An Introduction to Chassidic Prayer

By Rabbi David Sterne


We must fold (mark) the pages of the Siddur. We have to recite all the prayers, but we have to fold the pages of the Siddur [to identify the places where it is important to stop, ponder and absorb. In this, prayer is like a journey.] Once, the chassidim used to travel slowly — fourth class on the train or even by foot; now the style is to go by plane…

— from Sefer HaSichot of the Rebbe Rayatz (Rabbi Yoseph Yitzhak Schneersohn), 5706-5710, p. 98


To receive G-dly illumination, it is necessary to work through the blockages presented by the animal soul. This work begins before prayer and continues through the Shema – the quintessential declaration of the Oneness of G-d. Only then are we ready for the pinnacle – the silent shemoneh esreh (Amida) – which is what prayer is really all about.


The structure of the prayer service is designed to take us from the lowest to the highest rungs of spirituality. As the sages of the Kabbalah expressed it in the Zohar: “The ladder – that is prayer.”  The famous ladder that Jacob saw while dreaming on the Temple Mount[1] symbolizes the spiritual ascent from the lowest physical realm to cleaving to G-d on the highest spiritual level. But, how do we do it?  What is the technique?

The technique is actually embedded in the nusach tefilah (“text of prayer”). The rabbis who arranged the daily prayers knew exactly where they were going spiritually when they formulated the words for us to say. And they placed the words in the prayer-book called the Siddur (from the word seder, meaning “order”) so that, by praying the correct words with the correct intention, we can also ascend the four rungs of the ladder of prayer, each rung symbolizing a different world.

While on this journey, it is a good idea to have a map. If we know where we are on the map, then we can better recognize what we see and hear, and we also know how to get to the next stage of our trip. The map of prayer and its correspondences looks like this:


Rung First Second Third Fourth
World Asiya (“Action”) Yetzira (“Formation”) Bria (“Creation”) Atzilut (“Emanation”)
Soul Level Nefesh (action-consciousness) Ruach (emotion- consciousness) Neshama (intellect-consciousness) Chaya (transcendence- consciousness)
Element Mineral Vegetable Animal Human
Fundament Earth Water Fire Wind
Stage of Prayer From Modeh Ani to Baruch SheAmar From Baruch Sh’amar to Barchu From Barchu through the Shema Shemoneh Esreh (aka Amida)


It is good to memorize this map as it will guide us on our journey.

The map helps us determine the places where it is important to slow down, savor our spiritual thoughts, and “mark the page” (meaning, recognize it as a place to linger and return to). One of the mashpi’im (“spiritual mentors”) of Lubavitch once compared prayer to taking a walk in the park. When we take a walk, we do not usually proceed at a constant pace. We pause as we find interesting flowers, plants and wildlife to observe. We spend more time gazing at certain flowers, less at others, and there are many things that we simply note but pass by. The same is true of prayer. The ideas and concepts that come to us, triggered by our learning of Chassidut and our recital of the words of prayer, induce us to spend more or less time at various stages of prayer. So, let us look at a few of the potential “stopping points.”

The first stage of prayer – from Modeh Ani through Hodu until Baruch She’amar – is entirely devoted to acknowledgment of G-d. We see it in the very names of these prayers (Modeh and Hodu are both related to hoda’a, meaning (“acknowledgement”), and we see it in their contents. In fact, there are two kinds of acknowledgment. The first happens when we awaken in the morning and say, Modeh Ani – “I acknowledge.” This we do even before arising from bed and even before washing our hands to rid ourselves of the impurity of death[2] that descended on our bodies while we were asleep. Obviously, it is impossible at this stage to have any real appreciation or feeling for G-dliness. And yet, we immediately acknowledge G-d’s presence. This is what the sages call “general acknowledgment,” or “acknowledgment of acknowledgment.” That is, we don’t even know the entirety of what we must acknowledge; we only know that we must acknowledge that G-d exists and that He brought our soul back into our body, and therefore, we “acknowledge that we must acknowledge.”

The second level of acknowledgment occurs later, at the end of the first stage of prayer. That is when we begin the series of verses with the words Hodu laShem, kir’u bishmo – “Acknowledge/praise G-d, call out His name.”  This acknowledgement is on a higher level as it has a specific target and direction. We actively acknowledge that there is a Higher Authority and to Him we direct our praises. We are not yet stirred by any emotions of love or fear of G-d, nor do we have any understanding of Him; we are still only acknowledging G-d’s existence but with an informed acknowledgment this time, for we are actively aware of G-d and wish to accede to Him. The sages call this level “specific acknowledgment,” since (unlike with “general acknowledgment”) we know to Whom we are directing our prayers.

