Tefillah Behitpa’alut

These are notes from a talk I gave in Zion Il at the 8th Mussar Kallah. As a favor to those who asked me to publish notes, as the talk was given on Shabbos, I tried to use a more Israeli-sounding transliteration scheme than I’m used to. The result is probably sadly inconsistent.

Defining Tefillah

Our forefather Jacob, lying on his deathbed, tells his son Joseph:

וַֽאֲנִ֞י נָתַ֧תִּֽי לְךָ֛ שְׁכֶ֥ם אַחַ֖ד עַל־אַחֶ֑יךָ אֲשֶׁ֤ר לָקַ֨חְתִּי֙ מִיַּ֣ד הָֽאֱמֹרִ֔י בְּחַרְבִּ֖י וּבְקַשְׁתִּֽי׃

Also, I gave you one portion (or perhaps, “one thing, [the city of] Shechem”) beyond that of your brothers, which I took from the control of the Emori — becharbi uvqashti — with my sword and with my bow.

Bereishit 48:22

The Targum Yonasan renders “with my sword and with my bow” as “betzeloti uva’ut-hi — with my prayers and my requests”. This is also in Bava Batra 123, “‘Charbi’ — this is tefillah, ‘qashti’ – this is request.”

The Amidah is such an archetype for the former kind prayer, Chazal simply refer to it as tefillah or tzelotana (depending on the language). The Amidah, even in its immediate requests speaks in the plural, referring to the Jewish people as a whole, not my own immediate needs, and the majority of its requests are a progression describing the ultimate redemption. We have the list of prayers in the gemara (Berakhos 16b) that various tannaim, “after tzelotana — his Amidah — he would say like this”. In contrast, E-lokai Netzor, the post-Amidah petition that made it into our liturgy, is written in the first person, about my own religious needs and protection from those who want ill for me personally.

The Vilna Gaon characterizes two kinds of prayer: tefillah and tachanunim. As Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik note, lehit-pallel is in the reflexive; something we do to ourselves. Teaching ourselves to turn to Hashem, and what things ought to be our priorities. Our primary tefillah was therefore organized by Anshei Keneses haGdolah in the sunset of the prophetic period, as a means of impressing us with the art of dialogue with the Almighty.

Turning to our Father with the needs actually on our mind is called tachanunim. An ideal time for requests of Gcd is immediately after tefillah, as we find in the above-mentioned list of tannaim’s requests. As well as the prayer named “Tachanun.” Common among many of our grandmothers or greatgrandmothers was the old, worn, Techines, a collection of Yiddish informal prayers. Requests.

Tefillah is always in the plural, placing ourselves in the context of the community. Requests, like E-lokai Netzor, can also be in the singular. Because E-lokai Netzor exists as a framework for what should essentially be spontaneous, we have a long tradition of adding various requests to it, rather than preserving the tanna’s original coinage untouched. Similarly also, in the blessing said early in the morning, “E-lokai Neshamah”, also written about “E-lokai”, my Gcd, without expecting me to connect to the rest of the nation and speak to “E-lokeinu — our Gcd.” And we begin the blessing, “My Gcd, the soul which you placed within me is pure”. Note that we don’t speak of the truth, of our being the soul who is placed within the body. Rather, we phrase this techninah, this request, in terms of how the world too often seems to us. That there is some “me” that the soul is placed within.

Just as the requests we make as part of regular davening has this element of a pre-written trellis, of tefillah, upon which we are to grow our natural expressions of our longings for Gcd, we also do not call for pure tefillah with no element of personal outpouring. We ask for the health of a sick friend with an insertion in “Refa’einu”, or Hashem’s help showing our children how to embrace the Torah’s wisdom in “Atah Chonein”, etc… “Whomever makes their tefillos fixed has not made their tefillos into tachanunim.” How is it possible inculcate the proper way to turn to Gcd to ask for someone’s health and yet still be able to remain silent when at the same time we know someone ill?

This inseparability of these two modes of worship might be an implication of the opening words of Mesilat Yesharim. The Ramchal begins, “יסוד החסידות ושורש העבודה – the foundation of piety and the root of work/worship…” The words’ initials are an acronym spelling out the four letter name of Gcd. However, three of the letters used in the acronym are prefixes. The Ramchal could have equally written “יסוד העבודה ושורש החסידות – the foundation of worship and the root of piety” and still have had the same acronym. Why did he choose to associate the more artificial “foundation” with piety, and the image of the more natural “root” when it comes to avodah, which means work? It would seem to me he is intentionally showing that the two are inherently mixed. That conscious work on our relationships with Hashem and with other people must flow from natural growth from the root, and our free emotional expression can’t be divorced from consciously building a foundation.

