The Way Into Jewish Prayer

The Way Into Jewish Prayer

by Lawrence A. Hoffman

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An invitation and a roadmap to becoming a prayerful person.

Guided by Lawrence A. Hoffman, The Way Into Jewish Prayer helps us explore the reasons for and the ways of Jewish prayer. It covers:

  • Why we pray. The Jewish paths to God and the many ways that Jews can think of God who is beyond description: a surprising


An invitation and a roadmap to becoming a prayerful person.

Guided by Lawrence A. Hoffman, The Way Into Jewish Prayer helps us explore the reasons for and the ways of Jewish prayer. It covers:

  • Why we pray. The Jewish paths to God and the many ways that Jews can think of God who is beyond description: a surprising invitation to consider the images of God that have moved the greatest Jewish minds to know they are not alone.
  • How we pray. Fixed prayer and spontaneous prayer, the standard prayer service and the prayer of the heart: the many modes by which Jews transcend the self.
  • Where we pray. In synagogue and home, in sacred community or by ourselves: the Jewish paths to the sacred on which we walk each day.

    Here is a book that opens the door to 3,000 years of Jewish prayer, by making available all you need to feel at home in Jewish worship—from a basic definition of the terms you need to know, to a thoughtful analysis of the depth that lies beneath the Jewish relationship with God.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This book continues Jewish Lights' The Way Into... series, each volume designed to provide a basic introduction to Judaism by exploring one crucial Judaic concept. The expertise of the contributors is typified by Hoffman, who is a scholar, theologian, rabbi, teacher, lecturer and writer specializing in questions of Jewish liturgy. While his book is a primer on prayer, Hoffman demonstrates the close linkage among other aspects of Judaism. He begins by examining Jewish ideas about God, which leads to an exploration of the pattern and place of prayer. Portions of this research descend into various digressions, as when Hoffman discourses at length on the history, form, art and architecture of synagogues. A somewhat smaller diversion from his basic theme follows as Hoffman describes the denominations of Judaism, emphasizing their differences in regard to prayer. He concludes with a consideration of prayer ideas and blessings, again moving beyond prayer as he discusses theology, anthropology, cosmology, eschatology and the Jewish calendar. He offers a rather strained delineation of anthropology that bears little resemblance to its conventional definition. Most of the book is written simply and clearly, although Hoffman is overly fond of complicated tangents and sometimes crosses the line from explaining the value of prayer to preaching about it. Despite these limitations, this book, on the whole, is a useful explication of prayer in Jewish life. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Jewish Lights Publishing
Publication date:
Way into. . .Series
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.49(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

God and the Jewish People:
To Whom Jews Pray

One of the things that makes America unique is its simple, absolute, and public faith in faith. We are a very religious country—the most religious, in fact, of any Western democracy—and apparently getting more so with every decade since the middle of the twentieth century. Americans appear to regard the benefits of prayer as so evident that only a fool would question them.

    That attitude crosses religious boundaries. When the Lubavitcher rebbe (the international leader of the best-known Hasidic sect, named after the European town where the sect was born) fell into what doctors defined as a final coma, almost certain to lead to his imminent death, Hasidic men flooded the sidewalk outside the hospital for blocks and blocks, praying for their rabbi's recovery. When New York's Cardinal O'Connor was admitted to a hospital that specializes in cancer treatment, headlines trumpeted, "Thousands of Catholics pray for Cardinal's health." Prayer comes naturally to us, it seems. We pray with children before bedtime, say prayers at meals, inaugurate presidents with prayer, and open Congress that way too. Even football's annual Super Bowl starts with words to God, who, we assume, is among the fans.

    There is no shortage of literature by people who want to teach us to pray better, or who think that praying the right prayers, any way, will literally work wonders. I don't just mean the self-help books that fill up shelf after shelf of bookstore space. Even my local supermarket has two or three tinybooklets with pictures of people praying or of hands clasped in a traditional Christian mode of worship, bearing titles like Biblical Prayers for Everyone and The Secret of Prayer. Sports heroes routinely report prayer meetings before games; a prominent New York Yankee appears in a national commercial saying that he is saved; college athletes kneel in silent homage after scoring touchdowns. Billboards advertise prayer as if it were a spiritual aspirin tablet that everyone ought to have on hand; we don't know how aspirin works, either, but no one doubts its effectiveness. At the very least, "the family that prays together stays together," we are told.

