Pray with intent, joy and enthusiasm.
One of the central foci, themes and issues in Hassidism is prayer. The story of prayer in hassidic circles could perhaps be summed up in three salient points, each deserving of its own serious analysis.
First, hassidic masters and their communities placed great emphasis on prayer rites. They stressed the accessibility of the prayer avenue and the efficacy of prayer as a means of communicating with the Almighty. In many ways, Hassidism offered prayer as an alternative path to God for those who were unable to spend hours in the intellectual pursuit of indepth Torah study.
Second, many innovations to the prayer ritual were instituted in a valiant attempt to overhaul prayers. The rite was changed to reflect kabbalistic values, more hospitable and intimate places were preferred as meeting places for prayer, times of prayer were relaxed in some locales and modes of prayer were revamped.
Connected to the first two points was the third aspect of prayer in the hassidic milieu: The opposition. Ringing-in changes to ancient mores greatly disturbed many traditional leaders. Polemic tracts were written, broadsides posted and bans instituted; in many cases the indictment made mention of overemphasis on prayer and wholesale changes to the Ashkenazi prayer rite.
One of the more trivial innovations involved a post-prayer custom. Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850) once encountered a group of Jews living in Galicia who originally hailed from Germany. These Jews, while more open to modernity than many of their counterparts in Eastern Europe, continued to preserve the time-honored Ashkenazi customs of German Jewry.
They approached the holy Ruzhiner Rebbe and asked him: “The custom in Ashkenaz is that after the prayer service we sit down and learn Mishna. You hassidim have a very different practice: After the service you sit down and have a piece of cake and wash it down with a hearty l’haim. Is this the appropriate behavior after prayer service?”
One of the Ruzhiner Rebbe’s faithful attendants, Reb Yosef the ritual slaughterer, who would often offer witty remarks and quips that would bring a smile to his master’s face, responded with no hesitation: “In memorial and for the merit of the deceased we study Mishna, for it has the same Hebrew letters as the word neshama [soul]. You Yekkes,” – continued Reb Yosef, employing the mildly derogatory term for German Jews who are legendarily known for their punctiliousness – “you pray with such a coldness and lack of feeling, you are effectively praying while you are dead.
Thus it is eminently appropriate to study Mishna after the service. We hassidim, on the other hand, prayer with joy and enthusiasm. A celebrant certainly deserves to drink a l’haim!”
Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin heard the words of his attendant-cum-jester and dismissed them: “A joke here, a joke there… The real reason for drinking a l’haim after the service is that the prayer service takes the place of the Temple sacrifices and many of the laws and directives about prayer are copied from the Temple rituals.”
TEMPLE SACRIFICES WERE disqualified and termed “pigul” if the supervising kohen had the wrong intentions during the sacrifice service, namely he intended on eating the sacrifice after the prescribed window of time. Even if the sacrifice was consumed during the allotted time – in other words the kohen’s intent was not realized – the sacrifice is still void. This law illustrates the importance of the appropriate frame of mind and intent when performing mitzvot (see: Leviticus 7:18; 19:5-7; B. Zevahim 29a).
The Ruzhiner explained: “When the Evil Inclination sees a Jew going to pray – that is, going to offer a sacrifice to the Almighty – he doesn’t even countenance that he will be able to stop him. He knows that the fortitude of the Jew will withstand his arguments and temptations.
“Instead, the Evil Inclination tries to trick him with pigul-like thoughts, thoughts that would negate the validity and efficacy of the prayer and make the whole venture a waste of time. So we promise the Evil Inclination a drink after the service and we make a deal with him to just leave us be while we pray, and after we have prayed we will reward him with a l’haim.”