Change Your Clothes, Change Your Mind | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


Several years ago, I worked as a marketing specialist for a local tech company. These kind souls gave me the option of working from home one day a week. This was the first time I had ever worked from home. I liked it at first, but soon found the freedom to work from a laptop on my couch in my pajamas to be distracting. So, I made little change. 

I put on my boots. 

Oddly enough, just putting on my boots dramatically increased my productivity. Why the heck would putting on boots increase my focus? By putting on my books, I was tricking my brain out of sloth-like state of “chill.”  Even while still in my pajamas (don’t worry — I’d put on real pants eventually), the feeling of the leather gripping my ankles and over the tops of my toes told my mind, “It’s doing-stuff time.” 

Siman/chapter 12 of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch discusses the logistics of prayer — how far to travel to pray with a congregation, where to stand, and how to gauge if you have to poop bad enough where it will be an undue distraction to your prayers (I guess this was a greater question of logistics before the advent of indoor plumbing). The sphere that resonates with me the most in this chapter is the question of how to dress when engaging in prayer…even if you’re home alone. 

“It is written: ‘Prepare to meet your God, O Israel.(Amos 4:12)’ Preparing yourself before Hashem, Blessed is He, means that you should dress yourself in the same type of respectful clothing when you pray, as you would when meeting a high official. Even if you pray privately in your home you should dress properly.”

The main point of being adequately dressed in this section is out of respect for the One to Whom we pray. This is fairly implied. However, I’d like to dive into what I think is a pretty solid second reason; to prime your mind. 

Back before I was an exhausted dad, I had a personal practice of which I probably need to get back to doing — every Erev Shabbat, even if my wife and I were staying put, I would go change into a collared shirt and slacks for Shabbat dinner. The main reason I started doing this stems from one evening. One Friday evening, I didn’t bother to change out of what were my Friday work clothes — jeans and a t-shirt containing the logo of the company I worked for. Welcoming in the Sabbath with a kiddush ceremony, I was suddenly overcome with the sensation that I was underdressed…even though I was at home with no plans of leaving. The holiness of the time period was a guest in our home, and here I was looking like a schmutzy schmuck. For several years following that feeling, I usually always made an effort to upgrade my appearance in anticipation for this holy presence. 

Fast forward several years into the future and being a dad has taken its toll. When my son was first born, sleep was elusive. Shabbat soon became the finish line of the week which we would stumble or crawl across and then promptly collapse. No special effort was made aside from what was absolutely required. 

These days, my son is a little over a year old and is an absolute sponge. Though he’s not quite speaking yet, I can tell he’s soaking up everything he experiences. This means that I have become especially conscious of my habits, behavior, and speech patterns. Studying this chapter of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch speaks to me — that I stop wearing my pajamas during my Sunday morning prayers before Him and him in the house — “Him” being the Creator and “him” being my son.

On Shabbat mornings, my wife and I make a special point to dress in some of our most formal attire. While this is just nice to do, this is also to set an example for our son that going to the synagogue on Shabbat is a very significant experience. Still, the Creator is not different depending on where I prayer — whether beside my bookshelf or in my synagogue. Some consistency is in order — consistency in how I present myself to Him as well as my mindset when approaching Him in prayer. 

Though I’m probably not going to start putting on my only suit to daven Shacharit (pray morning prayers) on a Tuesday, I should at least be my best self for that day when approaching Him. Though He doesn’t care what I wear when I approach Him, I, however, should.


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Defeating “I’ll Be Happy When…” — How to Choose Joy Now

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Recently, I’ve been trying to get my weight under 200 pounds. I haven’t been under 200 pounds since I was about 19 years old (currently 32). Even though my 6’2” frame can make 200 pounds work, I’m getting pretty tired of the spare tire around my waist and my man-boobs. Despite a decent diet where I run a calorie deficit most days as well as jumping rope 10-15 minutes around five-to-six days a week, I can’t seem to get down below about 207 pounds (I got to 205 once, but I think that was just one dehydrated morning). I know, I know — I shouldn’t use my weight as my metric for success. I know I’m building muscle and stamina while also losing weight, resulting in an unchanging scale. But I set this goal for myself. 200 pounds. Now, I’m seeing it as more of a trap.

The “I’ll Be Happy When…” Trap

This is a familiar trap that can easy to fall into — the “I’ll be happy when…(insert some arbitrary metric here)” trap.

  • I’ll be happy when I finally make x-amount-of-money a year.”
  • I’ll be happy when I get x-number of social media followers.”
  • I’ll be happy when I’m driving x-model car.” 
  • I’ll be happy when I get the attention of x-type-of-person.” 
  • I’ll be happy when I move into that x-level neighborhood.” 
  • I’ll be happy when I’m accepted into x-university.” 

Why do we believe we understand what will bring us happiness? How do we know that those people who achieve these metrics are happy? 

Here’s the fun thing: we don’t.

If I were to hit my 200-pound goal, would I hang up my jump rope, crack open a beer, prop my feet up on my coffee table and be content? Maybe for about 15 minutes. By the time that beer goes from frosty to cold, I’m probably already thinking about hitting 190 or 185 pounds. The happiness felt by achieving that goal would be gone by the time I finished that beer. 

How do I attempt to quell discontent? Two ways: 

  • Enjoy the tiniest wins. 
  • Choose happiness by eliminating comparison.

1. Enjoying the Tiniest Wins

There’s no harm in setting goals for yourself. Financial, physical, social, mental, or spiritual — goals help us improve ourselves. They give us something to shoot for. However, a lofty goal can derail our motivation. This is why setting tiny, compiling goals, and enjoying our seemingly tiny wins is a great way to enjoy the process. 

