Secret of the Circle (part 2)

The Secret of the Circle: The Prayer Circle (Part 2)

Come see the radical meaning and effect of praying in a circle!  In Part 1, we learned from the Ma’or va-Shemesh that dancing in a circle (with Miriam at the Sea of Reeds, and with the young women in the fields on Tu B’Av) signified a consciousness of an egalitarian way of life, a rejection of the dominance and subservience of the hierarchy and patriarchy of those times, and our times.  And what is the significance of praying in a circle? 

When I returned to Judaism in my 30’s, it was to a Jewish Renewal style of havurah, where prayer was typically sitting and standing in a circle (or concentric circles). There was a wonderful sensibility to it, a feeling that we were all included in this community, at the same level, with the rabbi functioning more as a chaver, a friend who guided. We were told, often, to look around the circle, at all the faces of light, Source shining through.  R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman as we called him), founder of the Renewal movement, had named the Renewal communities “P’nai Or” , or “faces of light”. It wasn’t subtle – we were being entrained in a new mode of prayer, indeed, of “doing” Jewish.  One that took advantage of the wisdom of the elders and rabbis, but with a flavor that was wholly egalitarian. (Is it any wonder that the English  word “egalitarian” derives from the Hebrew “egul” – circle?) Wow, how new, I thought. Ah, but actually, how ancient.

 It turns out, people in the earliest synagogues in the land of Israel (Second Temple period) were praying in a circle! (Evidence of this is demonstrated in a 2007 doctorateby Yitzhak Sapir, according to my teacher R. Ebn Leader)[i].  So, in a setting that was outside of the highly formal, hierarchical and patriarchal rituals dictated for service in theBeit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, there were non-hierarchical prayer circles  happening in ancient times. How did these circles morph to the rows and pews and rabbi-up-on-the-bimah that became standard fare for synagogue prayer? 

 By Talmudic times, the rabbis established in what form prayer was to happen, including one’s position while praying: one should be facing Jerusalem.  So if a community is in America, for example, they will all face the same direction – toward the East. Creating lines. But this is not the end of the story.  The Talmud quotes the sages of the Tosefta (Brachot 3)in regard to a blind person who doesn’t know the direction in which to face: 

   (They) should pray toward God in the heavens… Those outside the Land of Israel, direct their    hearts toward the Land…Those in the Land should direct their hearts toward Jerusalem…vthose in Jerusalem should direct their hearts toward the Temple….and those in the Templeshould direct their hearts to the Holy of Holies….[Brachot 30a].

 So, according to the Tosefta, in an attempt to focus all hearts and attention on God’s “place” in the Holy of Holies, those standing south of this will face north, those north of this will face south, those in the east will face west, those in the west will face east.  In this way, all of the people will be, in effect, in one large circle, spanning the earth! The point of this was to have all of the people Israel praying toward one place, the Holy of Holies [Brachot 30a].  Or was it the point? 

The Ma’Or va-Shemesh had another teaching on the circle:  In the Talmud, Ta’anit 31a, the sages remarked that in the future, God will arrange a circle dance for the righteous, and He will be sitting among them in the Garden of Eden. Each one will point and say… “Behold this is our God”. Ma’or va-Shemeshexplains that in a circle all of the righteous with a high level of comprehension will acquire equally the lights of God’s Divinity. God will sit in the center, and all tzadikim will be equidistant from the center pointing at the sublime Light. 

Except in the original Hebrew of Ta’anit 31a, it doesn’t say God would be in the center, rather that God would be among them, among the tzadikim.  And just like the people who are praying toward the Holy of Holies, in a circle, these tzadikimwere all also pointed to people at the other side of the circle.  Facing another face, another face of light.

  I’m remembering Reb Zalman’s explanation of how we could train ourselves to see God in each human face,  probably basing this on the teaching of Naftali Tsvi Horowitz of Ropshitz.[ii]The Ropshitz taught that the four letter name of God is hinted at in the letter aleph, which can be broken down into two yudsand a vavconnecting them in the middle.  [In Gematria], the numerical value of these letters makes a total of 26, which is also the numerical value of the four letter name. This, in turn, hints at the face of a human: the two eyes like two yuds, and the nose between them, like a vav! This is a way in which humans can be seen to be in the Divine image, betzelem (Genesis 1:27).  And even more importantly, the Ropshitz adds that there is a divine light surrounding every person; we are radiant.  In this way, too, we are each indeed (a piece of) the face of the divine.

 Going back to the people of Israel, praying in one global circle as the sages decreed, why, they are praying as if they might know, or someday know, that we are all equal. That we are all a piece of the All, the Source, the divine. For now, whether we pray in small circles in our communities, or whether we participate in the large global circle of prayer dictated by our sages, the circle just might begin to wake us up to reclaim our radiance and know that we can see a piece of divinity in each human face. Maybe someday we’ll point at each other and say, “this, too, is the face of God”. 


[i]בתי הכנסת הקדומים בארץ ישראל לאור המקורות התלמודיים

[ii]Zerah Kodesh,  Shavuot, Vol 2, p 40a.


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