Being Mindlessly Familiar With Prayers | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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(About the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.) 

Towards the end of Chapter/Siman 1

The text continues, somewhat out of place (unless they’re still referring to midnight prayer), by saying that, unless you’re blind, you shouldn’t be reciting texts by memory in prayer. 

“Chapters of the Psalms, and other sections of the Torah, Prophets and Scriptures, in which all are not sufficiently fluent, must not be recited by heart. Even someone who knows [them sufficiently] to recite them by heart should be careful not to recite them by heart. However, a blind person may recite them by heart.”

When anything is recited by memory, as close as it seems, a certain part of it becomes lost to us. That part that is lost is the newness of the text. 

I remember hearing Greg McKeown (author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less) state in a podcast episode that, though he prays (non-Jewish prayer, to my knowledge), he never likes for his prayer to be rote. Paraphrasing, he says “If I have a conversation with a friend every day and he tells me the exact same thing every day, how good of a relationship do we really have?” 

Liturgical prayer has pros and cons. 

Pro: Someone else — maybe even just a previous version of yourself — has already formulated the words you know you want to profess to the Creator of the Universe. All you have to do is navigate previously paved road to get to where you want to go. 

Con: Like over-chewed gum, these prayers can lose their flavor and meaning over time. 

How do we rectify this? By approaching our prayers as brand-new writings each time we approach them. By infusing this old gum with new flavor.

One of the reasons why these pre-written prayers can become stale is when we become overly familiar with them and take their meaning, their feeling, for granted. When we instead use these prayers as a form of liturgical technology, they become spiritual elevators. 

Something to try: 

The next time you go to prayers, pretend that this is the first time you’ve seen these prayers. We know it isn’t, but think about how the content of the prayer settles into your bones. Perhaps, like eating a delicious meal in haste, there is a passage that you’ve either read or recited every single day and never really took the time to fully enjoy its flavors. 

Like prayers, look for the newness in the familiar and have a blessed day. 

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