In Part I, we discussed the concept of prayer in Jewish thought. Today, we’re going to get into the technicalities of formal Jewish prayer.
So first of all: why do we have formal prayer at all? Why not just say whatever we like whenever we like? Well, the first reason is, as I’ve explained before, to help the Jews maintain a regular use of Hebrew. (As I mentioned, formal prayers are always conducted in Hebrew–with some prayers in Aramaic.) Needing to pray in a group (as I will elaborate later) also forces Jews to live close together, maintaining ties with a community. And having a specific liturgy helps us all focus on the things that are most important to us individuals and as a nation. I would say the main functions of formal prayer are to connect us with one another as a community, unifying us in our service of God; and to institute connecting with God as a regular practice throughout the day, providing a formula and framework for an “effective conversation” with Him.
When I say “formal prayers”, I’m including all the proscribed prayers that you will find in the siddur (or maḥzor–High Holiday prayer book). Will all students please open their prayer books to the table of contents….
Yyyyeah, so, we are not going to cover everything that’s in there. I will describe the basic structure of the prayers and prayer services, building from the “core” of the prayers outwards. Which means, we must start with…
Formal prayers as a daily practice began at the beginning of the Second Temple period, with the composition of the Amidah prayer, also known as the Shmone Esrei. “Amidah” means “standing”, referring to the fact that it is recited while standing. “Shmone Esrei” means “eighteen”, because it was originally composed of eighteen blessings (another was added later), addressing a variety of universal topics. Remember how we mentioned that Jewish prayer is usually structured using the praise-request-thanksgiving formula? So the Shmone Esrei begins with praise: praising God for his treatment of us and our forefathers, for his might and kindness, and for his holiness. Next come the request prayers. We pray for knowledge and understanding; for repentance and being drawn nearer to the will of God; for forgiveness; for redemption; for health and healing; for prosperity; for the ingathering of the exiles; for restoration of justice; for the annihilation of evil and evildoers; for the welfare of the righteous; for the rebuilding of Jerusalem; for the restoration of the Davidic royal dynasty (a.k.a. the Messiah), and lastly, for God to accept all our prayers. Then comes thanksgiving. We thank God for our lives, for “Your miracles that are with us every day”, for “Your wonders and goodness at all times”, and His eternal kindness. Finally, we pray for peace and His blessing in all things, and thank Him for blessing us with peace.
During services, this prayer is first recited in silence, every person to him or herself. We recite it while standing with our feet together, which is symbolic of the angels (who are described somewhere as having only one foot), while facing Jerusalem. At the beginning and end of the prayer, we take three steps backwards, and then three steps forward. There are a number of reasons for this, some of them having to do with the Temple services, but this is how I like to think about it: before the prayer, “we step back” from the material world and then “step up” before the King of Kings. After the prayer, we back respectfully away from our Master and return to the material world. We also bow during certain parts of the prayer, as though bowing before the King.
After the silent recitation, the ḥazzan, the cantor, repeats the entire prayer out loud. This practice was established for those Jews who couldn’t read and couldn’t memorize this (rather long) prayer. They can fulfill their duty to pray it by answering “amen” when the ḥazzan completes each blessing.
Jews are required to recite many prayers throughout the day (most of them blessings), but as a general rule, there are three prayer services that we are required to attend. (And by “we”, I mean men. In Orthodox Judaism, women are exempt from commandments that have specific proscribed times. We are also required to pray, but not necessarily at the proscribed times and not necessarily three times a day.) The prayer services are Shaḥarit (morning services), Minḥa (afternoon services) and Ma’ariv/Aravit (evening services). They were established in memory of the three daily sacrifices at the Temple that corresponded to them. As a rule, men are supposed to attend these services and pray with at least nine other men (in a minyan–a quorum of ten men. In Orthodoxy, women are not counted for this because they have a different “level” of requirement for this particular commandment.) In practice, if they can’t attend a synagogue for whatever reason, they may pray on their own, but certain prayers that are said in a minyan must be omitted.
On Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat, a weekly portion of the Torah is read during the morning services, after the ḥazzan‘s repetition of the Amidah. (More details on the Torah reading here.) On Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and holidays, there is an additional prayer service called Musaf ( meaning “addition”), which corresponds to an additional sacrifice that was offered on those days. It is usually recited right after morning services, as part of the same service.
Composition of the Services
The morning service can be rather lengthy, lasting 30-45 minutes in a synagogue on a weekday and longer on Shabbat or a holiday. It begins with a series of “morning blessings”, thanking God for basic things like eyesight, clothing, being able to walk, etc. Then, there is a series of psalms and other prayers that fall under the shevaḥ (praise) category. Next comes the Shema prayer, which is proceeded and followed by two long blessings. Then comes the Amidah, and depending on the tradition of the congregation, there may be a number of other psalms and prayers read before the service is concluded with a special prayer called Aleinu (“It is Upon Us”), which is about our responsibility to now go out into the world and proclaim God’s glory, and the kaddish prayer (a special prayer in Aramaic about God’s supremacy and holiness. I’ll get back to it when we talk about Jewish mourning practices, because at certain points in the service, only mourners–those who have lost a close family member in the past year–say this prayer).