Returning to the Vilna Gaon’s distinction, the core difference between tefillah and requests is that requests are a raw primeval reaching out to our Parent in heaven, and tefillah is an exercise in how we are supposed to reach out to Him.

In this light, the core of the metaphor in the original verse, “my sword and my bow” as modes of prayer, is usability. A sword in the hands of an expert is formidable, but even in the hands of a klutz, a sword can be dangerous. Arrows shot by someone with no experience at marksmanship are pretty much useless. Thus, tefillah, like those pre-composed by the Men of the Great Assembly or the sages of the Talmud, is more like a sword — of utility to anyone. The art of techinah, of personally composed requests — that requires greater skill and for the person to already feel that connection to the A-lmighty that their reflexive response is to cry out to Him, to be of any value.

The words of the Targum also appear in the Full Qaddish, the version used for the first recitation of Qaddish after the Amidah. “Titqabel tzelot-hon uva’ut-hon dekhol Yisrael — accept the tefillot and the requests of all of Israel…” And when Tachanun is said, this Qaddish isn’t said until after Tachanun — after the core mitzvot of tefillah and requests.

And so, our siddur has a long preparatory section and a cooling down section after the Full Qaddish. In between are three mitzvot:

  • Shema — accepting Gcd as Monarch, a distinct biblical mitzvah
  • Tefillah
  • Tachanunim


We noted that the verb usually used for tefillah, lehitpalel, is the reflexive conjugation — which is called hitpa’el. Hitpa’elhitpa’alut! The notion of tefillah behitpa’alut is not some Mussar Movement innovation, it’s inherent in the very language used.

Defining Hitpa’alut

Encounters with text:

The old way of doing things, from the Enlightenment until the middle of the 20th century, was to encounter texts by trying to determine the author’s original intent. This requires finding the historical context of the author, learning about his mental state, etc…

Of course, it was rapidly found to be error prone. Whether we wish to or not, we can’t really recreate the world and the mind of the author, and we are still encountering the text based on our own definitions of things. While the classical academic tried to find the original intent of the text, the postmodern found this impossible and therefore doesn’t try. Instead, he looks to see what social constructs the text implies for the primary purpose of questioning it.

One can see a central theme of Judaism, or almost any religion, is to make a point of imparting a metanarrative. Questioning the metanarrative means never really encountering a religious narrative. You can’t sit on the outside peering in and truly experience a religion. Without “טַֽעֲמ֣וּ — taste”, one will never get to “וּ֭רְאוּ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֑ — see that Gcd is good!” (Tehillim 34:9)

Both the classical academic and the Deconstructionist share one thing in common — they see themselves as encountering the text. The idea is that the material is “other”, outside, to remain objectively studied. One looks for the context for which the text was written. The other looks for how the text can be understood with minimal assumptions about context.

Mesorah is a living tradition of a development of ideas. The Oral Torah is oral, a dialog across the generations. If we see a quote in the talmud from Rav Yochanan, we might be curious about the historical intent of Rav Yochanan. But in terms of Torah, important to us than what R’ Yochanan’s original intent is what R’ Ashi (a redactor of the talmud) thought that intent was, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of what the Rosh and the Rambam understood R’ Ashi’s meaning to be, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of the Shaagas Aryeh and R’ Chaim Briskerm and so on down until the rabbis of today.  That is the “true meaning”, in terms of Torah, of Rav Yoachanan’s statement.

Definitionally, Torah study is entering the stream of Jewish Tradition. Not seeing a statement as a point to isolate in time and space, but as a being within current that runs through history from creation to redemption.

Hitpa’alut is not standing outside the text and interpreting it — it’s achieving unity with with the text by letting it interpret and shape me. Notice this definition isn’t limited to any particular practice or technique. It’s an attitude toward how we study Mussar texts, Torah texts in general…

… and in how we pray. The siddur becomes a set of truths and values that a millennium of rabbis — from the last of the prophets through the Second Temple period, the Talmudic era, and all the way until the 9th century CE and the transition from geonim to the rishonim of Sepharad and Ashkenaz (after which all our differences were very minor) — thought were so crucial to being a Jew they wanted these ideas repeated daily and internalized.


Hitpa’alut is therefore an attitude one takes to how one learns a text. Not a specific technique or practice. It is learning a text to seek ways to be changed and refined by the encounter with it.

