8 Questions, 5 Answers or 8 What’s and 5 We’s (But No Why’s)

In the daily prayers, observant Jews who arise early in the morning to thank God and to bless His Holy Name recite a liturgy of eight questions which are then followed by five answers.

The questions are all in the plural “We” but in order to assure that my prayers are personal, I pray in the singular “I”. Nevertheless, the plural is preferred for we pray for one another as the people of God.

Not because we are righteous do we ask these questions of God but rather to implore His Divine Mercy.

1) What are we?
2) What is our life?
3) What is our kindness?
4) What is our righteousness?
5) What is our salvation?
6) What is our strength?
7) What is our might?
8) What can we say before You, O Lord our God and God of our forefathers?

And having put our 8 questions before our Holy and Beloved God, we examine the 5 answers.

1) We are Your people.
2) We are members of Your covenant.
3) We are the children of Your beloved Abraham to whom You made a promise on Mount Moriah.
4) We are the offspring of Isaac who was bound upon the altar as an intended sacrifice to You.
5) We are the people of Jacob whom You loved and adored and whom You gave the name Israel.

And the prayer continues to teach us that we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify and sanctify God’s Holy Name by reciting the Credo of our Jewish faith in the words of the Shema:

“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the One and Only God, who we shall love with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might” (Deuteronomy 6: 5-9).

We are commanded to teach these words to our children every day and every night at home or by the wayside. We are obligated to praise Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is above and all that is below, even the waters deep below the earth.

We are His creatures chosen to bless and to praise our Creator all the days of our lives. We are commanded to proclaim that God is the First and the Last and that there is no other God.

If we did not recite any other of the many prayers, the Credo of the Shema takes pre-eminence.

In the centuries of tragic martyrdom when Jews were being slaughtered or burned in gas chambers or ovens, every Jew cried out the words of the Shema proclaiming the majesty and sovereignty of our One and Only God, He who gives life and He who takes life.

The 7th and 8th questions appear to be similar. I think that “strength” refers to our mental capacities while “might” refers to our physical prowess.

The prayer continues to make clear for us “dovair emet bilvavo”.. let him speak truth in his heart.

The Talmudic tractate Chullin 94 b cites the story of the renowned scholar Rav Safra. One day while he was reciting his prayers and therefore not allowed to speak, he was approached by a man who offered him a price for an article that Rav Safra wanted to sell.

But because he was praying, Rav Safra was unable to answer the man who thought that silence was because Rav Safra was holding out for a larger price. He did not understand the reason for the sage’s lack of response to the initial offer so he continued to increase his bid.

When he had finished reciting his prayers, Rav Saffra responded to the buyer and explained to him the reason for his inability to reply. He then refused to accept any amount other than the original initial offer which was what he had intended to be the selling price.

The commentator Rashi hailed Rav Safra as the ideal of honesty, a man whose character should be an example for all of us.

Praying silently or vocally, our prayers must be elevated to the highest of heights. The prayers of every Jew, religious or secular, orthodox, ultra-orthodox, conservative or reform will be equal to the prayer of young Ishmail, son of Abraham and his concubine Hagar.

As he was dying from thirst, Ishmail cried out to God who heard the voice of the child “ba-asher hu sham”, from the place where he was.

Its message is that God will hear us no matter where we may be. If one opens his/her heart to God and his/her lips to reciting prayer, God will hear him/her wherever he/she may be.

It may not be one of the 8 questions but for me it is most certainly all of the 5 answers.

“We are Your people, the children of Your covenant”.

“V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’kol l’vavcha, u’v’kol nafshecha u’v’kol m’odecha”

You shall love the Lord your God with all your HEART, with all your SOUL and with all your MIGHT.

We have the questions. God has the answers.

He hears us and listens. Do we hear and listen to Him?

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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