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Jewish Prayer by Rav B. Horovitz


Jewish Prayer


by Rabbi B. Horovitz, M.A.



The Siddur is the most familiar of Jewish Books.   It accompanies the Jew throughout his life—from the moment he wakes from his sleep until he lays his head upon the pillow at night.  

The seder ha-tefillah (order of prayer) set down in the Siddur contains, in the words of a recent scholar, "the accumulated devotion of many ages. It is a diamond polished into many facets. It appeals to people of all ages and from all walks of life ;   young, old, learned and unlearned ; men and women all find comfort in it, if only they put their heart into it."


The Heart

In the words of our Rabbis: "The All-Merciful requires the heart of man." The story is told of a little boy who had learned the Alef-Bes but could not read Hebrew correctly.   He went to the Synagogue and cried out: "Lord, I do not know how to pray, but I have learnt the Alef-Bes, so I will recite the Alef-Bes to you."   The Rebbe who was present said that the sincere prayer, composed merely of the letters of the Alef-Bes, but stemming from the sincere heart of the little boy, was formed by the Almighty into the most beautiful prayer when it reached Heaven, and was immediately accepted before God because it is the sincerity of the heart that counts.


But it is better if a person has an understanding heart ; the sincerity of the heart is strengthened if it is coupled with deeper and more thorough understanding of that which is said. Thus our Rabbis said: "A person should always set his prayers in order first and have it ready in his mind ; only then should he utter the words of prayer."


What is prayer ?

It is a meeting between Man and God in manifold ways : petition, praise, thanksgiving, self-examination, confession and contemplation.   It is an outpouring of one's inner self. It is in truth the language of the soul. For the deepest feelings of Man can be best expressed in words of prayer. It is a means of obtaining the highest joy in life which can only come through a feeling of the nearness of God.   It leads to that feeling of closeness to the Almighty that forms the highest experience of a human being.


There are many Hebrew words for prayer, the most common being Tefillah. This has been understood by some to be connected with a word which means 'subsidiary', for one of the major purposes of prayer is to bring a person to humility, to a feeling of his smallness.   For it is pride, the feeling, of our own ego, that does not allow us to perceive the nearness of the Almighty, and prayer is essential in order to remove it. Perhaps one of the reasons why modern man cannot find the language of prayer with ease, is because his ego has become too large and his heart has become hardened. If a person wishes to find the path towards true humility, then that path is given by prayer: let him pray and serve God with his heart, and then hewill feel his own pettiness, and at the same time, the nearness of the Almighty.



Prayer, Tefillah, comes from the root hispallel which literally means "to judge oneself". The important aspect of prayer is that it forms a way of judging oneself in the light of higher truth. It is not merely an expression of one's inner self ; it is also the means whereby a person can reach greater heights.


Service of the Heart

We say in the second passage of the Shema: 'You all should serve the Almighty with your complete heart' which signifies, our Rabbis say, prayer: "Avodah shebelev zu tefillah". Whilst the sacrifices represent the service of God through action, prayer represents serving God with one's heart. The main purpose of life is the service of the Almighty who has created us and given us the world. We must strive to perfect ourselves and the world by serving Him.   The inward service is achieved by prayer, for it teaches Man not only to purify his actions, but also his motives and emotions.


Morning, Afternoon, Evening

`Uleovdo bechol levavechem' is the Biblical source for the precept of prayer. A man is asked to pray at all times, whenever the occasion for it arises and his heart desires it. But there are three particular times of prayer, Erev, vavoker, vetsaharayim— evening, morning and mid-day are the specific times when a person is asked to pray.


Our Rabbis say that the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob instituted these three prayers of Shacharis, Minchah and Maariv.   Some even say that the term 'davening' stems from the Aramaic de-avuhon which means 'from our Forefathers', because of the connection of the three prayers with our Patriarchs. Others say that the word ‘davening' goes back to the Latin `divinus'.   Others have derived it from the Anglo- Saxon root of 'dawn' because this is the time after which one should ideally begin to daven.