Paraphrasing from a story told by James Clear (author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Habits & Break Bad Ones), he had a friend with a goal to get in shape. Did he set a goal to run 15 minutes a day, deadlift x-amount of weight, or do x-number of squats? Nope. His first goal was to put on his training shoes every day. Yep — every day, he would put on his shoes, lace them up, appreciate what he had done, and then take them off. Once that tiny goal became a habit, he would compile onto it. Soon, he’d put on his shoes, and step out of his front door. He’d take a deep breath, and come right back inside — celebrating his bite-sized progress. After that habit was mastered, he would add sitting in his car. Following that habit, he made a habit of driving to the gym…but not working out. He would just show up at the gym, not touch a piece of equipment, and go home. Mastering that, he would do all that, but only allow himself to work out for five minutes — no more. Once the 5-minute timer would go off, he’d go home. This process went on and on until he developed the habit of putting his shoes, going to the gym, and working out — a process that became second-nature. He ended up hitting his fitness goals and kept going because the habit completely ingrained due to the tiniest of goals — and likely thousands of micro-celebrations. Eventually, the habit became a part of who he was as a person.  Not working out became more difficult than working out for him.  

What was the difference between this style and other goal-setting systems destined for failure? Every day was a win — a micro-win, but a win none the less. A lofty fitness goal may feel out of reach, but can you put on your shoes? Of course you can. Giving yourself a high-five for even microscopic steps in the right direction make the process even more enjoyable. When you see progress every day, your motivation remains more consistent and increase the likelihood of you sticking with it. 

Making Tiny Tweaks

Though my weight scale has been my arbitrary metric, my jump rope workout gets tightened most every time I pick up my rope. Whether I reduce rest periods, extend the length of my rounds, or add rounds to my workout, progress has been made every workout — regardless of what the scale reads. I’m not saying this to brag, but really just to reaffirm for myself — Ken, forget the scale — you’re making progress! Enjoy it! (Sorry for venting in the middle of this piece.) 

Not Moving Forward Beats Moving Backward

Even simply remaining consistent is reason for celebration. My workout could remain stagnant, but as long as I keep doing it, it’s still moving in the right direction. You may not be adding a higher dollar amount into savings each paycheck, but adding the same amount is still adding to your savings. We (myself included) often don’t consider consistency to be progression. If your actions are in alignment with the nature of your goals, you’re always moving forward. 

Spirit-booster hack: If you’re feeling dissatisfied with your alleged lack of progression, close your eyes and imagine where you were before you even thought to have a goal. Construct a mental montage of how far you’ve come. Even the formulation of a plan to achieve a goal is an accomplishment. 

2. Choosing Happiness by Eliminating Comparison

We’ve heard that money can’t buy happiness, but most of us don’t believe it. Well, it’s true. According to two Princeton University researchers (one of whom is a Nobel laureate), the optimal “happiness income” is right at about $75,000 a year. Though those surveyed said that their overall feeling of success went up with their income, $75,000 “…is a threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to what matter most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.” 

A real-world proof of this that I turn to is the tragically short life of rapper Mac Miller. Though an overnight sensation with world-wide acclaim and net worth in the tens of millions, Miller’s own lyrics tell a tale of utter woe. 

“You never told me being rich was so lonely. 

Nobody know me. 

Oh well. 

Hard to complain from this five-star hotel.”

  • “Small World”

Miller was found dead in his home having overdosed on a deadly cocktail of fentanyl, alcohol, and cocaine. Other tales of the uber-rich being institutionalized for drug use and psychological treatment should be an indicator that money can merely pay the rehab bill.

Whenever I feel the tug of opulence, I just remember: a used Toyota is still more reliable than a new Jaguar, Range Rover, or Mercedes Benz.

The Validation Rollercoaster: Compulsive Social Media Use

While cutting things out of my life that caused undue stress, one of these was the compulsive use of social media. Whenever presented a free moment, I’d sedate my boredom with social media scrolling. Even though I was using it to relax, I would find myself more anxious with each checkup. Whether I was trying to decipher the root of drama in someone’s “vaguebook” post, scraping off the venom of a politically-charged rant, or comparing my own weekend to acquaintances’ latest toes-in-the-sand getaway, I felt a little more deflated each time I tapped on the screen. Still, I was addicted to the feedback loop that comes with posting. I would post what I thought was a pleasant image or an interesting thought and anxiously await the response. Some posts received huge acclaim. Some received little to none. Riding the validation rollercoaster left me feeling nauseous and exhausted, but my seatbelt wouldn’t come loose. It wasn’t until I read Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Like in a Noisy World by Cal Newport that I started to see what was causing my dependence on these platforms. 

“Man, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t even be on Facebook.” I remember thinking to myself while turning the pages. 

Realizing that I had lost control of my own freedom “to be or not to be” on social media, I shut down my Facebook profile and deleted the Instagram app from my phone — a move that has not only freed up hours of time to spend with people and pursue enriching hobbies, but has also increased the color and chemistry of every conversation I have. No longer are meetups a distracted retelling of each other’s timelines, but are instead vibrant reconnections that make me feel alive. 

Comparison: Real Cause of Social Media Blues

My decreased time on social media has also reduced the amount by which I compare my life with severely manicured postings of others. I’m no longer weighing their experiences and luxuries against my own. I feel more capable of appreciating every tiny blessing in my life, relishing it without comparison. I’m not comparing my life to the cropped and filtered pictures from an acquaintance’s family trip to snorkel off the coast of an exotic island. Instead, I’m in fatherly ecstasy as I watch my one-year-old son excitedly splash in a $12 baby pool. Whether we’re across the world or in my driveway, my joy doesn’t require comparison in order to thoroughly experienced.

Conclusion

Stop your “I’ll be happy when I get to go on that kind of vacation.”

Stop your “I’ll be happy when I hit 200 pounds” (ok, that one was directed at me).
Defeating the curse of “I’ll be happy when…” is often merely choosing to be fully present in the moment. Celebrate every tiny win or blessing. Don’t compare your joy to anyone else’s. Happiness is worth choosing right now. 


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The One-Minute Meditation Tutorial (Step-By-Step Instructions)

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When I wanted to learn how to meditate, I took to the internet. There, I encountered a myriad of articles and videos that spoke more about the benefits of meditation than the practice of doing such. This piece is my attempt to deliver a concise tutorial on how to get started meditating today — no apps, no books, no expensive lessons required.

I’ll break this into two parts — firstly, the barebones essential instructions in eight easy-to-follow steps, and secondly, my own recommendations regarding those eight steps. These steps should take one minute to read. Start your timers…now. 

