Teaching Baiurei HaTefilla

by: Isaiah Wohlgemuth

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 5, 2, 1991, pp. 37-38. Appears here with permission.
Educators have always been faced with the challenge of inspiring students toward meaningful tefilla. One approach is to emphasize the interpretation of the words and the structure of the siddur. The following course utilizes this approach and has been in effect in the Maimonides School of Boston. Its emphasis is on the rationale, meaning and various halakhot of tefilla.
The course is divided into a number of units, several of which are taught every academic year. Although the course could have been offered in one year by teaching it daily, we thought it more meaningful to schedule one or two weekly classes on every grade level throughout high school. In addition, each year time is devoted to the tefillot of the Yamim Tovim to deepen student understanding. In the senior year students take a comprehensive test, as well as present papers on topics that had only been covered briefly.
A bibliography of the course would include all of Jewish scholarship: halakha and agada, Talmud and poskim, philosophy and history, Jewish literature and poetry. Naturally, only a small selection of that huge material can be covered and I therefore have tried to concentrate on those themes that are most meaningful and interesting. The Talmudic sources of tefilla, however, are not curtailed. To give students easy access to those sections I compiled a booklet containing selections, as well as review questions. In addition to these sources I also teach Rav Soloveitchik’s ideas and philosophy of prayer.
The texts used are Shulhan Arukh Orah Haim, the Siddur Avodath Yisrael by Yitzhak Ber (Dov), a classic commentary on the siddur published in 19th century Germany belonging to the genre of Die Wissenschaft Des Judentums, and the above-mentioned text booklet. The school library has many volumes that can be used for research.
Grade 8
Birkot HaShahar- P’sukei DeZimra
Grade 9
Birkot Kriat Shma Shaharit V’Arvit
Grade 10
Amida for weekdays, Shabbat and Hagim
Tahanun until Shir Shel Yom
Grade 11
Kabbalat Shabbat – Hallel – Piyutim
Grade 12
Comprehensive Review
All Grades
Hagim including Slihot and Haggada
Special emphasis is placed on dinim, adjusted of course to meet the needs and level of each individual class.
Method of Instruction
The method of instruction consists partly of lectures, partly of class discussions. I point out to my students that baiurei tefilla is not an exact science. For instance, the Talmud teaches that vidui on Yom Kippur is said by the individual after the amida, but by the congregation in kedushat hayom. Why? The Talmud proper does not address this. In asking students for their opinions I receive the most fascinating attempts to solve the problem. Or, for instance, the Ramo and the Mehaber, Rav Yosef Karo, argue about the need to respond to ahava raba and to gaal Yisrael with amen. Naturally, the commentaries offer their insights, but students find much enjoyment in devising reasons of their own. During neilah we only say the short vidui, why? What is more meaningful, a free prayer as it was said during the time of the first Temple or a set text as introduced by the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah? There is no end to the questions and problems that can be posed. Such probing questions stimulate students and keep their interest alive. They frequently offer novel ideas that enrich my own thinking.
A Sample Lesson
Birkot Hashahar from lasekhvi bina until hasadim tovim

  1. Study of Talmud Berakhot 60b from ki shoma kol tarnegola until hasadim tovim l’amo Yisrael.
  2. What is the true meaning of lasekhvi? If it is to show that these berakhot are to be said at certain activities we carry out every morning, such as putting on our shoes, then why do we say them all together in shul? See Orah Haim 46,2.
  3. Do we say them when we don’t carry out the activities (for instance, don’t wear shoes?)- Orah Haim 46,8. From the Mehaber it seems we only say the berakhot when we actually perform the activity mentioned in the berakha. The berakhot are birkhat hodaa, brakhot of thanksgiving. The Ramo seems to indicate that we say the berakhot regardless of our activities. They are berakhot of praise, shevah. We accept the latter opinion and, therefore, we have a different reason for saying all the berakhot in shul at one time.
  4. These berakhot are universal in character, yet in two cases we mention Yisrael, since we are thanking God for a religious activity, namely, wearing a kippa and a gartel (noting the difference between Ashkenazic and Sefardic minhagim). A further discussion of both mitzvoth can develop the hashkafa of the students.
  5. Hanoten layaef koah. Why is there a controversy on whether we should recite it?
  6. Where is the appropriate place for sheasa li kol tsorki?
  7. On not answering amen after meafapoi. Is the conclusion of this berakha in accordance with the beginning? Tosafot Berakhot 46a. Why does this berakha start in singular and not in plural? “And force us to be subservient to you.” Is this not against the teaching of free choice?
  8. Study the three berakhot in Menahot 43b. Topics to be discussed: Are the berakhot disrespectful to women? Why do we prefer the negative version that “You did not make me a gentile” to the positive, “that You made me a Yisrael.” In Menahot, most likely the positive version was forced upon us by censorship. Why do we recite the berakhot at this place?

A similar in-depth study of each part of the siddur can open up new worlds for students, and strengthen their hashkafa. Usually lack of time makes it impossible to exhaust all the teachings contained in any section and the instructor will have to make choices.