4.4 Prayer: Introduction

Why pray in the traditional Jewish manner?

Davvening is praying traditional Jewish liturgy in a traditional manner, hopefully with other Jews. Why might this be something we should do?

First, we need to davven because it puts us in "a different space." When we davven, we reconnect with our identity as members of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It is not enough to remember that this is true: in davvening - in the postures it requires, the prescribed "script" that guides our words, the "processing of the psyche" that ensues - we viscerally, experientially, and spiritually reconnect with our true identity so that we have a greater likelihood of acting out of that awareness throughout the day.

Second, we need to davven out of obedience to Hashem's call upon Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation: to not davven, to not bring God this sacrifice of prayer and praise is to be derelict in our duty as members of that people who responded at Sinai, "na'aseh v'nishma" - we will do and we will hear (understand).

Third, we need to davven because otherwise we are left to our own devices in seeking to express and nurture our spirituality. Davvening keeps our prayers from becoming narcissistic, subjective, or a neglected discipline. In davvening we submit to the wisdom of our people through thousands of years. We inherit and benefit from their trial and error. In submitting to the discipline of davvening, we say yes to our identity as Jews, yes to our priestly role in the world, yes to our God, and yes to our identity as members of Klal Yisrael. We come into the world of Jewish prayer together as participants, learners, and co-bearers of the priestly burdens, privileges, and responsibilities of the people of Israel.

Fourth, we need to davven because the depth and diversity of the liturgy speaks to us in different ways each time we do it. Although the liturgy remains the same, the experience is always different. And perhaps this is because each day we are different. Were it not for the liturgy, we would lack any prayer measuring stick by which to take notice of how we are different today from yesterday, and, to a degree, different from all of our yesterdays - and also how we, like the liturgy, remain the same through all our changes.

Fifth, we need to davven because the discipline shapes our theology and spirituality as Messianic Jews. And if we don't submit to this discipline, then other internal and external factors will end up shaping our theology and spirituality, generally in a manner dissonant with our Jewish identity. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, "You gotta be shaped by somebody; it might be the Jewish tradition, and it might be another tradition, but you gotta be shaped by somebody."

Sixth, we need to davven because of the regularity it calls us to. Even if we never davven three times a day - to pray Shacharit daily, or even just Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat, is a call we need to heed. Such davvening is a context in which we can manifest faithfulness to the promises we make to others ("I'll pray for you"). It also constitutes a regular appointment with God at which time progress is made on important matters, often in a manner structured around our inherited prayer agenda, the Amidah.

Seventh, we need to davven in order to heed the eternal call, "Seek my face." This regular appointment is like a regular audience with the King, and we will often find ourselves smiling as we go into it, because we will learn that as we davven, we sense the King's presence. It is not as if we generate that Presence out of our own subjectivity, but rather we find God there, almost as if God waits to meet us in the traditional practice.

Eighth, we need to davven because we need the companionship of the tradition. There is a holy specialness, a different texture and awareness that davvening brings, a sense of being part of a global trans-generational community. This is a necessary and life-giving alternative to the isolation of modern hyper-individualistic spiritualities. In praying within the tradition we are never socially alone, even if we are not meeting with other Jews at that time. But of course, we experience this companionship in a deeper manner when we pray with a minyan (a quorum of ten Jews).

Ninth, we need to davven because there we meet and join with our Messiah in his priestly service for Israel, the nations, and the cosmos. As High Priest he offers to Hashem the sacrifice of himself, but also the sacrifice of his praise, thanks, and petition for the sake of Israel and the world. This is what Hebrews is speaking of when it borrows the language of Tanach and puts these words on the lips of Messiah: "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you" (Hebrews 2:12). He is in the midst of the congregation of his people praising his Father. When we davven, we are joining our prayers to those of Yeshua, our Great High Priest. We come to Hashem in him, with him and through him. As he is, so we are: as he does, so we do - in him, through him, for the honor, glory, and progress of the purposes of Hashem.

Yeshua is engaged in loving agony for the culmination of Hashem's saving purpose for the world. In Scripture, God, Messiah, the Holy Spirit, and God's faithful people are all described as being engaged in longing and struggle toward the consummation of all things. In Colossians 1:24, the Apostle Paul says "in my flesh I am making up what is lacking in Messiah's afflictions for the sake of His Body." The point is that just as Messiah participates in Hashem's struggle and agony for tikkun olam, the full redemption and repair of the world, so Paul participates in these struggles, and so should we.

Tenth, we need to davven because our role is indispensable to the purposes of God. In the Tanach, all sacrifices were to be seasoned with salt. Yeshua told his talmidim, "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot" (Matthew 5:13). We are the salt on the sacrifices of the prayers of Israel - that is part of our function in the world. The only question is, will we play our part?

Of course, there is a learning curve in davvening. But all of us share this in common - we can only begin from where we are. The important thing is to be on the right road, for no matter how far we are along the road, the most important thing is that we meet each other, our tradition, and our God who awaits us there. Our basic practice should include praying the Shema, the Amidah and the Alenu prayer each morning. Prayer may be recited in the person’s native language or Hebrew, whichever allows the individual to engage in the prayer more actively. We would however commend Hebrew as the preferred language of prayer.

The Shema consists of three paragraphs from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41). According to the Mishanh (m. Tamid 4:3; 5:1), these three paragraphs (plus the Decalogue) were recited daily by the priests who officiated in the temple. After the destruction of the temple, rabbinic tradition saw this recitation (minus the Decalogue) as incumbent upon all adult free Jewish males (m. Berachot 3:3). Since Deuteronomy 6:7 and 11:19 command that we recite these words "when you lie down and when you rise up," it was determined that the three paragraphs of the Shema should be recited each morning and evening.

While the sages viewed the daily recitation of the Shema as ordained by the Written Torah, they recognized that the Eighteen (Shemoneh Esreh) Blessings of the weekday Amidah derived from the post-biblical period. Maimonides teaches that the commandment to pray daily is biblical, but the precise wording and timing of the Amidah (which fulfills that commandment) was determined by later tradition (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 1:1-3).

Just as the recitation of the Shema can be traced back to temple practice, so the Amidah appears to have its origins in the prayers offered by the people while the priests fulfilled their sacrificial duties. Such prayers were offered by the crowds gathered in the temple courts (Luke 1:10). When Peter and John go up to the temple at the time of the afternoon sacrifice (Acts 3:1), the author of Acts even speaks of it as "the hour of prayer" (rather than "the hour of sacrifice"). Apparently the devout would pray at this hour, even if they could not be in Jerusalem (Acts 10:1-3, 30). Thus, the Talmudic traditions that link the Amidah to the daily sacrifices appear to have some merit (see b. Berachot 26b). This link would also explain the term "Amidah," which means "standing": this was the posture of the priests as they offered sacrifice, and it is also the posture of those who recite the Amidah, even today, at the times of the daily sacrifices.

While the Alenu derives from a much later period than the Shema and the Amidah, it has been held in great esteem among all observant Jews for centuries, and has become the customary way of ending every statutory service.

When we pray the Shema, Amidah, and Alenu daily, we are plunging into the heart and soul of the traditional Jewish encounter with God, and are also fulfilling Israel's corporate obligation to come before God as a priestly people. Recognizing the difficulties in doing so, our basic practice does not involve praying the Minchah service.

The Minchah service, prayed in the mid-afternoon, consists primarily of the daily Amidah. As its name suggests (minchah means "gift" or "grain offering"), this service has its roots in the prayer accompanying the afternoon sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple (Acts 3:1, 10:1-3, 30). While not included in our basic practice, it is a venerable tradition to be honored and commended. In lieu of a Ma’ariv service, our basic practice for evening prayer involves a bedtime Shema. As an expanded practice, we commend the recitation of the three paragraphs of the Shema, its accompanying blessings, and the Ma’ariv Amidah.

The statutory core of the standard Ma’ariv service is the Shema. The sages of the Mishnah disagreed about whether the Amidah was also a necessary part of this service (b. Berachot 27b). They decided to include the Amidah, but in recognition of its ambiguous status they ruled that it should not be repeated publicly by the Reader (unlike the Shacharit and Minchah Amidah). The Shema section should consist at minimum of the Shema and the V'ahavta. But we also commend as expanded practice the recitation of all three paragraphs of the Shema (including V'haya im-shmo'a and Va-yomer), along with the blessings before and after the Shacharit and Ma'ariv Shema.

"In the morning one recites two blessings before it [the Shema] and one after it. And in the evening, two before it and two after it" (m. Berachot 1:4). While the themes of these blessings were already determined by the time of the Mishnah, the precise wording varied from location to location.

Reuven Hammer explains the function of these blessings: "First we need to know why there are blessings surrounding the Shema at all. Why not simply recite the passages from the Torah? Surely they are the main concern. Rabbinic Judaism, however, prescribed that blessings be recited before and after the ritual recitation of any biblical passage... Thus the blessing immediately prior to the Shema and the blessing immediately following it really serve first to introduce it as a biblical reading and then to affirm the truth of what has been read" (Entering Jewish Prayer, 135).

The first blessing before both the morning and evening Shema acknowledges God as the creator of all, with attention given especially to light and darkness (as appropriate to the time of day). Since the blessing after the Shema focuses on God as redeemer, Hammer notes the theological significance of the three basic blessings surrounding the Shema: "Thus the theme of creation is joined to the Shema, so that the three themes basic to Jewish belief are explicitly discussed: creation, revelation, and redemption" (137). The Amidah referred to above is the entire weekday Amidah.

4.5.2 Shabbat Prayer.

On Shabbat our basic practice is the same as our daily basic practice with the substitution of the Shabbat Amidah.

4.5.3 Holiday Prayer.

On holidays our basic practice is the same as our daily basic practice with the substitutions and additions appropriate for the particular holiday.

4.5.4 Berachot. Our basic practice is to recite the relevant blessing upon the performance of those mitzvot which are themselves part of our basic practice, when acknowledging God's provision of food, and the Shehecheyanu when appropriate.

The formula of blessing (Baruch Atah...) is the basic unit of Jewish worship. As seen above, it is integral to all of the statutory services (Shacharit, Minchah, Ma'ariv). It also provides the framework by which Jews have traditionally sanctified the events of daily life. The standard berachot can enable us as Messianic Jews to fulfill Paul's charge: "everything you do or say, do in the name of the Lord Yeshua, giving thanks through him to God the Father" (Colossians 3:17).

Before fulfilling a ritual mitzvah, one recites the blessing associated with that mitzvah (...asher kid'shanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu...). In this way we acknowledge that the mitzvah is God's gracious gift to us, and also demonstrate that we are consciously and deliberately acting in obedience to a divine command.

The Shehcheyanu blessing is mentioned in the Mishnah (m. Berachot 9:3). There we are told that it is recited when one builds a new house or buys new things. These examples are evidently meant to illustrate rather than exhaust its use. Its significance in Jewish life is noted by Reuven Hammer: "The blessing that for many elicits the most profound emotional reaction is the Shehecheyanu. Recited at every holiday, at every special new occasion, this blessing is attached to the experience of life itself. To be able to say, 'Who has kept us in life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment,' means having survived to reach yet another season, another milestone. We bless God, whose sustaining force keeps us alive" (263-64). Our basic practice for acknowledging God's provision of food consists of prayer before meals. The general blessing before meals is Shehakol niyeh bid'varo. At meals where bread is consumed, one instead recites Hamotzi as a general blessing for all food eaten. If one is primarily eating fruit, one recites P'ri Haetz; if vegetables, P'ri Ha'adamah, and if pastry, Miney Mezonot.

The basic rules governing blessings before eating are found in m. Berachot 6. TheTalmud sets these blessings within a broader context: "It is forbidden to a person to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing" (b. Berachot 35a). As an expanded practice, we also commend prayer after meals, consisting of at least the first blessing of Birkat Hamazon (Hazan et Hakol).

The sages saw the recitation of the Grace after Meals (Birkat HaMazon) as a biblical commandment ordained in Deuteronomy 8:10: "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you." The recitation of blessings before eating was a secondary derivation from this primary commandment: "If one says a blessing when one is full, how much more should one do so when one is hungry?" (b. Berachot 35a). Nevertheless, among Jews today blessings before eating are common practice, whereas blessings after eating are exceptional. Our basic practice thus follows common custom rather than strict halakhic priority. Hopefully, over time Birkat Hamazon will also become a normal part of our life.

4.5.5 Practices Connected to the Shema. Our basic practice involves affixing a kosher mezuzah to the doorpost of the main entryway to one's home, according to traditional practice.

The mezuzah contains the two first paragraphs of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21). Both of these paragraphs include the commandment to "inscribe them [these words] on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." The affixing of a mezuzah thus fulfills this Torah commandment in a literal way, just as the recitation of the evening and morning Shema ("when you lie down and when you get up") fulfills literally another part of the same text.

In the Mishnah the mezuzah is associated with the Shema, tefillin, the Amidah, and Birkat Hamazon (m. Berachot 3:3). They are all statutory verbal expressions of Israel's faithful devotion to Hashem. Our basic practice includes wearing a tallit during one's daily Shacharit prayer.

The third paragraph of the Shema (Numbers 15:37-41) states: "Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments throughout the ages... look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them." In ancient times it was customary to wear four-cornered garments in daily life, and Israel is here commanded to attach tzitzit to such garments as a symbol of the mitzvot. Once people no longer wore such garments, it became common to wear a special four-cornered shawl with tzitzit when praying the morning service. In this way the tzitzit are worn, handled, and looked upon daily, and - like the mezuzah and tefillin - represent symbolically the divine Words that govern Jewish life and give it meaning, direction, and purpose. Our basic practice includes laying tefillin at least once per week during one's daily Shacharit prayer. As an expanded practice, we commend laying tefillin daily (with the exception of Shabbat and holidays).

Tefillin are two black leather boxes, each containing four passages of the Torah: Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 (the first two paragraphs of the Shema, also found in the mezuzah), and Exodus 13:1-10 and 11-16. Each of these passages speaks of having "a sign on your hand and a symbol/reminder on your forehead." Jewish tradition sees this as a reference to the tefillin, which are bound on the arm and the forehead.

Tefillin are closely linked to the recitation of the Shema. Ideally, according to the sages, one should wear tefillin while reciting the morning Shema (b. Berachot 14b). In reciting the words of the Shema and in literally wearing the words on our body, we take upon ourselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven (we accept God's sovereignty in our lives). "R. Yohanan also said: If one desires to accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven in the most complete manner, [upon waking in the morning] one should consult nature [relieve oneself] and wash one's hands and put on tefillin and recite the Shema' and say the tefillah [the Amidah]: this is the complete acknowledgment of the kingdom of heaven." (b. Berachot 14b-15a).

Tefillin, like the tzitzit, are only worn by Jews, as they express our commitment to God's covenant with Israel as embodied in the mitzvot. Tefillin are not worn on Shabbat or holidays, as these are also spoken of as "signs," and would thus make the tefillin redundant.

4.5.6 Men, Women, and Basic Practices Related to Prayer. Our basic practices in the area of prayer apply both to men and women. In keeping with this, it would make sense to likewise see basic practices associated with prayer, such as the donning of tallit and tefillin, as applicable to both Jewish men and women. However, like many other contemporary Jewish movements, women to be reluctant to adopt these practices. Therefore, at this point we will not establish these as basic practices for women but will acknowledge the right of women to wear tallit and/or tefillin, if they choose to do so. Those who decide to wear tallit and/or tefillin should thereafter treat these practices as fulfilling an obligation and should recite the appropriate mitzvah berachah.

The Talmud exempts women from performing time-bound mitzvot: “every positive commandment whose observance is time dependent – men are obligated, and women are exempt; but when a mitzvah is not time-dependent, men and women are equally obligated” (m. Kiddushin 1:7). Thus, women have been exempt from reciting the Shema and donning tefillin (time-bound mitzvot) but obligated to pray the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon (m. Berachot 3:3).

At the same time, nowhere in the Talmud are women forbidden to perform mitzvot from which they are exempt, including the wearing of tallit and tefillin. A tradition is reported that "Michal the daughter of King Saul used to wear tefillin, and the sages did not protest" (b. Eruvin 96a). Maimonides and Rashi rule that women are permitted to perform mitzvot from which they are exempt, but should not recite the mitzvah blessing, since "who has commanded us" does not apply to them. Other sages even permitted the recitation of the mitzvah blessing.

The obvious reason for the exemption from time-bound mitzvot is a woman's need for flexibility in order to fulfill her traditional duties, especially those related to the care and rearing of children. In a society with large families, lower life-expectancy (and thus fewer non-childrearing years for women), and strictly demarcated gender roles, this exemption makes sense. In the developed world of the twenty-first century, the exemption is anachronistic (except, perhaps, in ultra-orthodox enclaves). Thus, rather than sitting in judgment on the tradition, we are concluding that the reasons for the traditional rulings no longer apply.