(Free eBook) Alignment Refinement: A Short Modern English Siddur

Reading Time: 2 minutes

“Why bother with an English Jewish prayer book?”

Due to the global pandemic, more of us unable to pray in the minyanim (groups) that we normally would be able to. This has caused many of us to pray alone—sometimes in a tongue that is not the most familiar. For the sake of those modern English speakers wishing to align with the Creator of the Universe through traditional Jewish prayers, I’ve curated some of the “greatest hits” of Weekday prayer and provided some of my favorite translations. Some are lifted from other prayerbooks. Some are my original reframings of existing prayers. All of them are for you to enjoy for free here in ebook format.

english prayer book siddur From book introduction:
This siddur is for those who are seeking to connect with the Creator of the Universe in a Jewish way, but are either still learning to make Hebrew the language of their heart or simply prefer to seek out Hashem in their English mother tongue. It is not meant as a replacement to traditional Hebrew prayer, but instead as an accompanying resource. Many of the prayers are also heavily abbreviated assist in facilitating regular prayer—to eliminate any daunting element of initiating tefillah. The best siddur is the one that is regularly used. The best prayers are the easiest to initiate. If the praying individual wishes to pray more, there are always Tehillim (Psalms) they can utter, additional tefillah (as found in the back of this book) or hitbodedut (personal prayer.)

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The Cosmic Mulligan: Change Your Identity Right Now

Reading Time: 2 minutes

During my morning prayers last week, I remember reading two seemingly contradictory passages in the Amidah — the Jewish standing prayer. 

The first was in the section asking for forgiveness.

“Forgive us our Father for we have sinned, pardon us our King for we have willfully transgressed, for You pardon and forgive. Blessed are You, Who is gracious and ever willing to forgive.” 

In this section, we admit our shortcomings and ask for not only forgiveness but also pardoning — the first like a child before a parent and the second like a criminal before a judge. 

The second was a prayer against…sinners? 

“And for slanderers may there be no hope; and may all wickedness be destroyed instantly and may all Your enemies be cut down quickly. Quickly uproot, smash, and cast down the arrogant (some translations say “willful”) sinners and humble them quickly in our days. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who breaks enemies and humbles arrogant (/willful) sinners.” 

Whoa. Not only does this seem a bit harsh, but it almost doesn’t seem to be in our best interest. Weren’t we just admitting that we are, in fact, willful sinners? Now, we’re asking for willful sinners to be uprooted, smashed, and cast down? How does this even compute? 

Among the many blessings of life, one of the most significant such blessings is the ability to change ourselves. We can alter our appearance. We can change jobs. We can choose the people with whom we interact. We can leave uncomfortable situations or even move to new places.

We can alter our identity based on our behavior. We can go from cruel to sweet. Arrogant to humble. Outspoken to inquisitive. Hasty to patient. 

What do these changes require? The willingness to do so. 

When we ask for forgiveness and pardoning of our wrongdoings, we’re not only asking God for a cosmic mulligan, we’re announcing our change in identity. This transformation can take place immediately — even between one blessing in a prayer service and another. Had these blessings with the Amidah been swapped in their order, they would be at odds with one another. Because they exist as they do, we can ask for God to cleanse the world of wickedness and for willful, arrogant sinners to too be humbled so they may also choose to change their identities as well — and without hypocrisy. 

We can change, we simply have to decide to do so.

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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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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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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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Being Mindlessly Familiar With Prayers | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 2 minutes

(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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Why Pray for the Healing of Others?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the Jewish tradition, much like other religions, there is a space in the prayer service where the names of those who need healing are called out. It’s not a general “and for everyone who needs healing, please send healing” message. No, usually their actual Hebrew names are called out. These are very intimate names — the names of their souls.

But why?

