Main Jewish Prayers

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The destruction of the second temple in the year 70 C.E. required new modes of worship. Indeed it was then that prayer emerged almost universally as the substitute for sacrifice, with the rabbis actually quoting scripture that would support this contention and transformation. They quote one of the prophets saying “instead of bulls, we will pay the offering of our leaps”. So, the offering of the leaps instead of the offering of an animal.

Rabbinic Judaism, beginning in the aftermath of the destruction, set up a foremost system of prayer. They never denied permission to individuals to pray when they desired, but the rabbis were intent on establishing a fixed framework that would determine when people prayed, where they prayed and what the major components of that prayer would include. The basic frameworks that were established in the first centuries of the common era exist until this very day.

In as much as the prayer took the place of sacrifice, originally there seems to have been two mandatory times for daily prayer. One in the morning and another in the afternoon. These two prayers replaced the two daily sacrifices that were offered up in the temple. There was a morning sacrifice and there was an afternoon sacrifice. At some later stages, a third evening prayer was also declared obligatory by the rabbis. Ultimately, they would tell us in a classic anachronistic style that it was the three patriots, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that established prayer. Abraham the morning prayer. Isaac the afternoon and Jacob the evening prayer.

The Amidah Prayer

All three daily prayer gatherings, as well as those of the Sabbath and the holidays, contained a central prayer comprised of 19 blessings. This major prayer is known in Hebrew as the Amidah, “the prayer said while standing”. It contains 19 blessings that detail God’s attributes. Reviver of the death, dispenser of wisdom, builder of Jerusalem, etc. The concluding one praises God for blessing the people of Israel with peace.

The Amidah projects prayer not merely as a list of praises and requests to God, but as a public declaration of the national and religious aspirations of the Jewish community. I think that a study of Jewish prayer would probably be the ideal way of examining Jewish self-identity. It is critical to know what people aspire to, what they are hoping for.

Shema Yisrael

In the morning and evening service, the Amidah was preceded by the recitation of three chapters from the Torah, from Deuteronomy chapters 6, 11 and 15. These chapters together frequently are considered the ultimate affirmation of the Jewish faith. The opening line of that first chapter from Deuteronomy that I mentioned says: “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God. The Lord is one.” The Hebrew words that open the scripture, Shema Yisrael, determine the name of the prayer. It is known as the Shema prayer.

This prayer assumed an importance far beyond daily prayer. It is possibly the ideal prayer that a person shall recite just as the soul is about to depart. There is a beautiful scripture in the Talmud that describes a rabbi about to be taken out to death. He is reciting the Shema and he gets to the scripture that says you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. He expands the phrase with all your soul, adding “even if it takes your soul”. His disciples are in awe. The rabbi said: “all my life I used to recite this prayer in this way, and I used to ask myself when would this actually be required of me. Now that it is required of me, how can I resist?”. This became the prototype for martyrdom.

In an e-mail sent by the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon on the 12th day of his flight into space, he wrote to the President of Israel the following words: “From space, I can easily spot Jerusalem. While looking at Jerusalem, I pray just one short prayer.” And then he writes the Shema prayer.

The Garments of Prayer

The Shema prayer contains two chapters of the Bible that allude to particular articles. In Deuteronomy, chapter 11, verse 18 says “take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead.” The rabbis understood this scripture to refer to what is commonly known in Hebrew as tefillin. The Greek translation for tefillin is phylacteries, but that is a very unsatisfactory translation. The word phylac in Greek means something that guards, like an amulet that guards against demons. I don’t think that any Jew would be happy with the term phylactories. Tefillin would be much better.

These tefillin are really black leather boxes. Inside these boxes are parchments with bits of scripture from the Bible. One of these is attached to the arm, as the scripture says “you shall put on your arm”. The other one is placed on a person’s forehead.

The teffilin are worn every morning on weekdays at prayer. Together with teffilin, there is another article. Again, one of the chapters of the Shema says that you “shall make fringes on the borders of your garments for all of your generations”. So, a Jew would actually create a garment, which is known as tallit. It has fringes on it. The tallit is worn not only on weekdays. The teffilin are worn only on weekdays, the tallit is worn on every morning service, both on weekdays and holidays and Sabbath.

These are probably the two most outstanding garments that participate in all portions of Jewish prayer.

On a regular basis, there are a number of blessings that precede the Shema, and a number that appears between the Shema and the Amidah. Prior to the two first blessings there is a call to prayer: “Let us all bless God”. People respond. This response is the main portion of the prayer itself. On weekdays and in morning prayers in general, a number of psalms are also recited.