“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
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