The Sages established texts for our prayers in order that all would be able to pray eloquently and for appropriate goals. At the same time, they cautioned that one should not pray tefillat keva — literally, a prayer that is ‘fixed’ or ’set.’
What exactly is this “keva” prayer that we should avoid?
The Talmud records several explanations. The simplest definition is that “keva” means a prayer consisting solely of the prescribed text, without any personal requests.
Others explain “keva” to mean a dry, sterile prayer, lacking heartfelt petitions.
A third explanation is that “keva” refers to an attitude that sees prayer as a burden. Instead of viewing prayer as fulfilling a basic spiritual need, it is merely a religious duty to be discharged.
Most of these explanations describe some quality of spontaneity and personal connection to prayer, but the final opinion quoted in the Talmud takes a completely different approach. This opinion suggests that one should try to pray at the optimal hour for prayer. By making this effort, we demonstrate that we are not just fulfilling an obligation, but that we aspire to pray at a special time of Divine ratzon and favor.
And when is the best time to pray? That may be ascertained from the words of the psalmist:
“יִירָאוּךָ עִם-שָׁמֶשׁ; וְלִפְנֵי יָרֵחַ, דּוֹר דּוֹרִים.”
“They will revere You at sun[rise], and before the moon, for all generations.” (Psalms 72:5)
The best time for the Shacharit prayer is the first opportunity of the day to pray — “with sunrise.” And optimal time for the Minchah prayer is at the end of the day, as the sun is setting — “before the moon.”
According to Rav Kook, there is more to this than praying at the optimal hour of the day. By timing our prayers to coincide with the transition between day and night, our prayer is no longer just an expression of our personal needs and wants. It is no longer keva, bound and limited to our private world.
Prayer at sunrise and sunset goes beyond the boundaries of the inner self, as it experiences the splendor of the universe. It senses the Divine providence and chesed that fills the universe. Prayer at these hours awakens a sensitivity to the majesty of creation. “The heavens recite God’s glory, and the sky declares His handiwork” (Psalms 19:2).
Therefore the psalmist counseled that we should “revere God at sunrise.” Witnessing the constancy of the laws of nature strengthens our awareness of the underlying wisdom in God’s creation.
It is fitting that we draw feelings of awe and reverence from the wellsprings of creation, a universe where every detail articulates the wisdom of its Maker. We should follow Isaiah’s advice:
“Lift up your eyes on high and contemplate. Who created these? Who takes out their host by number?” (Isaiah 40:26)
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I on Berachot 29, I:49)