How should one dress when praying? The Talmud (Shabbat 10a) records two contradictory opinions as to what is appropriate attire for prayer:
|“Rava bar Rav Huna would put on fine shoes when praying, as it says “Prepare yourself to meet your God, O Israel” (Amos 4:12). But Rava would remove his cloak, clasp his hands together, and pray like a servant before his master.”|
Which approach is correct? Should we wear fine, formal attire when praying, or adopt the simple and humble demeanor of a lowly servant?
The divergent approaches of these two scholars reflect the two basic types of prayer. Prayers are either Bakashot, petitions and requests, or Shevach, songs and praises of God. Each type of prayer projects a certain image and influences the soul accordingly.
When we pray for God’s assistance, we are clearly aware of our deficiencies and limitations. God is our pillar, supplying our needs and sustaining life; we depend upon His constant kindness and mercy. When we present our requests in prayer, we are like a servant petitioning his master. Rava would emphasize this humble demeanor by removing his cloak, a source of honor and respect, before praying. We have no reason to be proud of our material state, lacking and inadequate. Furthermore, Rava would clasp his arms together, indicating his helplessness, his state of defenselessness and dependence on God’s mercy.
Thus Rava emphasized the aspect of prayer that corresponds to Yirah, the awe and reverence of a self-effacing servant before his master. Rava bar Rav Huna, on the other hand, stressed prayer as an expression of Ahavah, our love for God. He conducted his prayers in the manner of a loving and favorite son, proudly wearing his finest clothing before his father.
As we sing God’s praises and acknowledge His greatness, the soul is uplifted. We are made aware of the soul’s lofty potential, and the soul becomes more receptive to inquire into the truth of its Maker. While we plumb the depths of wisdom and knowledge, pondering God’s infinity and greatness, our Divine service is based on love. This in turn refines our desires and elevates our actions.
The approach of Ahavah, however, requires caution with regard to one particular pitfall. An individual might mistakenly believe that he has already reached such a high spiritual level that it is no longer necessary to be watchful regarding his detailed conduct. In his mind, minor acts only serve to inculcate proper traits and correct beliefs — which he has already acquired.
Therefore Rava bar Rav Huna quoted the verse, “Prepare yourself to meet your God, O Israel.” Why did the prophet exhort us to constantly prepare? The verse’s underlining message is the infinite potential of the soul for spiritual growth. No matter what level one has attained, it is necessary to prepare for an even higher level. And one must always guard against the increasing danger of falling from one’s spiritual state — “The greater the person, the greater his evil inclination” (Sukkah 52a).
Rava bar Rav Huna would take care to dress in fine clothing when praying. Wearing special clothes raises awareness of the nobility of the soul as it sings God’s praise. But the scholar particularly emphasized his footwear. He wanted to show that even the lowest, most trivial act requires thought and consideration. All of our deeds should match the elevated level of the soul. As King Solomon warned, “Watch your feet when you go to the house of God” (Ecclesiastes 4:17). When you elevate yourself in Divine service based on Ahavah, “watch your feet” — watch out for any misdeed, even the most insignificant, for the ultimate goal is to prepare oneself before God.
Given these two opposing approaches, each based on a different type of prayer and Divine service, what should we do? Pray in simple and humble dress, or in fine clothing?
The Talmud concludes with testimony of how Rav Kehanah would prepare for prayer:
|“When there was trouble in the world, he would remove his coat, clasp his arms together, and pray like a servant before his Master. And in times of peace, he would dress honorably, cover himself with a talit and pray, as it says, “Prepare yourself to meet your God, O Israel".”|
In the end, we need to acquire both awe and love in our service of God. At times we need to restrain ourselves and carefully watch that we do not descend into materialism and improper conduct. But we also need to deepen our love of God by increasing our positive actions. When should we choose the reverent attitude of Yirah, and when the devotional path of Ahavah?
The best advice is to consider the state of society and the world at large. We should see ourselves as part of the greater reality, at least that which is close to us and we are aware of. Thus Rav Kehanah taught that when there is suffering and misery in the world, this is a sign that the world is lacking those moral qualities that come from Yirah, guarding against destructive traits and deeds. In troubled times, Rav Kehanah would clasp his arms together and remove his cloak before praying, stressing the outlook of reverence and awe, like a lowly servant standing before his Master.
But when the world is at peace, it is time to promote positive traits and deeds. Then Rav Kehanah would dress in fine clothing, in order to open the heart and strengthen his good inclinations. With this preparation, he indicated that he sought to gain greater awareness of God’s infinite light and intensify his love for God, like the joyful service of a loving son. Wearing formal attire, he fulfilled the prophet’s injunction for continual spiritual growth — “Prepare yourself to meet your God, O Israel.”
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III pp. 2-3.)