the Baal Shem Tov and Prayer

    September 1998          
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The Baal Shem Tov Teaches us about Prayer

By Ari Kantor

In Europe, three hundred years ago, lived a special person by the name of Yisroel. He lived a very simple life as a very simple Jew. The truth was that he was not so simple a Jew. He was a very special person. He lived in this manner so as not to attract any attention. Although he had a simple occupation and earned a scant living, he spent his time privately pouring over the holy books in seclusion.

After many years he became known Yisroel, the Baal Shem Tov, the master of the Good (holy) name. Because of his teachings a movement began called the Chassidic movement which in a short time enveloped Eastern Europe. Not without detractors, slowly the movement that he started, strengthened the Jewish people. The Chassidic teachings, while based on the deepest and holiest books, were taught to the adherents, not as difficult subjects, but as stories and parables.

One of the stories that the Chassidim are want to tell concerns the Baal Shem Tov himself, who while traveling with some of his students came into a village. They entered one of the big synagogues to pray with a minyan (a group of ten men). Upon entering the large synagogue with it's large group of worshipers' involved in the daily prayer service, the Baal Shem Tov motioned to his followers to leave the synagogue. He explained to his students that this synagogue is filled with prayers

The group then walked to the next house of prayer and entered. Again they found the synagogue filled with men saying their morning prayers. The Baal Shem Tov paused, then motioned for his small group of students to leave. This synagogue, also, is too filled with prayers.

The group then went to the third synagogue. This was a small synagogue with only a handful of men. The Baal Shem Tov entered and paused to feel the tempo of prayer. He told his students that this would be the place for them to pray since this little synagogue is not filled with prayers.

After the prayer service, the students sat down to eat with their teacher. They asked him what was the reason that the he chose not to pray in the first two synagogues. Was it because those synagogues were filled with the prayers and they didn't need more prayers, yet the last little synagogue did not have enough men and prayers?

The Baal Shem Tov replied that it was just the opposite. The first two houses of prayer were too full from the prayers, that is to say that the prayers of the assembled did not go up into the heavens to be deposited at G-d's post box. The prayers remained down in the synagogue and made it too stuffy. The last little synagogue was empty of prayers, meaning that the men who prayed there had elevated their prayers up to the heavens and therefore the synagogue was empty of lingering prayer that did not rise up.

The above is a typical story from the Chassidic movement. The message is simple and elementary: Prayers (and service to G-d, in general) must be sincere. If the prayers are mere lip service, then they are not accepted. The emphasis is on service from the heart; that the heart and the head be in synch. We learn from this story in a graphic and illustrative manner the terrible consequence of insincere prayers.


from the September 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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