    Is any of this true? Does simply everyone believe it? How much of it is media hype? Does every single American except me take it as obvious that the purpose of prayer is to offer thanks or plead our case before a divine parent who listens to what we say, the way my father used to when I cried in his lap when I was a child? I have been a rabbi for thirty years and a professor of liturgy for twenty-five of them; I know more about prayer than most people, and I still struggle with it. I suspect most thoughtful people do. What is this thing called prayer, anyway? Why do it, especially since mostly our prayers don't get answered? The "way into prayer," then, is not simply a matter of learning facts about the prayers Jews say and the requisite skill in how to say them. The way into Jewish prayer starts with a giant hurdle that other areas of Jewish life and lore need not contend with. Prayer seems to presuppose the existence of a deity who listens to what we say, wants us to say it, and, somehow, responds. Prayer is not simply a question of what Jews say to God. It is also about the God who is at the other end, listening.

Does God Hear Prayer?

The traditional view of prayer is relatively straightforward. The Bible, for instance, takes it for granted that people have conversations with God the same way they do with each other. To take but one example, Moses pleads with God to pardon Israel's sins, and God duly responds, "I have pardoned, just as you say" (Numbers 14:20). Sometimes God initiates the conversation; sometimes human beings do. But either way, God appears here as an all-knowing and all-powerful being who welcomes our praise and, if we are deserving, acts positively on our requests.

    By the second half of the second century B.C.E., the leaders whom we call the Rabbis were coming into being. So influential were they for all the rest of Jewish history that Jews today are universally rabbinic through and through. Jewish tradition is the Hebrew scriptures that Jews call the Bible plus the voluminous writings of the Rabbis of antiquity and the subsequent equally monumental work of other Jewish leaders, also called rabbis, from the Middle Ages up to and including our own day. We customarily differentiate the Rabbis who laid the foundation for rabbinic Judaism until roughly the middle of the sixth century C.E. from the rabbis who are their spiritual descendants by capitalizing the first term but using lowercase for the second.

    By the year 200 C.E., the Rabbis had recorded their views on prayer (as on everything else) in a compendium called the Mishnah. By 400 C.E., further generations of Rabbis in the Land of Israel had composed a larger work called the Palestinian Talmud. And somewhere around 550 C.E., Rabbis in Babylonia (present-day Iraq) compiled a monumental work (some sixteen thousand pages in the standard English translation) called the Babylonian Talmud, or sometimes just the Talmud because of its size and influence. From all of these works, we see that the Rabbis viewed God more or less as had their biblical forebears. They knew that unlike the prophets, however, they themselves never heard God speak, so they concluded that actual prophecy had ceased. Apparently God didn't initiate conversations any more.

    But the Rabbis were equally certain that God still hears our prayers, and sometimes even answers them by granting the things we pray for. They were sure, in fact, that God wants us to pray—and not just as the mood strikes us, but regularly, and in community, not alone. That was an innovation beyond what biblical men and women had known. In the Bible, people pray only when they feel like it. Moses asks God to heal his sister, Miriam. Solomon requests wisdom so that he can lead his people wisely. Miriam sings God's praises to celebrate crossing the Red Sea; Hannah asks for a baby boy. But once a prayer is said, it is over and done with. No one feels the need to pray the same words twice, and the prayers don't get fixed so that other people in the same situation are obliged to copy them. The Rabbis did not question a person's right to speak directly to God with heartfelt praise, petition, and gratitude, just as biblical heroes had, but in addition, they took the next step of establishing the times and structure of a regular communal prayer cycle, the one we use to this very day. For the Rabbis, then, personal prayer was juxtaposed to communal liturgy—a far cry from biblical days, when the only public worship service had been the sacrificial cult. The God to whom the community spoke, however, was still portrayed as a personal deity who hears what people say and acts upon our words the way a powerful monarch—the Roman emperor himself, perhaps—did for powerful petitioners in court.