Notice an apparent contradiction. During “general acknowledgment,” we say lefanecha – “before You.” Even though we don’t know exactly Whom we are acknowledging, we say lefanecha for we are addressing G-d in His very essence. While on the second level of specific acknowledgment, when we theoretically have a target for our acknowledgment, we say Hodu laShem – “to G-d.”  Even though specific acknowledgment is on a higher spiritual level, it is not an acknowledgment of the very essence of G-d, which cannot be defined or described. But upon waking in the morning – when we lack any awareness or appreciation of His presence – we find ourselves before Him, in His essence. That is because only when we lack a defined or limited concept of G-d can we find ourselves “before G-d” – confronting His very essence.[3]

The morning blessings were originally intended to be recited while we are dressing ourselves and preparing to go out to the synagogue. Each of these blessings begins with Baruch Atah HaShem, “Blessed are You, G-d…” and is directed to His very essence, even though we have only recently tumbled out of bed and haven’t yet had our first cup of coffee.[4] So, how can we possibly direct ourselves to G-d.

The same question was asked regarding the Jews as they left Egypt. Only moments before the exodus, they were still sunk in the “forty-nine gates of impurity,” unable to wrest themselves free of their own accord, and yet seven weeks later they were standing in front of G-d to receive the Torah. It was only because the exodus was an event orchestrated by G-d – an act that was executed from Above to below – that it was successful. (Of course, all is driven from Above. However, sometimes the inspiration from Above triggers effort below, which then is responsible for earthly achievements. But in the case of the exodus from Egypt, there was no active participation from below. On the night of Passover the Jews were merely beneficiaries of G-dly largesse, passive players in an act that sprung them out of their limitations.)

A huge blast of G-dly light lifted the Jews out of Egypt, and something similar happens to us every morning. We are not in a spiritual position to appreciate the very high words that we utter, “Blessed are You, G-d, King of the Universe…”  But, with those words, we draw down a huge blast of G-dly energy that takes us out of our morning limitations. The word baruch (“blessed”) is related to the word berech (“knee”); it alludes to the bended knee, the posture we take in front of the King as we utter the words, “Blessed are You, G-d” referring to the ineffable four-letter name of G-d. Thus, we bring a very high light down into the world, enabling us to start the day off right.

But, in truth, the morning prayers – or at least the preparations for them – start at night. King David woke up every night at midnight to say special prayers. According to Kabbalah and Chassidut, the first half of the night (up to chatzot, or “midnight”) is associated with judgment. But the second half of the night is associated with mercy and sweetness, and King David’s prayers accessed that mercy and sweetness. The Talmud tells us that his harp was hung over his bed, and every night at midnight, a north wind would blow through its strings and awaken him to recite the midnight prayers.[5]

The midnight supplications are not a mere adjunct to the rest of prayers, meant only for the extremely pious who are capable of interrupting their sleep in order to pray to G-d.[6] The midnight prayers play an essential role in preparing us to approach G-d in the morning.

According to the great 16th century Kabbalist, the Ari, there are two types of birur (“refinement”) that take place within our animal soul.[7] One type of birur involves removing the bad/unwanted elements from the good/desirable elements. The second type involves separating the good from the bad. As we arise to pray at midnight, we transition from the period of judgment into the pre-morning period of mercy and sweetness. Therefore, our inner work at this time focuses upon refining our negative character traits. Our midnight supplications bring down a high illumination from Above that clarifies the bad within and separates it from the good, and vice versa (this is known as “sweetening the judgment” in Kabbalistic parlance). When that happens, we are left with two kinds of sadness – one is called merirut (“bitterness”), and the other atzvut (“depression”). The bitterness is the result of our perceived distance from G-d. A realistic assessment informs us that we are still far from Him, causing us to feel bitterness about the distance. This is an uncomfortable but positive trait, for it may motivate us to get closer to Him. But depression is a negative trait that must be eradicated. It is associated with discouragement and laziness, and it cannot be tolerated at all, for it prevents us from trying to get closer to the One Above. So, the midnight prayers are all about removing the bad from the good, so that we will be able to enter the morning prayers with a positive attitude and a light heart.

Entering into prayer with a light heart does not contradict one of the other precepts of prayer, which is that we should pray only with a contrite and respectful mind. This comes as a result of the work that we do on ourselves at the midnight hour. Afterward, having achieved the proper level of respect and ego-nullification, we may approach prayer in a positive frame of mind.