  1. Find a timer without an annoying end buzzer. 
  2. Find a comfortable seat where you can maintain good posture. 
  3. Place your feet, legs, arms, and hands in a position where they will remain comfortable for 10 or so minutes. 
  4. Start the timer for the duration you would like to meditate. 
  5. Close your eyes. 
  6. Bring your full focus to your breath as you inhale and exhale from your nostrils. 
  7. Do not change your breathing, but simply focus on the inhale and exhale of your body’s natural patterns. 
  8. When you attempt to focus solely on your breath, your thoughts will mutiny. Your mind will try it’s hardest to wander and daydream. This is fine, but when you first notice that you are daydreaming or thinking about anything besides your breathing, make a mental note — “that’s a thought” or “I’m drifting” — and return your focus to your breath. 

That’s it. With these steps, you should be able to start meditating.

Additional Tips for Each Step

  1. Don’t feel that your timer has to be an expensive meditation application. It should simply be anything that won’t startle you from a focused, relaxed state. I personally like the timer in an application called “Strive Minutes” (no paid endorsement), though there are many free options that provide a similar experience. The soft gong sounds don’t startle me out of a meditative state. You can also track your meditation sessions with this application to help make meditation a regular habit.
  2. I prefer sitting with my back not touching a seat. I used to sit cross-legged on the floor just to keep my cat from jumping into my lap and startling me (that happened a few times). Now, I like meditating while sitting on my solid-wood bench-like coffee table. While you could realistically meditate while lying down, I find that sitting with good posture helps with focus. Lying down or sitting on a couch may just put you to sleep. 
  3. The position of your arms can vary, but they should be situated in a way where they won’t be on your mind. If your hands are touching, they can become clammy and distracting. If your legs are crossed, they could fall asleep and tingle. If sitting on a bench or seat, I prefer keeping my legs uncrossed, shoulder-width apart, with my feet flat on the floor. I position arms with my forearms resting on my lap without leaning on them. 
  4. The duration of time depends on your preference, but keep in mind that any amount of time counts. I personally meditate for 10 minutes every day, but even a single minute is a good start. Start small and increase your sessions as you feel necessary. 
  5. Some like to use eye masks, but I find them to be yet another distraction. They can also mess with my circadian rhythms (tricking my brain into believing its night)  and leave me feeling drowsy. 
  6. Internalize the coolness of the air entering your nostrils on the inhale. Actively feel the warmth of the air exiting on the exhale. I try to feel the icy freshness of the air and imagine it nearly leaving my nose hairs as icicles — like I’m taking a deep nasal breath while chewing icy-mint gum on a blustery winter’s day. In reverse, I like to imagine the warm exhale as luxurious, like a warm shower on a chilling morning — the feeling of breathing air in a sauna. Instead of “in, out, in, out”, I think “cool, warm, cool, warm…” 
  7. It’s ok to take deeper inhales and release longer exhales in order to intensify your focus on the “cool, warm, cool, warm…”, but that can leave you lightheaded if you do so too much. That’s why I recommend just focusing on the cool and warmth as they occur naturally.  **Later added recommendation: One technique I’ve found beneficial for remaining focus on the breath is by understanding that the air of every breath is going to feel slightly different in your nose, mouth, throat, etc. Really try to feel the differences in every breath - whether one is cooler, sharper, if it flutters, etc.
  8. Don’t be upset with yourself for your mind wandering. This will happen for absolutely everyone, just like distractions in real life will always occur. What you want to work on is shortening the time it takes for you to realize that you’ve drifted away. Once you’re aware of your drift, acknowledge the drift, and return to the “cool, warm, cool, warm…” of your breathing. 

duck with eyes closed

What is Happening? 

This particular style of Mindfulness Meditation is like weight-training for your attention span. When you lift weights with your body, your muscles are competing against the gravitation pull of the earth. When you’re practicing Mindfulness Meditation, your focus of the moment is competing against the gravitational pull of your thoughts. This style of Mindfulness Meditation aims to train your brain not necessary on the length of pure focus, but rather to be able to return focus in less time and with less effort. 

What is the Sign of a Successful Meditation Session? 

Mindfulness Meditation is not like walking an ice-covered tight rope — where making it to the other side without falling is impossible. It is more like practicing tight rope walking while people are aggressively shaking the guide wires — something some tight roper walkers practice to prepare them to walk in a tight rope under poor conditions. In the same way, Mindfulness Meditation is training your attention span to regroup more quickly and efficiently with every aggressive tug at your mental guide wires. 

Will you ever be able to make it through a meditation session without ever falling off of “cool, warm, cool, warm…” train? Probably not. You will likely always drift. However, your success criteria should not be how many times you drift, but how times you notice that you are drifting. Even drifting every two seconds and course-correcting every time for 10 minutes would be a more productive meditation session than one 10-minute drift that ends with your timer. 

meditating child with eyes closed and red coat in the woods

Bonus: 

The following is an example of what my internal dialogue sounds like during an average meditation session: 

Cool…warm….ice cool…sauna warm….can’t wait to get in the shower. Man, that workout left me a sweaty mess…Oops, I’m drifting. Cool…warm…cool….warm….cool…is my cat rubbing against my leg? I’m drifting. Cool…warm…cool…warm…I hear my cat-err-I’m drifting. Cool….warm…cool…warm…cool….warm…cool…warm…cool…warm…cool….wow, I’ve gone a long time without drifting. Wait, crap, that was a drift, too. Cool….warm…cool…warm….cool….is that timer still running? This feels like way more than 10 minutes. Driting again. Cool….warm…cool…warm…Hey, remember to relax your face — you’re all tense. Drifting. Cool…warm…cool…

This piece is largely based on wisdom I learned from reading Dan Harris’ book Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics.


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The Perspective-Changing Power of the Mezuzah | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


Siman/Chapter 11: Mezuzot

Chapter 11 of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch discussed when a mezuzah is required. 

Background on the mezuzah: 

Much like we discussed in yesterday’s post about tefillin, a mezuzah is much like tefillin for your house. The commandment originates in the same section of Deuteronomy 6, in which we are instructed to “…inscribe them (the commandments of the Torah) on the doorposts of your home and on your gates.” These tiny scrolls are attached to the right side of the doorways of homes firstly as a reminder of the commandments and secondly, as an indicator of a Jewish household. 

