, we use a setting of one of those texts which is preceded by an organ meditation. It depends on what music I [the cantor] choose for that moment.

    It seems that some congregants are uncomfortable with the long period of silence. For them, the music makes it possible to engage in reflection, rather than wonder what to do with this time which, in silence, seems interminable. (This is an observation which is easy to make from the bimah.) I suspect that these days, many are used to turning on a radio or television at home to provide them with "white noise" when they are alone. The moment of silent prayer is a moment of solitude in the midst of a multitude and that can be unnerving.

    [One iWorship subscriber?s] perception seems to be that a synagogue musician sees the request not to play music during Silent Prayer as taking away an opportunity for "performance". While in the literal sense of "performance" that is true, a sensitive musician is concerned with the comfort of the congregation and setting a mood for prayer. The heritage of music which our Movement created in the midst of the Twentieth Century was done l'shem shamayim--in the name of heaven. Whatever people think of composers such as Isadore Freed, A. W. Binder, and Max Helfman nowadays, their motives were pure and the music which they created gave voice to the longings of our hearts. Even the improvisations of a non-Jewish organist come out of a sense of worship and not a desire to be heard.

    It seems to me, that the best way for [one] to find out what is best for his congregation is to observe what happens during Silent Prayer over a period of time. Are worshippers truly contemplative during silence or do they seem to fidget; when there is music during this period, are people more relaxed or do they seem distracted? As in so many practices in our congregations, I'm not sure that "majority rules" is the answer.


  3. We have begun transitioning from instrumental music to actual silence in our Shabbat evening service. We've only been doing this for a few months, so it's too soon to call. Here are some of the issues I've observed:
    • People were initially uncomfortable with silence; they fidget. We gradually increased the time from around thirty seconds the first time to about sixty seconds now. The first time we did it, elapsed time to first audible fidgeting was six seconds. This got somewhat better over time.
    • With silence, the first crying infant causes a disruption for many people, while the music provided enough "white noise" to ease that.
    • When we had organ music, the volume was sometimes high enough to be a distraction. This wasn't so much of a problem with the piano--and it wasn't always a problem with the organ, so I don't know what was really going on there.
    • With the music, there was a gradual crescendo (both volume and movement in the music) to the Oseh Shalom that would end the silent prayer. Coming from silence, the lead-in can be jarring; it took us a while to smooth this out. So watch for jolting people with sudden music.
    Our informal Shabbat morning minyan is accompanied by guitar, and the rabbi plays quietly during silent prayer. When I lead this service I have a problem, because I don't know how to play guitar--so we've had silence out of necessity, but recently I've started using a niggun instead. I start singing "very" quietly (and slowly) as background, and build gradually. As people finish with their prayer they join the singing, so I can get a sense of when it's time to wrap it up. I haven't timed this yet.

    855 families

  4. [A subscriber wroter]: "there are some musicians who see this as one more erosion of their opportunity to ?perform.?" I hope the quotation marks...used [for the word ?perform?] are there for emphasis and not the musicians' true feelings. Performing has nothing to do with the issue. It should always be about prayer and how we create the proper environment to enter into prayer. At [our congregation] our cantor provides soft and appropriate musical background during silent meditations. Background music during a silent recitation of the T?filah/Amidah strikes me as odd so I think you are referring to meditations.

    Local minhag is important. Doing things just because that is the way we have always done it is hard to overcome, but I recommend you feel the pulse of the congregation and follow their lead because I do not believe there is a right or wrong here, with the exception that we should all pray not "perform".


