Berakhot 21

Praying again for the very first time.

Today’s daf introduces a unique situation: Someone has already prayed on their own, but they come to synagogue and find that the congregation hasn’t prayed yet. What should they do? Should they pray again or just sit this one out?

Rav Yehudah says that Shmuel says that it depends: If they can innovate within [the prayer] in some way, then they should go and pray again, but if not, they should not pray again.

Shmuel’s insight is innovative in and of itself. Though we often talk about the importance of having the proper intention in prayer (kavanah in Hebrew), innovation — the bringing of new thoughts and feelings to prayer — tends not to be the focus of our prayer concerns. Though the Talmud here is talking specifically about this “extra” prayer, the notion of newness raises an important question for our ritual lives more broadly.

Tradition is so valuable. The sense of meaning it offers is necessary and nourishing. But what about novelty? What are we doing to feel excited and creative? How are we allowing ourselves to be changed, challenged and energized? How can we surprise ourselves?

Shmuel is not talking here about changing prayer. He does not suggest writing a new prayer or changing the prayer practice itself, but rather re-engaging the old experience. He is suggesting the renewal of something within the prayer itself. He is asking us to ask ourselves: Are we just repeating the words of prayer or are we really speaking them? Can we make them feel new?

This demand for newness need not be limited to prayer. For example, we all find ourselves in conversations that can feel repetitive: How are you? What are you up to? How would these standard questions change if we really tapped into how much we care about the other person and how exciting it can be to learn something about someone else’s life. The same conversations can be transformed from small talk to “real talk.” It all depends on our attitude. If we pay attention to the possibility, if we have the desire, the conversation can feel new.

It’s the same with prayer. Even if we’ve prayed a million times before, we can feel like we’re praying again for the very first time.

Read all of Berakhot 21 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 24, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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