What it is, and is not
A key element of your relationship with your Creator is to “serve Him with all your heart.” The word serve in Hebrew is avodah, which carries the sense of laborious work. But what kind of labor can the heart do to serve G-d? The classic Jewish answer is that this is tefillah: a labor of awakening the hidden love within the heart until a state of intimate union with the divine is achieved.
That’s why the common translation—prayer—is horribly inaccurate. Prayer implies two distinct entities, an inferior one making a request of a superior. There is another Hebrew word for this: bakashah. Similarly, worship has a word: shevach. Tefillah includes both these elements, but is itself neither of them. Instead, communion may be a better word—defined as a joining together of mind and spirit.
Nevertheless, since none of these convey the flavor of “tefillah” for the practicing Jew, the common preference is to stick to the original. Alternatively, daven is used, a Yiddish term related to the same Latin root as the English word divine. In Yinglish, we often use a present participle: davening.
How do I do it?
Anytime you share whatever is on your heart with your Creator—whether praising, blessing, kvetching or requesting—you are davening. It could happen at any time, at any place, as long as it comes from the heart’s genuine concerns and the mind’s awareness of a higher presence.
Traditionally, aside from speaking to G-d whenever they feel the need, Jews daven three times a day—and, whenever possible, together. When Jews were exiled to Babylon, the Men of the Great Assembly saw that the younger generation wanted to speak to G-d as they had seen their fathers and mothers do, but could not find the words. They then institutionalized this praising/blessing/kvetching/requesting into a formal liturgy.
The morning tefillah is called Shacharit, the afternoon tefillah Minchah, and the evening tefillah maariv. The morning tefillah is by far the longest, a weekday Shacharit taking anywhere from 40 to 90 minutes, depending on the day and the dedication of those involved.
The structure of shacharit is designed to carry you up the ladder of tefillah to a state of awe- and love-inspired davening, provided invest the labor of kavanah—a focusing of mind, heart and soul on the words you are saying and, most of all, on the Higher Presence which those words address.
Who do I do it with?
Although tefillah expresses a person’s most intimate concerns, a Jew generally communes with G-d communally. Oneness below is the best way to get the attention of the Oneness Above.
Men, in particular, are required to say their tefillot whenever possible in a quorum of ten—called a minyan. The protocol is very populist and participatory, rich with identity rituals that serve to bond the group.
Women are not obligated to attend communal tefillot, and so their tefillot can be much more personal. Nevertheless, the place and time of communal tefillah is considered optimum to achieve tefillah acceptance.
Why not just meditate?
You can’t commune with someone you don’t know, so knowing G-dis an integral part of tefillah. The Talmud tells us of those who would meditate for an hour before tefillah. The Code of Jewish Lawprescribes pondering “the greatness of G-d and the smallness of man” before every tefillah. Chabad Chassidut is principally a davenology—a system of thoughts to ponder before and during tefillah.
Nevertheless, the halachic consensus is that the mouth must be engaged as well. Two reasons: 1. Speaking the words out loud helps focus your attention.
2. A human being is principally a speaking being. Tefillah brings the speakingness of that being closer to G-d. If you lift up your heart and mind but leave behind your words, you’ve effectively left behind the human being.
Tefillah, Torah, Mitzvah
We described mitzvah similarly to Tefillah—as a connection. Similarly, Torah was described as a sharing of mind. Tefillah is unique in that its connection moves principally in a bottom-up direction, while mitzvah and Torah are principally top-down.
Although we contribute our own ingenuity and creativity, the study of Torah is principally a study of G-d’s wisdom. Although we contribute focus and inspiration, as well as many rabbinic enactments and customs, to the performance of mitzvot, yet a mitzvah essentially means His will, as opposed to your own. The emphasis of tefillah, on the other hand, is our movement towards Him, expressing our own thoughts and feelings in a way that they become a divine act.
Another paradigm: The human being has three modi operandi, namely action, speech and thought. Mitzvot principally occupy our modality of action, while Torah is most concerned with speech—articulating G-dly thoughts in human words. The core of tefillah, on the other hand, is our mode of reachinG-deeper and yet deeper into our inner thoughts, and finding within them G-d Himself.