Davening – praying – may not top physicians’ prescribed regimens for boosting health, but it benefits both mind and body beyond the spiritual elevation that comes with it.
Davening provides mental stimulation that helps keep the brain healthy, as an active mind has less chance of memory loss over time. With prayer services of substantial length, davening requires focus, concentration, discipline, and proper articulation, not only to get through the prayers and passages but to finish them on time, since in a minyan you’re praying together with others.
It could be argued that with the repetition of the same prayers week after week, year after year, the congregant is more or less able to daven by rote. That may be true, but there are a lot of words to recall, so even when the prayers are recited by rote, the mind is still stimulated. Indeed, whether one davens from memory or finds new challenges with each recitation, davening, for those of us who do so regularly, is like a daily mental workout.
If Hebrew is not your native language or one in which you are fluent, carrying out this endeavor has additional mental benefits; the recitation is even more challenging and therefore provides a better workout for the brain.
Davening is not a sedentary act; there are specific motions that accompany particular passages. During the course of the service the davener stands, sits, stands, bows, straightens up, turns, takes steps backward and forward, sits, stands, sits, stands, bows, and so forth. It’s not running, it’s not bench pressing, it’s not a high-energy workout, but it’s movement – and that can only be counted as positive.
For some people, particularly the elderly, davening may be one of the few forms of exercise they get. Done multiple times daily or weekly, it contributes to the minimum daily exercise recommended by various health authorities to increase longevity.
There are ancillary benefits that may be associated with davening. How does the davener get to synagogue? Walking is, of course, always healthy, particularly at a brisk pace. Davening at shul is a communal activity, and the camaraderie can lead to higher self-esteem and well-being and thus to better mental health. Singing prayers as part of a group can have similar benefits.
Some who daven are able to read or recite the Hebrew in the siddur but don’t know what the words mean. It behooves the davener to be able to translate the words properly in order to get the full benefit of davening. This provides further mental stimulation.
Because the text has so many layers of meaning, even the seasoned davener who understands what is being recited may discover new interpretations or challenges, which also helps keep the mind active.
Of course, correlations have been made between faith and well-being, and some elderly people have attributed their long lifespan to their faith. So these are benefits on top of the act of davening itself.
Davening can be a conduit to a sharp mind and a limber body. For religious fulfillment and mental and physical stimulation, it is a win-win practice. It’s never too late to start davening your way to good health.
About the Author: Harvey Rachlin is an award-winning author of thirteen books including “Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain,” which was adapted for the long-running History Channel series "History's Lost and Found.” He is also a lecturer at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.
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