The Minḥa service is much shorter, consisting only of a few psalms, the Amidah, and Aleinu. Ma’ariv is also short like this, but it includes reading the Shema again before the Amidah, with slightly different blessings preceding and following it. On Shabbat and holidays, the Amidah is different–it includes only seven blessings, not eighteen, because we don’t do request prayers on Shabbat and holidays. Instead there are different blessings specific to the day. This is also true of Musaf. On Shabbat and holidays there are also additional songs and prayers, and certain prayers that are omitted.
I’ve written about blessings before, but there are also a few other prayers we say that are not part of the daily prayer service. One of them is the prayer we recite upon waking in the morning, “Modeh/Modah ani”: “I give thanks to you, living and eternal King, for returning my soul to me. Great is Your faith.” That last bit contains a very deep idea–God has returned my soul to me, not because of my faith in Him, but because He has great faith in me. He returned my soul to me because He trusts that I will contribute goodness to His world and work to fulfill my role here, whatever that may be.
Another prayer worth noting is tefillat ha’derekh, the traveler’s prayer. It is a short prayer for safety we recite upon leaving the city limits. The roads here being as they are, this is a prayer I recite with particular intention and fervor every time I leave town… :-/
Generally speaking, no special equipment or attire is required for prayer; one must be at least minimally clothed, of course, and it is proper to be fully dressed, with our heads covered (hence the kippah), out of respect for the Guy to Whom You Are Speaking.
However, if you ever stumble across a Jewish man in prayer on a weekday, a rather strange sight will greet your eyes:
This is a painting of a man wearing a prayer shawl, a tallit, and phylacteries, tefillin. The prayer shawl is a four-cornered garment, so it has tassles (tzitziyot) at each corner, according to the commandment of tzitzit (described in this post). The stripes of the tallit are what inspired the blue stripes on the Israeli flag–symbolizing the State as the culmination of our prayers for two millennia.
Tefillin is a separate commandment, mentioned in the Torah a number of times, one of which is the Shema prayer: “You shall bind [the words of the Torah] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as a reminder between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8) So that’s what those little black boxes are. They are leather boxes that contain parchment scrolls, on which four passages from the Torah are inscribed–two from Exodus, and two from Deuteronomy, the latter two being the first two paragraphs of the Shema.
The boxes are bound to the body with leather straps: one on the forehead (“between the eyes”) and one on the inner side of the arm–the left arm if you’re right-handed, and the right if you are left-handed. (In the painting above, the “arm tefillin” is hiding under the tallit.) Men are required to put on tefillin every day except Shabbat and holidays. Women are not required because of the same rule mentioned before. We are also not forbidden to do it, but there is a very strong tradition for women not to, and in the vast majority of Orthodox circles, women don’t. I suspect that very slowly, over the next few decades, this will change. In Conservative and Reform circles, women do put on tefillin.
The Torah explains that the purpose of tefillin is to serve as a reminder of God’s intervention in the Exodus from Egypt. Practically speaking, having a physical object connected to prayer on your body helps channel your concentration and maintain an awareness and focus on God.
On Another Personal Note
I shared in my previous post that I sometimes struggle with spontaneous request prayer. I really struggle with formal prayer, too–and always have. It is very difficult to maintain kavana (intention, concentration, and focus) on the same exact words every single day. I find that it’s much easier to connect and feel that the prayer is “doing something for me” when I have a longer space between prayers. Especially with kids around, it’s really a challenge. I get very frustrated when I’m interrupted, and as you full well know, there is no way to be around young kids without being interrupted every 30 seconds. So I tend to rely on the most lenient opinion that women are only required to say one prayer per day, and that it doesn’t have to be the Amidah–just something structured with the praise-request-thanksgiving formula. I know the idea is perseverance, continuing to “show up” even when you don’t feel like it and even when you can’t do it as well as you’d like or should. And obviously, that’s something I need to keep working on. I hope when my kids get older I’ll feel more available to pray regularly. It’s strange; it seems like such a burden when I think about it, but on the rare occasions when I actually pick up my siddur and start to pray, it usually feels like a breath of fresh air for my soul.
I will conclude with this section of Sephardic version of the Amidah:
Hear our voice, Lord our God; Merciful Father, have compassion upon us and accept our prayers willingly and with mercy and favor; for You are God who hears prayers and supplications; and from before You, our King, do not turn us away empty-handed. have mercy on us, and answer us, and hear our prayer. For You hear the prayer of every mouth. Blessed are You, Lord, who hears prayer.
1. Josep sent me some pictures of his room back in November 2006, “to help me get to know him better”. After noting, with amusement, the big Israeli flag hanging over the bookshelf, I squinted at the detail pictured above and was like, “Wait… is that a tefillin bag? And a kippah?! What is a non-practicing Roman Catholic in Barcelona doing with those things?!” He explained that they were gifts from a friend who had traveled to Jerusalem, and after some back-and-forth we figured out that the bag said “tallit” on it. I called this corner of his room his “Judaism shrine”. 😛 ↩
ETA: …And today he was kind enough to provide a more detailed picture of the tallit bag in question: