Lord, Teach Us to Pray! Reflections on the Jewish Prayer Book
I set myself to enjoy my favorite program on the television. With great expectations I turned on the TV, but nothing happened…no music…no picture…not even a commercial! Disappointed, I declaimed the TV worthless, a useless box that offered me entertainment but couldn’t deliver it.
Then I noticed that the television was not plugged in, and I realized that the problem was not with the T.V. at all, but with me, because I had failed to plug it in!
How many of us open the Siddur, the Jewish Prayer Book, seeking spiritual insight, only to find cryptic Hebrew characters forming ancient prayers. In our disappointment we blame the tradition. We call it lifeless…outdated…But is it possible that the problem isn’t the Siddur? Have we unplugged ourselves from the language of Biblical Judaism, from the very faith that brings the prayers to life? Isn’t it time we cried out, Lord, teach us to pray!”1 Perhaps we would find the insight we seek if we reconnect the Prayer Book to its life-giving Source.
The History of the Prayer Book
Many prayers of our Siddur are as old as Solomon’s Temple. The Psalms were the “prayer book” of Israel in the days of the kings and the prophets. The Sh’ma was taught to Israel by Moses himself! However, it was only after the Exile that the prayer service as we know it began to take shape.
Curtain of the Ark (Parochet), Antwerp 1876, Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, London
During the Exile, Jewish people were dispersed all over the world. It was impossible for many Jews to come to the Temple. So the Jewish communities formed assemblies, or synagogues, in which to pray. The priests of each community went up to Jerusalem to serve their course in the Temple twice each year. They brought the sacrifices and offerings of their community with them. The rest of the people gathered to pray in the synagogue at the times when their sacrifices were being offered in the Temple.2 The priests would then return to their respective lands and teach the people the prayers from the Temple. This enabled the synagogue service to develop parallel to the Temple service.
When the Temple was destroyed in 70 C. E., the rabbis decided that the synagogue services might take the place of the sacrifices. The services were named after the sacrifices they were replacing—Shaharit: the morning service; Minhah: the afternoon service; Ma’ariv: the evening service; and Musaf: the additional service.
Each service follows the same basic pattern:
- Psalms and/or preliminary blessings
- Sh’ma, with blessings before and after (morning and evening only)
- Amidah, or Sh’moneh Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions)
- Reading of the Torah (Monday, Thursday, Sabbath and festivals, morning service only, often followed by a sermon)
- Musaf (Sabbath and festivals only)
- Aleinu (praising God as King)
- Mourners’ Kaddish
- Closing Hymn3
This outline has been the basis of virtually all Jewish worship since the time of the Second Temple! Now let’s take a closer look at the main parts of the Jewish liturgy.
“Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” The Sh’ma (“Hear!”) is recited each evening and morning, according to the command in Deuteronomy 6:7 to speak of these words: “when you lie down, and when you rise up.” It consists of three passages from the Torah which contain some of the basic principles of the Jewish faith:
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 declares that the Lord God of Israel is the only God. There is no other. The passage commands us to love Him, to meditate on His words at all times, and to allow Him to rule every aspect of our lives. When we confess the Sh’ma, we do much more than merely state the fact that there is only one God. Our rabbis say that when a person recites the Sh’ma, he takes upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.4 That is to say, he submits himself to God’s sovereign rule and authority. The Sh’ma has been described as the “first and greatest commandment.”5
Deuteronomy 11:13-22 tells us that our health, safety and prosperity—even favorable weather!—are dependent on our love of God, and how we obey His commands. This idea horrifies the “modern” mind! Evelyn Garfiel writes, “This section of the Sh’ma has therefore been omitted from the Prayer Books of several large sections of Jewry.”6 But Moses warns us each time we recite the Sh’ma that we must love and obey God if we want His favor.
Numbers 15:37-41 commands us to wear tzitzit or fringes, on a four-cornered garment (tallit) to remind us to obey all of the commands of God. There are 613 knots tied in the fringes of the tallit, which remind us that we are tied to God by 613 precepts of the Law. This section gives the reason for our submission to God—because He brought us out of slavery in Egypt.
The Eighteen Benedictions
The Sh’moneh Esrei (“eighteen”) is also known as the Amidah (“standing”) because during the Eighteen Benedictions we stand before God as one would approach a king. These ancient prayers, which were set in a prescribed order by the end of the Second Temple period, were offered three times a day in the Temple when the sacrifices were made; now they are the heart of the Jewish liturgy. We praise God for choosing Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the people of Israel, we extoll Him for His gracious care for us, and we exalt Him for His holiness. During the public recital of the Amidah, a prayer called the Kedushah (“holiness”) is added before the third benediction. This is one of the high points of the service. Using the language of the angels we enter into the courts of heaven, and praise God as Isaiah heard the angels praise Him in the Temple: “Holy, Holy, Holy (Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh) is the LORD of Hosts. The whole earth is filled with His glory!”7 Standing in His presence, we humbly ask for forgiveness, healing, provision for our needs, the restoration of Israel and the Temple service, and the coming of Messiah (altogether, twelve of the eighteen benedictions). Our audience with God then closes with words of thanksgiving.