The three times of prayer correspond to the three meals which a person has in the day. Rabbi Yehudah Ha-levi says: "If a person wishes to keep his body healthy, he must have his three meals ; similarly no soul can really survive unless it has these three spiritual meals ! "   They also correspond to the daily sacrifices that were brought in the Holy Temple, for the services of today have their origin in Temple times. The purpose of prayer is also the same as that of korban (`offering') which really means 'a way of drawing near' to God. Prayer should also draw us near to the Almighty.




Our prayer book combines elements of prayer with elements of study.   The two are joined right from the beginning. In the Chumash the injunction is given to recite the `Shema' when lying down in the evening and when rising in the morning. This, together with Kerias Hatorah (which was instituted by Moses), forms the central part of our services. These are sections of the divine teaching to be studied. The Temple services were a combination of sacrifices and various prayers: the songs of the Levites, the blessing of the Priests ; and many others. Specific prayers are mentioned in the Chumash to be said when bringing the first fruits to the Temple ; and in connection with tithing. Many prayers by the spiritual giants of our history are recorded in the Bible.


The book of Psalms is a basic book of prayer and about a third of the Psalms are included in our regular Siddur. Daniel prayed three times a day—turning towards Jerusalem.


The Men of the Great Assembly


It was, however, the Men of the Great Assembly, at the end of the Biblical period, who, basing themselves upon previous traditions, instituted the basic structure of the Blessings, of the Amidos which form the main regular prayers and of the other prayers which are now included in the Siddur. Imbibed with the Holy Spirit, they formulated the prayers which are termed devarim Ha-omdim B'rumo Shel 0lam—words which stand in the higher sphere of the world—for all the words have great significance.



The Rabbis of the Talmud made certain additions to this order of prayer. Acrostics were introduced, e.g. 'El Baruch' and `Tikanta Shabbos'. The Geonim who followed the Talmudical period were the first actually to edit the Siddurim now extant. To these various strands were added the contributions of the Paytanim, poets and chazanim, who introduced their compositions into the regular service. The most famous of these men are Rabbi Eliezer Kalir, whose Piyutim have been adopted into the Ashkenazi rite, and the four great Spanish Paytanim:

Solomon ibn Gabirol, Rabbis Moses and Abraham ibn Ezra, and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, whose Piyutiurn have been incorporated into the Sefardi rite. But these were mainly for special occasions, and very few have been incorporated into the regular Siddur. There were others too, some based upon the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystic lore, e.g. berich shemeih.


Sefardi and Ashkenazi

In the manner outlined above, various customs arose. With the dispersion of the Jews into various lands, different nuschaos were adopted.   The two major liturgies are those of the Ashkenazi and Sefardi. The Ashkenazi goes back through Italy to the Palestinian tradition, whereas the Sefardi liturgy goes back to the Babylonian tradition.   From the practical point of view the Halachah has adopted a spirit of respect towards all customs.   Just as there were twelve tribes which all developed their own individual characteristics, so should each community preserve its traditions, for they all form channels leading us towards the Almighty.




In earlier times it was forbidden to write down any oral tradition.   This also applied to the text of prayers.   The Talmud states that 'those who write down Jewish prayers are to be regarded like those who burn up Jewish tradition.' For in order to keep tradition alive, it is essential that it should not be deposited in books to be left in the corners of libraries, for antiquarians to study and for people who are busy with life to ignore. That is why all traditional writings had to be memorised and kept alive through oral tradition.


When the dispersion of the Jewish people increased to such an extent that it endangered the preservation of Jewish tradition, the sages permitted the recording down of oral traditions and prayers.


The first written Siddur was edited in the ninth century by one of the early Geonim, Kohen Tsedek. This was followed by the Siddurim of the Geonim Rav Amram, Rav Hai, Rav Saadiah and Rav Nissim Gaon.   Rashi and his pupil Rav Simcha of Vitry also wrote Siddurim.             Many rites existed:   Arabic, Spanish, Roman, German and Polish.   Every Spanish city at one time had its own rite, but of course the variations were small. The first printed Siddur was the one of Minhag Romi in 1485. This was followed by an Ashkenazi and a Sefardi Siddur.

