HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Cain’s Prayer and Abel’s Prayer: Struggling with the Challenge of School Tefillah

by Elyasaf Tel-Or Sternberg Issue: Tefillah
TOPICS : Tefillah Pedagogy

This article provides a compelling framework for understanding Jewish prayer in all its beauty and problematics—one that can foster a deep conversation about a school’s vision and aims for tefillah.

To read this article in its original Hebrew, click here.

In many schools that conduct morning services, prayer is a rote obligation; the student tefillah mirrors synagogue prayer in microcosm. School prayer with a fixed time and language has many fine attributes, but it is important to recognize that all too often it comes at the expense of personal, spontaneous prayer emerging from the student’s heart with no fixed framework or codified expression. For example, at times when a student enters morning prayer overcome by emotion, instead of teaching him how to give utterance “from the depths I called the Lord” (Psalms 130:1), we seal his lips with the same fixed words, fluent to the mouth but foreign to the heart of the student.

We tell the famous story of the child who desecrated Yom Kippur by praying with his flute, but we don’t empower our students to turn to God in their own way, to “desecrate” our common prayer—and to raise up the sound of their own unique flute.

Additionally, there is often a yawning gulf between the way we speak about prayer to our students and the way we have them practice it. We speak of prayer as an “experience,” full of personal and individual meaning, whereas in practice we gather students together each morning, having them sit and recite the same ancient words over and over, to the same old tunes. We tell the famous story of the child who desecrated Yom Kippur by praying with his flute, but we don’t empower our students to turn to God in their own way, to “desecrate” our common prayer—and to raise up the sound of their own unique flute.

In my opinion, the problem derives from a lack of a pedagogical discussion on this subject. Before we sit down to pray, we need to start with a conversation among teachers, and between teachers and parents, about the nature of tefillah. What do we think is the meaning of tefillah that we aim to convey to our children and students? What tools should we use if we want to succeed in realizing our vision of tefillah?

“Cain’s prayer” and “Abel’s prayer”

Two distinct forms of prayer have arisen over the course of generations in Jewish tradition. They are as alike as two drops of water, yet as different and distant from each other as east from west, like identical twins that appear the same on the surface but are completely unlike in character. Indeed, when we look inside, beyond the word “prayer” that they share, we discover that they are opposites, even opponents to a degree. Two fraternal prayers, twins, wrestling, competing: Cain’s prayer and Abel’s prayer.

Cain’s prayer stands in place, fixed, steady, like a farmer who works his land. Abel’s prayer strays and wanders, enters and leaves, ascends and descends like a nomad, a dweller of tents. The former, full of splendor, carried down from ages past, neither kneels nor bows to the human spirit. The latter, glittering one moment and the next moment vanishing like smoke, rises up and the next day withers like Jonah’s gourd in the heart of the desert, bursting forth from the human heart. These two forms of prayer alternate and struggle with each other over the heart of God and man.

The moment these two meet and converse like Cain and Abel, conflict breaks out between them, until one subdues the other. And if someone should lose one of these modes of prayer, all that remains is for him to cry out, as God does to Cain: “Where is Abel your brother?” Where are your heartfelt supplications? Or “Where is your brother Cain?” Where is the tradition and stability to balance the personal element of prayer?

In order to deepen our understanding of this conflict, we need to look more closely at the meaning of these two prayers. Cain’s prayer, namely fixed prayer, in Jewish tradition begins in the Second Temple period and the rise of rabbinic Judaism. At that time the matbe’a, the fixed coin of prayer, solidified for various parts of the service, and times were fixed over the course of a day for people to carve out of their busy lives and to approach their Maker with words.

This ancient innovation of fixed prayer at fixed time was not universally accepted. Rabbi Eliezer opposed with all his might this revolution that his colleagues at the academy in Yavneh created: “He who makes his prayer fixed—his prayer is lacking in supplication.” Already back then Rabbi Eliezer warned that fixed prayer is drained of spontaneous, heartfelt feeling—the “prayer of Abel.”

Truly, anyone who has seen the place of God in the lives of young children can’t help but feel great apprehension at the damage caused by fixed prayer. Traditional prayer, prayer from the siddur, transforms the warm, human connection that children have with God into a technical exercise, foreign to the child’s spirit, cold and abstract. In the words of teacher Chayim Harari, from his diary written a century ago:

Yesterday morning I taught the first verse of the Torah to little children: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The little philosophers did not leave me in silence; they asked question after question: Where did God come from? How do we know that He did all this? Who saw Him? Who was watching Him work? Is it true that Abraham saw God? How come I can’t see Him? Why isn’t He here now? And voices cried out in answer: Yes He’s here, the earth is full of His glory. One joked: He’s on the blackboard! Another scoffed: He’s in my ears! I ignored the empty replies; at that moment I felt hurt, seeing God insulted, riding atop the blackboard and suspended in the child’s ear.