Surely, the Creator knows these people’s names. The Source of All knows their affliction. Even if no prayer for healing were uttered, their need for healing would be well documented in the higher realms and echoed to the furthest reaches of existence. So, what difference does it make that we carve out a section of our daily prayers to run through this roster of people needing healing? Does our uttering of their name speed up their recovery? If we don’t utter their name, will the Holy One ignore their distress?

As I’ve mentioned before, prayer is one of the most misunderstood aspects of spiritual life to those who don’t practice it. (Heck, I don’t even understand it sometimes.) Even for some who have belief in a Creator, prayer can seem like the utmost waste of time. Does the Creator know our heart or not? Why must we make these requests every day? Don’t we have faith that the Holy One already knows what we need?

The Creator does know. The problem is that we forget.

Before I became more acquainted with the Mi Sheberach prayer (the prayer for healing), I still prayed for the overall healing of those are suffering. I had a heart for those experiencing distress, though it was generic. It wasn’t actionable whatsoever. It didn’t require anything of me. As I took on the practice of mentioning the names of those people close to me who needed healing, I noticed something peculiar begin to happen inside.

If my wife tells me to go to the grocery store for five items, I still tell her to send me a message on my phone with the list or I’ll jot them down myself. Yes, I can’t keep five items in my mind. Still, as I began the practice of reciting a detailed Mi Sherberach, I found that I could rattle off a dozen names without hesitation. Some of these names I’ve just heard mentioned in my synagogue. They have no faces, ages, or specific ailments, but they exist as clearly in my mind as the Shema. Still, others are the names I’ve added — loved ones I care for deeply down to acquaintances I know are experiencing suffering. If you asked me for this list, you wouldn’t see a piece of paper come out of my pocket or a memo note open on my phone. Though a basic grocery list alludes me, I could rattle off their names without hesitation.

This memorization of the names of the people in my life who need healing is not just so that I can ask the Creator to change whatever cosmic plan was in store for these people. While I believe that my prayer echoes through the throne room of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the one who needs to hear this prayer the most is me. Just as much as my laptop, my lunch bag, and whatever book I’m reading are a part of my day, so too are these people. This prayer forces me to carry them with me — to remember their affliction, to recall their faces, and to help them in their healing process however I can.

I was uttering the Mi Sheberach prayer the other day and, despite it being a whisper, a dear friend’s name echoed off the back wall of my living room like a ricocheting tennis ball. Her face flashed before my eyes and my heart filled with joy.

“I wonder how she’s doing. Where’s my phone…”

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Gut Wringing: The Neurogastroenterological Side of Prayer

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Disclaimer: Though biological processes are discussed in this piece, I can’t guarantee that these techniques will work for everyone. It may be life-changing for some and others may feel nothing. We’re all unique creations.

Inhibitions To Prayer

I’ve battled Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) all of my life. Due to a chemical imbalance in my brain, it is much more difficult for me to control my concentration. The sensation is like attempting to film a blade of grass, but the camera’s auto-focus feature keeps locking in on the airplane at 30,000 feet. Most grow out of this condition. I’ve only grown out of feeling the need to treat my condition with narcotics. I’ve tried both successfully and unsuccessfully to manually strengthen control of my focus in other ways. My ADHD has been one of my greatest challenges to my prayer life.

I’ve found that truly meaningful prayer is a three-step process.

  1. Connecting to what is being prayed
  2. Transmission of prayer
  3. The sensation of your prayer being heard

In Jewish thought, the internal sensation that your prayer is being heard is called having “kavanah.” This word literally means “alignment” in Hebrew, but is more of the deep spiritual focus in which one has the sensation that the Holy One has picked up the other telephone line. When I am unable to achieve the sensation of kavanah due to an inability to focus, it feels as though I’m expressing my innermost heartbreak to a dear friend and they’re preoccupied with a game of Candy Crush. The problem isn’t that the Holy One isn’t listening, but that my brain’s spiritual auto-focus is busted. Frustrated by this, I looked to my own biology for a fix.   

My solution for alignment? To bypass my brain.

