These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Personal Reflection: Memorization

Posted on November 24, 2010 by Shibley

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Memorization is a powerful tool. Usually we associate memorization with preparation for tests. I want to associate it with prayer. For now, I am going to leave aside the potential halakhic problems that may arise from memorizing prayer, which is fair game for a later post, and instead share my own memorization journey.

Last year, when I began learning at Yeshivat Hadar, I had a conversation with one of my teachers about the memorization of prayer, specifically the Amidah. I was staunchly against memorizing the pillar of Jewish prayer (I consider the Shma a statement, not a prayer). I felt as if my own words would be somehow cheapened if they were committed to memory, almost like I would be performing the prayer rite with less than total focus. I felt comfortable with the siddur (prayerbook) in my hand, and I was certainly not going to let it slip from my grasp.

Sometime later, I found myself having unintentionally memorized the Amidah. Simply, if you say something enough times, it becomes easier to recall. One could certainly make the argument that because our prayers are fixed, and the possibility for memorization exists that there is a problem to be found here. I’ll leave that aside for now as well. Finally I decided to attempt to recite the entire weekday Amidah without any siddur assistance. I found that I actually was more focused and concentrated because I did not have the words printed before my eyes. I did not have the luxury of rushing through words or running syllables together. Without a siddur, I had to provide all of the punctuation and enunciation. It was truly a watershed moment.

I don’t want to put forth the idea that the entire could or should be memorized, because there are certainly pitfalls if the davener is not careful. Rather, selective memorization has the potential to be useful, and not just for standardized test preparation.

I would be curious to hear the opinions and experiences of others with regard to Amidah memorization.