There seem to be two possible disconnection points with this commandment to the average reader. 

  1. Is this passage meant to be poetic or taken literally? 
  2. Are we supposed to write the Torah literally on the doorposts

On the first point, many argue that this verse is to be taken poetically or metaphorically — that these commandments should be discussed in your home so much that it’s as though they are written on your doorposts. While this is true, because of the ambiguity of the instruction and our ability to perform it (unlike circumcising your heart), we should lean on the side of diligence and aim to make this possibly-poetic statement literally. 

On the second point, the command needs to make some kind of rational sense. One sign that we’re not meant to write the entire Torah on the doorpost of our house is that there’s no way the entire Torah would fit on the average doorpost. A Sefer Torah contains 304,804 letters. This can lead one to understand that a summary of the Torah should instead be used. The book of Deuteronomy is frequently thought of as a summarization of the Torah, making sections of it the most appropriate to fulfill this commandment. For this reason, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 are used. Still quite a lot to write on building supplies, these passages are handwritten on a very small piece of parchment, tightly rolled, and slipped into a small container that is “affixed” to the doorposts of a house. The scrolls are called “mezuzot”, which actually means “doorposts.” The containers/covers are often marked with the letter shin, the first letter of “Shaddai” — one of the Creator’s Names. The containers are not to be confused with the “mezuzah” (singular of “mezuzot”) scrolls anymore than a lunch box is to be confused with the actual lunch it contains. 

mezuzah scroll
Mezuzah scroll parchment.

What constitutes a house that requires a mezuzah? According to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (aka Maimonides aka The Rambam), it must: 

  • Be at least six square feet 
  • Have two door-posts
  • Have a lintel
  • Have a ceiling
  • Have doors
  • Have an opening at least 10 handbreadths tall
  • Be used for secular purposes
  • Be a dwelling place
  • Be a place for dignified use
  • Be a permanent dwelling (the text later states this include rentals with more than a 30-day period)

These requirements rule out bathrooms, tents, and many other places. (See the text for details.)

Yeah, but why? 

It can be easy to get into the weeds on commandments that require us to incorporate certain spiritual objects into our lives. I feel that it is most important to share the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch’s purpose for the use of mezuzot. 

“One must be very diligent to observe the commandment of mezuzah because it is the obligation of everyone at all times. Wherever you enter or leave your home, you will encounter the Oneness of Hashem, the Name of the Holy One, blessed is He, and recalling His love you will awaken from your lethargy and cease going astray after the vanities of the times. You will then realize that nothing endures forever except the knowledge of the Eternal One, and will immediately return to your senses, and walk in the path of the righteous. Our Sages of blessed memory say: “He who has tefillin on his head and on his arm, and wears tzitzis on his garment, and has a mezuzah on his doorpost, is sure not to sin, because he has many reminders and these are the guardian angels who save him from sin.”

Wait, you…kiss it?

In order to help keep the mezuzah pronounced in our minds instead of it becoming yet another decorative accessory, the text, as well as custom, recommend “kissing” the mezuzah anytime you pass through the doorway. This doesn’t mean to get on your tip-toes and plant one on your doorframe. Instead, simply touch the mezuzah case and then kiss your fingers where you touched it. Visiting a religious Jewish area, you will notice people doing the “tap-kiss” as they pass through most any doorway that contains a mezuzah. One of the things that stood out to me about my wife while we were dating was that she never passed by a single mezuzah without giving it a tap-kiss. 

charria touch mezuzah

charria kiss mezuzah
“I’ve never met a mezuzah I didn’t kiss.” – My wife. She didn’t actually ever say this, but it’s just what I noticed.

The chapter ends by recommending that the text on the scroll should be checked for damage “two times every seven years” a domestic mezuzah or “two times every fifty years” for an organizational one to keep it from being bothered too much. Modern authorities may recommend checking them every year before Rosh HaShanah, though I don’t personally know anyone who does. 

In the more old fashioned Jewish world, there is an idea of the mezuzah possessing an abundance of spiritual power. Some claim this is legitimate while others write it off as folklore and superstition. Examples of this way of thinking may include someone experiencing a terrible illness, injury, or if children lose interest in being religious, an invalid mezuzah or tefillin may be thought to be the culprit. 

I don’t personally believe that a few cracked letters can result in a few cracked bones. I do believe, however, that there is a more sensible and psychological connection to an invalid mezuzah and lapsed faith. Someone who hasn’t paid their mezuzah any mind in decades likely hasn’t paid any mind to other aspects of their Torah observance. Those mezuzot that have blended into the architecture of the house may belong to a family where the meaning of a mezuzah has faded from the consciousness of the home. 

In this fast-paced world littered with constant distractions, taking the time to acknowledge a mezuzah upon entering or leaving a home can adjust how you view the world and your life within it. 

As bonus material, enjoy a video I made many years ago about mezuzot for a now-defunct website. 


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Tefillin: Portable Time Sanctifiers | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


Chapter, Siman 10: Tefillin

Chapter 10 of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch concerns the construction, meaning, and use of the tefillin. For those unacquainted with tefillin (or “phylacteries” — though I’ve never heard a Jewish person call them this), they are the materialization of the verse in Deuteronomy 6 – “Take to heart these instructions which I charge you this day…Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead…”

Literally or Poetically?

Many outside of mainstream Judaism have argued that this is a poetic verse, not intended to be taken literally — much like the instruction to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” in Deuteronomy 10:16. While it’s true that open-heart surgery would have proved tricky in the dessert, the practice of binding instructions to your hand and making symbols between your eyes or on your forehead is something that can be done.

