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Raising Your Voice to Raise Your Kavanah

Rabbi Dovid Bendory, 10 Cheshvan 5767
Wall Street Shul

Listen to the audio. (13:03)

Birshut HaRav: Based on conversations that I had yesterday, it seems that I need to clarify one aspect of what we've been learning. We're going through the halachot of the Amidah. Now the Amidah is one particular form of prayer that we have. In general, there are three aspects of prayer: shevach, praise; bakashah, requests; and hoda'ah, thanks. In general, all of our prayers that we say, whether as an individual or a community, fall into one of those three categories.

Now there is a fourth aspect as well. It's not really tfillah, though we do it as part of tefillah, and that is declarations. For example, the recitation of the Shema is a declaration. You could say that it is praise of Hashem — His oneness — and that is an aspect of praise, but really, it's an affirmation that we say for ourselves.

Now with regard to all of these aspects, whether tefillah or declaration, there are public aspects and there are private aspects. That is to say, there are differences between a request we make in private, when one is alone, versus a request we make in public as part of the community. And all of these different elements come into play in the composition of our tefillah — what we say out loud, what we say in a whisper, what we think about during our amidah.

For example, when we learned the kavanah of shema together — and shema is a declaration — we say it out loud as a community. In addition to that, we have kavanoh that we talked about — things we're supposed to think about while we're saying shema, meaning things to think about even beyond the plain meaning of the word, which in general is our kavanah for everything.

All of these different aspects come into play when determining what the kavanah is with regard to the particular form of prayer — the form, meaning out loud, whisper, etc. And here in these halachot, we're talking specifically about the silent Amidah, so when we are going through this, you should keep that in mind, and this is not a statement about what you should do with other aspects of prayer. I'll throw out just a few examples.

We already discussed the shema. We say it in public; we all say it out loud. The amidah, as you know, we say in a whisper. What about a bracha, a blessing? So I am of the opinion (I should say I follow the opinion) that all blessings should be said out loud. You'll see lots of people who sit down for a meal — not a shabbos meal, there we do tend to make blessings as a community — but you sit down to have a meal with someone, and you'll often find that each person will say their bracha quietly to themselves.

So I follow the opinion that it's better to say all your brachot out loud. Why? Not only does it help your kavanah to hear yourself say it, but in addition to that, it gives everyone else an opportunity to answer "Amen" to your bracha And so with a few exceptions, brachot ought to be said out loud — even if you're alone, by the way.

Similarly, there are other things that one should always say quietly. Now the Amidah is, of course, among them. As we learned yesterday, one should not daven the Amidah solely in his heart. In other words, you can't just think about it, that's not sufficient. Rather, one should literally cut the words with his lips. In other words, one should mouth the words of the Amidah. One should whisper the words in a whisper such that he can hear them in his own ears, but one should not cause his voice to be heard; that is to say, one should not completely vocalize the words.

Now I got into a discussion with the rabbi yesterday regarding this. He brought over the Siddur of Rebbi Nachman of Breslau, and of course, in the Hasidic tradition, he's going to tend to follow the Zohar, and according to Zohar, you should only mouth the words and not actually whisper them.

I always learned that you should whisper the words, I being of pure Ashkenazi origin with no chasidus. I'm not coming here to tell you what minhag you should follow; I'm just coming to tell you that there are definitely different customs here, though everyone agrees that in your silent Amidah you don't say the words out loud. That's a universal agreement. Your silent Amidah is a private prayer. There are no declarations in the Amidah. These are all private prayers in the Amidah. They consist of private shevach, praise; private bakashah, requests; private hoda'ah, thanks. But they're all private, and that's why I also said whisper it to yourself; no one else should hear it.

Let's go on with the Mechaber: So what if you are whispering the words of the Amidah, but that little whisper is not enough to arouse your kavanah, to really get you fully involved in the prayer? What should you do? First opinion: you can actually raise your voice, meaning use a voice, not just a whisper. Now there's a big disagreement about this, so don't stop there; pay attention to the rest.

So the Mishnah Brurah brings the opinion of the Taz. The Taz said that if one has kavanah while whispering but your kavanah is not sufficient, you get better kavanah by raising your voice a little bit; says the Taz, go ahead and raise your voice. Now the Beur Halacha goes into a big discussion on this. According to Zohar, if you say your Amidah even in a whisper, but a whisper that's loud enough that someone else can hear you, your tefillah is not heard in the heavens. Hashem does not hear that prayer. So according to Zohar, what the Taz is saying to do here is completely forbidden, no question about it.

The Mishnah Brura says, therefore, it looks to me like you should not rely on this Taz. Taz would say it's appropriate that you have to raise your voice and do everything you can to raise your kavanah, and therefore, go ahead and raise your voice. The Mishnah Brurah is saying that's forbidden because it's going against the Zohar and against this idea that no one else should hear you.

Now we certainly don't hold this way in public, meaning that during the community prayers in the synagogue we don't daven aloud. Whether or not you can raise your whisper a little bit, beyond the level of just barely being able to hear it to the level of "a more confident whisper" that you can certainly hear and that maybe the person next to you can hear; maybe they can't — I leave that for private discussions between you and your rebbi.

However, everyone agrees that we don't say the silent Amidah out loud in a spoken voice in the community. This is allowed only when you're davening alone, meaning you're davening alone in your house, but in the community, it is forbidden. And the Mishnah Brurah further restricts this, so it isn't just if you're home and you're davening alone that we would hold by the Taz.

Says the Mishnah Brurah Don't go so far so fast; rather, raise your whisper, raise your voice to the minimal possible amount that will give you proper kavanah, rather than just going ahead and starting to shout out loud. In other words, he is really being machmir for the Zohar here. He's concerned about the Zohar's opinion, not just as a fact that the person next to you can hear you, but as a theoretical that if there were a person next to you they could hear you. In other words, even if you're alone at home davening, we would still say to be careful about this.

Why is this completely forbidden in the community? Very simply, because you'll come to bother the person next to you. The Amidah is a time of private prayer; there's an element of private introspection therein. All of the kavanah of the Amidah comes internally. It's not about external kavanah, like the public declaration of shema. That part of the kavanah is reserved for while we're saying it loud together. This is internal kavanah, and therefore, if you do anything that disrupts someone else's kavanah, that is forbidden you're not allowed to do such a thing.

In fact, the Mishnah Brurah goes on to say: Even to raise one's voice a drop in the public Amidah is forbidden, and all the more so to actually cause your voice to be heard.

Let's finish the Rama and then I'll give a summary. The Rama brings that if you're davening at home in your house and you want to daven in a raised voice so that the members of your family will hear your tefillah and by hearing your tefillah they will learn to daven, that is permissible.

Okay. So in summary, what do we have? First, in public, we have a clear prohibition on davening the Amidah out loud. Second, in public, there is a clear prohibition on even whispering loud enough for the person next to you to hear you and be distracted. In public, with regard to whether you can whisper the words, whether you should whisper the words quietly so that you hear them yourself but no one else does or you should simply mouth the words depends on whether you're going after the Zohar's approach or not.

As for davening privately in your home, if you're davening alone, the Taz's opinion is that if it gives you better kavanah, go ahead and raise your voice. The Mishnah Brurah is concerned for the Zohar that you should still keep your voice quiet even at home. The Rama brings another opinion on that, that if it will help your family members to learn to daven, they'll learn the words of davening, the rhythms of davening, etc., by hearing you, says the Rama, go ahead and daven out loud. As we'll see tomorrow, that may not apply today when we all daven from a prayerbook. A lot of these halachot come from a time when you had to daven completely from memory, which most of us today aren't even capable of doing.