Meaningful Tefilla and Children

October 3, 2013, 6:26 pm

Educating our children to lead a life imbued with meaningful tefilla: Directions and Guidelines
Head of School, Rabbi Daniel Alter
As observant Jews, we spend much time engaged in tefilla.  As parents, we want our children to be proficient in tefilla.  In order to achieve this goal, we need to give serious consideration to our role and responsibility as parents in educating our children vis-à-vis tefilla.

The goals of tefilla education:
For tefilla education to be successful, a number of considerations must be taken into account.  The aims of tefilla education are manifold.  On one level, we need to teach our children the mechanics of tefilla.  The more they know about the nature, rules, meaning, and process of davening, the more comfortable they will feel with tefilla.  At the same time, we need to instill in our children a sense of the value and importance of tefilla.  On a deeper level we need to provide our children with the emotional intelligence that allows them to truly engage in meaningful tefilla so that their davening is not just a rote daily recitation of words.  To fulfill all of these tasks is quite difficult and takes a tremendous amount of work and energy.  The potential rewards are vast.  We have the ability to instill in our children the recognition of a gift that will allow them to create a meaningful relationship with the divine for the rest of their lives; the gift of tefilla.

Objective number one: the mechanics of tefilla.

In teaching our children the mechanics of tefilla, we can feel somewhat reassured in the knowledge that we have a partner; our children’s Jewish day school.  Our children begin their day by davening.  As our children reach higher grades, they begin to recite larger portions of the daily davening.  By the time our children are ready for a bar or bat mitzvah they are already davening daily with a minyan and feel quite comfortable in this environment.
Our children do not learn shabbat and yom tov davening in school, however, and that obligation rests upon parents.  In training our children, a sequenced approach where our children learn additional segments of the davening on a gradual basis, is the most logical. Below are suggested guidelines regarding the creation of a sequenced approach to lead our children towards an understanding of the mechanics of tefilla on Shabbat and yom tov.  The goal is that by the time a child is an adult in the eyes of halacha they are in Shul davening with the tzibbur for all of davening.  (Parents will have to decide whether their older children may need a break at times, such as during the Rabbis sermon.)

For boys:

Early stages:
Even when children are young, they can be taught the importance and beauty of Shul.  As an example, the Rema  cites a custom to bring children to kiss the Torah while it is being returned to the ark. 
When children are still relatively young they can be given the opportunity to sing adon olam, yigdal and the entire section of davening from ein kelokeinu and on.  Young children have learned these tefillot already.  If they are shy, have them sing together with friends.  This introduction to tefilla in Shul allows them to participate in a way that builds their self confidence, and allows them to feel like they have a place and a role to play in Shul.  In addition, this section is short enough that they can focus on the davening throughout this entire period of time.

Stage two:  It is often easier for children to start davening at home, where there is more flexibility and opportunity to pause for instruction.  For example, have your child stay home on Friday night and practice davening out loud with his mother.  Once your child is somewhat fluent in Friday night davening, they can begin to “lead the davening” at home, reciting the last part of each paragraph out loud, similar to the chazzan in Shul.

Stage three:
It is best to start working with your child when they are younger so that you can move slowly and steadily towards full immersion in the shabbat davening experience.  With a few years until your child’s bar mitzvah, it is time to begin pacing them so that they will become more comfortable spending progressively longer periods of time davening in Shul.  For most children it is not helpful to start working with them before they are seven or eight.  Teaching them to be inside Shul when they are not yet capable of davening may backfire.  Forcing them to sit quietly during a proceeding that they are not capable of participating in will understandably be challenging for them.  Having children sit quietly during davening when they themselves are not davening, may be an exercise in obedience or kavod beit haknesset, but has could easily create negative feelings in regards to tefilla education.