Basic Summary of Tefillin

Tefillin are two small black leather boxes that contain tiny rolled up pieces of parchment containing select verses from the Torah. Today, these boxes are typically only worn during morning prayers on weekdays (Sunday – Friday) that are not holy days (Yom Kippur, Rosh HaShanah, Passover, etc.). One of the boxes is attached to a long black leather strap containing a loop. The loop is tightened around the bicep of the non-dominant arm, wrapped seven times around the forearm, around the knuckles of the middle finger, with the excess strap length wrapped around the hand. This is known as the tefillin shel yad — or the hand tefillin. The other tefillin box has a similar long black leather strap attached to it that wraps around the head— the tefillin shel rosh (head tefillin). The back is tied with a particular style slip knot that sits where he skull meets the neck near the brain stem. The box sites right at where the hairline usually starts. Though upon the forehead where a baby’s skull is soft, it is aligned to be directly between the eyes. The excess straps lay down the chest like brained pigtails.

boy wearing tefillin

Tefillin As Time Sanctifiers

Despite being a part of Jewish movements in the past that did not believe that Deuteronomy 6 was to be taken literally, I’ve understood tefillin as a physical embodiment of a mental and spiritual act — to bind the instructions of my Creator to my hand (representing my actions) and make them symbols between my eyes (representing my focus). One of the first reasons I was drawn to Judaism as a teenager was the idea that positive actions could stabilize my fleeting attention and focus. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch states that tefillin can help us preserve our focus as well.

“As long as you are wearing tefillin your attention must not be diverted from them even for a moment, except while praying the Amidah and while studying Torah. It is forbidden to eat a regular meal while wearing tefillin, but eating a snack [while wearing] tefillin is permissible; but taking even a short nap while wearing tefillin is forbidden.”

When I don tefillin every weekday morning, I feel like they help project a temple I can visit. This is not a temple of bricks and mortar but instead constructed of time. I know that if I’m wearing my tefillin, my focus is on the weightier matters — interaction with the Holiness of the Creator, His Torah, my own gratitude towards all of the gifts He provides and asking for help. Any place I put on tefillin becomes my morning phone booth — from my neighborhood synagogue to my living room, an Airbnb or the bank of a river on a camping trip. Any of these places can become the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple) in my mind and heart with the help of tefillin.

ken lane's tefillin


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Secret Embarrassment as Punishment | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes Series. 


Siman/Chapter 9:20 | Embarrassed by Invalid Tzitzit

Around section 20 of chapter 9, we wrap up (no pun intended) the regulations of valid versus invalid tzitzit threads. We’ve covered that there are a handful of requirements of tzitzit to make them acceptable, but this section talks about what happens if finding valid tzitzit or fixing invalid tzitzit is simply impossible. 

“If you go to a Synagogue on Shabbos and discover that a tzitzah (fringe) of your tallis (prayer shawl) has become invalid and you are unable to borrow another tallis and you are embarrassed to sit without a tallis, then, since it is not possible for you to tie another tzitzah on this day, therefore for the sake of your dignity you are permitted to wear the tallis as is but you should not recite the berachah. This is applicable only if you were unaware before Shabbos that [the tzitzah] became invalid, but if you knew before Shabbos that it became invalid you are forbidden to wear the tallis, since you should have fixed it the day before.”

We notice here flexibility and a balance in the text towards keeping the rules and the unpredictability of life. So, you arrive at synagogue only to find that one of your tzitzit is invalid, rendering the entire tallit technically unsuitable for use. To make matters worse, there isn’t another one you can use.  

What was your intent? To be compliant with the rules. 

What happened? You’re in an unavoidable situation where you can’t fix the wrong, but you’ll also be embarrassed by praying without a prayer shawl. Though we shouldn’t dwell on how others think about us, they’ll quickly notice your lack of a tallit in prayers and wonder what’s going on. This may even be distracting. Can you imagine if the rabbi in services one morning just decided to go without a tallit? It would likely cause a commotion that would injure the quality of the service. 

What is the remedy for this situation? Do you just carry on as though nothing had happened? Almost. 

As we read, the text says you can wear the tallit, but you can’t recite the blessing on it. Reciting a blessing associated with a tallit is usually in hushed tones or before you enter the synagogue, making your lack of doing so unlikely to draw much attention. Actually, you will be able to carry on throughout the service as though your tzitzit are completed valid. 

But you’ll know.

You’ll know that you’re technically wearing an invalid tallit. You’ll know that you didn’t say the blessing. In this case, the punishment for this crime is your own knowing. 

It’s not unusual to delight in observing the commands of Torah and the stipulations of halacha (tradition). In fact, doing so can be quite pleasurable for someone who feels that doing so pleases G-d and injects increase purpose and divine structure into their lives. Many on the outside fail to see the appeal in this and ask, “Well, what happens if you don’t do something? Are you punished?” 

Our answer is often, “well, no.” Our response, however, should be, “indeed, there is punishment — harsh punishment indeed.”

“Well, what is this punishment of which you speak?” 

“Anytime I don’t do a mitzvah, I miss an opportunity to do a mitzvah. That is my punishment. Likewise is the reward I receive from performing a mitzvah — the great gift of being able to perform a mitzvah.” 


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“Jump, Fatboy, Jump”: A “Skinny Fat” Man’s Jump Rope Rediscovery

Reading Time: 7 minutes

10-min read or listen

Drowning On Dry Ground

It had been one of the first times I had heard actual wheezing come from my throat. The feeling of drowning on dry ground wasn’t so much disturbing as it was the assurance that I was doing something right. As soon as I caught my breath, I couldn’t help but chuckle about hitting a wall that day in my driveway.

No More “Skinny Kenny”

In my late twenties, I first noticed that I was no longer a candidate for the nickname of my teens: Skinny Kenny. Despite having this nickname, I hadn’t paid any mind to exercise or a healthy diet aside from eating kosher (definitely not synonymous). Beer and other carbohydrates were close friends. My body had become a shape that I’d later hear fitness personalities refer to as “skinny fat” — the illusion of skinniness…until take off your shirt. Still, it didn’t quite come to a head until Passover 2019. 

After a delightful Passover, I noticed a tagged photo of me from before the seder. In the picture, I’m holding my then-ten-month-old son. Just below my adorable son was the most substantial belly I’d ever seen on my frame. My button-down shirt was divided toward the bottom, revealing my undershirt. Wow, ok. For the first time, I realized that I was pushing the bounds of a weight limit I didn’t know existed in my mind. It was the sign I needed — an indication that I needed to “clean it up.”

Inspired by…Meditation?

