Jewish · slice of life

The Prayer Police

I didn’t cover my eyes for the Shema prayer, which is a declaration that there is one G-d, until I was a freshman in college. I was shocked to see so many people covering their eyes at Hillel during my first Friday night service. Being someone who’s never buckled to peer pressure, I didn’t close mine. Instead, I waited a few weeks to ask someone about the significance of closing the eyes for the Shema. I was told one covers their eyes for the Shema as a way to concentrate fully on the meaning behind the prayer. That wasn’t the custom in the Reform synagogue in which I grew up. However, the reasoning behind covering the eyes made sense to me so I started doing it. However, instead of covering my eyes with my right hand, I opted to close my eyelids.

Fast-forward 21 years. I say the Shema prayer with Isabelle at bedtime. This past year, as part of her first religious school experience, she learned the Shema. We chant it every night using the exact tune and tempo her teacher taught her. Everything was going along swimmingly with our nightly Shema until sometime last week when we were on vacation. Apparently, Isabelle uncovered her eyes one night and found my eyelids were closed, rather than covered by my right hand. She’s been bugging me about covering my eyes ever since. Whatever, I thought. I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing.

This evening, at bedtime, the prayer police got on my case again. “Mommy, cover your eyes.”

So I did. And it wasn’t because I felt pressured. It’s because I wanted to see what would happen if I did. Would Isabelle notice? Because if she did, that would mean her eyes wouldn’t be closed.

I know I was supposed to be concentrating on the prayer (Hence, the reason for the covered eyes), but just before the final word of the Shema, I peeked through my right hand to see what Isabelle was doing. Not only were her eyes opened, transfixed on the wall, but she had her finger over her lips as she sang. Whaaaat?!?!?

Just before I kissed Isabelle good-night, I asked, “Were your eyes covered for the Shema?”

“Yes,” she said.

While it’s possible they were up until that last moment, I kind of doubt it.

I see a conversation in our future — long before bedtime hits tomorrow — about WHY we’re supposed to close and cover our eyes for the Shema. Clearly, she’s been told to do it. And I’m sure her teacher explained why they’re supposed to cover their eyes. However, I think it’s time for a refresher because no one wants to have the prayer police on their case!

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16 thoughts on “The Prayer Police

  1. I can relate! As a child I closed my eyes during prayer (not covered) and then opened them very slowly so I could look through my lashes. Sometimes I had to lift my chin just a bit to change the range of vision…. like no adult noticed (but then their eyes were open if they did). I always wondered why I had to close my eyes when I prayed but look my Dad in the eye when I talked to him. Oh yes, I knew all the reasons, but still wondered. Frankly, I’ve always liked just talking to God, by myself with my eyes open.

    1. Interesting, Alice.
      I’d have no problem with the kiddo keeping her eyes open… I just don’t want to be told how to pray. And perhaps that’s what I (also) need to communicate to her tomorrow.

  2. I’d be curious as to why your daughter wanted you to close your eyes and why she had her eyes opened. I love the way little children think. It’s like the way they paint–often with wild abandon–often in ways we now struggle to (re)learn.

  3. It is always interesting for me to read about your religion and how you support Isabelle in understanding and following it. The detail of eyes closed or open or covered was new for me.The story about you praying together was fascinating – her actions, your reactions, your questions. I like your idea that you will discuss and build on it.

  4. The Prayer Police… Ha! Funny how when kids learn something they often rigidly think it needs to be done exactly the way they were taught, often not realizing the reasons behind it. I’m glad you are taking the time to share your reasons with Isabelle!

  5. Prayer is personal. I remember teaching my children their prayers and the night time rituals that ensued. That was a quiet and peaceful time–until…
    The questions started: Why do we…; How come…; May I…
    We decided that praying didn’t have to be the same for all of us.
    I love your stories about Isabelle. She’s a delight!

  6. Although not as serious, I wrote about why we do things today, too, Stacey. Isabelle is learning that she can test rules to see what happens. Sounds like interesting conversations are coming.

  7. It sounds like your daughter is questioning some of the rituals she’s being taught. That’s a good thing, you’re raising a critical thinker and the world needs as many of those as it can get! 🙂 Great post! Thanks for sharing!

  8. I have always found questions to be the way we figure out what works and makes sense to us. It is not a way of bucking traditions, but more a way of understanding why things are done as they are. I think Isabelle is trying to find her understand.

  9. Your slice took a turn I didn’t anticipate and I loved that as your reader. I thought You were going to say that when you covered your eyes the praying felt different. I didn’t see it coming that you would peek to see what Isabelle was up to. I am thinking she has the most interesting brain… this based on many of your recent slices.She has so much going on up there!

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