Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Artificial Kavana?
A Simple Jew asks:
Do you think there is anything wrong with drinking a cup of coffee before davening Shachris to attempt to improve kavana, or would you consider the use of an artificial stimulant to be less than ideal?
Dixie Yid answers:
I will answer your question the way you asked it, from the perspective of my thoughts and feelings, and not as a halachic answer. There are opinions on both sides of this. The Mishnah Berura holds that only black coffee or plain tea is permitted before davening, while the Aruch Hashulchan holds that coffee with milk and sugar are okay if they are there to make it more filling and palatable so that one can concentrate better during davening. However, you also pointed out to me that it's brought down in Sichos HaRan #277 that "The Rebbe said that he never as much as drank water before his morning prayers. He was greatly opposed to those who drank coffee and other beverages before davening." The bottom line is that there are opinions on all sides of the issues but if anything I say conflicts which someone's rebbe's psak for them, that person should follow that approach, irrespective of anything I or he, himself, thinks.
I personally don't like the idea of being so dependent on injecting a certain chemical into my body if I cannot function without it. Therefore, personally, I do have coffee at seder in the mornings 2-3 hours before Shacharis, but I get decaf coffee so I don't become dependent on the caffeine to wake me up. My main reason for drinking it is to avoid being hungry during learning and davening so I do put (lowfat) milk and Splenda in the coffee to make it taste good as well.
One time, based on something written in Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, I tried drinking the coffee without any sweetener. The idea is to do little things once in a while differently from what one wants to do in order to break the body's hold over the neshama. The problem is that if one lives his life on a daily basis in a way that reflects the unspoken attitude that everything must be done in the most comfortable and physically pleasing way, this can lead to an attitude that could lead one not to choose to keep halachos that one doesn't find comfortable since he's in the habit of only doing what's comfortable. By occasionally breaking one's pattern of doing what's comfortable, he can break this habit and live with the attitude that ruchnius, spirituality, is his standard way of life regardless of his comfort in gashmius, physicality.
However, this attempt at periodic unsweetened coffee was not too successful. It was so unpleasant to me that I must have gagged for about an hour from the taste! Perhaps I gave up too quickly and I didn't daven for success so it might be worth trying again!
My rebbe once pointed out another manifestation of people's dependence on their creature comforts, which have the effect of making one's physical world more permanent and important. He pointed out that people have these favorite mugs that they always have with them every morning and they hang onto them like children hang onto like a security blanket.
The common denominator is that we should remember the lessons of the Yuntif of Sukkos, which is coming up. We must do little things to remind ourselves that our world is only a Diras Arai, a temporary dwelling, a Sukkah. While our true, permanent world, our Diras Keva, is the spiritual world, the world to come. Whether it be with caffeine, coffee, mugs or any other manifestation of our connection to the physical world as our true and real life, it's important to do little things in order to remind ourselves that these are not what life is about.