As the month progressed, my weight continued to ride in the backseat. Instead, I began to realize how much I was squandering all of my free time. While parenthood didn’t allow for oodles of unbridled hours of self-paced leisurely delight, my free evenings and early mornings were engulfed in utter useless nonsense — social media, YouTube clips, and anything else that illuminated my stupid face. 

Recognizing this, I quickly consumed heaping piles of content related to living a controlled, minimalist lifestyle and forming better habits. The first big push in this direction was a reading of Atomic Habits by James Clear

In the process of taking control of my life and my attention span, I wanted to develop a habit of daily meditation. While I never found a single YouTube meditation tutorial that made it click for me (that would require reading Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris), I stumbled upon a video that outlined some of the benefits of meditation. In the video, a fella probably a decade my junior discussed how he especially liked to meditate following a jump rope workout. 

Wait, jumping rope? People actually do that as exercise? 

Even though the video only mentioned the terms “jump rope” and “jumping rope” maybe as many times as I just did, something clicked for me on a level unrelated to meditation. Jumping rope fit the middle of the Venn diagram of “something good for your body” as well as “something fun to do.”  

venn diagram of fun vs health

In my elementary school days in the ’90s, The American Heart Association was on a veritable crusade in gym classes to get kids jumping rope. Being naturally skinny with decent rhythm, I took to jumping rope pretty quickly. After a few months, I was pretty darn good at it — even one of the only kids in my school able to perform double-unders (two rotations under a single jump). Soon, elementary school was over, and any interest in jump rope was replaced by garage jam sessions, skateboarding, and, ahem, girls. Somehow, five seconds of jump roping in this YouTube video seemed to bring me right back to jump roping in my school gym.

Before that YouTube clip had finished, I was already scoping out jump ropes on Amazon. About $10 and a few days later, my first jump rope in over 25 years arrived. I was ready to get started.

“That’s a Keeper”

Figuring that an interest in a particular exercise was the beginning of something monumental, I stepped into the bathroom. Awkwardly clutching my phone, I snapped a quick shirtless “before” image in the mirror. If the aim of a “before” picture is to incite disgust, mission accomplished. I scarcely recognized the pasty ogre reluctantly looking back at me from my phone screen. While the image is quite educational, that one stays hidden until the paparazzi hack my Google Drive. 

Donning swim trunks, recreational sneakers, and t-shirt, I stepped onto my driveway — jump rope in tow. Once I found a place where I was sure not to smack any of the wires connecting my house and that of my neighbors, I began to jump. 

And then stopped. Whoa, is there someone sitting on my shoulders or something? They made it look so easy on the videos. 

Well, I wasn’t that bad. I could jump for a good 15 seconds before my legs would burn and I’d gasp, struggling to throw air down my stupid throat fast enough. Despite being May, the air felt like spring. Still, it wasn’t long before I was utterly drenched in sweat, panting like an idiot who just tried to outrun a car. I’d never felt like such a winded mound of dough.

Blame it on the Gear

Another problem I was experiencing was my rope getting caught on the tread of my shoes. 

“Oh, I just need a longer rope.” 

I got a longer jump rope, which still got stuck. 

“Oh, I just need different shoes.” 

I got different shoes, which still caught the rope. 

I also got a foam-rubber mat to jump on. 

Still, stuck. 

Oh, my technique is garbage, you say? Ah, why didn’t you say so? 

That lesson cost about $106.

Coming Together

  • After the first week, my calves quit burning all of the time and I could walk normally. 
  • A few weeks later, I started jumping for five minutes, each minute spaced out by a minute of rest. 
  • A few weeks after that, I decided to up it to 10 minutes of jumping, each minute spaced out by a minute. 
  • A few weeks after that, I started ending sessions with 2 divided minutes with a weighted rope. 
  • A few weeks after that, I began my jump rope sessions with 2-minutes of continuous jumping.

Boxer Skip = Cool Points

Around this time, I finally started to learn the “boxer skip” — a move where you casually shift weight from leg to leg. You may recognize this move from the background of any boxing gym scene in a movie…or, you know, an actual boxing gym. While it looks like more work, when performed correctly, the boxer skip is a lifesaver for stamina — giving each leg a split-second micro-break as you go. It also makes you look like you kind of know what you’re doing. 

Here’s a link to my own boxer skip tutorial.

boxer skip

“Well, that’s a first.”

As more pieces started to fall into place, something bizarre started to happen — I began to look forward to evening jump rope sessions. What had started as the dry-land-drowning sprees had become “Let’s see what I can do” time. During the day, I would catch myself occasionally daydreaming about jumping rope. When I didn’t think anyone was watching in the bathroom or waiting for the microwave at work, I’d practice ropeless heel taps, boxer skips, and seeing how long I could hop on one foot (obviously, not while I was using the bathroom). Starting to see results on the scale and in the mirror only intensified my anticipation of evening jump rope sessions. 230 pounds became 225, 220, 215, 210, and then 205 pounds. My wife also said that my core seemed less flabby and my “man boobs” seemed less evident. Hey, how much more empowered can you get?

It’s a Big Deal…For Me

This may seem pretty bland to many of you, but the concept of craving exercise is entirely new to me. While I’ve enjoyed physical activities whose side effect is exercise, craving the exercise itself is not a feeling I can recall having in my over 30  years of life. Looking forward to out-jumping the shadow in my driveway is something I’m still getting used to. 

I also feel tremendously grateful to have discovered that one of my favorite exercises is one of the best ones in existence. Seriously, check out the health benefits of jumping rope. 

More than anything, jumping rope fits my personality.

  • Introverted: I can do it by myself, whenever I want, wherever I want — provided there aren’t any ceiling fans, low-hanging light fixtures, or people I could accidentally sweat on. 
  • Challenge-seeking: More than another hampster wheel, it’s a skill I can continuously work to master. I find myself taking notes after almost every session. 
  • Cheapskate: It’s ridiculously cheap. There’s no required gym membership. Seriously, for the cost of some cheap sneakers and a $3 rope, you can be making puddles of sweat today. 
  • Sustainable: I can keep doing it into old age…provided I keep doing it now.

In James Clear’s Atomic Habits, one of the methods of forming a good habit is casting votes towards an identity you want to have based on what you do.

