Rabbi Johnny Solomon explores the role of prayer within Jewish tradition, looking at its history, development and use within worship and rituals.
‘In the Beginning’ God created the universe and humanity. From then on, humanity was expected to maintain its awareness of God as the Creator of the universe and humanity, with the primary manifestation of this relationship being prayer, which, according to Martin Buber, expresses a unique I–Thou relationship and emphasises Judaism’s belief in a personal God who is the ‘Eternal Thou’.
In the early biblical period, prayer was primarily used to thank and praise God, as well as to plead to God. For example, Abraham prays to God to save the people of Sodom (Genesis 18), Isaac and Rebecca pray for children (Genesis 25) and Jacob prays for divine protection before meeting with his brother Esau (Genesis 32). In all these instances humanity expresses its need for God.
Interestingly, Jewish thinkers such as Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel go even further and claim that the I–Thou relationship which lies at the centre of the Jewish biblical tradition can also be understood as highlighting the needs of God – for without humanity calling out and praying to God, how will God’s existence be acknowledged or sanctified in the universe?
Still, there is general agreement that prayer is both a duty required by God of humanity, and a spiritual need of humanity for God, and that – as Rabbi Soloveitchik explains – ‘the basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences, but the metaphysical formation of a fellowship consisting of God and man’.
What examples of prayer are there in the Bible?
In terms of the prayers recorded in the Bible, these were unscripted and spontaneous. Some were very short, such as Moses’s five-word prayer asking God to heal his sister Miriam (Numbers 12), while some were very long such as Moses’s plea on behalf of his people who had worshipped the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). However, it was the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf that, at least according to some commentaries, led to the greatest shift in how the Jewish people were called upon to worship God.
Prior to this point, the Bible placed little emphasis on spiritual hierarchy, with communication with God occurring anywhere, anytime, by anyone: ‘In every place that you mention My name, I will come to you and bless you’ (Exodus 20. 21).
However, the episode of the Golden Calf demonstrated how misdirected worship can – at times – lead to spiritual disaster. Consequently, God commanded the Jewish people to build a Tabernacle (Exodus 25) so that ‘I may dwell among them’ (Exodus 25. 8), and it was at this point that a very different model of divine worship emerged.
In contrast to the spontaneity of biblical prayer, the sacrificial order (as described in the Book of Leviticus) lists many detailed demands about the sacrifices that God sought from the people – including what sacrifices should be brought, when and where the sacrifices could be offered, and who could and could not offer up the sacrifices. Though some question whether this development was in direct response to the Golden Calf, the Tabernacle project was undoubtedly a huge shift in the direction of Jewish worship.
Prayer in the temple and synagogue
Rather than prayer being personal, it was now primarily a communal endeavour; and rather than worship being spontaneous, it had become highly prescriptive. From this point onwards collective prayer overtook individual spiritual worship, as evident from the nature of the priestly service in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Some four centuries later, the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon. It was with reference to this period that Ezekiel wrote: ‘although I have removed them far off among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the peoples, still, I have provided them with a miniature sanctuary in the countries where they have been exiled’ (Ezekiel 11. 16), some have understood this to be a reference to the institution of the synagogue (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah p. 29a). Moreover, it was also during this period that we are told how Daniel faced Jerusalem and prayed thrice daily (Daniel 6. 11) at the times in the day that reflected the times of the Temple sacrifices.
How did fixed prayers and Torah readings become established?
After a seventy-year exile the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. However, by this stage there was a high degree of assimilation, and so it was during this period that Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly started to formulate prayers and blessings to be recited by the people, and instituted regular public readings of the Torah (Nehemiah 9. 3; 13. 1).
Sefer Torah Or 1462
The writing of a Torah Scroll, its use, and its storage are subject to strict rules. The Talmud (the vast corpus of rabbinic law) specifies no less than twenty mandatory factors for a Torah Scroll to be considered fit for ritual service and public reading in the synagogue. The smallest mistake, such as for instance a missing letter, can invalidate a Torah Scroll.
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Unlike the early biblical period, the prayers established by the Men of the Great Assembly were now fixed prayers. But unlike the period of the Tabernacle and the First Temple, when the sacrificial service was only led by the priests, a new framework of worship was created that involved everyone.