The two by-products of the midnight process of refinement are alluded to in the Torah in the section pertaining to the removal of the ashes from the sacrificial altar. We recite this passage – called Trumat HaDeshen – during prayer. The burnt offering of the previous night was still smoldering on the altar when the new morning arrives. So it was necessary to remove the ashes, and clean and prepare the altar for the new morning’s burnt offering.

Today, this corresponds to our prayers. The ashes represent what is left once our refinement process of the previous night is complete. They are the bad/undesirable elements that we still cannot refine, such as depression or laziness. These undesirable elements are removed and placed on the earth next to the altar. Some of the ashes will be swallowed up by the earth – these are the elements that can be absorbed and nullified. But, the rest must be removed from the scene completely – since there is no room for depression and discouragement in the service of G-d. It is the work that we do after the midnight hour that removes the depression and other blockages of our own making, allowing us to begin our spiritual ascent once the morning hour arrives.

Following the Trumat HaDeshen, we recite the Korbanot (“Sacrifices’). One could legitimately ask, what is the point in spending time reciting passages from the Torah concerning the sacrifices during the prayer service? While it is true that we once offered these sacrifices, we now say prayers in their stead, so what function do they serve now?

Part of the answer, of course, is that reciting the Korbanot reminds us of the origins of prayer in the Temple. But in addition, the elements of the sacrifices fit in well with the initial stage of prayer, in the physical World of Asiya. That is, the first and lowest rung of prayer lifts up and elevates our physical world.[8] Therefore, we mention physical objects, of which there were plenty in the process of offering the sacrifices. First of all, there were the minerals that are mentioned regarding the incense offering. Then, there were the grains that went into the mincha[9] offering as well as the wine of the libations, representing the vegetable world. And then, of course, there were the animals themselves, and the humans who sacrificed them. So, all four elements of the physical world were present during the sacrifices. In reciting them, we attempt to uplift the four “kingdoms” – mineral, vegetable, animal and human – as part of the first rung of prayer.

Furthermore, the sacrifices were precursors to prayer. The Torah alludes to this when commanding us to bring the sacrifices. It says, “When you bring from yourselves a sacrifice…”[10] hinting that the real sacrifice is of the animal soul inside each and every one of us. Today, our animal soul becomes purified and elevated during prayer. However, originally a Jew would come to the Temple, offer his personal sacrifice, and he would also pray, requesting G-d to fulfill his needs in whatever words emerged from his heart and came to his mouth. But, as the sages observed that Jewish spiritual commitment was lagging, they added to the required prayers. After the sacrifices were discontinued because the Temple was destroyed, formal prayers took the place of sacrifices.[11] The words of prayer eventually became fixed as established by the Sages of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset HaGedolah).

Possibly the most important sacrifices in the Temple were the two daily offerings (called the Constant Offerings, or Olat Tamid) – one was sacrificed in the morning and the other in the evening, as commanded in the Torah. Chassidic literature explains that no less than the very existence of the universe itself was dependent upon the proper offering of these sacrifices.[12] The priest in the Temple had to maintain precise focus in time, in space and in regard to the nature of the offering; if he failed to do so, the sacrifice was considered unfit (posul). And if unfit, it meant that the entire life-force that animated creation failed to materialize. Similarly, our prayers demand focus and concentration.[13]

The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” is korban, also from the word kiruv, meaning “nearness” or “proximity.” Our prayers were established in place of the sacrifices, and they bring us closer to G-d, in proximity to His holiness. At the same time, the olah sacrifice (“burnt offering”) is entirely for G-d – no priest or other human being eats any part of it.  Similarly, true closeness to G-d occurs when we serve Him for no reason whatsoever – solely out of the desire to be close to Him – then, we are “entirely for G-d.”

About this closeness and proximity to G-d that occurs during tefila, the Ba’al Shem Tov said, “The fact that man remains alive after tefila is supernatural, since as a result of the high kavanot during prayer, he should have expired. This that man remains alive after tefila is not according to the laws of nature, but is rather a great kindness of the One above.”  By way of explanation, the reason that high and spiritual intentions during prayer may bring us to expiry of the soul is because the elevation of the soul during tefila is similar to the burning of the sacrifice on the altar, and its inclusion in the infinite light of the One above.[14]

In order to bring down G-dliness to permeate the world at the time of the sacrifices, it was necessary that all three classes of Jews be present. The Kohanim were known for their quick and quiet precision. It was they who drew G-dliness down into the world from Above to below by offering the sacrifices and performing other services in the Temple. The Leviim were assistants to the Kohanim, and they had the job of singing and playing instruments as the offerings took place; their role was to lift and accompany the holy sparks below to their rightful place in the spiritual realms Above. And it was the common Jews (Yisraelim) who brought the sacrifices from outside the realm of holiness into the Temple to be offered.[15]