Let’s use Friday night davening to illustrate how a pacing method would work.
Have your child come to shul and participate in one of the three sections of davening.  You can even let your child choose which section they would prefer to begin with.  If they choose mincha, have them come in for mincha every week for a few months so that they feel comfortable with the davening. Before starting this process, sit with them for a few minutes to explain the davening. In the case of mincha, the explanation will be somewhat straightforward, partly because they are already familiar with the three main components of mincha consisting of ashrei, shemone esrei and aleinu, from school.  Show them that we begin with ashrei, and then kaddish is recited.  Show them how to respond to kaddish.  Review the chazzans repetition, and kedusa so they know what to say at appropriate times, and then show them the kaddish and alenu at the end of davening.
Once they have davened Friday night mincha regularly for a period of time, you can either add another segment- kabbalat Shabbat or maariv, or if you think that they are not yet ready to spend more time in Shul, allow them to rotate so that they now stay outside for mincha but come in for kabbalat Shabbat or maariv for the next few months.  Create a plan for progressive growth, inform your child about the plan, and then just make sure over the years to stick to the plan.
The same methodology should be implemented in regard to Shabbat morning davening and Shabbat afternoon.  Shabbat morning can easily be divided into three parts:  Shacharit, torah reading, and mussaf.  Shabbat afternoon in most shuls, where mincha is followed by seudat shlishit and then maariv can also be divided into two sections- mincha and maariv.
There is also an intermediary level that can be utilized in between the different levels.  For example, if your child is now participating fully in shacharit on Shabbat morning, and is not quite ready to take on a second third of the davening, you may allow them to daven mussaf on their own and then leave Shul.
Be clear with your child from the beginning that the eventual goal is to be davening with the minyan throughout the davening.  Transparency and clarity are important so that your child is not surprised by what he may consider to be unfair expectations.  If he understands from the outset the nature of the expectations, he will be much more willing to participate.
Throughout the process, parents must be vigilant in ensuring that their son is truly davening.  If your son is just sitting through davening, not only are you not accomplishing your goal, but you are teaching him the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.  He is learning that davening means just being present but not being engaged.  It may be worth evaluating to see whether you are expecting him to be in Shul for too long a period of time, in which case he is not capable of concentrating and will just space out. 
An area where children often stumble is when they think that they are saying the words, but in truth, they are scanning the words but not enunciating.  I have told my children that they should recite everything out loud- even shemone esrei.  While halachikally one should recite shemone esrei loud enough to hear it oneself but not loud enough for those around you to hear it, in the case of children, from a chinuch perspective, it is preferable for them to recite the words a little louder so that you can monitor their progress.  It will be easy for them when they get older to begin to daven more quietly. 
Another potential challenge parents must be aware of relates to our children rushing to finish so that they can go back out and play.  This is the reason that the system outlined above works well.  If they know from the outset that they will be in Shul for a certain period of time- say for mincha, there is no benefit to them in their rushing to say the words.  They will be in Shul for all of chazarat hashatz anyway, so they may as well take their time reciting their own shemone esrei.  If however, they are told to daven on their own, and then they can go back out, they may try to daven as quickly as possible. 

Objective number two: instilling in our children a sense of the value and importance of tefilla:
While this is partially achieved in school where daily davening is a regular part of the regimen, and tefilla is emphasized by our teachers through stories, lessons and discussions, the home environment plays an important role.
It is important that parents not make the mistake of relegating the responsibility of tefilla education to the school.  A child who davens every day in school, but does not daven on Sundays, Shabbat, or during vacation is a child who thinks that tefilla is something we do in school but do not do in our “real lives.”  This means that our children should be doing some amount of davening on Shabbat, Sundays and all holidays.
Most important in instilling in our children a sense of the value and importance of tefilla is modeling appropriate behavior.  If our children see us taking davening seriously, they will learn the importance of davening.  If we force our children to stay in Shul during davening, but then spend much of our time in shul talking, what message are we sending our children?  At best, the message that our children learn is that taking davening seriously is important for children but not for adults.  More likely, our children will see our hypocrisy and not take seriously the lessons that we would like them to learn, both in terms of davening, as well as other lessons we would like to teach them. 
In addition, this factor should impact on the Shuls that we choose to daven in with our children.  Even if we are quiet during davening, if everyone around us is talking, the environmental influence will impact on our children.  This means that we have a responsibility to our children to ensure that the environment in our own Shul is one where tefilla is taken seriously.
Consistency is also important.  If we only go to Shuls sometimes, but other times decide to sleep in on Shabbat morning, or skip Friday night or Shabbat afternoon davening, it is hard to instill a sense of importance of tefilla among our children.  If we are not able to attend minyan during the week because we have to be at work early, or need to prepare our children for school, we can take advantage of this opportunity to talk to our children about balancing values in life so they are understanding of the choices we make and the values that underlie those choices.


Objective number three: Creating a meaningful tefilla experience.

This objective is probably the most difficult.  It is hard enough for adults to achieve a meaningful tefilla experience.  Many observant adults understand the value and importance of tefilla, but still struggle to find meaning beyond a sense of fulfillment of obligation in their own tefilla experience. To expect advanced levels of understanding of the complexities of tefilla in our children is unrealistic.  Yet we can give our children a head start in their personal challenge to find meaning in tefilla. 
First, while we are training our children towards a sense of obligatory daily davening, we should also be working on a concomitant emphasis on kavana, which in this case we will translate as proper concentration.  There are, of course, various levels of concentration in tefilla.  On one level, awareness that I am davening to hashem, even if I don’t understand what I am saying is a base level of kavana, and that is a good place to begin with young children.  On a more sophisticated level, a child is able to understand in a general sense what the topic and central theme of each tefilla is.  On a higher level, an understanding of the words being recited is critical to meaningful tefilla.  In this realm, your child’s school will play an important role in supplying a strong Hebrew language curriculum. 
Parallel to these three important goals, a parent can open the eyes of their child to Hashem’s presence in this world.  The higher the level of awareness of this presence, the easier it will be for the child to create a relationship with Hashem. 



