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What Is Jewish Prayer?

What Is Jewish Prayer?


It can happen at any time of the day. Head lowered, we whisper a short prayer to G‑d. In times of suffering and pain, or even when experiencing a temporary predicament, we turn to our Creator and request His assistance.

This is prayer in its most quintessential form. The Torah instructs us to reach out to G‑d when experiencing hardship; the precise wording is immaterial—what’s important only is that this communiqué emanate from the heart. readRead talking with G‑d »

On a very basic level, prayer expresses our belief in G‑d. Our recognition that we are dependent on His beneficence, and that, as the one who controls all, it is within His ability to extricate us from our hardship. And as such, in a time of need—no matter how trivial the need may seem—we turn to the one whom we know can help.

The Torah refers to prayer as “the service of the heart,” an act suffused with love and reverence. Prayer is about a child approaching his loving parent. In fact, the medieval sage Maimonides writes that “prayer without concentration is akin to a lifeless body.”readRead is prayer an obligation or inspiration »

Chabad philosophy, however, based on the teachings of Kabbalah, expounds upon the idea of prayer as more than just a vehicle for presenting our needs before G‑d. It is actually our primary means of connecting our consciousness to the divine, an island in time when our souls are unleashed, free to soar to heavenly heights. Such prayer leaves an indelible refining impact on the entire day.

Much of Chabad literature is devoted to discussing the nature and power of prayer, meditations for before and during prayer, and the critical importance of investing one’s soul in this daily service of the heart. watchWatch a discussion on prayer & Kabbalah »

More on: why we pray and doesn’t G‑d know best without prayer

History of Prayer

Originally, the mitzvah to pray did not include any specific times, nor was there a defined text. Every individual chose his or her own words with which to address the Creator. There was, though, a standard format for prayer: praise for G‑d, followed by asking Him for all one’s needs, followed by expressing gratitude for all G‑d has done for us—both collectively and individually.

Following the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 423 BCE, the Jews were exiled to Babylon for seventy years. The new generation born in the Diaspora was, for the most part, not fluent in Hebrew—the “Holy Tongue.” In fact, many spoke a broken language—a combination of Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and more—preventing them from properly formulating their own prayers.

To address this issue, Ezra the Scribe—together with the Men of the Great Assembly, consisting of 120 prophets and sages—established a standard text for prayer in Hebrew. They also instituted three times for daily prayer: morning, afternoon and night. readRead about who invented the synagogue »

The three prayers (a fourth is added after the morning prayers on Shabbat and Jewish holidays) center around the Amidah, a series of nineteen blessings. The morning and evening prayers also incorporate the Shema, as per the mitzvah to recite it morning and night. Selected Psalms, blessings and prayers complete the picture. readRead about the unique way Jews pray today »

By the 2nd century CE, the prayers the way we know it today were formulated.

This all is in addition to the personal, heartfelt prayers and conversations we are encouraged to constantly initiate with G‑d.

More on: the synagogue and a selection of prayers

Communal Prayer

Although one may pray whenever and wherever (provided that it is an appropriate location for an exchange with the Creator), Jewish tradition encourages communal prayer.watchWatch a talk on the way to have a selfless prayer »

The reason is twofold: a) A venue designated for prayer is one where G‑d is more readily accessible—in fact, a synagogue is considered a miniature replica of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where G‑d’s presence was prevalent. b) Joining with others gives each individual the power of the community, and their collective deeds and merits.readListen to a lecture on the value of private vs. congregational prayer »

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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louise leon PA USA February 10, 2014

Shalom again. Just read your comments of 12/23/13...I sometimes fall behind in reading e-mail !
One of my favorite wordplays is "ISRAEL"....IS REAL. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 23, 2013

It's interesting to come back to this, after three years. Have I been responding to Chabad articles for this long? There is, in the very word, this notion of the English Aye, for Yes. And there is Ray, as in the light. And it could be said, as in Avinu Malkeynu, that Ray being also Rei or King in French, is also a connected and significant in this, as in doing what I do, which is a profound walk, across Babel, a world of words. Maybe it's also interesting that the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god, named Ra. I see it's all G_D and that a massive Story has been written, that is deeply, and exquisite, in its detailed exposition, of words, a story sub rosa, which WILL soon, enter the Light. Meaning consciousness. Can all stories intersect? I am saying All Creation. Reply

