Question:

Everyone who has been to synagogue knows that we Jews recite the Amidah (silent prayer) three times every day. Why do we all say the same thing, and why do we do it at those specific times? When did it all start?

Reply:

The Talmud offers two (apparently divergent) origins of the thrice-daily prayer regimen:1

a) The three prayers were actually instituted by our forefathers. Abraham instituted the morning (Shacharit) prayer; Isaac first prayed the afternoon (Minchah) service; and Jacob was the first to say the evening (Maariv) prayers.

b) The rabbis timed the daily prayers to correspond with the two daily Temple sacrifices, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and the burning of the limbs of the afternoon offering, which would go on through the night. This explains why on days like Shabbat, when additional sacrifices were offered, we have an additional (Musaf) prayer.

The Talmud then goes on to say that both are true. Although the patriarchs established praying at these three times of the day, their conduct wouldn’t necessarily obligate us to do so. It was only later that the rabbis formalized the three daily prayers as standard practice, and they timed them to correspond to the daily sacrifices.

The Rabbis Formalize the Three Daily Prayers

As mentioned, there was not always formal prayer in Judaism. Until the time of Ezra, each person would pray according to his ability and eloquence. A person who was so inclined would offer many lengthy prayers and requests, and one who was less articulate would pray less. Some would pray once daily; others, several times.

After the destruction of the First Temple and towards the end of the Babylonian Exile, the Jews were dispersed in Persia, Greece and other lands. The Jewish children born in these foreign countries spoke a peculiar mix of Hebrew and other languages, and were unable to express themselves coherently in any one language. In the words of Nehemiah: “Their children spoke half in Ashdodite, and did not know how to speak the Jewish language. Rather, [they would speak] according to the language of various other peoples.”2

This greatly hampered their ability to pray to G‑d in unadulterated Hebrew. When Nehemiah’s co-leader Ezra and his court saw this, they formalized the 18 blessings of the Amidah, which is the heart of the daily prayer service. (The formalized Amidah leaves room for one to express personal requests and prayers.)

At that time, they determined that this formula of standard prayer be said thrice daily, corresponding to the Temple sacrifices.

In truth, even in the centuries between the patriarchs and Ezra, some people prayed three times a day. For example, King David declared, “Evening, morning and noontime, I speak and moan, and He hearkened to my voice.”3 Concerning Daniel, the verse states, “ Daniel . . . came to his house, where there were open windows in his upper chamber, opposite Jerusalem, and three times a day he kneeled and prayed and offered thanks before his G‑d, just as he had done prior to this.”4

Thus, Ezra, together with the Men of the Great Assembly, instituted and formalized the prayer routine that had already been practiced by a select few.5

Concerning prayer, the Torah states, “And serve Him with all your heart.”6 The sages explain: “What is the service of the heart? This is prayer.”7 Thus, while the words and order are extremely important, don’t lose sight of the fact that the most important ingredient in prayer is the part that comes from your heart.

For more on prayer, see our special section Prayer in Judaism.