Our recent columns quoted the Alter Rebbe’s words to his czarist interrogators about the main aim of Chassidus – that its adherents pray with deep devotion.
Throughout the Alter Rebbe’s central work, Tanya, and his thousands of discourses, he explains parts of davening with uniquely-inspiring insights and urges us to meditate on the subjects of davening in order to pray more fervently. Even discourses and parts of his works (such as Shaar Hayichud V’ha’emuna, the second section of Tanya) that seem to explain purely philosophical and Kabbalistic subjects are intended as material for meditation before and during davening.
The Alter Rebbe wrote fundamental letters to his chassidim exhorting them to pray according to specific guidelines. Some of the most powerful of these were added by his sons to Tanya after his passing (see Iggeres Hakodesh 1, 22b, 23, 24, and the final two in Kuntres Acharon).
He encouraged forming separate minyanim where chassidim would be free to pray slowly and according to the Kabbalah-based text of the Arizal. He also called for praying somewhat aloud and slowly, optimally taking an hour and a half daily for Shacharis (a practice sourced in the Zohar).
He prohibited speaking during davening, from their beginning until after the last Kaddish, explaining that it is a special time when the divine king reveals Himself to us. He asks: Who is so foolish as to be involved in his own petty concerns at such a time?
He also strongly discouraged small talk (and worse) in shul even before and after davening – such as between Minchah and Maariv – calling instead for communal study of Ein Yaakov and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, at that time.
These guidelines were designed to create a framework in which chassidim could properly prepare themselves for davening, first studying inspiring discourses of Chassidus and then meditating on its subjects (with a period of time ranging from a few minutes to, in the case of chassidim of extraordinary caliber, several hours), then praying slowly, reciting every word with heartfelt devotion.
How each person should train himself to meditate on these subjects is spelled out in detail in Tanya and explained at more length in the Alter Rebbe’s discourses.
In the early years of Chabad Chassidus, when opposition to it was still intense, the prominent White Russian community of Shklov issued a proclamation against separate chassidic minyanim. A young Torah scholar there, Rabbi Alexander, defended the chassidim, advocating allowing them to continue praying separately. The Alter Rebbe wrote to him:
“Although I don’t know you… I have heard about you that the spirit of G-d shines in you, not to stand in the counsel of those who laugh and mock those who wish to serve G-d sincerely in service of the heart, which is prayer…They have gathered to decree destruction of prayer, that [everyone] should pray like them, in a hurry only, without movement or raising voice…
“…Those who say that prayer is [a commandment only] from our Rabbis have never seen luminaries in their lives because although the text of prayer and its number of three times daily is from our Rabbis, its main point and essence is the foundation of the whole Torah, [which is] to know G-d, to recognize His greatness and glory with a complete awareness anchored in the understanding of the heart so that one will meditate on this so much until the intellectual soul becomes inspired to love the name of G-d and become attached to Him and to His Torah, and to greatly desire [to fulfill] His commandments.
“In this era, all this happens for us by reciting P’sukei D’Zimra and Birchos Krias Shema, before and after, with eager speech and voice that arouses devotion of the heart, and hopefully that will succeed… In this era, whoever is close to G-d and has tasted the taste of [true] prayer [even] once understands…that without it no man can [start]…to serve G-d sincerely, but only to fulfill the commandments habitually, which is why the accuser opposes it so much.”
This Rabbi Alexander later became one of the Alter Rebbe’s greatest chassidim.