  5. This is an excellent example of why having a cantor is so necessary to a congregation. During the silent prayer, I set the example from the bimah by-- surprise!--praying. Congregants take their cues from the clergy and no one objects. Instead of counting sixty or ninety seconds, I give the congregation and myself enough time to pray based on how long it takes me to actually pray. This varies from week to week, and I believe my congregation appreciates my sincerity and responds with their own kavanah. It is really not a musical or aesthetic issue. It is about worship.
    Cantor Judith

  6. I appreciate our clergy's inviting us to pray silently with the words in the prayer book or the meditations of our heart--but I always opt for the words of the prayer book (my Conservative upbringing didn't give me the other option!). My silent prayer was recently enhanced tremendously by a d?var before the t?filah from Jerry Kaye (camp director at OSRUI). Jerry prompted us to sound the words, not just sight-read; and I still can't believe the difference it has made! We were taught to read English without sounding out the words, and I had taken that with me to Hebrew. Wrong! Try it next time, and let us know if it works for you.
    1350 units

  7. When you say sound the words, do you mean out loud or just in a whisper or just mouth the words without the voice? I have been part of a service where in addition to "silent" prayer, everyone just chanted in their own way a prayer of heart or reading, but not in unison, like a responsive reading...It was rather effective but also this is not the same peaceful quiet that silence brings.
    about 85 families

  8. I have followed this thread with interest, and it seems clear that there is much misunderstanding about the nature of silent prayer. Indeed the issue here is prayer (meditation) and the ability to turn inward. Our Reform tradition has offered little opportunity for congregants to learn to silence exterior distractions and learn to turn inward. Jewish tradition has long included a practice of meditation but to truly meditate means to quiet oneself and permit the sense of awe, wonder, and transcendence to come forward. Even a few minutes of silence is helpful in developing this process. But congregants need preparation and help in learning techniques of quieting and comfort. Perhaps a little article in the congregations bulletin on breathing, quieting, and focus would be helpful, along with a discussion of the role of silent prayer in our liturgy.

    It is helpful to remind congregants of the words we use, "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable....."

    In our congregation we do occasional articles in the bulletin on Meditation in the Jewish Tradition and offer a pre service Shabbat morning meditation twice monthly, where techniques of Jewish meditation are explored. Those who wish to extend their practice attend, as do those who wish to learn just a little of quieting and focus, or mindfulness. It has been a successful venture which is now entering its sixth year.

    700 families

  9. A teaching that I incorporate into my own silent prayer is to sound the words so that my 'ear can hear what my mouth says'. I wish I could tell you where the teaching is from...

    The concept is a good one. When I learned that ancient or medieval rabbis taught that method of prayer: Sounding the words semi silently, just loud enough for your own ear to hear them (and moving your body as well), I was reminded that in psychology there is talk of right brain/left brain... and how learning takes place best when the messages are sent from one part of the brain to another... and one technique is to read aloud what you write ... taking notes or writing what you hear is another way to concretize learning.

    Our tradition is psychologically wise (as if we didn't know)!

    380 families, 90 school families--150 students

  10. This thread seems to have revolved around the question of whether or not to have musical accompaniment during the moment of personal prayer at the end of the Amidah. I would like to "turn the discussion" a bit to sense a reaction to using this as a teaching moment.

    Some in our tradition teach that we are to be like Hannah--to speak our prayers somewhat audibly, though not necessarily loud enough for others to understand the precise words... using a sort of "under-voice" that is audible to ourselves (and to G-d) but perhaps no one else. It is the making "audible" our prayers that makes them heard, differentiating them from thoughts that go unspoken and truly unwished.

    Such a lesson and then quiet time where the "mumblings" can be voiced could enrich our worshipers.... allowing them to truly give voice to the meditations of their own hearts.

    680 member units

  11. ...the rabbis (in B?rachot, I think) say that you must speak loudly enough for at least one other person to hear. Also, there's commentary somewhere that the deaf are not counted in a minyan because they cannot, in turn, hear the prayers of others.

    I also think we all have our own ways to get into the mode of prayer. I recite the Aleph-bet once or twice, and try to visualize the letters passing before my eyes...

    As to silence, our rabbis start every service with a moment (I guess about a minute) of meditation. And the portions of the service (we're still using the Gates) that are silent don't have music.


  12. A few thoughts on this discussion--what we learn from Hannah; the laws of what Reform calls the "silent prayer."

    This is a wonderful passage in BT Ber 31a-31b - "what we learn from Hannah," and it's a lot more than just the laws of prayer!