The Passage Way For Kavanah/Alignment

Many make the mistake in thinking that powerful prayer requires intellect. It most certainly does not. In many ways, the ultimate champions of prayer are little children. Because many children’s minds have not developed to the point of rationally conceiving of an All-Powerful Creator that simply is the fabric of existence itself, their prayers are nothing more than elevated admiration for a parent-figure that exists within. This does not mean that prayer is by any means foolish, but rather that an intellectual may struggle more to overcome their own thoughts in order to connect to the Creator in prayer. Meanwhile, the child’s natural state is full-bodied prayerful pleading. What is an intellectual to do in order to attain prayerful alignment — true kavanah? Bypass the mind and tap into the heart  — or, as I have found, the gut.

Gut Check

Just like clinical heartburn has nothing to do with the cardiovascular system and is actually reflux of stomach acid into one’s esophagus, so too is your emotional and spiritual “heart” not so much the blood-pumping organ in the chest. Rather, your spiritual “heart” could also be in the seat of your second brain: your gut. Your digestive system is frequently the canary in the coal mine of your emotional state. Anxiety, stress, and depression frequently take their toll on your digestion. For example, when I was first diagnosed with cancer in 2017, the news sent me running for a bathroom stall. The expressions “go with your gut”, “gut feeling”, “butterflies in your stomach” are not without an anatomical basis. Yes, you are actually able to process information not only from your digestive system but also with it. This is what is referred to as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS).

Your Second Brain in Your Stomach

Your body’s Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is literally a second brain of sorts throughout your digestive system. Actual neurons exist within the human gastrointestinal system. Biological research has shown that one’s ENS actually carries out functions independent of one’s brain. This area of study is known as neurogastroenterology. This form of neurological activity is responsible for many bodily functions ranging from the esophagus’ ability to pull substances into the stomach (why you can drink water while upside down) to your gag reflex.

Neurogastroenterology is also closely tied to one’s deepest emotions. Has sadness ever put a lump in your throat? Have you ever had your heart broken to the point of feeling it in the pit of your stomach? Do instincts ever first manifest as a physical gut feeling? This is the reason why extreme stress can cause one to vomit. But how does this connect to prayer?

Praying With Your Guts

Just as referenced before, the basics of prayer can be broken down into a few simple parts. For prayers of thanks or worship, the feeling of gratitude is processed in your brain before it is transmitted spiritually. The same goes for prayers of request, whether for your own needs or for the wellbeing of another. In many instances, these styles of prayer have a much more complex “signal” to convey and details to transmit. Still, these prayers are processed. Where the neurogastroenterological system comes into play is to process heartfelt prayer through the guts. Usually, an event causes you to feel an emotion that may be processed by the gut, but rarely do you consciously utilize your guts (or “kishkes”, in Yiddish) as the cosmic telephone microphone. But how can you utilize your guts in prayer?

Even beyond your five senses, you can be more conscious of a certain area of the body at a given time. For example, during a guided meditation, one way the leader of a guided meditation gets the group to relax is to get them to close their eyes and consciously relax each section of the body — part by part. It may go something like,

“Now, I want you to imagine your shoulders becoming more relaxed. No longer tense, your shoulders are soft and loose. This loose sensation now travels down your back…” The leader does this until those meditating have consciously envisioned each section of the body, to relax it, which in turn has a biological sensation of relaxation. This level of focus allows us to pinpoint areas of the body to stimulate or relax. A similar method was utilized by the U.S. Navy in order to help pilots fall asleep faster — under two minutes in most cases.

Praying with one’s guts is very similar. In prayer, more complex thoughts will still be processed by the brain, but the sensation of kavanah, of spiritual connection, is greatly enhanced when one prays through your guts.

While I’ve provided some of the science behind why it may be that “praying with your kishkes” may ultimately enhance your kavanah, or your spiritual connective focus during prayer, I can’t make the claim that it will work for everyone. I can only share my own experiences on what works for me.

