Jewish Prayer – An Overview
I’m sure my good friend Pastor Terry Dawson will not mind me referring (yet again) to the story of how a Christian and Jewish prayer traditions met – in the response of my two daughters when they heard Pastor Terry recite beautiful words of thanksgiving from the heart before a meal at our home.
They heard Pastor Terry thank God for the blessings of friendship and fellowship around the table, the wonderful touring day we had just shared, the beauties of the Land of Israel, and finally, for the food we were about to eat. Amen. Oh, alright Terry, I exaggerate slightly for dramatic purposes, but as I recall it, our girls were quite amazed you went on for quite a while more than we were used to in our own prayer before meals. When the prayer ended, I was just getting up to serve when one of the girls (whose requested to remain anonymous because she was not authorized to speak to her elders in this way) looked up at Pastor Terry and asked wide-eyed: “Did you make that up?”
“Yes…” he responded.
“The whole thing?”
“Wow,” came the response.
In short, Pastor Terry’s pre-dining extemporaneous exaltations of God’s goodness is very different from our traditional our 11-word blessing (including the Amen) – not a word more or less, by the way, for the past 2,000 years or so.
Traditionally, Jewish prayer relies on existing formulations, which have become so powerful over thousands of years that some of us seem to feel less comfortable reciting an original prayer from the heart out loud in public (although silent prayer is part and parcel of our prayer service, see below). My favorite example of an uncomfortable Jewish character unexpectedly called upon to pray out loud, right in front of everybody, is Greg in the film “Meet the Parents.”
But seriously now, in the Hebrew Scriptures,prayer was very much like Pastor Terry’s prayer at our table. Suffice it to look at Daniel’s prayer in Daniel Chapter 9 or Hannah’s prayer in her hour of need (which reminds us of the prayer in Psalm 107:28-30) or Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving (1 Sam. 2: 1-10), so marvelously mirrored in Mary’s words in Luke 1:46-55).
Jewish prayer originated in the heart’s desire of ordinary people over the centuries. In the Talmud the rabbis discussed in detail blessings that individuals might be moved to utter when the spirit moved them. For example, “It is the custom among the people that one beholds a fresh loaf of bread will say ‘blessed is he who created this wheat” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 6, 40a). Although this particular blessing sounds simple and fine (and not that different from the prayer we now say before meals), Jewish sages did not sanction some such blessings. That’s because Jews at the time were living among pagans, and some of these prayers apparently reminded the ancient leaders too much of pagan practice, which they were trying to keep their people away from.
Other ancient passages indicate that worshippers had a variety of texts they could choose from (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 4, 6). Eventually, the sages began to support prayers with fixed wording. They did this, to make sure, in their minds, that people gave homage and glory to God in a dignified, unified way when they worshipped – with not everyone familiar with the same blessings, there might be no one present who could “properly” lead worship, the sages worried (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 50a).
Prayer can be a Call to Act
In Judaism, with its strong component of action (when the Second Temple was destroyed, the sages deemed that along with study of God’s word, prayer and deeds of lovingkindness were to replace sacrifice), prayer also has an element of a call to act.
“Prayer was established by the patriarchs” the Talmud teaches, and calls upon Genesis 19:27 to illustrate this idea. After Lot’s wife had turned into a pillar of salt, and Abraham beheld the smoking ruins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorroah, “Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord.” Rabbi Ari Hart of New York City pointed out in a sermon he gave in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, that only a chapter later (Gen. 20:17), in the strange story of Abimelech falling ill after taking Sarah as his wife, the Bible says: “And Abraham prayed unto God.” If we want to prove that Abraham “invented” prayer, why not go to that verse? Especially because Abraham’s prayer was answered and Abimelech was healed – mission accomplished! Wouldn’t the model of successful prayer? But, Rabbi Hart teaches, prayer comes “out of the depths,” to borrow a phrase from Psalms. In Abraham’s case, it was after God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, after Abraham had demanded “shall not the judge of all the earth do justly” (Gen. 18:25). “Prayer is the place where we, like Abraham, struggle with a God who loves righteousness and justice but allows suffering. Prayer’s place is where we, like Abraham, stand and see the distance between the world as it is and the world as it could be.” Prayer, is a call to action, to make our corner of the world a better place, our service to others, beginning with our loved ones, more meaningful.
Prayer from the Heart
In the Jewish prayer service, we have a special time for prayer from the heart, which we say silently just after we recite what is known as the Amidah which consists of 18 separate blessings. By the way, this is recited once to ourselves and then, when everyone is finished, it is recited aloud by the congregation as a whole. When we finish the silent prayer, the congregation says or sings together the words of Psalm 19:15 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before Thee, O LORD, my Rock, and my Redeemer.*
But, you might ask, doesn’t saying the traditional words over and over again run the risk of making them meaningless? Indeed they can. But our sages, ancient and modern teach that this is precisely the reason we must always try to imbue them with new meaning. It’s like that other frequently repeated utterance – “I love you.” To make the words mean something, we have to work to understand what they mean to us and put them to work in our lives. And sometimes people find that they are in such a spiritual or emotional state that they don’t feel very prayerful.
At those times, if we run out of our own words, there is great comfort in reciting age-old words that help us focus on God’s will – the words of the Psalms.
This is what I did when I once (and thankfully only once) found my life and the life of my husband Arik in real danger. It was when we had taken a safari in Kenya, in the wrong season and on the cheap (luckily, at least God suffers fools kindly). We were caught in a flash flood, and water was rising round our van. The other people had already had to abandon their vans, and there were 17 of us in a van meant to seat 8. The only Psalm I knew by heart was Psalm 23, which I repeated again and again. I then found myself reiterating the first of the 18 blessings. These are the words: “Blessed are You, Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the great, mighty and awesome God, exalted G‑d, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things, who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and who, in love, brings redemption to their children’s children, for the sake of His name.”
In further articles about Jewish prayer I look forward to sharing with you a different prayer from time to time, explained according to the Jewish sources. They are Jewish in the sense that Jewish tradition has adopted them, but universal in that these prayers – in whatever form they come to our lips of remain in our hearts are the poetry and the lifeline of the lives of all people of faith.
Baumel, Avi. The Poetry of Prayer.(Jerusalem 2009).
Hart, Ari. “Of prayer and deeds.” Haaretz, n.d. 2012.
Heinemann, Joseph. Prayer in the Talmud, Forms and Patterns (Berlin 1977).
*Verse number is according to the Masoretic Text. In Christian Bibles the verse is 19:14.