Why You Don’t Have to be Religious to Pray on Rosh HaShana

02 Sep

There is this funny misconception out there: If you pray, or you have a soft spot for all things spiritual, then you must be religious (or super religious). I laugh at this, because this couldn’t be further from the truth: Religion and Spirituality don’t necessarily go hand in hand (although often times they do).

Remember that girl in your class who was a bit “floaty” ? You know the type – she wore those flowy skirts, was a bit scatter brained – maybe she would wander around aimlessly, or sit under a tree and just stare at the sky, or perhaps drawing pictures…. Her whole aura screamed “spiritual.” I have plenty of friends who are like this. There is this sense that they are “out of this world.” Try to have a conversation about financial planning with a “floaty” person and it will go straight over their heads :).  Now, think of your friend who is the exact opposite. The down to earth, very practical and logical, who has to SEE things before they BELIEVE them type of person. I have a good friend who readily admits that although she keeps the Torah and MItzvos; she’ll don the sheitel, and wear the tzniyus clothes, but by golly she never feels the “spirituality” of it all and she just can’t wrap her head around anything esoteric.

Judaism & Spirituality are Intrinsically Connected

In reality it can be difficult to be a religious Jewish person and NOT be connected to the spiritual realm because we are constantly connected with it. Simply put, how can we “justify” some of the cooky and weird Mitzvos that we do UNLESS we know there is a spiritual manifestation and “spark” which needs elevating and therefore we do them regardless of our comprehension.

Ok, now that I’ve rambled a bit … lets get back to our question of the hour, namely why praying on Rosh HaShana (or any other time for that matter) has nothing to do with whether or not a person is religious.

Is Praying a “physical” or “spiritual” act?

While praying is a physical action… it involves a siddur, our lips, specific prayers – the actual action of prayer is in itself a spiritual thing. Our breath, our words – you cant exactly touch them, can you? Our words are not tangible. Many people believe that the point of praying is to simply ask G-d for things we want or need. Such as praying for well being, financial security – ya know – all the good stuff. But what if you’re not religious? What if you don’t believe in all this “stuff?” What if you really don’t care about the holidays or any of the mitzvos and for lack of better words you just “couldn’t care less?” So then Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are just any other days right? Well, that’s why I’m here to say that you don’t need to be religious to pray. You don’t need to “care” to pray … and you don’t need to understand anything to pray.

Because all you need in prayer is your heart.

The word tefilah comes from the word pellel which means “to judge.” When we pray – we close ourselves off from our surroundings – similar to when we meditate – and is a time of self-evaluation, self-judgment, and introspection. When we take the time to focus on ourselves and go “within ourselves” we are able to see not only what we need, but see who we really are:  our faults, are qualities. It is a self-assessment process that happens ONLY through tefilah.

On another level, in another translation, tefilah means “attachment.” When we pray there are only two things in the universe, G-d and ourselves. Prayer is the process by which we look and focus on ourselves, and by “attaching” to G-d, we essentially raise ourselves above the whole succession of life that prevails during the rest of the day.

For me, prayer is about connecting our heart and our entire beings to something higher. It’s not about what mitzvos you did or didn’t do. It’s not about how long your davening is, or which siddur you use. Whether you daven in the comfort of your bedroom, or if you go to Shul. It’s about the connection. When we pray there’s just You and Me – no one else. Everything simply falls away – and just the essence is there.

So do you need to be religious to pray? I think not.

Give credit where credit is due: I’d like to thank my uncle – Rabbi Sholom B. Dubov for his beautiful lecture that helped me in writing this post. If you’re interested in hearing his full lecture on Why We Pray click here


Posted by on September 2, 2010 in Spiritual Health


3 responses to “Why You Don’t Have to be Religious to Pray on Rosh HaShana

  1. shlomof

    September 3, 2010 at 12:41 am

    There is a fine distinction between “non-religious” and “non-believer”. While you’ve made a clear point why someone non-religious should pray, I can’t see how that would apply to an athiest. If someone feels that when he prays it’s basically a one-sided conversation that someone would not be convinced yet. Maybe your uncle can come up with some wise advice for such someones.

    • mrsduby

      September 4, 2010 at 10:34 pm

      ok Shloimie,
      ive been doing a lot of thinking (and researching) about your question and quandary. Obviously, my article didnt discuss the concept of prayer from an atheistic or agnostic point of view – but it is a good question – so i will do my best to answer. Obviously, this is my personal opinion and dont know what the Rabbis would say.. (i am my own posek ):):)

      so the concept goes like this. While the athiest wont be praying to G-d or Allah – or whomever – there is still a concept of “universal energy.” Surely you’ve heard of The Butterfly Effect – where a butterfly flapping its wings can effect weather patterns in the USA across the world . The basic inyan is that how we think, what we say, how we act – even how we FEEL – all these things have great impact on our personal health, our surroundings and essentially the world at large.

      (hope i havent confused you yet)

      SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO make a long story short – while a person doesnt need to pray to a G-d – the idea of prayer is still very vital and important part of peoples lives. Its similar to when a person meditates on a problem… or similar to when people practice Yoga (which focuses on breathing, meditation, attitudes etc.)

      I hope i answered your question…. so once again – we come back to the same old concept that prayer has NOTHING to do with Religion….. (sure, the rabbonim will put me in cheirim probably 🙂 – but in reality – davening with true kavanah (even sacrilegious kavanah) can do wonders for a person’s mental, emotional and physical health.

      Thanks for reading – and commenting!
      duby litvin


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