The Silent Scream

One exercise to quickly access the pathway of the guts is through a scream or a yell. Because you probably live in a fairly developed area, you may engage what Rabbi Nachman of Breslov called the “Silent Scream.” Trying screaming, only without connecting your vocal cords that would produce the sound. Use the same abdominal muscles, breath, and possibly even facial expression you would if you were to let out a loud wail. When engaging these wailing muscles in prayer, you will find it very difficult to focus on anything else but your silent wailing to God.

When you speak to God, you should arouse your heart to the point where your soul all but flies out of you. This is true prayer…You must cry out to God from the very depths of your heart.

The biological act of sobbing is not just a facial expression, a release of tears, or a vocal eruption, but also a tightened release of emotion from one’s guts.

I have personally found that the same pit of my stomach that is engaged during a laugh, sob, or scream is my seat of kavanah. When I feel as though I am at the height of spiritual focus, my stomach is in the same state if I’m getting choked up from a beautiful piece of music. While my brain attempts to process the details of the greatness of the Creator, my messages gratitude, admiration, or even distress are processed through my kishkes like an umbilical telephone line to another place — a place beyond.

True prayer isn’t only processing your emotions with your mind but also wringing the tears — both of sadness and ecstasy — from your guts before your Creator.

Redesigning Your Identity: Choosing Who To Be

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Bumbling around at 6 AM that morning, I hardly knew what I was doing…but I was determined to look like I did. I pulled on a crisp tallit (prayer shawl) over my head and shoulders. I awkwardly wrapped tefillin around my arm that was painfully fresh (new tefillin take a while to break in). My siddur opened with a snap, as though it had just come off of the press. The Hebrew may as well have been hieroglyphics. Still, I was on my way to appearing to be someone who did this every morning. Let’s back up a bit.   

I wasn’t raised Jewish. Despite the fact that I had never even met a religious Jew in person, I became pretty obsessed with Judaism late in high school. Really, I was obsessed with the idea that a set of instructions could be established into productive habits could help make the Creator of the Universe a part of my life — not on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis. One of my biggest bones to pick with my own Lutheran upbringing was that, theologically, nothing was required of me. I felt like a child who, even when they set the drapes on fire, still couldn’t get their parents’ attention. Judaism, however, seemed to give me the structure I was craving — a barometer for spiritual alignment.

A few years into my “Jew-ish” journey, I walked the walk and mumbled the talk…at least enough to fool the predominantly Christian Oklahomans around me. I had no idea what I was doing, and even though I wanted to, I wanted to look like I knew I was doing in the meantime. This brings me to my early morning bumble-fest in the dark.

About a year before this point, I had started a job as a sewing machine mechanic. I liked the job for the most part, but I had even interviewed saying, “I can’t work on Saturdays. It’s against my religion. If you need someone to work Saturdays, I guess I’m not the man for the job.” The boss who hired me later told me that my micro speech in the interview helped land me the job, saying, “I can teach anyone how to fix a sewing machine, but I can’t teach the integrity that I witnessed in your job interview.” Really? Oh, sheesh. Even though I meant what I said, this would mean that I was really going to have to walk the walk…as far as my boss knows about Judaism, anyways.

Fast forward a year. I was out of town at training sessions hosted by one of our vendors. I was sharing a hotel room with my boss and another sewing machine technician. By this point, I had never spent my morning, from waking till working, with my boss. In my mind, I thought he was expecting me to have the morning routine of the apparently deeply religious Jewish person he hired — rising, Modeh Ani, ritual handwashing, Morning Shacharit prayers with tallit/tefillin — the whole nine yards. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I thought this sewing machine shop owner from Missouri would know what this kind of morning entailed, but I was determined to be that person…at least for that morning.