    "R. Hamnuna said: How many most important laws can be learnt from these verses relating to Hannah! Now Hannah, she spoke in her heart: From this we learn that one who prays must direct his heart. Only her lips moved: from this we learn that he who prays must frame the words distinctly with his lips. But her voice could not be heard: from this, it is forbidden to raise one's voice in the T?filah.

    "Therefore Eli thought she had been drunken: from this, that a drunken person is forbidden to say the T?filah. And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken, etc. R. Eleazar said: From this we learn that one who sees in his neighbour something unseemly must reprove him.

    "And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord. 'Ulla, or as some say R. Jose b. Hanina, said: She said to him: Thou art no lord in this matter, nor does the holy spirit rest on thee, that thou suspectest me of this thing. Some say, She said to him: Thou art no lord, [meaning] the Shechinah and the holy spirit is not with you in that you take the harsher and not the more lenient view of my conduct. Dost thou not know that I am a woman of sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink. R. Eleazar said: From this we learn that one who is suspected wrongfully must clear himself. Count not thy handmaid for a daughter of Belial; a man who says the T?filah when drunk is like one who serves idols. It is written here, Count not thy handmaid for a daughter of Belial, and it is written elsewhere, Certain sons of Belial have gone forth from the midst of thee. Just as there the term is used in connection with idolatry, so here.

    "Then Eli answered and said, Go in Peace. R. Eleazar said: From this we learn that one who suspects his neighbour of a fault which he has not committed must beg his pardon; nay more, he must bless him, as it says, And the God of Israel grant thy petition."

    Elohai N'tzor, the meditation of Mar, son of Rabina (BT Ber 16b-17a), which Reform terms silent prayer following the Shemoneh Esreh (Amidah), is treated as part of the latter by the Shulchan Aruch, and the law is the same--"He [the one who prays] should be careful to pray the Shemoneh Esreh quietly, so that only he himself may hear what he says, but not the one standing next to him, as it is written of Hannah (I Samuel 1:13): 'Only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard.'" (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, I.18.6)

    Reuven Hammer, in the marvelous annotated siddur Or Hadash, based on the Conservative Sim Shalom, makes a distinction and says that Elohai N'tzor may be recited silently since "This is a private meditation, not a part of the Amidah..."

    The original text in BT Ber 17a is

    Mar the son of Rabina on concluding his prayer added the following: My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. May my soul be silent to them that curse me and may my soul be as the dust to all. Open Thou my heart in Thy law, and may my soul pursue Thy commandments, and deliver me from evil hap, from the evil impulse and from an evil woman and from all evils that threaten to come upon the world. As for all that design evil against me, speedily annul their counsel and frustrate their designs! May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before Thee, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer!

    Rabbi Donin ("To Pray as a Jew") summarizes, "...the Shemoneh Esrei is sometimes referred to as the 'Silent Prayer,' although articulation is required and the words must be audible to oneself." (emphasis added)

    Ismar Elbogen, in Jewish Liturgy: A comprehensive history, says that originally the Amidah was recited by the precentor, and the congregation responded Amen "after every benediction, to make the prayer its own. R. Gamaliel II [nasi, Sanhedrin, second century CE] ruled that every individual in the community must say the Amidah by himself... in silence, and then the precentor would repeat it aloud."

    Gates of Understanding, the annotation and commentary on the large blue Gates of Prayer which preceded the gender-sensitive version, does not address the question directly. However, in the essay "The Liturgical Message" in that volume, Lawrence Hoffman comments that Israel Jacobson (very early 19th century Germany) emphasized vernacular prayer and unified congregational participation. (Hence our recitation of Amidah aloud in unison today in many Reform rites.) Furthermore, the Amidah and its petitionary prayers "were accorded secondary status... it was not the T?filah, even in truncated form, but the Sh?ma, the declaration of monotheism, which became the center of the Reform service; worshippers were instructed to rise for it, instead." The choreography aims "to provide a mood of total decorum."

