- a simpler, more natural way

To Pray Alone, or with a Minyan

by Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright © 2002 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.

Question:  Is it better to pray in a minyan, without proper devotion (kavanah) in prayer, or is it better to pray in private, with kavanah (proper devotion)?

Answer:  We must never underestimate the spiritual value of praying with a minyan (prayer quorum of ten men), three times a day for each of our prayers. However, in our many sins, not all minyans focus on a proper, sincere recitation of prayers to ensure that those who are praying can do so with kavanah (devotion). This becomes an especially acute point when we refer to those who pray according to the Kabbalistic tradition (minhag), with the kavanot (meditations) of uniting the upper worlds.

Most Kabbalists, however, cannot pray outside of a minyan of their own because the prayers in non-Kabbalistic minyans are recited too fast, and the Kabbalists do not have sufficient time to perform their meditations. Under such circumstances, we will see that it is actually better for meditating Kabbalists to pray alone, without a minyan, than to pray with a minyan, and not be able to properly perform their mystical meditations.

However, sincerity in prayer is not limited only to Kabbalists. Even those who do not pray according to the Kabbalah must pray with devotion. If the sincere layman cannot find an appropriate minyan in which to express his spiritual aspiration, he might better serve his Creator to pray alone, without the minyan. This view, as will be shown, is firmly established in Halakha (Jewish Law).

Rabbi Ya’akov Katzin, in his Katzini Aretz (O.H. 6, page 42) is one of the Sages who expresses the above opinion. The following is a synopsis of his rationale.

In the Shulkhan Arukh (O.H. 111:3), it states that if one comes late to Synagogue to pray, and finds the congregation already reciting the Amidah, he should not immediately join in with them. First, he must recite the Kriyat Shema, and its blessings afterwards. Only then should he proceed to recite the Amidah.

What we learn from this is that the prayer, “Barukh Atah . . . Ga’al Yisrael” (the Geulah/redemption blessing), recited immediately prior to beginning the Amidah, is considered so important that it is more important that one recite it alone, rather than to immediately join the congregation in the Amidah prayer. Thus reciting Geulah before the Amidah takes precedence over reciting the Amidah with the minyan.

The Shulkhan Arukh (O.H. 89:8) also states that one who needs to rise early in the morning in order to travel, may recite the morning Amidah early from Amud HaShahar (dawn). Normally one must wait until sunrise to recite the Amidah. In this circumstance, one should not recite the Shema (and its blessings) beforehand, because it is too early to do so. One should recite them later at the proper time. In this case, the importance of reciting the Geulah immediately before the Amidah is put aside because of something of greater importance.

The Mishneh Berurah (89:39) explains the logic underlying the ruling of the Shulkhan Arukh. When one is traveling one will not have the ability to properly concentrate on one’s prayers. While traveling, one is often seated, and not able to stand for prayer. Therefore, in order for one to pray standing (the Amidah), and with proper devotion (kavanah), one should recite the Amidah early in one’s home, (without a minyan, and without the Geulah prayer). The importance of kavanah outweighs the importance of reciting Geulah immediately prior to the Amidah.

In the Shulkhan Arukh (O.H. 94:4) it states that one who is riding on a donkey, and cannot descend to stand, and pray should pray where he is at, and face the direction he is traveling. This is true even if someone would be there to hold the animal in the interim. This is also true of one who is traveling by boat or wagon. (The same holds true today when one is traveling by car, bus, or plane). If one is not able to stand and pray, one should sit in one’s place, and pray. Even if one is traveling by foot one can pray facing the direction he is traveling, even if that direction is not facing Jerusalem. This is true even at times when no danger is present.

The Halakha expresses concern that if while traveling one is required to take one’s mind off of one’s destination and business, one will be troubled over the time lost and will, therefore, not pray with proper devotion (kavanah). The proper course of action in any situation like this depends upon the time, the place, one’s level of religious observance, and one’s ability to pray with a clear mind.