I think I’m finally to the point of being able to say, “I’m a jump roper.” 

First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do. – Epictetus


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The Trusted Voyage – In Memory of Sara Disney

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Sara Louise Disney, March 11, 1988 – July 9, 2019.

This weekend, I received word that a friend and fellow spiritual explorer passed away. Sara Disney was a vivacious Tulsa free spirit known for speaking her mind and seeking substantive answers to the questions we face. She attended our Passover seder last year where she seemed to thoroughly lap up the experience like an investigative reporter. She had spent time at our home, mostly firing spiritual questions in our direction with a hunger for alignment. She craved perspectives, books, resources, and even homework assignments. Our text messages were dotted with conversations about prayer, the Sabbath, and drug policy reform. As the President of the Drug Policy Reform Network of Oklahoma, Sara was outspoken about patient’s rights. She remained outspoken on these subjects long into experiencing the severe effects of advanced Crohn’s Disease — even writing and posting from hospital beds. 

While I will miss Sara, I feel blessed to have known her and been inspired by her insatiable appetite for truth and tenacious drive to effect change. 

With her in mind, I’d like to jump into something peculiar that occurred this morning. I had recently changed siddurim (sih-der-eem — prayer books) to one with a layout I favor. In addition to a layout that lends itself to aligning meaning with the Hebrew text, commentaries fill the footnotes and margins. While most of these are helpful, they can almost consume the text — leaving essential passages somewhat hidden. I didn’t realize until this morning that I had been passing over the last piece of the blessings just before Kedusha:

You are faithful to restore the dead to life. Blessed are You, HaShem (G-d), Who revivifies the dead.

While I knew that this blessing was a part of the prayer service, because of its placement in my siddur, I had managed to skip this blessing for months…until this morning. 

Did G-d conceal this blessing from me for a period of time just to make Sara’s death a moment of learning and reflection? Was I just a fast davener (praying person)? I may never know, but the moment did allow me to reassess and now reiterate what we believe happens to “us” when we die. 

There is an array of answers to the question of what happens when we die according to Jewish tradition. 

  • The afterlife, despite not directly mentioned in the Torah, is commonly referred to as Olam HaBa, The World to Come. 
  • The 13th Principle of the Jewish Faith according to Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka: the Rambam) instructs the belief in the resurrection of the dead. 
  • Some say that we will be later resurrected from the dead just like what happened in the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. 
  • The more mystical branches of Judaism claim that our souls are reincarnated into different bodies until our soul has completed its mission. 

If you were to ask me precisely what happens, even according to my faith, what happens when we die, I couldn’t tell you. I simply don’t know. Still, I’m not very worried about it. Why not? Because I believe that the Creator is just. Whatever His plan He has for my soul after my breath has ceased from my body will be a perpetuation of His Holiness, His Love, and His Just Nature.

Another way to describe this sensation would be to allow a loved one to plan a trip for you. Say a dear parent, spouse, sibling, or friend were to plan an exclusive journey for you. This journey may not be a vacation, but whatever it is, it’s the excursion you need. It may have elements of difficulty, but these are also elements of growth. You may experience things you never even imagined, but ultimately, are glad you did. The entire time you would know that the designer of your itinerary had you in mind. 

Would you be nervous about taking this trip? I know I would be. Despite knowing that I’m about to board a fully-inspected rollercoaster, my knees still shake a bit while waiting in line — not for fear of my safety, but because I don’t know how I’m going to feel yet. The unknowns that would make my palms sweat would not be out of distrust for the one leading me up to the rollercoaster line, but simply not knowing precisely how I will handle something I’ve never experienced before. 

Still, I steady my knees and dry my palms on the assurance that my Creator is One of Love. Even if my consciousness ceases and my soul returns to the Source of All, I know that I have nothing to fear besides not doing enough with my life while I can. Pondering the mysteries of the next world is largely a waste of time in the present world. We need to love while we can, touch lives while we’re breathing, and set acts in motion that will perpetuate love and justice after we’ve left this world. 

I believe Sara understood this. Despite having physical difficulties, she continued to ask piercing questions and support causes close to her heart. To those her mourn her, may you continue to be comforted. 

“G-d is love. G-d is beauty. G-d is everything good! The truth is exquisite! The truth also expounds upon itself, so it just keeps getting better. Words cannot express.”
– Sara’s last text message to my wife.

sara disney medical marijuana


You’re welcome to contribute to charity’s close to Sara’s heart.
Tulsa Jazz Hall of Fame
Drug Policy Reform Network of Oklahoma
Youth Services Tulsa
Black Wallstreet Gallery
Tulsa Humane Society
Tulsa SPCA
Pause4Paws

Borrowing Priceless Items Without Permission | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


This piece is in commemoration of the 5th yahrzeit (anniversary of passing) of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — a soul whom I never met, but who I couldn’t help but feel knew me whenever I study his teachings.


Siman/Chapter 9, Part 1: Tzitzit

For those who know me know that the mitzvah/commandment of tzitzit (“zeet-zeet”) is one close to my heart and beginnings in the Jewish faith.

As an overview, the Torah commands Jewish people to don four fringe tassels on the corners of their four-cornered garment also known as a tallit (“tah-leet”). There are two types of talitot (“ta-lee-tote” — the plural version). There is a tallit katan (“katan” meaning “small”), a smaller, undershirt-sized poncho-like garment typically worn underneath their regular shirt daily. There is also a tallit gadol (“gadol” meaning “big”) which is also known as a prayer shawl. This is what you’ll see worn by Jews during morning prayers.

A tzitzit fringe is made of four wound wool strings that are run through holes in the four corners of the tallit katan or tallit gadol. These strings are folded in half, making the appearance of eight strings that are knotted and wound in a method containing ritual numeric significance. The knotted and wound section make up about a third of the overall fringe that is approximately a foot long.

The purpose of the tzitzit is to be a visual reminder to a Jewish person of the commandments of the Torah.

“And you will look upon it and you will remember all the mitzvot (commandments) of Hashem (God).”- Numbers 15:39.

In the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, there are many requirements of tzitzit.

