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. Read: 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.” Read: 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. Watch 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. Read 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. Read 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. Watch 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. Listen to a lecture on the value of private vs. congregational prayer.