(Perhaps it is because all kinds of Jews had to be present when the sacrifice was offered that we take upon ourselves the mitzvah of Ve’ahavta l’reachecha kamocha – “Love your fellow as your own self” – before we pray. When a Jew prays in the morning, even if by himself, he must include himself among all other Jews. In that way, even the furthest of all Jews – those who do not yet know anything about Torah and mitzvoth – are included in our prayers.)[16]

The fact that our prayers were established in lieu of the sacrifices leads to another set of ramifications, having to do with the timing of prayer. Since the morning “burnt offering” could be offered from sunrise until one third of the day had passed, so we may pray the morning prayers from sunrise until one third of the day.  And if for some reason (even purposefully), we fail to pray before a third of the day has passed, we are permitted to pray until midday – just as was the case with the morning sacrifice[17] However, all this does not apply to one who prays at length, accompanied by long meditation. Since he is involved in preparations for prayer, and in fulfilling the necessity requirements to pray with a contrite attitude, it is better that he pray when he is ready. Otherwise, he may end up praying without a proper attitude, and then his prayers will entirely without merit.[18] Moreover, one who prays at length with meditation is free of the limitations that are imposed by praying with a “minyan” – a prayer quorum of ten Jewish men. However, if he is not praying at length with meditation, then he has no excuse to free himself from public prayers with a minyan.[19] Perhaps the explanation is that since prayer with meditation is d’orayta – Torah ordained – it is not subject to the same limitations as imposed by the rabbis when they established the prayers and their laws.

Our prayers correspond not only to the sacrifices in the holy Temple, but also to the architecture of the Temple itself. The three main features of the holy Temple – the azara (or “plaza,” where people prayed and waited for the opportunity to bring offerings), the kodesh (the “holy” area where the sacrifices were offered) and the kodesh hakedoshim (“holy of holies” where the incense was offered and the high priest entered once a year) – are all represented in our prayers. First of all, the pesukei dezimra, or “verses of song” during which we meditate and pray regarding the G-dliness that permeates creation correspond to the azara. Then, we arrive to the blessings preceding the shema and the shema itself – during which we pray and meditate regarding G-dliness that transcends the world – correspond to the kodesh, where G-dliness from beyond nature was brought down by the sacrifices. And finally, we arrive to the shemoneh esreh, corresponding to the kodesh hakedoshim, where we stand in front of G-d in ultimate self-nullification, like a “servant before his master.”[20]

To properly understand the sacrifices, we must know the categories/kingdoms of creation: mineral, vegetable, animal and human. All were present at the time of the sacrifice, and all got a spiritual lift as a result of the offering. The mineral kingdom was present as the salt that was a part of every sacrifice. The vegetable kingdom was represented by the ground wheat offering, as well as the wine libation, both of which were brought along with every animal sacrifice. And, of course, the animal kingdom was represented by the animal that was sacrificed. And the humans that were present at the sacrifice represented the entire human race.[21]

All four categories of creation were uplifted and elevated with the sacrifice. And now it is our prayers that have the potential to elevate the entire world. The mineral within us is our speech; the letters that comprise the words we speak by themselves have no meaning, but when arranged into words and sentences carry a powerful message from us to G-d. The vegetable within us is our emotions, which grow as we pray, just as plants grow. The animal within us is our intellect, which gives us the ability to objectively assess and improve our situation, potentially moving us to a higher plane of existence. This also corresponds to the unique quality that animals have over plants; they can move.

The animal within us is also the animal soul. Left alone, it gravitates toward all that is physical and coarse. But we can sacrifice and burn it, just as we once offered the sacrifice on the altar, and then it turns its great power and energy toward the service of G-d. And finally, our power of speech is what sets us apart from animals; we have the ability to invent and express ourselves creatively, which is beyond even the power of intellect.[22]

Finally, at this stage of prayer, we also recite the list of minerals that composed the incense offering, as well as the recipe for creating the incense. It was offered on the inner (golden) altar, which represented a far higher form of G-dly service than did the outer (earthen) altar. The everyday sacrifices offered on the outer altar correspond to our everyday, thoughtful meditation and step-by-step progress toward understanding G-dliness, and developing fear and love of G-d. This is an orderly process, taking us from one step of intellectual activity to the next, ever higher in the service of G-d, but always within the boundaries of human thought and emotion.

