A Peek into the Jewish Prayer Book
An informal tour of the daily prayers.
Formal prayers as a daily practice began at the beginning of the Second Temple period, with the composition of the Amidah prayer, also known as the Shmone Esrei. “Amidah” means “standing,” referring to the fact that it is recited while standing. “Shmone Esrei” means “eighteen,” because it was originally composed of eighteen blessings (another was added later) addressing a variety of universal topics.
Jewish prayer is usually structured according to a formula: first praise, then request, and then thanksgiving. So the Shmone Esrei begins with praise: praising God for His treatment of us and our forefathers, for His might and kindness, and for His holiness.
Next come the request prayers. We pray for knowledge and understanding; for repentance and for God to draw us nearer to His will; for forgiveness; for redemption; for health and healing; for prosperity; for the ingathering of the exiles; for the restoration of justice; for the annihilation of evil and evildoers; for the welfare of the righteous; for the rebuilding of Jerusalem; for the restoration of the Davidic royal dynasty (a.k.a. the Messiah), and, lastly, for God to accept all our prayers.
Then comes thanksgiving. We thank God for our lives, for “Your miracles that are with us every day,” for “Your wonders and goodness at all times,” and His eternal kindness. Finally, we pray for peace and His blessing in all things, and thank Him for blessing us with peace.
During services, this prayer is first recited in silence, every person to him or herself. We recite it while standing with our feet together, which is symbolic of the angels, while facing Jerusalem. At the beginning and the end of the prayer, we take three steps backwards, and then three steps forward. There are a number of reasons for this, some of them having to do with the Temple services, but this is how I like to think about it: Before the prayer, we “step back” from the material world and then “step up” before the King of Kings. After the prayer, we back respectfully away from our Master and return to the material world. We also bow during certain parts of the prayer, as though bowing before the King.
After the silent recitation, the chazzan—the cantor—repeats the entire prayer out loud. This practice was established for those Jews who couldn’t read and couldn’t memorize this (rather long) prayer. They can fulfill their duty to pray it by answering “Amen” when the chazzan completes each blessing.
Jews are required to recite many prayers throughout the day (most of them blessings), but as a general rule there are three prayer services that Jews are required to attend. (Women are exempt from the commandments that have specific prescribed times. Women are also required to pray, but not necessarily at the prescribed times and not necessarily three times a day.) The prayer services are Shacharit (morning services), Mincha (afternoon services), and Ma’ariv (evening services). They were established in memory of the three daily sacrifices at the Temple that corresponded to them.
As a rule, men are supposed to attend these services and pray with at least nine other men (in a minyan—a quorum of ten men; in Orthodoxy, women are not counted for this because they have a different “level” of requirement for this particular commandment). In practice, if they can’t attend a synagogue for whatever reason, they may pray on their own, but certain prayers that are recited in a minyan must be omitted.
On Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, a weekly portion of the Torah is read during the morning services, after the chazzan’s repetition of the Amidah. On Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and holidays, there is an additional prayer service called Musaf (meaning “addition”) that corresponds to an additional sacrifice that was offered on those days. It is usually recited right after morning services, as part of the same service.
Composition of the Services
The morning service can be rather lengthy, lasting 35 to 45 minutes in a synagogue on a weekday, and longer on Shabbat or a holiday. It begins with a series of “morning blessings,” thanking God for basic things like eyesight, clothing, being able to walk, etc. Then, there is a series of psalms and other prayers that fall under the shevach (praise) category.
Next comes the Shema prayer--a central prayer to Judaism that proclaims the oneness of God. It is preceded by two long blessings and followed by one blessing. Then comes the Amidah, and depending on the tradition of the congregation, there may be a number of other psalms and prayers read before the service is concluded with a special prayer called Aleinu (“It Is Upon Us”) that is about our responsibility to now go out into the world and proclaim God’s glory, and the Kaddish prayer—a special prayer in Aramaic about God’s supremacy and holiness.
The Mincha service is much shorter, consisting only of a few psalms, the Amidah, and Aleinu. Ma’ariv is also short, but it includes reading the Shema before the Amidah, with slightly different blessings preceding and following it.
On Shabbat and holidays, the Amidah is different. It includes only seven blessings, not eighteen, because we don’t do request prayers on Shabbat and holidays. Instead, there are different blessings specific to the day. This is also true of Musaf. On Shabbat and holidays there are also additional songs and prayers, and certain prayers that are omitted.
There are also a few other prayers we say that are not part of the daily prayer service. One of them is the prayer we recite upon waking in the morning, Modeh ani: “I give thanks to you, living and eternal King, for returning my soul to me. Great is Your faith.” That last bit contains a very deep idea—God has returned my soul to me, not because of my faith in Him, but because He has great faith in me. He returned my soul to me because He trusts that I will contribute goodness to His world and work to fulfill my role here, whatever that may be.
Another prayer worth noting is tefillat ha’derekh, the traveler’s prayer. It is a short prayer for safety we recite upon leaving the city limits. The roads here being as they are, this is a prayer I recite with particular intention and fervor every time I leave town…
There are also what we call “blessings,” short statements of gratitude we recite in various situations; for example, before and after enjoying food, or before performing a commandment.
Generally speaking, no special equipment or attire is required for prayer; one must be at clothed, of course, and it is proper to be fully dressed, with our heads covered, out of respect for the Guy to Whom You Are Speaking (hence the kippah).
However, if you ever stumble across a Jewish man in prayer on a weekday, he will have a little black box tied to the front of his head with a thick leather strap, and another box tied to his arm near the shoulder, with another leather strap winding around the rest of his arm and then around his middle finger. He also might be wearing a wool shawl with fringes and two blue stripes over his head.
The shawl is a prayer shawl, a tallit, and the boxes are phylacteries, tefillin. The prayer shawl is a four-cornered garment, so it has tassels (tzitziyot) at each corner, according to the commandment of tzitzit. The stripes of the tallit inspired the blue stripes on the Israeli flag, symbolizing the State as the culmination of our prayers for two millennia. For the record, that’s what’s supposed to go in that velvet bag of yours.
Tefillin is a separate commandment, mentioned in the Torah a number of times, one of which is the Shema prayer: “You shall bind [the words of the Torah] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as a reminder between your eyes.” (Deuteronomy 6:8). They are leather boxes that contain parchment scrolls, on which four passages from the Torah are inscribed—two from Exodus, and two from Deuteronomy, the latter two being the first two paragraphs of the Shema.
The boxes are bound to the body with leather straps: one on the forehead (“between the eyes”) and one on the inner side of the arm—the left arm if you’re right-handed, and the right if you are left-handed. Men are required to put on tefillin every day except Shabbat and holidays. Women are not required because of the same rule mentioned before.
The Torah explains that the purpose of tefillin is to serve as a reminder of God’s intervention in the Exodus from Egypt. Practically speaking, having a physical object connected to prayer on your body helps channel your concentration and maintain an awareness and focus on God.
Excerpted from Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism a collection of letters from a religious Jew in Israel to a Christian friend in Barcelona describing life as an Orthodox Jew. Equal parts lighthearted and insightful, it's a thorough and entertaining introduction to the basic concepts of Judaism.