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Chapter 5: Tefillah — Prayers

Chapter 5: Tefillah — Prayers

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The Three Daily Prayers

A Jew prays three times daily.

Shacharit — the morning prayer

Minchah — the afternoon prayer

Maariv [or Arvit] — the evening prayer

Shacharit was instituted by Abraham, Minchah by Yitzchok and Maariv by Yaacov. Furthermore, Shacharit and Minchah correspond to the daily sacrifice in the Temple in the morning and the afternoon.

The Text of the Prayers

The Shema

The Shema is perhaps the most famous of our prayers. The first paragraph of the Shema is selected from the book of Deuteronomy [6:4-9] and it speaks of:

The belief in one G‑dHashem Echad — G‑d is One.

The love of G‑d with all one’s heart, soul and might.

The teaching of Torah to children.

The importance of learning Torah at all times even whilst travelling.

The command to recite the Shema twice daily, upon arising and before going to sleep.

The mitzvah of putting on Tefillin.

The mitzvah of having a Mezuzah on one’s door.

The second paragraph is from Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and deals with reward and punishment, and the third paragraph, from Numbers 15:37-41, deals with the mitzvah of Tzitzit and a daily mention of the Exodus from Egypt.

The Shema Yisrael should be read twice a day, in the morning and evening. Reading the Shema has become part of the daily prayers. The Shema is also read just before going to sleep. This is called “reading the Shema in bed”.

It is customary to cover one’s eyes with one’s right hand when saying the first verse of the Shema in order to concentrate on the meaning of the verse.

The second verse of the ShemaBaruch Shem etc. — is said in a whisper [except on Yom Kippur when it is said aloud].

The Shmonah Esrai

In days of old, every Jew spoke Hebrew and each individual composed their own prayers. When the Jews were exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple, not everybody was fluent in Hebrew. A group of 120 Rabbis [including such people as Mordechai, of Purim fame] called the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, the Men of the Great Assembly, composed a set prayer or Tefillah called the Shmonah Esrai which was to become the central part of each service. Shmonah Esrai means “eighteen”, because in this prayer there are eighteen blessings [subsequently another blessing was added to make the total of 19 blessings]. Included in this prayer are requests for good health, income, success, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, Moshiach, peace etc. The Shmonah Esrai is also called the Amidah because Amidah means standing, and this prayer is said silently while standing with the feet together, facing Jerusalem.

On Shabbat and Yomtov variations were made to the Amidah to reflect the sanctity of the day. In fact, the first three and the last three blessings are a feature of every Amidah. The middle part varies according to the occasion. The middle part of the weekday Amidah contains 13 blessings, making 19 in total. The Amidah of Shabbat, Yomtov and Musaf of Rosh Chodesh contain one central blessing dealing with the holiness of the day, making seven in total. On Rosh Hashanah there are three central blessings in the Musaf making nine in total.

Because certain people could not read Hebrew, the Rabbis instituted that by Shacharit and Minchah, the Amidah should be repeated by the Chazzan [the leader of the prayers, also known as the Shliach Tzibur] so that all could answer Amen to the blessings. The word “Amen” means “it is true and I believe in it.”

The daily prayers are set out clearly in a book called the Siddur. Siddur comes from the word seder, meaning “order”, because all the prayers are laid out in their correct order. One should always pray out of a Siddur.

Kavanah — Concentration

The most important part of prayer is concentration. One should understand and think about the meaning of the words being said. “Know before whom you stand — before the Almighty King of Kings.” Just as one would address a king with great respect and intense concentration, so too should this attitude be adopted in prayer standing before G‑d. Clothes must be clean and neat, and neither talking nor idle chatter are permitted whilst praying. It is better to say a little with concentration than a lot without. Do not gabble. Each word should be weighed — sincerity is important.

Request

G‑d knows what we need, so why pray? We pray so that we may understand that everything we have comes from G‑d. If we need something, we must automatically turn to G‑d and request it. The Siddur is a Jew’s best friend.

Hebrew

A person should preferably pray in Hebrew. If this is not possible, pray in a language which you understand.

