An Overview of Jewish Prayer
The Hebrew term for prayer is ‘tefillah’. The word ‘pray’ in Hebrew is ‘pallel’, from the root, pe, lamed lamed, meaning ‘to judge oneself’. Thus for Jews, the time of prayer is the time of self-judgment and self-evaluation. For an observant Jew, prayer is a part of his/her everyday life - not just something that is done at synagogue once a week. Jews pray three times a day every weekday and additional times on Shabbat and festivals.
Praying is a time when we look inside ourselves and see our relationship to God. We do not simply pray to ask God for our daily needs. Praying involves much more than that. The most important reason for Jews to pray is to offer thanks to God, or to confess.
God has commanded us to pray to Him and to Him alone. We pray to God for all things: in times of distress we pray for help; in times of comfort we express our gratitude; and when all goes well we pray that He will continue to show mercy towards us.
Many people do not pray because prayer does not come naturally to the human spirit. Human beings must be taught to pray, just as they have to be taught a variety of other skills of feeling and communication.
There is no single reason why a Jewish person should pray. The structure of daily prayer is like the unfolding of a beautiful flower, or the highlighting of a symphony. Each layer suits its proper moment or mood.
- Prayer enables Jews to reach into their souls, in an attempt at self-discovery.
- Prayer is a time for private reflection and thought.
- Prayer is a comfort and release when a Jew is overcome by fear or dread, anger or need.
- Prayer calls forth a generosity of the human spirit. It reminds Jews not to take things for granted as they go about daily life: the gifts of life, health, love, and good fortune.
- Prayer can engender a sensation of community; but also a feeling of intense oneness with God, particularly in the practice of hitbodedut (self-seclusion).
- Prayer sometimes offers a few quiet moments to daydream, to wander without intrusions, to solve problems simply by reflecting on them. Rote learning (through repetition) can be pleasingly effortless, and it is the perfect cover for the mind or imagination to escape.
- Prayer adds routine and structure to a person’s life. It helps to put things in proper perspective, enabling a Jew to prioritise the activities in life.
- Prayer is at times brazenness before God, at times humility.
- Prayer helps a Jew maintain a belief in God when their faith undergoes its inevitable lapses.
(The above information was adapted from How To Run A Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg)
Brachot are recited both in synagogue and at home. They are prayers recited before enjoying a material pleasure, before performing a mitzvah (commandment), at special events and at special times.
According to Jewish liturgy, we should recite 100 brachot every day. The brachot we recite start from the time we rise in the morning, when we thank God for allowing our souls to return to our bodies with the prayer Modeh Ani. We also thank God for the renewed ability to see when we wake up.
All the brachot we say during the day start with the phrase: “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam…”, but each has a different ending. The brachot we say before performing a mitzvah start with the phrase: “Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kidushanu bemitzvotav ve-tzivanu…”
- For example, the brachah on the mitzvah of washing one’s hands ends “al netilat yadayim”.
- The brachah on the mitzvah of lighting candles ends “lehadlik ner shel…”
- The brachah on eating bread ends “ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz”.
- The brachah on drinking wine ends “borei pe-ri hagafen”.
- The brachah on eating vegetables ends “ borei pe-ri ha-adama”.
- The brachah on doing anything for the first time that season or year ends “she-hecheyanu ve-kiyemanu ve-higiyanu lazman ha-zeh”.
This prayer is the oldest fixed prayer said every day. It consists of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41. The Shema is a statement of belief in and commitment to God. It is an acceptance to perform of all His mitzvot. The most important parts of the Shema, affirming our belief in God, are:
the opening verse, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad” and the verse “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed”.
Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah)
The name of this prayer literally means ‘18’, which refers to the 18 blessings within it. It is said at all daily services. If you say the Shemoneh Esrei 3 times a day, you will have already recited 57 brachot (out of the 100 required each day!). This prayer is also called ‘Amidah’ because it is said while standing. It is also referred to as ‘Tefillah’ as it is the essence of all Jewish prayer. The first and last three of its 18 blessings mainly thank and praise God for all that he has given us.
This is a prayer which praises God. There are several variations of Kaddish for different times during the service. One variation is for mourners to recite (although Kaddish is not solely a mourner’s prayer). The congregation responds during the prayer with certain utterances.
Another important prayer that is recited at or near the end of every service is Aleinu. This prayer also praises God.
Overview of prayer services
There are three prayer services every weekday, and added to on Shabbat and festivals. They are:
Shacharit (Morning Service) – may be said at any time during the prescribed time which begins at sunrise and lasts until the end of the fourth hour, which is equivalent to one third of the day. Although the proper time requirement is not met if you pray outside the deadline of the fourth hour, Shacharit may be said through to the sixth hour. The length of Shacharit varies according to the day and which prayers are prescribed to be said on it, but generally about 20 minutes is sufficient for someone proficient in prayer to pray Shacharit.
Mincha (Afternoon Service) – the prescribed time for this is anytime between nine and a half hours into the day and up till sundown. You may say Mincha as early as six and a half hours into the day. If this occurs, it is called Mincha Gadol (the Long Mincha), because there is then still a long time until sundown.
Ma’ariv (Evening Service) – can begin when the time for Mincha ends. It can begin as early as one and a quarter hours before sundown. It is preferable to say Ma’ariv before midnight.
The Siddur (prayer book)
The siddur is the prayer book used in the synagogue. The siddurim (siddurs) that are most commonly used in Orthodox and Conservative Synagogues include all of the prayers for all four prayer services mentioned above within the one volume. Morning services are usually at the beginning of the siddur, while afternoon and evening services are usually in the middle. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services have extensive additions and are therefore contained in their own siddur, called a Machzor.
Responses to prayer
Whenever someone else says a blessing, Jews say ‘Amen’ to reinforce and support what they have said. The ‘Amen’ may be at the end of a sentence or paragraph. When you say ‘Amen’, you confirm that you agree with what was said in the blessing or prayer. Thus 'Amen' is not said to a prayer or blessing that you have said yourself as it is self-evident that you agree with it.