Services and Prayer at The
The Chasidic View of Prayer
A wholesome and relevant prayer experience is
crucial for us as Jews and as a Jewish people, and yet prayer has become either
unfashionable or a lost art.
Prayer, termed “Service of the Heart”, at once both intimate or personal,
and yet public and communal, has always been a key pillar of the Chasidic world.
As with the role and focus of the Rabbi versus that of The Rebbe, and the
differences between a regular synagogue and a Rebbe’s Beis Medrash, so too
there are also significant differences between the traditional and the Chasidic
view of prayer and services.
One time the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples chanced upon an abandoned
synagogue as the time for Minchah prayer arrived, and they decided to pray
there. The disciples opened the door and stood aside to allow their master to be
the first to enter.
The holy Baal Shem Tov was about to step into the shul when he stopped and
would not cross the threshold. The perplexed chasidim summoned up the courage to
ask why, and the Baal Shem Tov replied “I can’t go in because there is no
room for us – it is too crowded.”
Seeing their astonishment, since the shul was of course empty, he explained:
“A prayer, when uttered sincerely and wholeheartedly, sprouts wings and soars
upwards to the Throne of Glory. But those who once prayed here had no kavonoh,
their prayers had no wings and thus collapsed and fell upon one another. The
shul is now densely packed with dead, wingless prayers.”
The Elements of Prayer
In the modern world it is a rare individual who can free his or her soul in
prayer, as we have largely lost the capacity to pray. The essence of prayer is a
ladder which leads from earth to heaven, standing in G-d’s presence and in
direct communication with the Almighty. Chasidic services take a very thoughtful
approach to prayer, emphasizing saying the words with great kavvonoh (focus or
intent), praying with fervor and enthusiasm, concentration and mystical
absorption in the prayer, ecstacy and joy, movement, and dveikus, the blissful
experience of transcendental union with G-d.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that the value of prayer is not contained just in
the literal meaning of the words, but also in the secret, hidden meanings and
kavonos encoded in every single word. Indeed, according to Kabbalah, the primary
element of the prayers is these esoteric formulas, or kavonos, and the secrets
that the person praying must think of, each at his or her own level.
Chasidim also recognize that one cannot simply walk into a synagogue and
immediately pray, any more than a painter can take out his brushes and paint
without thought or preparation. One must focus, concentrate, and “get into the
mood and spirit.” For this reason, and so as not to disturb the nature and
flow of the prayers and service, Chasidic services do not interrupt for
announcements or sermons, much less for conversation.
Chasidic philosophy also opposes the static nature of services, where prayers
become routine or monotonous, and are seen as repetitive and burdensome. By
focusing on kavvonah and deveikus, paying attention to the words (whether or not
one understands their full meaning and kavvonos) and yet rising above them to
keep in mind what and before whom one is praying, the Chasidic service becomes a
vibrant and renewing experience.
Indeed, that is one reason why there is such an appreciation for losing
oneself in the traditional nigun. Nigunim, worldless chants or melodies, are an
inseparable part of Chasidic prayer. Many of the nigunim used at the Beis
Medrash date back hundreds of years and have been passed down to the Rebbe
through the generations from his ancestors, the Baal Shem Tov, R’ Aharon (HaGodol)
of Karlin, R’ Boruch’l (HaKodosh) of Mezbuz, R’ Yichel Michel of Zlotschov,
The nigun also allows anyone and everyone to participate together – from
the tzadik or Rebbe, to the child (or even the adult) who does not even know how
to read, but can nevertheless join in singing, that is praying, a tune or nigun
with holy antecedents.
Indeed, historically the Rebbes would lead prayers on Shabbos and Yom Tov,
and expecially on Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur, not just because the
congregation wished to have as their emissary before G-d the purest or holiest
spokesman, but also because the Rebbe’s prayer was often emotional and moving,
and allowed the congregation the emotional gratification of more closely joining
with their Rebbe and their fellow Jews in song and prayer.
The Chasidic approach to the institution of prayer liberates the spiritual
life rather than confining it to a frozen rote structure, and Chasidic
philosophy believes that prayer can actually change the very course of nature
Unlike the standard synagogue, where the rabbi and cantor risk becoming
performers for a congregational audience, traditional Chasidic services attempt
to unite everyone together to pray as active participants.
Attending services is not praying. Instead of simply watching or reading,
active verbal participation, vigorously answering Amen, and even physical
involvement through swaying back and forth, clapping, singing, and even dancing
(simply linking hands in a circle around the table or Bimah), is encouraged.
Like a person playing a musical instrument very beautifully, which inspired
people to dance in joy, those at a distance who cannot hear it simply see
enthusiastic people making fools of themselves and cannot understand what is
going on, until they come closer and are drawn into the music, the joy, the
nigunim and dancing, and the prayer, themselves.
The Siddur and Pronunciation Services at the Beis Medrash use the traditional
age-old Ashkenazic pronunciation, and strongly resist using the Sephardic
pronunciation of conversational Hebrew language. Not only does this distinguish
between the everyday use of Ivrit or Hebrew as a common language on the one
hand, versus Loshon Kodosh or “the Holy Language” in which we pray on the
other hand, but it is also in keeping with halachic rulings of our sages that
one should scrupulously maintain and follow the customs and traditions of our
The Beis Medrash siddur itself is also of Ashkenazic origin, modified to
Nusach Sfard -- not Sfard, which is for Sephardic Jews, but Nusach Sfard, which
is Ashkenazic but incorporates parts of all the different versions (nuschaos) of
the Jewish prayer service in order to make it universal and inclusive of all
R’ Boruch’l of Mezbuz, the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson and progenitor of
the Mezbuz Beis Medrash, explained that there were thirteen gates in the Beis
Hamikdosh (Temple) both on earth and in Heaven – twelve gates corresponding to
a gate for each tribe, and a thirteenth for those who did not know their tribe.
The prayers of each Jew enters into Heaven through each of these respective
gates. For those who did not know their tribe or particular prayer nusach, a
siddur was compiled combining each nusach, and thus in these times, where the
tribes are unknown, this nusach, and this Siddur, is appropriate for every
The traditions of pronunciation, nusach, and nigunim are zealously guarded at
the Beis Medrash to maintain the authenticity and efficacy of the prayers and
the service. It is for these reasons that a casual first-time guest or visitor
is usually not called upon to act as Sholiach Tzibur leading the congregation in
prayer, until he has at least a passing familiarity with the traditional
Chasidic nusach and nigunim, if not the specific customs and nigunim of The
Zvhil - Mezbuz Beis Medrash.
Shabbos at The Beis Medrash
Shabbos morning at the Beis Medrash traditionally concludes with a more
relaxed and social gathering upstairs, where, following the rousing Mezbuz nigun,
The Rebbe says Kiddush, the mezonos blessing, distributes cake, and then gives a
brief D’var Torah.
This “middle” of the three Shabbos services is surrounded by the more
solemn and holy Friday evening service greeting the holiness of Shabbos, and,
following Minchah, the holiest mystical final Sholosh Seudos (third meal) at
sundown on Saturday as Shabbos departs.
Friday evening services conclude with the singing of Sholom Aleichem
(welcoming the angels) as The Rebbe makes one circuit around the shul wordlessly
greeting each person. Sholosh Seudos, which is eaten in silence as The Rebbe
focuses on kavvonos and meticulously following the 200-year-old mystical
procedures passed down to him from his ancestor The Baal Shem Tov, concludes
with the holy Zlotschover nigun, originally sung at the deathbed of the Baal
Join us in the spirituality of services at The Beis Medrash. We welcome your
questions and your interest.