    Hoffman adds, "It was no nineteenth-century Reform Jew, but Moses Maimonides himself who first argued against the customary silent recitation of the Tfilah prayer, on the grounds the decorum would best be served if people would just remain quiet, listening intently to the Chazzan's chant, and answering 'amen' in pious unison." (In the footnote it appears that Maimonides was motivated to this back-to-basics innovation by Muslim prayer practice!)

    One final note in this rambling review--The Sh?ma, by contrast, may be recited silently, and in any language:

    BT Ber 13a: "Our Rabbis taught: The Sh?ma must be recited as it is written. So Rabbi. The Sages, however, say that it may be recited in any language. What is Rabbi's reason? -- Scripture says: and they shall be, implying, as they are they shall remain. What is the reason of the Rabbis? -- Scripture says 'hear', implying, in any language that you understand. Rabbi also must see that 'hear' is written? -- He requires it [for the lesson]: Make your ear hear what your mouth utters."

    ~500 households

  13. Cindy translates Hannah's words as: "...the Shechinah and the holy spirit is not with you..." The holy spirit is a part of the Catholic trinity. Since when is it a Jewish concept? What are the Hebrew words that are translated as "the holy spirit"?

  14. My understanding is that one of the translations of Shechina is that of "indwelling spirit" of the Divine or of G-d. It is often understood to be a feminine presence.

  15. Ruach Hakodesh is most definitely a Jewish concept, predating the birth of Christianity. The phrase appears in the Bible in a couple of places, and hundreds of times in the midrashim and Talmuds, where it is largely synonymous with the "spirit of prophecy." The old Jewish Encyclopedia, now public domain, has a good overview:

    Harvey's question points to an example of an unfortunate pattern in Judaism: Once an idea takes on a "Christian feel," we Jews are awfully wary of speaking about it--even if Christianity borrowed it from Judaism! I recall a great d'var Torah on the subject, using "grace" as the illustration, given by (now rabbi, then rabbinical student) Max Weiss.


  16. Although the Mishnah has the attitude that a deaf-mute is basically mentally retarded and cannot participate in society fully (acquire property, serve as a witness, count in a minyan, etc), this evolved over the years as recognition of the intrinsic humanity and capability of the deaf mute expanded with improved communication techniques.

    The problem as I understand it in current halachah with counting the deaf in a minyan is that they cannot hear those parts of the service to which a response is required (Bar?chu, K?dushah, and Kaddish). (It's not that they can't hear their neighbor's private prayer. Similarly, a sleeping person must be awakened to make the responses.) However, there are accommodations for the deaf all over the U.S., and they are certainly included as members of Orthodox congregations. I do not know, though, if they can compose the minyan. Others on the list may have more up to date information.

    ~500 households

  17. I am the parent of a Jewish deaf young adult who has been an active member of our Reform Jewish community here in Northern CA. [My daughter] had a bat mitzvah in 1996, confirm[ation] in 1998 and was an aide in our Sunday school for several years. [She] communicates in American Sign Language in all aspects of her life. She was taught and tutored by a wonderful educator and interpreter...(She began her Jewish education as a young child in Philadelphia with another wonderful educator/interpreter...and several other Jewish deaf children. Other interpreters were hired by our family so she could attend our neighborhood synagogue when she was of Hebrew school age.)

    [She] has been counted in a minyan in our temple since her bat mitzvah and while away at university she was given the honor of an aliyah while attending a local congregation. Her participation and responses to prayers are in her native language--American Sign Language. There are other deaf members of our congregation and guests attend our temple during the High Holidays.

    Unfortunately [she] doesn't attend temple weekly, as only our once-a-month Family Service and holiday services are interpreted. Sadly there are many Jewish Deaf in communities across the country and in our own who have not had the opportunity to receive a Jewish education in their own language and therefore do not feel a connection to a temple. (It is expensive to provide interpreters for a small segment of our Jewish population).

    I am well aware that there are many others in our communities who have not had the opportunity to participate in our temple life and hope for the day when our congregations will be fully accessible to all.



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