But I was consoled, knowing that God is close to the children: He is their friend, companion, they make Him laugh, play with Him… I thought: If I teach the children a blessing or even the most beautiful, shortest prayer, I am fixing their soul, instructing them to speak what they are not feeling and cannot feel… If the child feels a need to speak to God he can speak as he would to a friend; he can say whatever he wants to Him, he can express his thoughts…

The same is true today. The power of morning prayer, which once was composed entirely of poetry, decreases as children grow up, as prayer becomes ever more fixed and text-based. Children lose the warm innocence of speech that is direct, honest and open with God. They become stuck in thinking, as they learn in school, that the meaning of “tefillah” is prayer from the siddur, not prayer from the heart.

A recent conversation I had with one of my students illustrates the way that traditional tefillah education ruins the direct connection between the child and God. One of the girls found it very difficult to pray from the siddur. I spoke to her about the importance of personal prayer and recommended that she pray from the heart. Naturally she was happy with my suggestion, happy with any proposal that would break the routine of school prayer. Right away she searched the contents of the siddur for the entry “prayer from the heart.” When she didn’t find it, she raised her glance to me and said, “It’s not here…”

In contrast to this position that glorifies Abel’s prayer over the tefillah fixed by the rabbinic sages, one might claim the following: It’s true that prayer fixed in time, place and content muddies personal prayer, but it has an entirely different goal. According to the Mishnah in Brakhot 4:5, the sages, standing at a pivotal moment in Jewish history after the destruction of the Second Temple and the growing dispersal of the Jewish people, had in mind a completely different purpose when they created a unified form of prayer:

If [someone prays] standing outside of Israel—he should direct his heart toward the land of Israel…If he stands in the land of Israel—he directs his heart toward Jerusalem…Standing in Jerusalem—he directs his heart toward the Temple…Standing in the Temple—he directs his heart toward the Holy of Holies.

If this passage were not so familiar, we would be astonished at the first line: “Standing outside of Israel—he should direct his heart…” We would spontaneously complete the sentence: “to his Father in Heaven, to God!” The Mishnah teaches instead, “to the land of Israel.” The intention (kavvanah) of the heart, the honest, revealing standing before God to which prayer gives expression, here is changed to kivvun, direction. If the Mishnah had only wanted to explain the direction a person should face, it could have used terms associated with the body or face. Instead the Mishnah chose the heart. The true heart of prayer is the one that turns toward the land of Israel, not toward God.

This passage represents a revolution on the part of the sages. They respond to Rabbi Eliezer as follows: “You are correct—fixed prayer is not supplication. However, from our perspective prayer has an additional aim, perhaps even more important than the feeling of closeness to God: to gather all of the people under one roof.” By making Jews say the same fixed words of prayer, the requests that concern all of the Jewish people, just like standing towards Jerusalem from all parts of the world, the traditional tefillah from the siddur came to serve as a bridge uniting us all, a replacement for our lost geographical unity.

The role of prayer is now to have people, no matter where they are, dedicate a number of minutes out of their day to escape from their “I” and to think of others. To think about the Jewish people as a collective throughout the world, about the state of the Jewish nation, about the land of Israel, about God, about everyone—just not about themselves.

This form of prayer has a profound effect upon our relationship with time. Normally time is “ours,” to be exploited for our own ends. Tefillah obligates us to remove ourselves from our routine, to dedicate some moments to something Other, beyond ourselves. Perhaps this idea helps us to understand the saying of Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba in the Talmud Brakhot 31a: “A person should always pray in a house that has windows.” Namely, one’s prayer should look outside, toward others, toward what lies beyond the self. A house that is shut in is not conducive to tefillah. Tefillah does not at all need to flow from the depths of a person’s heart; it is not a movement from within to without, but from without inward.

The fixed form of prayer comprises an educational tool for absorbing values and beliefs. Tefillah is like the shaft of an arrow directed toward the heart in order to internalize faith, ethics, central mitzvot, etc. Prayer does not need to flow from the heart but to penetrate into the heart; in the words of Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to Genesis 20:7:

Jewish prayer is the complete opposite of what most people consider “prayer.” Not pouring out what’s inside of us, not the expression of the heart’s stirrings—these we call “imploring,” “conversing” etc. Instead—penetrating the heart with the truth that is obtained from outside.

Henceforth declare: Fixed prayer is meant to rouse the heart and revive within it the eternal values that require strengthening and exalted preservation.