Shacharit

Upon awakening in the morning, the head is bowed to say: Modeh Ani Lefanecha Melech Chai Vekayam Shehechezarta Bee Nishmati B’chemla, Rabba Emunatecha. “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”

The hands are then washed using a cup of water, three times alternately [right, left, right, left, right, left]. This is called Netilat Yadayim (or Negel Vasser in Yiddish), meaning, washing the hands.

After washing and dressing, a number of Berachot[blessings] are made to thank G‑d for our essential faculties of speech, sight, hearing etc.

The Shacharit prayers are structured as follows:

A study of the daily sacrifices

Baruch She’amar

P’sukei D’zimra — Verses of praise [selected chapters of Psalms].

Yishtabach and Barchu

Two blessings before the Shema

Shema — When saying the first sentence, cover the eyes to concentrate. Kiss Tzitzit at appropriate places.

Blessing after the Shema

Shmonah Esrei — Said silently, standing, facing Jerusalem. Knees and head are bowed at opening two and closing two blessings.

Tachanun — A prayer of supplication. It is customary to lean ones head on one’s arm

Ashrei, Uvah L’tzion

Shir Shel Yom — The song of the day.

Ain Kelokaynu

Aleinu — A beautiful summarizing prayer.

Nussach

It should be noted that there are slight variations in the text of the prayers as printed in different Siddurim. A text is called a Nussach. There are three main texts:

a) Nussach Ashkenaz the custom of Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe.

b) Nussach Sephard — the custom of Spanish and Oriental Jews.

c) Nussach Arizal — a text used by Chassidim following the kabbalistic text of Rabbi Yitzchok Luria (who was known as the Arizal)

Minchah and Maariv

Minchah, the afternoon prayer, should be said before sunset.

The structure of Minchah is:

Ashrei [Psalm 145]

Amidah

Tachanun

Aleinu

Maariv, the evening prayer, should be said at night after the appearance of three medium stars.

The structure of Maariv is:

Barchu

Two blessings before the Shema

The Shema

Two blessings after the Shema

Amidah

Aleinu

In some places, where it is difficult to call together a minyan [ 10 men] for both Minchah and Maariv, they can be recited one after another towards sunset.

Minyan

If possible, a person should always pray with the congregation in a Synagogue. The minimum number of people required to form a congregation is ten men [over 13 years of age]. This is called a minyan. Saying prayers with a minyan is far more desirable than praying alone. Communal prayer is accepted immediately. If no minyan is available one must pray alone.

Certain parts of the service may only be said if a minyan is present. These include: Kaddish, Barchu, the Repetition of the Amidah, Kedushah and the reading of the Torah.

The Synagogue

A Synagogue is a house of prayer. Inside a Synagogue you will find the following:

Aron Hakodesh — Holy Ark. The Ark is at the front of the Synagogue where the Sifrei Torah [Holy Scrolls] are kept. The curtain in front of the Ark is called the Parochet. The Ark reminds us of the holiest part of the Tabernacle the Jewish people built in the desert, and later, of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Bimah — Platform. An elevated platform at the centre of the Synagogue from where the Sefer Torah is read to the congregation.

Amud — Lectern. On the right side of the Aron Hakodesh, is a lectern on which the Chazzan [prayer leader] places his Siddur and from where he prays [In many synagogues the Chazzan leads the prayers from the Bimah].

Ner Tamid — A continual light, usually suspended from the ceiling in front of the Ark. This constant flame symbolizes the Menorah in the Temple whose flame miraculously burned continually.

Mechitzah

Men and women sit separately in a Synagogue. Some Synagogues have a ladies gallery upstairs. If the Synagogue is on one level, a partition called a Mechitzah divides the men and the women.

The Synagogue is a miniature Temple. It should be treated with great respect. The congregation is obligated to keep the Synagogue clean and to make it beautiful. It is always preferable to pray in a Synagogue even if no minyan is present.