For girls

What is abundantly clear is that without proper training, guidance and discipline, our daughters will not be given the tools to connect to tefilla in a meaningful way. This means that much of what has been written in this article applies equally to boys and girls.  Both should see their parents as role models in regard to tefilla, both should be taught to enunciate each and every word, and both should be taught to daven on a consistent basis.
There are two primary areas where tefilla education will differ for girls. 
The first area relates to womens obligations in tefilla.  While women are obligated to daven, the parameters of their obligations differ from men. The nature of these obligations are beyond the parameters of this article.
The second area where tefilla education will differ based on halachic differences relates to women and tefilla betzibur.
Women are not included in a minyan.   Women are also not obligated to daven with a minyan.  Nevertheless, women do benefit halachically from davening with a minyan. 
This halachic background makes it more difficult to create a definitive and uniform guide for training our daughters in relation to tefilla betzibbur.
I would argue for the following approach based on the realities of our community.  Other communities may have different realities and should speak to their Rabbi for instruction.
The Vilna Gaon, on his way to Israel, wrote a letter to his family instructing them to continue in the path of mussar and ethics.  In his letter, known as Alim Letrufa, he advises his wife and daughters to stay home and not attend Shul.  His rationale is that in Shul, unfortunately, the challenges of jealousy, lashon hora, an overemphasis on clothing and styles, and other challenges create a situation where one the spiritual challenges of attending Shul outweigh the positive benefits.
In America today, where Shul plays such a central role in the development of an individual’s connection to Jewish community, absence from this identity forming experience on a regular basis could prove to be detrimental to one’s spiritual and emotional health.  As such, once one is attending Shul, a lack of fluency in navigating tefilla betzibbur or a lack of understanding of the value of tefilla will lead to exactly the situation that the Vilna Gaon was concerned about; women who come to Shul and rather than entering the sanctuary to daven with a minyan, spend their time engaged in idle chatter and gossip outside Shul.  Unfortunately, there are many communities where this reality is quiet prevalent.
Thus, while one should not push their daughters with the same intensity to attend minyan since it is not obligatory, it should be considered meritorious for our daughters to attend davening, whether on Friday night, Shabbat morning, Shabbat afternoon, or even during the week.  If our daughters are in Shul at any of these times, we should be training them in a step by step fashion to daven in the minyan, similar to the outline described above for boys.  A difference may be our end goal.  We may decide to start training our daughters only when they are a little older and may not necessarily feel a need for them to be fully in Shul by the time they reach bat mitzvah.
Regardless of the halachic differences, tefilla training is a crucial aspect of chinuch for both boys and girls.


Rav Meir , when asked at what point children merit a portion in the world to come, responded “from the time that they respond amen (to a blessing he has heard.)  The Rema  quotes this source in the context of emphasizing the importance of tefilla to our children.  Let us take the task of tefilla education seriously and enable our children to merit their place in the world to come. We can give them the opportunity to create a lifelong relationship with Hashem through daily conversations during tefilla.

Shulchan Aruch 149:1
  While there are numerous halachot to discuss on this issue, I have included sources here regarding two examples to show how important further discussion on this issue is. For the question of women and maariv see Mishna Brura 106:4 who argues that women are not obligated and Aruch Hashulchan 106:5 who disagrees.  For women and kriyat hatorah see Aruch Hashulchan Orach Chaim 282:11, Yechave Daat 4:23, note 1,Mateh Yehuda 282:7, Mishna Brura 282:12 who all feel that women are not obligated in hearing the Torah reading.  This seems to be the mainstream approach.  See Magen Avraham Orach Chaim 282:6 who disagrees.
  See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 55:1
  See Shvut Yaakov Orach Chaim 3:54, Teshuva Me’ahava 2;229, Torah Chesed Orach Chaim 4:6, Heichal Yitzchak Orach Chaim 12:5:9,  Tzemach Tzedek Orach Chaim 19:2, Tzitz Eliezer 9:11, Beit Avi 4:3, Betzel Hachochma 4:19:9
  See Halichos Bas Yisroel volume 1 P. 49. He points to the gemara in Sota 22a where a widow who walked to the Shul of Rav Yochanan, even though there was a SHul closer to her home, received reward for walking to Shul.  See also Rabbi Bleich in Contemporary Halachik Problems who points out that one of the advantages of davening with a minyan is that anyone who prays with a minyan is guaranteed that their tefilla will be listened to by Hashem.  He argues that this would apply to women as well.  He also quotes Yalkut Shimoni, Ekev 871 about an elderly woman who was leading an extremely difficult life.  She approached Rav Yossi Ben Chalafta asking him for a way to hasten her demise. Rav Yossi Bar Chalafta, after learning that she would daven with a minyan every day, advised her to skip the minyan for three days, whereupon she became terminally ill.  Rabbi Bleich explains that she was not asked to stop davening, as women have an obligation to daven daily.  Rather, she was advised to stop davening with a minyan, and we see from this story that she lost the merit of davening with a minyan and passed away.
  Bavli Sanhedrin 110b
  Shulchan Aruch 124:7




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