We see, therefore, that the requirement to stand while praying is very strict. Nonetheless, in order to safeguard one’s kavanah while traveling, one need not stand to pray. Yet, as we learned above (in O.H. 89:8) standing to pray, takes precedence over reciting Geulah immediately before the Amidah. We also learned (O.H. 111:3) that reciting Geulah before the Amidah takes precedence over praying with the congregation (the minyan).

To sum up, the importance of devotion in prayer exempts one from standing, which exempts one from reciting Geulah before the Amidah, which exempts one from davening with the minyan. Therefore, in brief, the importance of devotion (kavanah) in prayer certainly takes precedence over davening with congregation (minyan). This concludes the rationale as expressed by Rabbi Katzin in his Katzini Aretz.

Rabbi Katzin also quotes the Sha’arei Teshuva (O.H. 52:1) that states that one who normally prays slowly, and with devotion, and who cannot maintain his level of devotion if praying with a minyan should not pray with them. He should rather pray alone. He also quotes the RiDBaZ (3, 472), who states that one should only pray in a place where his devotion, and thoughts will not be disturbed. If this means that one will need pray alone, and not in the Synagogue, then so be it.

Rabbi Katzin, however, concludes that one must make sure that if one does pray alone, that indeed one’s devotion (kavanah) in prayer must be significant. Rabbi Katzin quotes the Zohar (1, 234a) to show that if one were to pray alone without proper devotion, then it would be better for such a one to always pray in a public minyan. The Zohar alleges that God closely examines the prayer of the individual, to investigate its worthiness. This is not so of the public prayers. This, God accepts with less scrutiny.

Rabbi Katzin is not the only one to express the opinion that it is better to daven alone, with devotion, rather than in a minyan without it. Rabbi Katzin’s response to this question was based on the earlier words of Sefer Sha’arei Rahamim (2, 87a).

This view is also expressed as Halakha in Sefer Divrei Shalom, which outlines Halakha in accordance to the traditional observances of the Kabbalists, the Ari’zal, the RaShaSh, and the Beit El school of Jerusalem.

In Vol. 2, O.H. 98:10, the Divrei Shalom is asked the same question as above. Should one who wishes to pray according to the Kabbalistic order do so alone with kavanah and quiet, or pray in a minyan without them? The answer is the same as that expressed above.

Here, however, the Divrei Shalom questions whether praying in a minyan is actually required by Jewish Law or not. He mentions the various opinions of the Sages. Some hold that it is definitely a requirement of our Sages that one daven in a minyan. Others hold that it is not such a requirement (s’nif mitzvah). Yet, others hold that there is no such obligation at all. The Divrei Shalom takes the opinion of the middle group, and agrees that there is an minor element of obligation (s’nif mitzvah) to praying in a minyan.

In conclusion, one who regularly prays with sincere devotion (kavanah), especially those who follow the Kabbalistic meditations, are permitted to pray all their prayers alone, in the privacy of their homes or elsewhere. This permission, however is only when a minyan cannot provide for them a proper environment in which to maintain a level of sincere devotion.

In our many sins, I have heard from numerous individuals that they wish to pray in private because their local minyans are totally void of any spiritual content. During prayers today many people spend more time talking to one another than praying to God. Prayer is supposed to be a special time, when we talk with God “heart to heart.” When we lack this simple, most basic devotion, then our prayers are not prayers at all.

If one sees a minyan where there is such an overt sense of disrespect towards prayer, one should leave that minyan, and go find another. If it is the only minyan in town, then it is better for one to daven alone, with devotion of heart, than to participate in such a public show that lacks all sense of respect towards our blessed Creator.

However, if one finds a good minyan where the members sincerely, and truly devote their time and hearts to God, one should cling to such a group and became a regular member of them. A good minyan might be hard to find, but it is worth its weight in gold when found.

I do not wish to encourage individuals to pray alone. I rather wish to inspire minyans to become places that shine with sincere devotion, and truly elevate above the prayers of its members.
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The Written Works of Ariel Bar Tzadok
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