Armed with a tallit I had kept in the closet for months and a set of tefillin that I’d maybe donned twice, I woke up in the room, wrapped up, and attempted to pray as a religious person would. While this seemed like an admirable attempt, I honestly did not know what I was doing. The tallit felt itchy, the tefillin were scratchy, and the siddur felt like it was never going to end. This was not a normal part of my morning routine at this stage in my Jew-ish practice. I just simply wanted to be a person who did do this every morning. That desire to be that person was the most honest thing about those prayers that morning…which my two roommates completely slept through.

Fast forward a decade or so, I’m now married with an infant son. Around the time my wife was pregnant with our boy, I realized that there would be no fooling my future children as to whom their father really was. If I wanted them to see me in a certain way, as a person who does certain things, I had to honestly take on the habits that would ultimately help me become that person. If I wanted to show them that their dad is a person who never cheated in business, I had to take on the habit of driving back to the store if the cashier accidentally gave me too much change. If I wanted my children to feel that their dad was someone who cared about his community, I would have to just be a guy who volunteered and genuinely did (it turns out that if you volunteer long enough, you will end up genuinely caring for your community—who dathunk?). If I wanted them to see their dad as a guy who valued morning prayer, I would have to honestly get up at 6 AM every week morning, don a tallit and tefillin, and reach out to the Creator of the Universe. There would be no more BS-ing about who I was. If I wanted to impart values and lessons as a father, they may hear my words, but they would definitely witness my actions.

One of my first positive habits to take on was the daily morning prayer I had tried so hard to fake that one morning. I wanted to be that guy who genuinely was not himself without his 9-mile run every morning…but, you know, for Jewish prayer.

One thing I noticed after a while was the attitude shift that was required in order to form positive habits. If I wanted to make sure I did not miss a single morning, I could not just be “trying to pray more often.” That attitude gives failure too much of a pass. No, in order to get this positive habit to stick, I would need to be “a person who prays every morning.” It was no longer about what I was trying to accomplish, it was about becoming the person who does. Beyond changing my attitude, I would have to build this as part of my identity.

Another way I’ve heard this form of habit adjustment put is in the framework of smoking cigarettes. Two people could have the goal of quitting a habit of smoking cigarettes. Both of them are out on the patio of a party and are offered cigarettes by a guest. The first person says, “Oh, no thanks. I’m trying to quit.” The second person says, “Oh, no thanks. I’m not a smoker.” The person who refuses, stating that they are “trying to quit” will likely fail because they still see themselves as a smoker who is a “trying to quit.” The second person, however, has changed how they see themselves. They are no longer a smoker. They are a non-smoker. Non-smokers, by definition, don’t smoke. It’s not a question smoking or not smoking, but rather of who the person is.

I felt this similarly when I officially became a Jew. Though religious for several years, my identity as a religious Jew now dictated my actions. This made some averot (transgressions) easier to avoid — I could just say to myself, “I’m a religious Jew. Religious Jews don’t do that.” and the decision was clear. However, what I underestimated is all of the positive habits that being a religious Jew would require of me. Suddenly, my identity as a religious Jew meant that I had a very wide variety of new responsibilities in addition to the bad habits I would need to break.

Even beyond Judaism or spiritual connotation, forming positive habits is less about intention and more about identity. It’s less a “I’d like to…” and more about “I am…” Before you set out to break a bad habit or to form a positive habit, I’d invite you to take some time to redesign your identity. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “What kind of person do you want to be?” Sit down with a pen and a notepad or an open document and write a description of the ideal you. This isn’t not you, but simply your best you — the you that you know exists in there somewhere. This is the you that you could be if you took the required actions, little by little.

Is this a person who is always honest?
Is this a person who helps the needy?
Does this person exercise and eat a balanced diet?
Does this person block off time for their loved ones first?
Does this person read books more than they watch television?
Does this person spend more time with friends in person than they do on social media?

Designing this person.

After you’ve dedicated yourself to intentionally living out the values you feel inside, pursue the goals that would be required to move the needle even a little bit every day. Even just taking a single step in that direction is the start of designing the best you that you can be.

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