Our present Ashkenazi Siddur is based upon the Ashkenazi tradition. It was recorded in a first-class manner by Heidenheim in 1800 and later by Baer.   The Nusach adopted in England corresponds on the whole to this Northern Ashkenazi Rite.





Wherever a Jew is, he should pray to the Almighty, but there are specific places where the Almighty has shown His presence and where man has managed to come near to Him. The Holy Temple was a central place of worship; when it was destroyed, the Batei Kenessios, the Synagogues, became the 'Temples in miniature'. Wherever a Jew prays, he should turn towards the place of the Holy Temple.

The purpose of the Synagogue is threefold. Apart from being a House of Prayer, it is also to be a House of Study, a Bes Hamidrash.   The two, study and prayer, must always go together.   A Synagogue is also a Bes Hakeneses, a place of assembly for Jewry, where a Jew can feel identification with the rest of the People of Israel.




Man should pray to God for help; he should praise Him and give thanks for His goodness at any time of the day and year. He should also show his regular and continuous service of God, his recognition of God's regular and continuous lovingkindness, by the regular saying of blessings and prayers, day by day, week by week, year by year. This teaches the Jew that every physical and spiritual enjoyment of life, individual, national and universal, comes from our Creator.   Regular prayer trains Man to regard every experience as emanating from our Father in Heaven, and makes the presence of God felt in every small detail of everyday life.





Jewish prayer is above all an education, a means of raising Man to a higher level and is not merely the expression of Man's present mood. As such, it insists that man should continually raise himself to those high thoughts expressed in the words of the Bible and in the words of our Rabbis. Each word of the prayer serves as a guiding light to the Jew, showing him what he should do, and how he should direct his feelings. But spontaneity should be an intrinsic part of the prayer. He should use the prayer, which is something in a fixed form, to arouse his inward self.


The story is told that once in a village all clocks had stopped and no one knew the correct time. There was one man, however, who decided that it was better to keep his clock going, even though it might not be the right time, as otherwise it would grow rusty in disuse, and he would not be able to use it any more.

Months later, someone came along to the village and told everyone the correct time. Of course, all the clocks that had been in disuse had become rusty and were beyond repair, and only that man who kept his clock going could now adjust it to the correct time. Similarly, he who keeps on praying and adheres to the fixed form of the prayers, will obtain inspiration when the opportunity is sent from above. But without regular prayer the soul will starve. The habit of thinking of sublime matters that is occasioned and required by prayer, can become second nature to a person, and as a result may change his character for the good. Prayer is not merely something to be achieved by conscious effort of the mind – it is there to exert beneficial influence over the subconscious. ‘Sow an action, reap a habit; reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny!’ By introducing this habit of thought, the Jew is enabled to fulfill his destiny.


Our prayer has a certain basic uniformity, and at the same time encourages diversity. It urges us to adhere to the particular customs of each communal tradition, and at the same time allows for the additions of individuals ; but basically the prayer is a communal one. The language of our prayer is generally expressed in the plural form, to teach us that we are not mere individuals, but members of the larger community of Jews all over the world. Individualism and self-seeking lead man to feel only his own ego and forget that he has neighbours. Prayer teaches us that we live in a community and that we are not in this world just by ourselves and for ourselves.


The language of our prayer is Hebrew. No matter where a Jew is he can enter a Synagogue, and if has learned to pray in Hebrew, he will feel at home. Those sections of Jewry who have adopted the vernacular as their language of prayer generally regard themselves as belonging to a separate ‘national’ group, regard themselves as British Jews or French Jews. They often lose the feeling of fellowship with the Jewish community in the rest of the world.


The Hebrew language also unites us with our glorious heritage and history, and with the literature of our people. “God understands Hebrew, even if the Jew doesn’t”. For the Holy language is the language of prayer, and even if the Jew knows little about Hebrew, he will feel that this is the language of the Bible – that he is praying in the same language as did Moses, the Prophets, and our Rabbis throughout the ages. But English, or any other vernacular, is immediately associated in the mind with all the mundane affairs of business, entertainment, and worldly life in general.

