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The Evolution of Prayer

Our people having praying since Avraham Avinu. The Avot are credited with ‘inventing’ SHACHARIT when the sun rises, MINCHA as it sets and ARVIT during the distressing darkness. But what did they say? Except for a few snippets scattered throughout Tanach, we don’t know what they shared with God during these encounters. Maimonides explained ‘that every person should daily, according to his ability, offer up supplication and prayer (Laws of Prayer 1:2).’ He goes on to explain that this process should include praises, requests and thanksgiving. But through tribulations and exile people lost the focus or clarity to accomplish this task on their own without guidance. So, during the time of Ezra, the Men of the Great Assembly composed the Shmoneh Esreh prayer. My first articles on Jewish prayer will focus on this master work of liturgical composition. 

The most remarkable aspect of this prayer’s design is its flexibility. The introductory material of praises for God and the concluding section of thanksgiving vary only very slightly throughout the year. However, the middle part is always dedicated to the purpose of this particular prayerful encounter with God. Generally, the goal of the prayer is supplication to God for the needs of both the individual and the community. This petitionary text of thirteen blessings is exchanged on Shabbat and Chag for a single blessing which expresses the sanctity or special nature of the day.  

On those days upon which the Torah (Bamidbar chapters 28 & 29) decreed a MUSAF or additional offering in the Beit HaMikdash, we have a Musaf prayer. This iteration of our basic prayer format has one blessing in the middle which is based upon that day’s special additional offering. It’s these prayers which remind us of the dual nature of our davening. These prayers continue the obligation of daily prayer begun by the Patriarchs, but also are formatted to remind us of our presently abandoned offerings in the Beit HaMikdash. 

Before we begin our analysis of the text of the Shmoneh Esreh, I think that it’s important to note three innovations which our Sages thought important enough to impose upon those reciting their master prayer. The first is to stand with our feet together. This obligation to be on our feet gives our prayer its most popular name, the AMIDAH or the Standing Prayer. Our Sages based this custom on the angels who are described as ‘standing upon a single leg (Yechezkel 1:7),’ in the famous passage about God’s Divine Throne, the MERKAVA. 

Rav Kook uses this custom to explain that we have two great services to God. One is Torah study, and is described by the term HALACHA, or movement. Torah study and its resulting legal observances are a work of persistent progress. We are expected to always move forward both individually and communally. Communally. we must always allow HALACHA to evolve and remain relevant no matter what innovations appear in contemporary society. Individually, every one of us is required to study and develop so that we are always reinventing ourselves as we mature and age. HALACHA is always a work in progress. 

Prayer, on the hand, is a statement of where we are at the given moment that any prayer is recited. Prayer is sort of in a stasis. Today I stand before God and try to describe my situation and needs, at that moment in my spiritual journey. Sharing that information is a major part of what I communicate in my attempt to contact the Infinite. 

The second rabbinic innovation is to face Yerushalayim, or if one is privileged to be in the Holy City, then to turn towards the Temple Mount. This wrinkle in our daily devotion adds two dimensions to our attempt to communicate with God. First, it gives the individual supplicant a sense of national unity. All the world’s Jews are focusing on the same point. This adds a new dimension to our communication with our Maker. We are not alone. I’m a small part of a much greater effort. 

Turning towards the place of the once and future Beit Hamikdash, also reminds us that our prayers are, in part, a replacement for the Temple offerings. It also calls attention to the fact that we believe that Yerushalayim is the interface between this word and the heavenly realm. All of our prayers travel to the Divine Throne via the Temple Mount. Zionism unites us politically, nationally and spiritually. 

The third addition instituted by our Sages to help us daven better is to begin our Shmone Esreh with the verse: O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise (Tehillim 51:17). This plea reminds of an extremely important reality: Davening is very difficult! It’s so hard to communicate with God that Divine support is required. It’s almost a chutzpa to address our Creator. We seek permission for this possible impertinence. 

Rebbe Nachman points out the numerical value (GEMATRIA) of HEICHAL, God’s divine palace, 65, is also the value of the first word in our verse ADONAI. One requires the permission of the BA’AL HaBAYIT to receive the honor of visiting God’s Sanctum. As God’s servants we need the Master’s indulgence to enter the Divine presence. This verse reminds us of the WOW factor involved when entering God’s presence. Humility is required for this enterprise. 

So, now we’re ready to open our mouths in prayer, praise, supplication. In the following articles, I’ll try to make our Sages’ wonderful Shmone Esre prayer come to life. I hope that I’m equal to the task. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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