Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Prayer out of place and out of time

Every now and then, and perhaps more often than I care to admit, I am confronted by a question I have difficulty answering.

This is especially true when it comes to the subject of prayer. These questions usually come to me from people who are members of the two traditional movements, meaning Orthodox and Conservative. Their issue is not why we pray, but why we recite certain prayers that seem anachronistic, and why the statutory prayers seem filled with endless repetitive phrases and themes.

A couple of examples will suffice. In the weekday Amidah, we call upon God to “[b]ehold our affliction and deliver us. Redeem us soon because of Your mercy.”

Further on, we implore God to “[s]ound the great shofar to herald our freedom, raise high the banner to gather all exiles. Gather the dispersed from the ends of the earth.”

As for Jerusalem, we urge Him to “[b]uild it now, in our days and for all time.”

All three blessings focus on the same theme — to end our suffering in exile and return us to the Land of Israel. Thus, they do not seem to match the reality of 21st century Jewish life.

Anyone who has been to Jerusalem in the last few years marvels at the incredible city that has been built up. If anything, God (through His agents, meaning us) has fulfilled the request to rebuild Jerusalem, so why do we keep imploring Him to do so?

We ask God to “[b]ehold our affliction and deliver us,” but most of us would be hard-pressed to describe this “affliction,” much less want to be delivered from our current circumstances.

As for asking God to “[g]ather the dispersed from the ends of the earth,” He already did His part; certainly since May 15, 1948, we have been free to return to the Land of Israel, regardless of whether we believe in the halachic legitimacy of a pre-messianic age State of Israel.

There is an even more pointed prayer we recite near the end of each month, except Elul (because we do not bless the new month of Tishrei, for reasons irrelevant here). In the Blessing of the New Month, recited on the Shabbatot before Rosh Chodesh, we utter this prayer:

“May He who redeemed our ancestors [in Egypt] and took them from slavery to freedom, redeem us soon and gather our dispersed from the four corners of the Earth.”

The problem, of course, is not with the intent of these prayers, but with their wording, which is locked into the reality of the past.

The intent of these prayers should be clear. At least ever since the State of Israel came into being, we are in the period known as the Atchalta D’geula, the Beginning of Redemption. It is the beginning only. As comfortable as most of us are with our lives — lives free from the oppressive laws of the past, which were meant to keep us “in the mud” — we are not yet living the lives of a “kingdom of priests and holy nation” we are intended to be. That will only be possible with a full redemption, however that will come about.

God restored our ability to return to the Land; we do not pray for that. We pray for our redemption to be complete.

The intent of these prayers is wholly valid, but the words we use no longer are.

Regarding the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the words of the prayer itself are somewhat deceptive. The prayer has nothing to do with actual rebuilding of the city, but only of the Temple. It also is a prayer for Jerusalem’s status to be built up into the central address for all those who seek to follow the moral and ethical path God set for us.

Other prayers recited in the most traditional circles (again, covering two streams, not just one) are even more problematic. These prayers seem clear to everyone who recites them, but I would hazard a guess that most people who do recite them at least subconsciously hope they will never be fulfilled.

These prayers call for a full restoration of the sacrificial cult, not just a rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Seriously, how many of us who recite these prayers want that to happen?

Is the cult even supposed to return?

Most of us who recite these prayers probably agree with Rabbi Pinchas, speaking in the name of Rabbi Levi, who argues that the sacrificial cult was a stopgap measure made necessary by the fact that the Israelites “were passionate followers after idolatry in Egypt and used to bring their sacrifices to the goat-demons….” The sacrificial cult was created to wean Israel away from pagan practices. (See Leviticus Rabbah 22.7-8.)

Maimonides (the Rambam) certainly agreed. In Guide to the Perplexed 3:32, he argued that He did not want to confuse “people’s minds by banning a familiar mode of worship,” although He “could do without them.”

Then there are the chapters from the Psalms and other parts of the Tanach that make some people queasy. In Ashkenazic circles, for example, we have begun to recite Psalm 27 in the lead-up to the High Holy Days. One verse in particular stands out: “Though my father and my mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in.” Do we seriously believe that our parents ever would abandon us, or that we would abandon our children?

There is nothing about Shabbat in Psalm 92, the Shabbat psalm, but it does declare that “though the wicked sprout like grass, though evildoers blossom, it is only that they may be destroyed forever…. Your enemies, O Lord, surely your enemies perish; all evildoers are scattered…. I shall see the downfall of my watchful foes, hear of the downfall of the wicked who beset me.”

How does this psalm reflect the peaceful and restful nature of Shabbat?

Prayer is meaningful. Too often, the words we recite detract from that meaningfulness, to the detriment of prayer and to our own detriment as well.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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