– The hole of the tzitzit should be no more than three thumb-breadths from the corner and no less than one thumb-breadths so that it is still considered the “corner” while not being so close to the edge that it may be easily torn off. – Even if the hole is ripped after the tzitzit was tied to the garment, it’s ok — as long as it was tied in the proper place when first tied. – If a tzitzit is torn completely off, it must be untied and re-tied through the mended hole — not merely having the hole mended around the existing loop. – You should check your tzitzit before putting them on to make sure they’re in good shape and not tangled. One exception is if you’re running late for prayers. – Before you put on a tallit gadol, you should utter the blessing of “al’mitzvat b’tzitzit” — “concerning the commandment of tzitzit.” – Before you put on a tallit gadol, you should put it over your head, utter the blessing of “l’hita-tef b’tzitzit” (“to enwrap ourselves in tzitzit”) while throwing the corners over your left shoulder up to your neck and wrap yourself in the manner of the Arabs.”

It’s customary to keep the tallit gadol over your head for four seconds. I never quite understood this until I saw the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, ob’m, do so. The way he did so was as though he was giving his tallit gadol—and by extension, his Creator — a loving hug. I continue to practice this mostly due to the way this action struck me.

– The blessing of tzitzit should only be uttered during the daylight hours because the purpose of tzitzit is to see them. – If you take off your tzitzit with the intention of putting them back on soon, such as taking off your tallit gadol before using the restroom, you don’t have to say a blessing. However, if your tallit gadol fell completely off accidentally or you took it off without intending to put it back on, you need to say the blessing again before putting it on. – etc.

There is one part of tzitzit/tallit gadol wearing that surprised me in this section.

“It is permissible to borrow someone’s tallis (tallit gadol) on an irregular basis, even without his knowledge, and use it for prayers and to recite a berachah (blessing) over it, because it may be assumed that one is pleased that a mitzvah is performed with his property, if it is at no loss to [the owner]…”

Wait a minute. This means that if, say, I’m running late to services and find someone’s tallit gadol there and know that they probably won’t be attending services, I can pull it out, unfold it, and throw it on as though it were my own?

Yep — even if I’ve never met this person.

What makes this halacha (ruling) even more significant is that someone’s tallit gadol is an extremely personal item. Ritually speaking, a man from an observant Ashkenazi (European) Jewish background first receives their tallit gadol as a present from their wife on their wedding day. They pray with this item every morning. Because they’re worn as shawls, they’re rarely washed, so over time, they start to take on that person’s familiar scent (the scent of my own daily-worn prayer shawl reminds me of the smell of my father’s or grandfathers’ jackets — natural scents I inherited from them). When this person dies, one of the tzitzit fringes is cut off to symbolize that the commandments no longer apply to them. Their body is wrapped in the tallit gadol in their casket. For those buried according to Jewish ritual, this is the only personal item they are buried with. They’re not even buried in any of their own clothes, instead dressed in linen burial tachrichim — simple white pajama-like garments made for this purpose. This tallit gadol is essentially like a child’s beloved security blanket, yet I’m allowed to just borrow it, willy nilly?

Yep.

The message this sends me is that community trumps materialism. In the western world, we’re all about our stuff. We lock our doors. We customize our homes. We have our stuff just the way we like it. Our possessive spirit creates a bubble around us. You have your stuff. I have my stuff. “Never the twain shall meet.”

This ruling, however, tells a different story. It says: My most prized, personal, spiritual possession is also yours to use if you so need it. If I am not in immediate need of it, I am willing to lower my force field of materialistic grasp and offer it to you. You should not be without simply because of my own connection to and history with this particular item.

What if we treated not only our items this way, but also our time? What if we said, “If I can help you, my help is yours”? Like another’s tallit gadol, how many of us would accept this help? After all, this help smells like you, it feels like you — like the grasp of your hands and all of your experiences.

Like we offer up our prayer shawl to those without one, we should also offer up our time and help. On the other side of this situation, we should be willing to embrace the broken-in prayer shawl of another and embrace their help.


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The Best Part of Waking Up is…Prayer | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 2 minutes

This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


Siman/Chapter 7

Picking up where chapter 6 left off, in chapter 7, we mostly look at when specific blessings should be uttered and by whom. Some examples include not uttering blessings that don’t make sense to utter (saying the blessing for the sunrise while it’s still dark), but also some unlikely blessings that, in a round-about-way, make sense — such as a blind person saying the blessing on sight, because people who can see assist the blind.

Siman/Chapter 8

In Chapter 8, we learn that prayer comes before any personal luxuries in the morning. Before the consumption of sweetened coffee or tea, food, or non-health related personal matters, one’s attention should be on giving thanks. You’re not even supposed to greet people before you have prayed and given thanks because that is essentially maligning your priorities.

I used to practice this idea of rolling out of bed and praying. However, for a time, I realized that, fresh out of bed without coffee, I was mentally useless. Because unsweetened coffee is allowed before prayer (how I take it), I would let myself to have coffee before I would pray.

  • Because coffee takes about 30 minutes to actually kick in, I would allow myself to read a bit before I would pray.
  • Because I’m at my best once I’ve exercised, I’d allow myself to jump rope before I’d have my coffee.
  • Because I was pretty gross after I had jumped rope, I’d allow myself to shower afterward.
  • Because I had showered, I’d allow myself to get dressed before I’d get my coffee…before I’d read…and before I’d pray.

After a while, prayer started to get pushed back to being one of the last things I would do before leaving the house, making it a hurried endeavor — not the way prayer should be.

Many people of a spiritual persuasion who strive to develop morning routines allot some of that time to morning prayer. Still, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch tells us where prayer falls on your morning agenda is also important. Not only are you more likely to do it, but by making it a top priority, you realign your priorities in accordance with this truth — that giving thanks and asking for help takes precedence over everything else in your day.

To try:

If you absolutely need coffee or tea in the morning in order to get to a place where you can offer thanks, don’t escape the peaceful solitude of your own mind. Don’t open a book. Don’t fire up a podcast. Whatever you do, don’t turn on your TV, computer, or phone. Sit. Enjoy your beverage. Let your mind slowly boot up. Look at your own thoughts. Once your mental processor is online, start your consciousness by offering thanks.


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