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The Art of Jewish Prayer

The Art of Jewish Prayer

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Photo: Uriah Ohana
Photo: Uriah Ohana

Jewish prayer is a discipline. Don't just wait for the mood to strike.

Prayer is subordinate to study, but taken together, Jewish Prayer and Torah study are the yin and yang of religious life.

The Jewish Prayerbook, the Siddur, did not compete with study for the Jewish soul; rather, it reinforced Torah study.

It was designed to incorporate excerpts from Torah, Mishnah and Talmud, in order to fulfill the Jew's minimum daily requirement of "learning."

The Siddur championed the person's prayer to G‑d for a sharp mind and an understanding heart, elevating it to first place of all the nineteen petitions Jews include in their "Silent Devotion" three times every day.

But the unique Jewish experience of prayer does not come as easily as studying Torah. Praying is a flow and a sway; it evokes a sentiment, a way of relating to G‑d, a priority of concerns, an expression, a mood that is embedded in the soul of the Jew.

However, praying cannot be confined to moments of inspiration or desperation - praying only when one is moved by events and "feels like" praying. Anyone who waits for the mood to strike - a visit to the Grand Canyon, a magnificent twilight, the baby-freshness of a rosy-fingered dawn - is not a praying person, and probably will not be able to pray authentically even when the mood arrives.

One needs to domesticate the stimulus - to make prayer a natural, comfortable event, a day-to-day happening. Jewish prayer is designed to become second nature, a part of a person, a daily diet. In that way, one comes to be on comfortable speaking terms with G‑d, who, in turn, becomes accessible, almost a conversation partner.

Not only is an intermediary between man and G‑d undesirable, it is unnecessary. And G‑d can be found at home as readily as in the synagogue. As the founder of Hasidism once said, "He can be found wherever one lets Him in."

We simply cannot force G‑d to come before people; people need to intrude themselves before G‑d. The Yiddish word for prayer, davenen, derives from the French devant "before," as in "Know before Whom you stand."

Even if we could feel the desire to pray surging regularly from the soul, what prayer would come forth if there were no book of prayers written by great souls, the Siddur?

Perhaps only improvised stammering, well-intentioned simplistic words that last one minute. Improvised prayer is acclaimed today for its spontaneity and subjectivity, but the fixed liturgy of the ages is the foundation of the religious life, and provides the tools with which one may build one's own prayers.

Prayer As An Art

Prayer is an art, yet it can be learned. It requires the mechanical skill of reading (though the words may not be understood) and the spiritual attitude of a willing heart, a sympathetic mind, and an authentic desire to succeed. If pursued with diligence, the result will be well worth the effort invested. Just as a person must practice a learned language to gain and retain fluency; just as an athlete and musician must rehearse daily, rigorously to perform smoothly, so must a Jew pray regularly in order to do so effectively.

The daily diet of prayer consists of morning and evening prayers, Shacharit in the morning, Minchah and Maariv, in late afternoon and evening. On the Sabbath, there is an additional service, Mussaf, added on to the morning. One prayer is central to every worship service, morning and night, weekday, Shabbat, and holiday: the Amidah the "Standing" Prayer, which is also known as the Shmoneh Esrai, the "Eighteen" blessings, or the Silent Devotion.

All prayer speaks of G‑d; the Shmoneh Esrai speaks to G‑d.

It is the peak experience of the prayer service, emphasized by taking three steps backward to withdraw symbolically from your surroundings and three steps forward to symbolically enter the presence of Almighty G‑d. It is recited silently, standing, and occasionally bowing. In all morning and evening prayers, it is preceded by the most well-known verse in the Bible or Siddur: Shema Yisrael, Ha'Shem Elokenu Ha'Shem Echad, "Hear, O Israel, the L-rd, our G‑d, the L-rd is One."

This is referred to affectionately as the Shema. Surrounding these two key prayers are clusters from the classics of Jewish literature: the Torah, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Talmud.

As a child learns to walk by walking, so we learn to pray by praying. Regularly.

Herman Wouk, in his "This is My G‑d", graphically describes a newcomer to a synagogue service and his confusion as well as the benefits of learning how to pray:

He is handed a prayerbook that strikes him as a jumble, with English translations that, for long stretches, make little sense. He is apt to observe preoccupied and inattentive worshippers reeling off Hebrew with few external symptoms of devotion, or whispering together while a reader chants a long singsong. Now and then, everybody stands, he cannot say why, and there is a mass chant, he cannot say what; or, if he dimly recalls it from childhood, he cannot find it in the prayerbook.

The time comes when the Holy Scroll is taken from the Ark for a parade to the reading desk, the bells tinkling on its silver crown. The reading in a strange Oriental mode seems endless, and he observes that it seems endless to some other worshippers too, who slump in an unfocused torpor, or chat, or even sleep... The skeptic leaves - early, if he can - well satisfied that his views are sound, that his religious fancy was a temporary touch of melancholia, and that, if the Jewish G‑d exists, there is no reaching him through the synagogue...

The newcomer in a synagogue will, of course, feel strange and ill at ease; he will be put off by the matter-of-fact manner of many of the worshippers; he will find the process hard to follow, and he will be an exceptional person not to feel discouragement at first. But persevering attendance, especially linked with any kind of elementary Hebrew training, will in a short time give him back the key to the storehouse of Jewish prayer.

Then, when he wants to, he will pray in the measured and fine words of the tradition; at the synagogue if he can go there, at home if he cannot...

The fact is, prayer is never easy. True prayer is as demanding - at least as demanding - as the carrying on of a business conversation or the writing of a letter. It purports to be a communication with a Listener. The child and the newcomer struggle with their unfamiliarity. Devout worshippers struggle with their over-familiarity. All men of any training or any faith are put to the greatest mental effort, I imagine, to get at any real sense of talking to G‑d.

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Anonymous Tucson May 5, 2014

Anyone with any sense should know that prayer is our opportunity to speak to G-d. How does one become 'bored' doing that ? Each time a prayer is recited,no matter how many times I've heard it before, I look and find new meanings in the words. I would like to suggest others do the same. Thank You Reply

josh lawton, ok February 23, 2012

checklist or worship Believe it or not, one can find peace in the liturgy of the jewish prayers. The question becomes " is it done as a check on a to-do list, or does one earnestly look at the words they are reciting and find words that they were unable to express otherwise? Liturgy can be worship because you may find that there was something going on inside of you that you had no idea how to explain to the Creator, and yet you find it in a prayer that many people have been reciting for generations. The whole point of prayer from the jewish perspective is self analysis, which is actually somewhat easier when you get into the flow of these prayers and you get to a point of almost feeling like you are sitting at the feet of HaShem and your heart is open wide before Him. Reply

Anonymous Roanoke, VA January 13, 2010

What is the point? In my mind, the most important part of prayer is listening. Communication is not a one way street.

During services I often find myself dropping out of the verbal expressions to listen. Although present everywhere, the sense of closeness and an ability to listen to Him are stronger during communal prayer. It's like He's floating above the waves of life and I'm an anchor and the community prayer is the rope that attaches me to him.

It saddens me that so many articles on Jewish prayer completely miss this point. They seem to advocate a style of prayer comparable to pre-recorded telemarketing calls.
Imagine: You answer the phone, and a recorded voice on the other is prattling off a script; there is neither opportunity nor reason for you to respond. Why? Nobody is listening.
Do you consider that communication? Isn't there a chance that G-d feels the same?

Without active listening, prayer is hollow. With it, prayer is the most meaningful part of my life. With it, prayer is easy. Reply

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