That said, the Mussar Movement did produce such techniques. [Below I divide them by the schools in which each technique was more common. However, after giving this presentation, Rabbi Avi Fertig noted that while this distinction may be accurate, that kind of analysis is itself something the members of those schools would not have made.]

I would like to relate the various kinds of hitpa’alut to the siddur’s description of the prayers of the angels, as it appears in the first blessing of the morning Shema. More than an aid for remembering an organizing the modes, it itself may aid in hitpa’alut when saying these words. Don’t just think of it as a description of events in heaven, as perceived by Ezekiel and Isaiah. Rather, it is an example for us to emulate of how yir’ah is felt and expressed. The blessing reads (in part):

…וְכֻלָּם מְקַבְּלִים עֲלֵיהֶם על מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם זֶה מִזֶּה.
וְנותְנִים רְשׁוּת זֶה לָזֶה
לְהַקְדִּישׁ לְיוצְרָם
בְּנַחַת רוּחַ – Spiritual tranquility
בְּשפָה בְרוּרָה – Clear language: cognitive
וּבִנְעִימָה. – Pleasant voice: aesthetic
קְדֻשָׁה כֻּלָּם כְּאֶחָד עונִים, וְאומְרִים בְּיִרְאָה…

And they all accept the yoke of the kingdom of [the One in] heaven one from the other
and give permission, one to the other
to sanctify [proclaim the sanctity] of their Maker
with a tranquil spirit
with clear language
and with a pleasant voice.
They declare sanctity as one
and say with yir’ah…

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes that the angelic prayer is described as having perfection on three planes:

  • spiritual – tranquil spirit
  • cognitive – clear language, and
  • aesthetic – pleasant voice.

And so we’re going to find that tools for hitpa’alut are also designed to move man on each of these planes.


Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s Ohr Yisrael has a chapter (#30) about hitpa’alut, but it too focuses on the attitude toward texts and its role in Mussar more than giving any particular methodology. I think that it’s from here that Rabbi Zvi Miller draws his sources for a chanting practice. Rav Yisrael does speak of two specifics:

  1. Studying with “sefatayim dolqot – lips aflame”
  2. Repetition with tune, volume and passion.

So Rav Yisrael is speaking of chanting or passionate singing. But as I wrote, there isn’t enough there to really be sure about a specific practice. We will revisit this issue when we get to Novhardok and their take on “lips aflame”.

Kelm – Cognitive

Rav Yisrael Salanter opens his Mussar Letter with the words “A person is constrained in his intellect and free/undisciplined in his imagination.” To Kelm, this meant seeing Mussar in terms of imposing will, conscious thought, on our decisions. Rather than reacting reflexively, react after reflecting. This is demonstrated in how they practiced hitpa’alut as well.

The Alter of Kelm describes a five-step process (broken down into clear steps from the original letter in Kitvei haSaba miKelm — Letters of the Alter of Kelm by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg in “The Fire Within”, which is out of print but available used via Amazon’s sellers) :

  1. Intense and single-minded concentration on a single thought. One phrase, sentence or paragraph, repeated out loud and with a tune, to help keep away extraneous thoughts.A beginner should start with five minutes and work his way upward.
  2. That much focus on a single thought creates an emotional response.
  3. Through the extended concentration, one can find a chiddush, a new insight into the thought. As many corporate managers learn, if you want your employees to “buy into” a new project, you hold a brainstorming session. By getting each person to contribute ideas to the project, they get a sense of possession. The project becomes “theirs”.
  4. Through this chiddush the person develops an attachment and “takes ownership” of the idea.
  5. Last, the person deepens the insight into profundity on Torah, one’s own nature, and the interaction of the two. How the Torah speaks to my condition, and how the uniqueness of who I am and how I see things speaks to the Torah.

Rav EE Dessler was a third generation Kelm disciple. In “Strive for Truth” vol I, the chapter “How to reflect on a Mussar Statement: A meditation on Messilat Yasharim chapter one” the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim” he describes the layers of meaning that can be found in that chapter. Mesilat Yesharim would be studied, repeated, absorbed, innovated, applied to one’s life at a rate of a couple of lines per day with 20 minutes to a half an hour dedicated to the exercise. Their goal wasn’t to study or learn the book, but to create an emotional bond and unity with it.         That was hitpa’alut as understood in Kelm.