This ancient Aramaic prayer is best known as the prayer that is said by mourners. Actually, the Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, but a proclamation of the sovereignty of God. Those who pray the Kaddish acknowledge that God is in control, and that—even as we grieve over the death of a loved one—we know that God is the Giver of life.
All three of these central elements of the Jewish liturgy declare that God is King of the Universe, and that our purpose in life is not merely to do good but to make ourselves subject to God, to love and serve Him. But why do so many of our people find the prayers lifeless? The answer can be found right in the Prayer Book.
Some Unfinished Business
The fifteenth and seventeenth benedictions of the Amidah are pleas for the coming of Messiah and the rebuilding of the Temple. Now it is presumed that God accepts the synagogue services in place of the Temple sacrifices.8 But if our atonement is secured for us by virtue of our worship, then why do our people fervently pray for the restoration of the sacrifices? Why do we cry out to God daily for a deliverer, for Messiah? It is clear from these and many other prayers that the rabbis felt that prayer replacing the sacrifices was only at best a temporary arrangement—until the Temple is rebuilt or the Messiah comes, or both.
Unfortunately, many Jewish people today are not waiting for Messiah or Temple. Attempts are being made to “update” the Siddur to take this into account. Note the difference, for instance, between the traditional wording of the seventeenth benediction and a “modern” version:
|Traditional Siddur||New Union Prayer Book|
|Accept, O Lord our God, thy people Israel and their prayer; restore the service to the inner sanctuary of thy house; receive in love and favor both the offerings of Israel and their prayer; and may the worship of thy people Israel be ever acceptable unto thee. And let our eyes behold thy return in mercy to Zion. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who restores thy divine presence unto Zion.9||Be gracious, O Lord our God, to your people Israel, and receive our prayers with love. O may our worship be acceptable to you…Let our eyes behold Your presence in our midst and in the midst of our people in Zion. Blessed is the Lord, whose presence gives life to Zion and all Israel.10|
The new versions of these prayers make no mention of the Messiah, the Temple or the sacrifices. Instead they make only vague references to “deliverance” and “acceptable worship,” implying that deliverance is something that would be nice, but that we can live without, and presuming that our present worship is acceptable. This is like taking our disconnected television set, drawing a picture on the screen and pretending that it works! But ignoring the problem is never a solution.
Why, then, should we pray for a deliverer and for the restoration of sacrifices? Because the authors of the Jewish prayers realized that only a sacrifice could atone for our sins. Only when the Messiah comes, and God’s Kingdom on earth becomes a reality will we he able to truly serve Him.
Adapted from the HAGGADAH, Germany, 1460-1470; Five Rabbis of Benei Berak
Meanwhile we pray daily in the Amidah, “O our King…bring us back in perfect repentance unto thy presence” and “Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned.”11 The problem is that sin keeps us from serving God the way He wants us to serve Him. Sin “unplugs” us from the Source of our life—it disconnects us from God. That is why we must pray, “purify our hearts to serve thee in truth…”12 The problem is in our hearts. But there is hope, because God can purify our hearts. The Psalmist says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…” and then, “O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.”13 God must cleanse our hearts, so we can serve Him in truth!
In the Gospel of John, Yeshua (Jesus) makes the bold claim. “the hour is coming, and now is [emphasis mine], when the true worshipers will serve the Father in spirit and in truth.”14 The Gospels offer us an answer to the prayers which our people have earnestly prayed. The Messiah Yeshua has offered himself as the sacrifice that will atone for our sin, purify our hearts and bring us back to God in perfect repentance. Reunited with God, we shall be able to enter into his Kingdom and to worship him in truth. Only in Yeshua can the hopes and yearnings of our people find their fulfillment.
- Luke 11:1.
- Mishnah Ta’anit 4:2.
- See Evelyn Garfiel, Service of the Heart (North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book Co. 1958), p. 51.
- Mishnah Berokhot (Blessings) 11:2.
- Mark 12:28-30.
- Garfiel, p. 88. Note that Gates of Prayer: New Union Prayer Book (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1975), leaves out this section. See, for instance, pp. 57-58.
- Isaiah 6:3.
- Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 8:22; Aboth d’Rabbi Natan IV, lla. See Montefiore and Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), pp. 317, 430.
- Joseph Hertz. The Authorized Daily Prayer Book (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1948), p. 149.
- The New Union Prayer Book, p. 66.
- Hertz, p. 139.
- Hertz, p. 459.
- Psalm 51:10,15.
- John 4:23.