Just over 400 years later, in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, and from then on the synagogue ‘became the home-in-exile of a scattered people. Every synagogue was a fragment of Jerusalem. And though the destruction of the Temple meant that sacrifices could no longer be offered, in their place came an offering of words, namely prayer'.
Since then, the rabbis have placed much emphasis on the value of collective worship by speaking about verbal prayer as a replacement for sacrifices (see Hosea 14. 3), by invoking biblical verses such as ‘in the multitude of people is the king’s glory’ (Proverbs 14. 28) and by stating that while private prayer may not always be heard, communal prayer is always heard (Maimonides, Laws of Prayer, 8. 1).
Still, it was not until much later that prayer-books were compiled. In the 12th century Simcha ben Samuel (d. 1105), from the French town of Vitri, compiled a prayer-book known as the Mahzor Vitri which recorded – in full – the prayer rites of French Jewry and northern Europe.
The Pitum ha-Ketoret prayer, pictured here, can be recited as an addition at the end of the daily evening service.
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How is God worshipped in the home?
Notwithstanding the emphasis on communal worship in the post-Temple period, it is noteworthy that many aspects of Jewish life are observed and expressed in the home. Upon waking up in the morning, a Jew recites a prayer. They then wash their hands in a ritual manner and recite a blessing; even the manner in which they get dressed can be informed by Jewish laws and values. However, for our purposes, we will briefly explore three expressions of worship in the Jewish home:
Grace after meals (Birkat ha-Mazon)
Jewish law requires that a blessing be recited both before and after eating food, with the later finding biblical support from the verse ‘When you eat and are satisfied, you must therefore bless God your Lord for the good land that He has given you’ (Deuteronomy 8. 10). Given this, at the close of each meal that has been accompanied with bread, the blessing is recited from a prayer book.
The Passover Haggadah
Every year, during the first evening meal of the Passover festival, the story of the Exodus is told with reference to a variety of biblical and rabbinic teachings and texts that form the Passover Haggadah. Though much of the content of this book is from the Talmudic period of the 2nd–5th centuries CE, the earliest extant full text Haggadot are from the 14th century such as the Hispano-Moresque Haggadah and the Golden Haggadah.
The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah
An illustration of the bitter herb eaten at Passover, a reminder of the bitter life that the Hebrew slaves endured in Egypt.
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The Golden Haggadah
Adam and Eve and the serpent – the right-hand side shows the creation of Eve from Adam's rib. The illustrations featured here start at Genesis 48. 7.
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Beyond prayers recited at meal times, the home was, and is, also the place for a variety of Jewish rituals, such as the circumcision of Jewish boys that takes place – ideally – when they are eight days old. The name of the individual who would conduct the circumcision was the ‘mohel’, and in some communities the mohel would use a ‘Pinḳas mohel’ which recorded the prayers to be recited at a circumcision.
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The house of study
Beyond this, while the synagogue and the home reflected the different aspects of formal and informal, and public and private worship, a third institution played a critical role in Jewish communities for the past 2,000 years – namely, the house of study. The book of Joshua relates how Torah should be studied day and night (Joshua 1. 8). In every village, town or city where Jews lived, the study house would be where Jews (although historically this refers primarily to male Jews) would gather to study sacred texts such as the Talmud, or listen to lectures delivered by leading rabbinical scholars exploring legal or ethical teachings.
For humanity to maintain its awareness of God as the Creator of the universe, and for that relationship to be authentic, it must be expressed in every aspect of life. This is why Jewish prayer was not restricted to the house of worship, nor limited to the home or house of study – precisely because God is not restricted to the house of worship nor the home or house of study. Instead, a Jew prays at home and in the synagogue: they invite God into their daily lives in the blessings they recite each day, and they are reminded of and connect to the will of God while also studying and discussing – on a daily basis – the Word of God.
 Martin Buber, I and Thou (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 14.
 Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer, ed. Shalom Carmy (Jersey City: Ktav, 2003), p. 35.
 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, ‘Understanding Jewish Prayer’ in The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (London: Continuum, 2006), p. xiii.