The incense offered on the inner altar corresponds to our inner self – to our undying desire to connect[23] with G-d. There are times when this desire is conscious, but far more often, it is unconscious. Still, it is always present, and has a way of reminding us to connect with Him just as we are losing that connection. That is also why the incense is considered a more spiritual offering than the animal sacrifices, even though it is physical. We cannot touch, feel, hear or see incense, but its fragrance enters directly into the seat of spirituality – the soul itself. Unlike the sacrifices of the outer altar, the incense represents our ability to skip and leap over the limitations of mind and heart, and connect directly to the One Above. We have only limited abilities of intellect and emotion, but the essence of our soul is infinite and unlimited, and that is the type of service of G-d symbolized by the incense offered on the inner altar of the Temple.


Rabbi David Sterne is a prolific author on chassidic thought and has translated many of its seminal works. He resides in Israel and is the director of Jerusalem Connection. To read more of his work and to purchase his books visit  

[1] See Genesis 28:12

[2] Sleep is described by the sages as “one-sixtieth of death.”

[3] See Kuntres Inyanah shel Torat Hachasidut (“On the Essence of Chassidut”), published by Kehot Publication Society, for an exposition of hoda’a (“acknowledgment”) on five different levels.

[4] While eating or drinking to the point of satiation is not permitted before morning prayers (shacharit), it is permitted to eat or drink enough to remove any discomfort that would otherwise distract us from prayers (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 89:4, Shulchan Aruch HaRav 89:5). The general rule: It is preferable to eat or drink something in order to pray, rather than pray in order to eat (paraphrased from the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, in an instruction given to his daughter).

[5] Talmud, Berachot 4

[6] See Sefer Hasichot, Torat Shalom of the Rebbe Rashab, bottom of page 5, and Kuntres Hatefila of the Rebbe Rashab, Ch. 11, page 24 near the bottom.

[7] See Torah Ohr of the Alter Rebbe on Bereishit (Page 10), Sefer Maamarim 5663 of the Rebbe Rashab, Page 51, Be’sha’ah shehikdimu 5672 of the Rebbe Rashab, vol. 2, beg Page 1045, Yom Tov shel Rosh Hashana 5666 of the Rebbe Rashab, beg. Page 393, and many more places

[8] See Sefer Mamaarim 5663 of the Rebbe Rashab, Page 52: “And this is what is meant in the verse regarding the sacrifices, ishei raiach nichoach – “my fire, a pleasant aroma” – corresponding to three elevations from the worlds of BY”A (ishe corresponds to the ascent from asiya, raiach from yetzira, and nichoach from bria…)

[9] Mincha is the term used for the vegetable aspect of any offering, as well as the term used for specific sacrifices (for example, a poor person who could not afford to buy a even a bird to offer in the Temple was permitted to bring a mincha offering of grain) that were composed of grain mixed with oil.

[10] Leviticus 1:2

[11] To begin with, all prayer in the Temple was voluntary, as the real function in the Temple was to offer sacrifices. Nevertheless, the Jews would recite the shema (a Torah obligation) and the shemoneh esreh, as well as offer their sacrifices. However, as the sages observed that the spiritual level of the average Jew was descending, they added to the required prayers; first, they added the blessings preceding the kriat shema, and eventually they added the pesukei dezimra as well.

[12] See Tanya, Kuntres Aharon, Essay 6 (Dovid zmiros karis hehu), Page 320: “And if [the priest] deviated and received the blood with his left hand, for example, or without using the appropriate kosher vessel, or there was some kind of obstacle, then the spiritual ascent of the worlds, as well as their vitality and influx from the infinite One above was nullified…”

[13] Moreover, the prayers of tzadikim (the “righteous”) are what bring spiritual energy into creation, ensuring its vitality and spirituality (see Tanya, chapter 1).

[14] Sefer Maamorim Melukat of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’l vol. 6, p. 93

[15] See Rav Brachia P’tach of the Rebbe Rashab in Sefer Maamorim 5643.

[16] Derech Mitzvotecha of the Tzemach Tzedek, mitzvat Ahavat Yisrael, Page 28B

[17] Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim, siman 89:1, Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orech Chaim 89:2

[18] Igerot Kodesh of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz’l , vol. 14, p.407

[19] Heichal Menachem, vol. 1, p.218

[20] Torat Menachem, vol. 24, pp. 84 and 95

[21] Tanya, chapter 34. The mineral and human categories are not expressly mentioned there, but implied.

[22] Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz’l, Vol. 6, Parshat Yitro.

[23] The Hebrew word for incense – ketoret – is similar to the word kesher, meaning “bond” or “connection.”

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