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Shabbat Parashat Vayetzei | 5763

Ask the Rabbi

Question: Should one daven from a siddur or by heart?
Answer: Halacha takes into account different personal natures and circumstances in dealing with the issue of where one’s eyes should be during davening. As a very strict rule, one’s eyes should be looking nowhere but in a siddur during davening (see strong language of Mishna Berura 95:5). Despite this fact, our rabbis knew that we would not always be able to succeed in maintaining tunnel vision. Therefore, one should not daven opposite colorful paintings or the like, which might distract him (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 90:23). It is even proper to have windows (preferably, 12) around the shul (ibid.:4) so that one who loses concentration can use them to be re-inspired. But the proper choices are between looking in a siddur and closing one’s eyes. Which is better?
In truth, each has advantages. The Sha’arei Teshuva (95:1) and Mishna Berura (95:5) bring from the Zohar that it is important to have one’s eyes closed. On the other hand, if they are open to allow one to look in a siddur this is legitimate (ibid.), although it is unclear whether it is as preferable (see Biur Halacha on 95:2). One of the main matters one should concentrate on during davening is to picture himself standing before the shechina (Shulchan Aruch, OC 98:1). For many people, this is more easily achieved with closed eyes. One is also usually less susceptible to outside influences with closed eyes.
However, there is also another side to the picture. The Mishna Berura 93:2 cites the Ari z”l that it is better to look in a siddur to help concentrate and be exact. This practical idea is perhaps of even greater impact during repetition of Shmoneh Esrei, where concentration is harder to achieve (Mishna Berura 96:9) and when one is a chazan, who is more susceptible to getting confused (ibid. 53:87).
The bottom line is that one should use the system that he has found helps his concentration (Magen Avraham 93:2; Mishna Berura 93:2; Aruch Hashulchan 93:8). (Some people employ different “tricks” to maintain focus and meaning in their tefilla, most of which are fine halachically). There are, unfortunately, communities where people consider one who davens with his eyes closed, a showoff (the halachic term is, yohara). There is value in avoiding causing such feelings (which in some cases may be correct), but one need not change his practice if he has serious difficulty concentrating with his eyes opens, even when looking at a siddur.
A factor which seems very pertinent to our discussion, especially in respect to P’sukei D’zimra and Kriat Shma, is that one should not recite p’sukim by heart (Gittin 60b). However, the Shulchan Aruch justifies the widespread practice to recite large parts of davening by heart by the fact that most people know the words well (Orach Chayim, 49). (See additional justifications for the common practice of leniency in Beit Yosef, ad loc.). On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t hurt most people to look inside during those parts of the tefilla. Consider also that many grammatical mistakes are made during the davening, and careful reading of the text could help rectify some of them.
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is
dedicated to the memory of R’ Meir  ben
Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld o.b.m.

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