Too Many Blessings
I recently spent some time with my friend, the singer Matisyahu (yes, the famous one), and his beautiful family in their tour bus before a concert in Dallas. I was telling his kids a story about the requirement of reciting 100 blessings a day, when Matisyahu raised a concern that unless one is a great tzaddik, it is nearly impossible for a person to truly concentrate on so many blessings every day.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to say a few blessings every day and really focus on them, rather than doing so many? It seems that Judaism prefers quantity over quality.
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
It's a great question, and here’s my answer:
This question is one that I, personally, have grappled with, and has been the source of much discussion among the ethicists of the Jewish Mussar movement, who emphasize self-development and growth, stressing brutal honesty with one's self regarding character traits and areas such as prayer. They grapple with the challenge of spontaneity and emotion, vs. repetitiveness and praying by rote.
This duality comes across my mind almost daily when praying with a minyan, where I often feel like I'm holding on for dear life to the back bumper of a car speeding down the road with my knees banging on the pavement.
[In fact, I nearly never finish my Amidah silent prayer in time to answer the Kedusha recitation with the congregation. I brought the question before the (recently-passed) leading sage of our generation, Rabbi Y.S. Elyashiv: Is it better to speed up my Amidah in order to answer Kedusha? His response: "There are plenty of people answering Kedusha, but not enough praying with concentration. So continue praying at your own speed and let the others answer Kedusha!"]
Why, then, don't these rabbis, who are very practical, recommend we shorten the service or minimize the number of daily blessings from 100 (!) to a few a day, as you suggest?
Imagine a musician who isn't able to muster up enough emotion to play Beethoven's 5th symphony all the way through with full concentration; he always felt he was finishing the second half by rote. (Indeed, Matisyahu told me that he occasionally experiences this feeling while performing a concert.)
Could anyone imagine he could actually shorten the symphony in order to be in sync with his emotions? To shorten or change the notes of the maestro?! That would be musical blasphemy!! Any musical enthusiast would tell him that, although the music would certainly sound better if he’d invest his full emotion all the way through, it's still a concerto that stands on its own right. The complete masterpiece, even without full emotion, is still greatly superior to a modified one that doesn't convey the intention of its composer!
The authors of the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book, were the 120 leading Sages at the time of the Second Temple, the "Members of the Great Assembly." Among them were the last prophets of the Jewish people. They prophetically peered into the deepest secrets of the Heavens and the Torah, seeing how our prayers affect the upper, spiritual worlds and the soul of man. The words they composed were the notes to a grand symphony, the song of the Jewish people. The poetry of the Jewish soul.
It is true that any and every blessing or prayer stands on its own right and is beautiful in the eyes of God. It is not an all-or-nothing deal. To get the complete symphony, however, and to have optimal impact, requires that all the notes together. The challenge is to use those notes to express the emotions of the soul, rather than recite it with lip service only. This is a work of a lifetime; indeed I have seen the world's leading sages, including my mentor Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach, whose blessings and prayers were legendary, endeavoring until his final days to achieve higher and deeper levels of feeling and concentration.
The recommendation of the Mussar sages is that everyone picks something small: one daily blessing, or verse, to be their focal point of concentration in service of God. Only after that blessing or verse (e.g. the Shema) has become part of one's very essence, should one move on to the next one. In this way, every Jew has that level of intense concentration that you seek, but also remains with the entire symphony. And as personal experience has borne out, when one fully concentrates on one section of the prayers, it has a ripple affect across everything one does to serve the Almighty throughout the day.
That effort, that struggle and that achievement are the hallmark of the Jewish people.