Richard Cleveland December 22, 2013

One question about a problem I have. Are we really praying?, or just saying words??. The prayers of today were composed by the Sages of the Great Assembly (Ha'Knesset Hagedolal) which eventually are mapped into our prayerbooks. (sort of a GPS whereby we navigate via a satellite, not on our own!) We are not really praying. The sages of the great assembly are the ones praying, we are just saying their words. Of course they were geniuses galore, but using their words kills our own creativity in communicating with Hashem. Reply

Miriam Elisheva May 23, 2013

I appreciate comment of Moshe ben Yossef. I too cannot help but be grateful for every breathe I take. To see the morning sun, the dew on the flowers, to hear and see living creatures in all their beauty. It is so true that we are automatic to ask for help at every trial and test but to pray for thanks and gratefulness for simple things is so wonderful. it is then that I feel closest to Hashem. Reply

Maurice aka Moyshe ben Yossef Palm Springs, CA September 7, 2012

I personally pray whenever I not only "need" something but wherever I find myself. Prayer seems to be synonymous with "asking" Hashem when we are in need. To me, prayer means "linking" with G-d. I see a beautiful flower, I "pray", I watch a hummingbird stop in its flight and watching me, I "pray" and give thanks for having been given the chance of seeing such a wonderful creature. A creation of G-d. You see, I do not need to wait for Thanksgiving to really give thanks to Hashem for the goodness He has bestowed upon me. To me, simply "connecting" in silence is also a "prayer." a way of saying "thank You, Hashen!" It probably is because I am a survivor of the Holocaust that I have some sort of 800 private phone number with Hashem. I am not a super devout religious man. Just your common Joe, with the difference that Hashem is with me every single second of my life. As for praying among others, then we are now talking about "congregations" and please, don't get me started... Reply

Anonymous ioannina, greece July 12, 2012

I didn't know that one is free to pray whenever and wherever. Anyone can choose the best way to fit their needs in praying. The second reason of communal praying is meant to teach people to socialize. Communal praying takes many things into consideration such as people who feel otherwise lonely. Reply

louise leon long pond, PA November 29, 2010

Really helpful discussion. I have long been dissatisfied with the synagogue experience and felt that direct prayer,with no intermediaries was much more efficacious for me. I especially don't appreciate the Amidah, said to say I find it very boring. When I have REALLY needed to talk to G-d, I feel answered. Of course an acquaintance called it psychotic behavior. And he's Jewish!!!!!!! Oh well, such is life. Reply

Anonymous Paris, France November 19, 2010

By the grace of G-d,

I'm monotheist and having love of my Creator (G-d) in my heart,
I agree the idea of Mrs Ruth Housman.

I love religions just because inside them we can find laws and love of our Holy L-rd.

Any person must recognise that without pray to our Landlord of the world, he or she doesn't participate in the future prepared live better. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel November 18, 2010

Interested to see that only 3 forms of prayer are mentioned above. In the comments to "A Poor Man's Prayer" on this site I have listed 5 (or 6) kinds. Have I done justice to the subject of kinds of prayer?

Is the order of using them very important? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma November 18, 2010

There is a great beauty in doing things in concert, as in prayer that is in unison, and in the together ness of being in a place of worship but I do not agree that a synagogue is a place of greater access to the Divine. In fact, if there is a "greater" place it would be outdoors, in a forest, along a beach, in the meditative silence of the waves on the ocean, and also at home, in the warmth of hearth, heart and family.

Perhaps the point, of the destruction of the synagogue, the Temple, years ago, and the Babylonian exile was the movement from synagogue to heart, and the idea we can prayer wherever we are, and that G_d is deeply within wilderness, amongst the birds, the forest, and also deeply in the desert of our lives, that we are not, deserted, not ever.

There is a plaque on my wall that reads: All poetry is prayer, and so I do believe that creativity itself, that celebration is also a form of prayer. Reply

Norman Siller Orlando, Fl. June 21, 2009

Thank you! This is a nice overview of prayer and a good guide to find answers to questions on prayer. I might just print it and hang it up in my synagogue, especially in lieu of what we just went through tonight to pray in a minyan (quorum of ten), people just coming whenever or call me if you need me. Services are at a certain time, BE THERE. Reply

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