“Iyun Tefilah”: Deeper in Prayer

For years, I’ve been looking at the expression “iyun tefilah,” as in the famous passage from Shabbat 127a, where it is translated as “contemplation [or “meditation,” maybe “devotion”] in prayer.” Mishkan T’filah includes this phrase in the morning study passage, a kind of mash-up of Peah 1:1. and Shabbat 127a. (See pp.206-207 in Mishkan T’filah and below.) We often sing, “…v’iyun tefila-a-ah, v’iyun t’fila-a-ah…,” using Jeff Klepper‘s setting for “Eilu Devarim.

Until a recent Talmud class, however, I didn’t realize that “עיון [iyun]” was the same word translated elsewhere as “study,” “learning,” or “investigation.” In some contexts — a class on the prayerbook, e.g., or the 19th Century siddur commentary known as Iyun Tefillah — “iyun” is understood in terms of “study (of prayers).” But translators seem to agree that the phrase in Shabbat 127a means something more like “contemplation” or “meditation.” My People’s Prayer Book translates it as “paying attention to prayer.”

In both study/investigation and contemplation/meditation, the idea seems to be to delve, go deeper: In the former case, it’s into an idea or text, perhaps the idea or text of a prayer; in the latter, it’s into prayer itself.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, Torah study [la’asok; “to immerse in”] is described as a “remedy” for “vexation of heart” in prayer.

I’m not sure what, if any, conclusion to draw from the delving and immersing. But I think it’s worth pondering relationships among prayer, prayer text, and Torah. And I know from my own experience that the more (non-prayer) time and exploration I spend with a particular prayer, the deeper my encounter with that prayer when I’m actually praying.

L’shana tova/a good year

Shabbat 127a:

ששה דברים אדםאוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה, והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא. ואלו הן
הכנסת אורחין, וביקור חולים,
ועיון תפלה
והשכמת בית המדרש, והמגדל בניו לתלמוד תורה, והדן את חברו לכף זכות.

There are six things, the fruit of which one eats in this world, while the principal remains for that person for the world to come. They are: Hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick,
meditation in prayer,
early attendance at the Beit Midrash, rearing one’s children to the study of the Torah, and judging one’s neighbor in the scale of merit.
–adapted Soncino translation.

The “Eilu D’varim” passage in Mishkan T’filah mixes the above text with that of Peah 1:1:

אלו דברים שאין להם שיעור הפאה והבכורים והראיון וגמילות חסדים ותלמוד תורה אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא כיבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם:

These are the things for which there is no measure: the corner of the field [which is left for the poor], the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning. These are the things for which a person reaps the fruits in this world, and gets a reward in the world to come: honoring one’s father and mother, acts of lovingkindness, and bringing peace between people. And the study of Torah is equal to them all.
— translation borrowed from American Jewish World Service]

Here are notes from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) on the Mishkan T’filah passage:

“Eilu D’varim: The Study of Torah is Equal to Them All
“Eilu D’varim: Part 2
“Eilu D’varim: Part 3, Musical Interpretations and Reflections”


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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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