The beginning of the Book of Samuel tells the story of Hannah — the barren woman from Mount Ephraim, whose prayers at the Shiloh Tabernacle were so fervent, so full of emotion, that Eli the High Priest thought she was drunk.
“Hannah spoke to her heart. Only her lips were moving; but her voice could not be heard.” (I Sam. 1:13)
We learn much about how to pray from this amazing woman. The Sages taught: “'Hannah spoke to her heart’ — from here [we learn] that one praying needs to direct his heart.”
We should note that the Sages did not say one praying needs kavanah, intention; but that one needs lechavein — to direct — the heart. Prayer should engage both mind and heart. The intellect should awaken and direct the emotions.
The verse literally reads that Hannah ’spoke on her heart.’ She stirred her heart’s emotions with her words of prayer. We too should use our thoughts to ‘direct the heart’ when praying. The texts of prayer should awaken within us feelings of love and joy, awe and amazement, gratitude and reverence.
Perhaps even more interesting is how Hannah prayed.
The Sages taught that the Amidah prayer should be recited like Hannah’s inaudible prayer in Shiloh. We should form the words of prayer with our lips, but keep our voices from being heard by others. Why such a quiet prayer?
Rav Kook explained that we need to maintain a delicate balance in prayer. On the one hand, spiritual growth cannot be limited to inner thought and meditative reflection; it must be expressed with all of our powers and abilities. In addition to thoughts and contemplation, we need to utilize our emotions where appropriate, and take action when necessary.
For this reason, we should move our lips while praying. Even in prayer, when we are focused on our inner thoughts and emotions, we need to express ourselves in some external, physical action. We should somehow involve the body, even if it is only by forming the words with our lips.
At the same time, the direction of prayer must remain inward-bound. Our spiritual perfection is rooted in our inner soul, in the depths of intellectual awareness. By not raising our voices in prayer, we chose an authentic service of God, a genuine prayer that is free of any element of outward exhibition. Our prayers are for God alone, the One who examines our thoughts and probes the chambers of the heart.
But if we were to restrict our prayers to the mind and heart, this would indicate a failure to appreciate the importance of action. In order to attain both objectives — a spiritual elevation encompassing all aspects of life, while avoiding external demonstrations of religious fervor — we follow Hannah’s example. We move our lips in prayer, with voices too low to be heard by others.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I on Berachot 31a, V:19-20)