    Most of us grew up with that kingly image of God in mind. For those of us who still believe in a God who can be pictured that way, prayer is mostly not a problem. Such a God might easily demand prayers from us, the subjects of the divine kingdom. In return, since God is all-powerful, just, and good, we might expect a positive response to our petitions, as long as we deserve it. But here is where even those who still believe in the biblical notion of a personal God run into difficulty. It is hard to prove that God really does answer our prayers, and sometimes, as when "bad things happen to good people," it is hard not to wonder why God doesn't respond the way we think a good God would.

    Of late, researchers have tried to demonstrate scientifically that God hears prayer. I don't mean a simple case where a patient prays and then is healed, or even a case where friends or chaplains visit the sick and pray together with them. A positive outcome in either of these two cases may be explainable as just the impact of mind upon body: another instance where our bodily well-being is affected by our willpower, perhaps. I mean what is called prayer at a distance, whereby a random set of patients is assigned to an equally random set of worshipers, without the patients knowing that they are being prayed for. The researchers claim that the patients for whom prayers are offered have a statistically significant better chance of recovery. It follows, for these researchers, that God is indeed a personal deity who hears prayer.

    That may indeed be the case, of course, but there are problems with the experiment. To begin with, it may not even be valid. It was undertaken by born-again evangelicals who were not objective observers at all, the way scientific researchers are supposed to be; they were already intent on demonstrating that a hearing God controls our destiny. In addition, however, the very concept of the experiment was flawed. How do we know, for example, that the people who were included in the group not being prayed over were not being prayed for anyway, but by someone else? Nowadays, almost everyone knows someone who believes in prayer and who is likely to offer prayer for a sick friend. The most the experiment can prove is that God hears the prayers of the designated worshipers more than those of the rest of the population—a moral dilemma for most of us, who are not ready to say that God has a penchant for the prayer of selected evangelicals but does not listen as carefully to prayers by ordinary Christians, Jews, and Muslims, for instance.

    But even if the prayed-over population did get better on account of the evangelicals' prayers, it is not clear that the results would still be good news. Suppose, for instance, that without the prayers, 50 percent of the people tended to get better and 50 percent did not, but that with the prayers, 60 percent were cured while only 40 percent remained sick. What would we say to the 40 percent whom God apparently passed over? Either God would have to be somewhat whimsical, curing some but not others, or the sick people would have to conclude that they were sinners, undeserving of God's beneficence.

    In other words, it may be that God really is a humanlike deity who commands that we pray, hears our prayers, and rewards the good among us. But that simple solution to the problem of prayer embroils us in theological or moral difficulties. At any rate, Jewish tradition does not demand that we believe in that sort of God. Even though the Bible and rabbinic literature regularly speak of God that way, Jewish tradition also offers us more sophisticated concepts of the divine and a deeper conception of prayer that goes with them.

Too Much Praise?

The Talmud relates an anecdote about Rabbi Chaninah, probably a third-century authority in the Land of Israel. It pictures him in synagogue listening to a prayer called the T'fillah (t'-fee-LAH or, commonly, t'-FEE-lah). The word T'fillah (which means "prayer") is sometimes used for any or all of our prayers, but technically it denotes a particular prayer that nowadays is usually called the Amidah (pronounced ah-mee-DAH or, commonly, ah-MEE-dah, meaning "standing") or the Sh'moneh Esrei (pronounced sh'MOH-neh ES-ray, meaning "eighteen"). Each of the three titles tells us something about this famous prayer. It was called the T'fillah because the Rabbis thought of it as the prayer par excellence. Since the Rabbis thought of it as the means by which we approach God for conversation about our needs, the way subjects in an empire approach the emperor, it is said standing—hence the name Amidah, the prayer that we say while standing. Structurally, it is made up of a series of independent smaller prayers called blessings (more on blessings later), which now number nineteen in all but were only eighteen in number originally: thus, the name Sh'moneh Esrei, the prayer with eighteen blessings.

