Lonely Prayer at the Summit
Dawn was breaking in Tanzania as the Goldsteins reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain on earth reaching up to 5,895 meters (19,341 ft) above sea-level. Months of planning, training and preparation had gone into this trip and it was well-worth the effort.
As Yossi Goldstein looked to the breathtaking view beyond, he took his Talis and Tefillin out of the backpack and prepared for Shacharis (morning prayers).
Over a week had passed since he had last prayed with a Minyan just before takeoff at Heathrow Airport. It was a miracle that a group of Hassidim on the way to New York were there at the right time. It was Monday and they even had a Sefer Torah to read from.
Since then, Yossi prayed alone three times a day, all the way up the mountain. Shabbos was the hardest for him to pray on his own, though he discovered two more traditional Jews who camped next to him all Shabbos and joined him for Kabalat Shabbat on Friday night.
For a moment, a twinge of guilt swept through his heart. Maybe it was a mistake to miss praying with a Minyan for a whole week just for the thrill of climbing the mountain? No Kaddish, Kedusha, Borechu or Torah Reading in seven days.
On the other hand this was the first time the Goldsteins were on vacation in years as a couple without the kids and Rachel was a firm believer in couple activity. She emphatically claimed it would strengthen their marriage and help them through the challenging times they were undergoing lately, and she was probably right, as usual. Still, he had promised himself years ago when they got married that he would always attend Minyan no matter how hard he worked and now he wasn’t keeping his commitment.
The issue of praying alone without a Minyan, whether in a Synagogue or not, is discussed in depth in the Rabbinical literature. In fact there have been well-known Rabbinic figures who traveled the world collecting funds for their impoverished brethren or cataloging the Jewish communities en route to the Land of Israel to provide a guide where hospitality could be found for Jews traveling to the Holy Land (like Benjamin of Tudela). Some disseminated their books or taught in smaller outlying Jewish communities. There were even Sages who went on self-imposed exile for years for spiritual purification, like Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (The Vilna Gaon).
These Rabbi’s unquestionably prayed with a Minyan when possible, but travel time between stops was longer than today and they prayed alone at the roadside or at the local inns in between remote Jewish communities.
Guidelines for a Lonely Prayer
According to my research the guidelines for praying without a Minyan during travel are as follows:
- If you travel for business or health or any urgent personal need and there won’t be a Minyan on the plane, train or bus, then you may pray on your own while in transit.
- If you are going on vacation purely for pleasure, then you should do your utmost to vacation at a site where there will be a regular Minyan, even if you won’t have a Minyan during the journey to your destination.
- If you’re not sure if there’s a Minyan in your area, try GoDaven.com.
- If you need the vacation for your health, whether physical or emotional, for your relationships or for any important personal need, you may pray on your own for as long as necessary.
- If you don’t have a Synagogue at your present location but can reach a nearby Minyan within 18 minutes walk off your route (960-1152 meters according to different opinions), you should do so.
- If you can reach a Minyan within 72 minutes walking in the direction you are anyways heading (approximately 4 kilometers), you should delay praying till you arrive there. This rule is valid only if you don’t pass the latest Halachic time of day for this particular prayer (morning, afternoon or night).
- When you end off praying on your own, it is preferable to pray together with at least one more Jew, if possible. Some Rabbi’s say that one should try to pray with at least two more people as three people together are like a group prayer, which is definitely better than a solitary person praying alone.
- When you pray on your own, it is a good idea to light a candle as it assists you to focus on the spiritual realm.
- It’s advisable to give a coin to charity before prayer, as this helps the prayer being answered more positively.
In summary, Yossi is correct in making the trip up Kilimanjaro despite it being the cause of a lonely prayer, since the journey will be beneficial for his long-term relationship with Rachel. In addition it was also a good idea on Shabbos for him to say Kabalat Shabbat together with two more Jews.
I’d add to this general Halachic framework that according to an account I heard from an Orthodox Jew who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro a few years ago, praying at the summit was an awe-inspiring and uplifting experience for him. It was a prayer he will never forget as long as he lives.
Vayehi Binsoa (pg. 129, 150-152)
Responsa Shevet Halevi (part 6, chap. 21)
Responsa Tshuvot V’Hanhagot (vol, 2 chap. 63)
Responsa Afarkasta D’Ania (part 4 chap. 372)