Novhardok – Music

In Novhardok, hitpa’alut had both of these elements. One would begin with the contemplations and analysis that we saw attributed to the Alter of Kelm. But rather than relying on the sense of intellectual “ownership” alone to internalize the message, they would take a second step, using aesthetics to make an impression. They would chant the idea, sing the idea, repeat it to themselves in a heartful song for fifteen minutes or more. Dance, if that’s what they were moved to do.

Slabodka – Visualization

Rav Yisrael speaks in the Mussar Letter not only of intellect vs. emotion, but of intellect vs. imagination — meaning both what we normally call imagination, but also the impact of having images and sounds of what we experience copied into our heads. (What philosophers of the mind call “qualia“.) In Slabodka, this meant that hitpa’alut would require drafting that mode of thought, sublimating the path usually taken by the yeitzer hara. A pamplet by R’ Yehudah Mendelson (of Kollel Daas Shelomo in J-m, named for R’ Shelomo Wolbe) develops this notion of hitpa’alut — Visualizing.

[We heard this too on Sunday, in Rabbi Avi Fertig’s description of hitpa’alut. It includes visualizing how we would handle a situation. Visualizing how the text being studied would call for the situation to be played out. There was much more in his talk about how to do hitpa’alut that wasn’t touched on in my talk, but trying to include it all would broaden the scope of this write-up beyond my ability to complete.]

In prayer, we can just say “Barukh”, calling Hashem the Source, the Wellspring (Bereikhah) of existence. Or we can visualizing getting our vitality as light or water from an infinitely far away Source. We can speak of the Divine Wisdom in the apple we are about to eat, or we can spend time picturing the beauty of an apple tree. Or an apple seed somehow containing all the information necessary for us to watch it grow into a tree, bear fruit, and have new seeds.


Tefillah is something we do to ourselves, to make ourselves a prayer. What is greater praise of Gcd — to say “You are worthy of our service” or actually serving him? And so, tefillah is about internalizing those things we say in order to be better able to live up to those ideals, so that the prayers do not remain empty platitudes.

We see in the liturgical poem, Nishmat, “Even if our mouths were as full of song as the sea, our tongues — of joyous noise like its high waves, our lips — praise like the expanse of the sky, our hands outstretched like the eagles of the heavens, our feet as swift as ibexes” we would still lack the skill necessary to praise Gcd. “Therefore,” we continue “the limbs that You attached to us, and the will and soul which You breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue that You placed in our mouths, they themselves shall praise…” How is this? First we say they are grossly insufficient, therefore they should do the praising? The answer is in the words “heim heim — they themselves.” The existence of a mouth that can do all the right motions, of a mind that can put together the concepts and the words, they themselves embody more praise of Gcd than the words I use them to utter.

And so the goal of my prayer is to commit them to the tasks for which they were made. To embody their highest potential. To take the words we were given and impress them on those limbs, will, soul, tongue and mouth.

This requires changing how we view the siddur. It is not quiet calming ritual, an abstract book, or a text for me to pick and choose what relates to me as I am now. Rather, it is an active encounter between real and ideal. Me facing the stream of Jewish tradition since the prophets, and trying to join that momentum.

To do so, we need to employ deep study of the words, to continually find new meaning in the words. We need to employ the aesthetics of song and the power of visualizing to add emotional impact, to move both body and heart, so that, as King David wrote (Tehillim 35:10):

כָּ֥ל עַצְמוֹתַ֨י ׀ תֹּאמַרְנָה֮    ה֗’ מִ֥י כָ֫מ֥וֹךָ

All my bones shall say, “Hashem, who is like you?”


(These are the examples I prepared for the talk. They don’t really work as examples without the presentation.)


אַשְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵי בֵיתֶך עוֹד יְהַלְלוּךָ סֶּלָה.
אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם שֶׁכָּכָה לּוֹ: אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם, שֱׁיְ-הוָה אֱ-לֹהָיו.

Ash-rei yo-sh’vei vei-te-cha, od y’ha-l’lu-cha, se-la.
Ash-rei ha-am she-ka-cha lo, ash-rei ha-am she-A-do-nai e-lo-hav.

Enriched [in their pursuit of self-refinement] are those who dwell in Your house, they are forever praising You, Selah!
Enriched [in their interpersonal unity] is the nation for whom such is the case,
Enriched [in their cleaving to Hashem] is the nation that Hashem is its Gcd.

מַלְכוּתְךָ מַלְכוּת כָּל-עֹלָמִים, וּמֶמְשַׁלְתְּךָ, בְּכָל-דּוֹר וָדֹר.

