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
It is an age-old Jewish practice to start a day with gratitude and thanks. The question was raised in a recent study session about why tunes for the earliest of morning prayers tend to be very peppy, while not all of us awaken like that. One associated teaching is that we should approach each day with as much vigor as we have. I no of no sleepier versions, so to speak, so perhaps someone needs to compose a “modah ani for slow wakers.”
Early blessings to accompany the acts of awakening — opening the eyes, putting feet on the ground, dressing, etc. — are found in the Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and included, in various orders and with different forms of address to God, in countless Jewish prayer books. Among the blessings recited earliest in the day are those focusing on the soul, body and intellect. This practice is meant to train the Jew to enjoy nothing — not even the functioning of own bodies or brains — without acknowledging and thanking God.
As discussed in Temple Micah’s first Shabbat session on the siddur, the “modah/modeh ani” prayer came into practice more recently — recent, as in the last few hundred years. It is an odd blessing, in Jewish tradition, because it does not mention God’s name. Leaving aside the reasons for this, the real power of the prayer is in practicing conscious direction of thought upon awakening (or as soon thereafter as possible).
In that spirit, here are some further resources and notes:
Gratitude without God
Gratitude with Coffee: in the Midst of Work, Attending to Others
Gratitude in Tough Times and in Mourning
Here are two musical approaches to modah/modeh ani. One was composed by Cantor Jeff Klepper and is frequently sung at Temple Micah; it’s performed in this video a capella by a mother and daughter. Another is Rabbi David Paskin performing his own composition. There are many other versions, but these are two I like.