Prayer in school

From this theoretical discussion of the foundations of Jewish prayer, we turn our attention to prayer in our schools. We must ask: Toward which prayer do we seek to educate our students? Do we want our graduates to leave with Cain’s or Abel’s prayer in their hand?

This question is critical for schools to answer. We often worry about the tactical questions of how much students “connect” to tefillah, or how relevant they find it. But the fundamental question remains: To which prayer are we educating our students? Do we see prayer as an educational tool for connecting students with the Jewish people and tradition, or do we focus on prayer as a vehicle for forging a personal connection with God?

These questions need to be discussed in the faculty room, among parents and the wider school community, even in conversations between teachers and students. Only with such an open and honest discussion can the form of prayer that is best for the school flourish.

Strengthening Abel’s prayer

One of my recommendations is that alongside Cain’s prayer, the traditional form taught to students, we must consider how to give expression to Abel’s prayer. Many schools give lip service to Abel’s prayer but in reality not much more. Here are some concrete steps to strengthen prayer of the heart in our schools.

In lower grades, when students don’t yet say the entire Shmonah Esrei, they can be taught the blessing “Who listens to prayer” (שומע תפילה) and told that here a person can add his or her own personal prayer to the formula. They can lower their heads, close their eyes and say their own prayer.

In higher grades, when they do say the whole Shmonah Esrei, it is important to continue to emphasize the place for personal prayer in this blessing. One might share the teaching from the Jerusalem Talmud that it is forbidden to read prayer as one would a letter, without introducing something new to it.

At the conclusion of prayer the teacher might request that students find a quiet place to themselves in the school courtyard, where they can address God intimately, silently, saying whatever they want to say. An example can be offered in the chasidic practice of hitbodedut, going into nature to pray alone.

A prayer-drawing studio is appropriate for younger grades when students are not yet capable of expressing themselves meaningful in prayer. The morning can begin with a “personal drawing” in which students depict a meaningful experience or strong feeling that they have. The drawings represent each student’s personal prayer, and by engaging their peers in viewing and understanding their drawings, the students together create a communal prayer.

For older students one can create a personal-writing studio, since their power of verbal expression is greater and drawing appears childish to them. They can be introduced to personal prayers / poems written throughout the ages, and can develop their own powers of expression in a form that resembles a personal prayer.

A melody studio (nigunim) exposes students to a large range of wordless melodies, songs and tunes that express various emotions. These would include tunes that accompany tefillah, with the goal of showing students the power that music has to give voice to the human spirit. In younger grades one might begin the morning with song, allowing them to choose which one in order to demonstrate how their choice expresses the feeling of that day. In other grades students can develop the ability to write their own melodies as a way to refine their personal expression.

Above all, conversation about prayer between teacher and students is an indispensable educational tool for developing Abel’s prayer alongside of Cain’s. For example, when a student approaches a teacher to say that he is overcome with emotions and unable to daven, the teacher can respond that for this day only he can leave Cain’s prayer, go outside and speak to God directly from the heart. Such a response makes a powerful statement about the teacher’s view of the nature of prayer.

All of these suggestions take time—time for teachers to develop them, time for schools to accept them and give them resources to succeed. Some will insist that Abel’s prayer must not infringe upon Cain’s prayer and must find time elsewhere in the schedule. Others will claim that it is essential to carve out time during tefillah for personal expression, while a third group will argue that Abel’s prayer is in fact the school’s main goal. Thus, before launching into a program that fosters Abel’s prayer, teachers and parents together must evaluate the aspirations of the school community for tefillah.


Prayer still presents a major challenge to our school’s educational team. The main lessons I’ve learned are that the conversation about tefillah must be shared among all stakeholders, and it must get right to the heart of the subject—the tension between Cain’s and Abel’s prayer, keva and kavvanah, fixed prayer and personal expression—and not remain on the periphery with all of the concrete issues confronting school prayer. An open, truthful search among teachers and parents, parents and students, and all together—that alone can lead to formulating a clear vision of prayer.

May we merit seeing our students realize the prayer of Rabbi Yochanan: “Would that a person might pray all day long.”

Elyasaf Tel-Or Sternberg is a curriculum writer and serves as the Judaics director at the Keshet School in Mazkeret Batya in Israel. He can be reached at kaholavan@walla.co.il.

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Most day schools are committed to cultivating Jewish prayer, tefillah, as a spiritual practice. In practice, they often find the obstacles formidable: lack of curriculum, knowledgeable and passionate prayer leaders, student interest, awareness of goals, to name a few. Articles here aim to help schools clarify their approach and strengthen the educational bases of school tefillah.

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