It is impossible to translate into any other language the details and shades of meaning that lie in the Hebrew language. Translation can never convey the full original meaning of a language. How much more so does this apply to the varied aspects and deep significance of every word of the Hebrew prayers.

Without a knowledge of Hebrew a person will not gain a clear understanding of our Holy Literature. It is incorrect to concede to ignorance. Rather must we maintain a high standard and encourage people to educate themselves and their children to obtain this vital knowledge. If, for example, we are to allow  the Maftir in English, parents would not send their sons to

Cheder. It would then surely be better to send them to elocution lessons, so that they will be able to read the Maftir in correct English ! Where will our youngsters then learn about Judaism ? This is an illustration of the educational method of Judaism, which asks us to raise our standards, not lower them.

However, if someone cannot read Hebrew, it is of course better that he should pray in English rather than not pray at all.

This applies to individuals — but in the congregational Synagogue service, it is essential that the holy tongue -leshon hakodesh— be used as the language of prayer.




All our prayers are interwoven with song. The readings from the TeNaCh are accompanied by chants which apart from their grammatical and rhythmic significance also have great musical value. They form the basis of the oldest existing melodies.

Many of the old Jewish melodies used in the Synagogue services have their origin in the service of the Holy Temple.

Gesture and Symbol


Our prayer is combined with gesture—it is not to be a life-less ritual. For as King David says: “All my limbs should praise the Almighty” – the purpose of prayer is that it should pervade the whole of man’s being. There is a time to bow down, a time to kiss the Torah and to make various customary gestures. The Tallis and Tefillin, apart from their significance as Mitzvos of the highest importance are also important aspects of Jewish prayer. They instruct a man not by words, but by symbolic action. For the conscious mind is often influenced by words and speech, whereas the subconscious is more deeply influence by symbolic action.


Study and Life


Our Siddur contains not only prayer, but also lessons containing some deep elements of Jewish learning.   We all know of "Bameh Madlikin", for example, and we have, perhaps, been impressed by the marvellous way in which some Chazanim sing it.                    

But how many of us understand the principles discussed therein in connection with the kindling of the Sabbath lights ?

The Siddur represents a cross-section of the Jewish pattern of life, teaching us to carry the Word of God in our speech, to let it influence our heart, and, above all, to influence our deeds.


V.        I AM MY PRAYER


King David said: 'For I am my prayer'—meaning that a person should identify himself with his prayer and become "a praying being".

Perhaps this is the deep significance of the Keruvim, the Cherubs, which were fashioned as part of the cover of the Holy Ark.   There were three gestures shown by the Cherubs ; one towards the Ark, one towards Heaven, and one towards each other.   This represents the three pillars upon which the world stands, for the basis of the whole of civilisation is: TorahAvodah, and Gemilus Chasadim.   Torah means the teaching of God, the Divine Revelation. Avodah is the service of God —the service of the Temple and prayer. Gemilus Chasadim — acts of charity. These correspond to the three aspects of man's life.

Man's relationship to himself, self-perfection by knowledge of Torah, is represented by the Cherub facing the Ark containing the Torah, the Divine Revelation.

Avodah, the service of God, the relationship of man with God, is represented by the upturned wings of the Cherubs.

Gemilus Chasadim, man's relationship towards his neighbour, is represented by the two Cherubs turning towards one another.

It is a combination of all these three that allows the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, to make itself felt upon earth. It is only by a combination of all three that humanity can gain peace and perfection. Prayer is one of the pillars upon which the world stands—the one relating man to the Almighty—but at the same time it takes note of the other two. For true Avodah, true service of God, is only possible when it is combined with his true Revelation, i.e. associated with the study of Torah. You should serve God not by yourself, or for yourself, but with the feeling that you are a member of the Jewish People and that you have a duty towards your fellow-man.

It is through such prayer that man can reach perfection.





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