Sefer Torah

The Sefer Torah, Scroll of Law, is placed in the Aron Hakodesh. It is dressed with a mantle [a coat]; a Choshen[a breastplate]; a Yad [pointer] which the Baal Koreh[Torah reader] uses to read; and a Keter, a crown placed on the Atzei Chaim [wooden poles around which the parchment is wound].

When the Torah is to be read, a man is honored with opening the Ark — Petichah. The Sefer Torah is removed from the Ark and handed to the Shliach Tzibur who then carries it to the Bimah from where it is read. It is customary to stand when the Ark is open and to kiss the Sefer Torah during this procession. When the Sefer Torah is placed on the Bimah it is always flanked by two men out of honor to the Torah.

Reading of the Torah

The Torah has 53 Sidrot [portions]. Every Shabbat we read the entire weekly Sidra in the Synagogue. Since there are only 52 weeks in the year, and also some festivals fall on Shabbat, there are certain Shabbatot on which we read two Sidrot.

From very early times, the Rabbis instituted that the first part of the weekly Sidra [i.e. up to Sheni] should be read on Shabbat afternoon during Minchah, and on Monday and Thursday mornings. In this way, there will never be three days without us hearing some words from the Torah.

Aliyah

The weekly Sidra [portion] is split into seven sections. Although the Sidra is read by one man [usually the Rabbi or Chazzan], called the Baal Koreh [the reader], at each section a person is called up to the Torah. A call up to the Torah is called an Aliyah. One who has an Aliyah recites a special blessing before and after the reading of the Torah, known as the Torah blessings.

When called up for an Aliyah, one should first kiss the part where the Torah is to be read with one’s Tallit (or the Torah sash)and then recite the blessing whilst holding the Atzei Chaim. The person having the Aliyah should then say the words quietly along with the Baal Koreh. When the reading is finished, one kisses the end of the reading with one’s Tallit, closes the Torah and recites the after blessing whilst holding the Atzei Chaim.

A Kohen [priest] is always called up to the Torah first, followed by a Levi [Levite], and then any Jewish male over Bar Mitzvah — 13 years of age.

After the Torah is read, a person is honored to lift the open Sefer Torah and show the text to the congregation. This is called Hagbahah. Another person is honored to close and dress the Torah. This is called Gelilah.

Maftir — Haftorah

In a particular period of Jewish history, the land of Israel was ruled by an oppressive non-Jewish government. The government did not allow the Jews to read the Torah. Instead of reading the Sidra from the Five Books of Moses, the Jews read every week a similar reading [in content] from the Prophets. After this harsh decree was abolished, the custom remained and nowadays on Shabbat after seven men have been called up to read the Torah, an additional person is called up to read first the Maftir [the last few verses of each Sidra], and then the portion from the Prophets which is called the Haftorah. On special days such as Rosh Chodesh, Yomtov etc., a special Haftorah is read connected with the theme of that day.

Number of People called up to the Torah

As mentioned, on Shabbat, seven men are called for an Aliyah, and an additional one for Maftir/Haftorah.

On Yom Kippur, six are called up.

On Yomtov, five are called up.

On Rosh Chodesh [the first day of the new month], four are called up.

On regular Mondays and Thursday and Shabbatafternoon, three are called up.

Bar Mitzvah

On a boy’s thirteenth Hebrew birthday, he becomes obliged to keep all the Mitzvot. He may become part of a minyan and, amidst great celebration, is called up to the Torah on the occasion of the first Torah reading on or after his Hebrew birthday. Usually the Bar Mitzvah boy reads the Maftir/Haftorah [and sometimes the entire Sidra] on the Shabbat following his thirteenth birthday.

Musaf — Additional Prayers for Shabbat

On Shabbat, after Shacharit, the entire weekly Sidra is read, followed by Maftir and Haftorah. An additional prayer is added on Shabbat called Musaf. Musaf means “addition” corresponding to the additional sacrifice in the Temple on Shabbat. An additional prayer — Musaf — is also added on Rosh Chodesh and Yomtov.

Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year, two additional prayers are said.

Musaf after Shacharit.

Neilah after Minchah. The word Neilah means closing — the gates of judgment are closing and the inscription for a good year is sealed.

Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov is director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK.
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