the arc of prayer

The rabbinical school curriculum requires that students join what are called “tefila groups,” with a new focus this year: tefila (“prayer”) as a spiritual practice. The idea is for everyone to “practice tefila with a spiritual practice group that shares goals and develops a consistent set of forms for its tefila.”

We were asked to come up with ideas for these spiritual practice groups, and the groups that ultimately formed, after a few weeks of discussion and proposals, included those committed to experience prayer as catharsis, as struggle with the divine (however conceived), as liberation theology, and as obligation. The groups daven together at least once a week and then meet on Thursdays to process the prayer experience as well as the group’s continued goals.

new tallit for rabbinical school; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The group I joined is planning to explore the liturgy of shacharit, the morning service, unit by unit, seeking to make a personal connection to each part. As my classmate who proposed the idea explained, he was inspired by a story he heard on NPR about a musician who had digitally remastered Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to make it last 24-hours. His vision for the tefila group was to essentially daven shacharit over an academic year.

We’re working on the selection of liturgical units (unsurprisingly, there are more of them than there are weeks) and schedule for davenning. On the day we pray together, we’re planning to just daven the prayer that we’re focusing on that week (with perhaps the prayer before and after it, so we can look at transitions, too). On Thursday, we’ll be sharing how that experience was for each of us, as well as any creative expression of the personal connection that we’ve made to that prayer.

It’s hard to overstate how excited I am by this prospect. I need to learn the service better (for myself, and as a professional skill), and although technical goals aren’t the point of these groups, I know I won’t but get to know the prayers better.

I can think of so many things that I’d like to do for each weekly unit; knowing that my time is limited, and that I want to push myself in this project, I’d like to commit to making a visual representation — probably a collage — for each prayer. I don’t think of myself as a creative person, so I’m nervous about the prospect, mostly that I won’t be able to achieve something that is meaningful and, more importantly, not cheesy. I’m hoping that a trip to the craft store a) won’t kill me and b) will provide some inspiration. I would also like to write here about my experience each week, hopefully with a picture of my finished product.

We’re starting tomorrow with elohai neshama, a short prayer at the very beginning of shacharit that praises G-d for creating humanity and for helping each person maintain his or her spirit and spirituality. More to come!


  1. […] this week, a classmate led our tefila group in a guided meditation through the prayer elohai neshama (so called for the first words of the […]

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