Mal-chut’cha mal-chut kawl o-la-mim, u-mem-shal-t’cha b’chawl dor va-dor.

Your kingship [by the acclimation of the governed] is a kingship for all ages
Your rule [as imposed by Your Will] is from generation to generation [even before Kingship is manifest].

פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת-יָדֶךָ, וּמַשְׂבִּיעַ לְכָל-חַי רָצוֹן.

Po-tei-ach et ya-de-cha,u-mas-bi-a l’chawl chai ra-tson.

You open Your “Hand”
and satisfy the desire of every living being.
… and willingly satisfy every living being.
… and satisfy the need of every living being to be desirable.
… and satisfy the need of every living being to have desires and goals [rather than ennui].


אֲ-דנָי שפָתַי תִּפְתָּח
וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ:

A-do-nai s’fa-tai tif-tach,
u-fi ya-gid t’hi-la-te-cha.

Hashem, open my lips[, remove my surface distractions],
and my mouth [expressing my more inner thoughts] will tell of Your praises.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ-הוָה
וֵ-אלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ
א-ֱלהֵי אַבְרָהָם
אֱ-להֵי יִצְחָק
וֵא-להֵי יַעֲקב….

a-tah A-do-nai
E-lo-hei-nu, Vei-lo-hei a-vo-tei-nu,
E-lo-hei Av-ra-ham, E-lo-hei Yitz-chak, Vei-lo-hei Ya-a-kov…

You are Blessed the Source of all increase
the All-Merciful Cause of all existence
Our Lawgiving Gcd [of natural law]
the Lawgiving Gcd of our ancestors [who better lived by Your moral law]
the Gcd of Abraham [who emulated Your kindness]
the Gcd of Isaac [who cleaved to you]
the Gcd of Jacov [who saught to internalize your wisdom]….


לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדון הַכּל
לָתֵת גְּדֻלָּה לְיוצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית.

l’sha-bei-ach La-a-don ha-kol

It is upon us
to praise to the Master of everything
to give greatness to the One Who gave form to the beginning…

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No Responses

  1. Neil Harris says:

    Thank you for taking the time to post this, Micha.

  2. Shmuel says:

    Yasher ko’ach, Reb Micha.

    I don’t suppose you have an extra hard copy of this lying around that might find it’s way to shul on Shabbos morning…?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    “… and satisfy the need of every living being to have desires and goals [rather than ennui]”

    That’s much like the way I’ve understood this verse (that we’re asking HaShem to grant us ratzon to do His will with enthusiasm). Do you know of sources that have this view?

  4. micha says:

    Bob: R’ AY Kook gives that peshat. He points out the punishment of the snake of Gan Eden was to have nothing to strive for. Also, the same point is a little more explicitly made when we say in the berakhah of Borei Nefashos, “borei nefashos rabbos vechesronam”. Okay, we thank or praise Hashem for creating many souls. But why do we add “and the things they lack”?

    The Targum has the peshat of satisfying the desires of every living thing. As do most English translations.

    Shemos Rabba says that the Ratzon in this pasuq is Hashem’s Will. Which is where I got “willing satisfies”.

    R’ Breuer has the pashat of satisfying every living being’s need to be desirable.

    Shmuel: There is now an extra hard copy in my briefcase. Hopefully, it’ll make it to shul.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Ratzon later has its own verse in the acrostic. Are we saying that the ratzon of His creatures that HaShem carries out is the same ratzon He put in us to begin with?

  6. micha says:

    Bob: Good question. I’m just citing peirushim, and don’t claim to have all the answers. I assume you are are still workiing from within RAYK’s understanding when asking.

    Thinking off-the-cuff:

    Hakol biydei Shamayim chutz meyir’as Shamayim.

    Retzon YEREI’AV ya’aseh…

    It would seem this latter ratzon is at leached touched by something left to the responsibility of the person himself, not what Hashem placed within us. However, “kol chai” goes beyond people and free will altogether.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Then one of our big jobs is channeling ratzon into yir’ah. But why would HaShem specifically carry out the ratzon of yir’ei shamayim (after all, His much superior will preexists theirs)—because they desire that His will should be manifest?

  8. micha says:

    Bob: Maybe we’re getting to the point of Rabbi Gamliel bei Rebbe’s word in Avos 2:4:
    הוא היה אומר, עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו; בטל רצונך מפני רצונו, כדי שיבטל רצון אחרים מפני רצונך.

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