    The other character in the anecdote is an unnamed prayer leader, who is described as "going down" to lead the T'fillah. Typically, Jewish prayer is arranged as a dialogue between the congregation and its prayer leader, whose Hebrew designation is sh'liach tsibur (pronounced sh'-lee-AKH tsee-BOOR or, commonly, sh-LEE-akh TSEE-boor), "an agent [or representative] of the congregation." The dialogue-like format was probably influenced by the vision of the prophet Isaiah, who saw angels praising God in such a way that "one would call to the other, `Holy, holy, holy'" (Isaiah 6:3). This threefold praise of God as "holy" is an important part of Jewish (and Christian) prayer still. Since the angels of Isaiah's vision sang their praises responsively, Jewish worship was designed in a similarly responsive fashion. The prayer leader calls to the people, and the congregation responds. Nowadays, in traditional services, the back-and-forth dialogue whereby prayer leader and congregation take turns chanting each paragraph of Hebrew prayer is called davening (pronounced DAH-v'n-ing), a Yiddish word of uncertain origin; and the prayer leader, or sh'liach tsibur, is usually a specially trained master of the prayers and their melodies, known as a cantor, or, in Hebrew, a chazan (pronounced khah-ZAHN, or, commonly, KHUH-z'n).

    Descriptions of prayer leaders in third-century Babylon say that when it came time for them to begin, they would "go down" from their seat to the front of the room, and direct the Amidah from there. Either the room was actually sloped downward so that the leaders stood somewhat below the other worshipers, or they thought of themselves as being in a particularly lowly position as they approached the great and mighty deity on the congregation's behalf. The spatial arrangement or the feeling of praying out of deep humility may have been inspired by Psalm 130:1: "Out of the depths I call to You Adonai; Adonai, listen to my cry. Let your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy." At any rate, our story is a report of a prayer leader who "went down" to the front of the room and then led the Amidah in the presence of Rabbi Chaninah.

    We shall see also that Rabbi Chaninah refers to some people called the Men of the Great Assembly, and it is not entirely clear who they were. The problem is the Rabbis were not historians. Nonetheless, they felt the need to claim an unbroken chain of tradition from Moses to their own time. The Bible virtually ends with the account of Nehemiah and his generation (fifth century B.C.E.), whereas the Rabbis came into being only in the middle of the second century B.C.E.. That meant that they had a vacuum of some three hundred years between Nehemiah and themselves. Someone had to have been in charge of passing on Jewish tradition from Nehemiah's day to their own, they reasoned. But not knowing who, they made up a generic term for all of that era's leaders who had faithfully transmitted older biblical wisdom to their rabbinic spiritual heirs. They were said to be part of a body known as the Men of the Great Assembly. For all we know, such a group never really existed; it may have been a fictitious construct by Rabbis who knew someone had to have been in charge but didn't know who those "someones" were. When Chaninah cites the Men of the Great Assembly, he means to say that he has a very old tradition going back not quite as far as the Bible but at least long before Rabbis like himself had come into being.

A certain prayer leader went down in the presence of Rabbi Chaninah and said, "O God, great, mighty, awesome, majestic, powerful, terrifying, strong, courageous, certain, and honored."

Rabbi Chaninah waited until he had finished, and then asked him, "Have you finally finished all the praise of your master? Why do we need all this praise? Even with just the three adjectives that we do say ["great, mighty, and awesome"], were it not for the fact that Moses himself used them in the Torah, so that the Men of the Great Assembly later ordained them as an official part of the T'fillah, we wouldn't even be able to say them, and yet here you are saying all of this!"

    This short anecdote reveals a great deal about how the Rabbis prayed and how they conceptualized God.

    First, they agonized over the right words to use when praising God. Nowadays (following Rabbi Chaninah), the very first of the Amidah's eighteen sections addresses God as "great, mighty, and awesome." Those words go back to the book of Nehemiah, the governor in Jerusalem in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. In 587, the Babylonian army had destroyed the ancient kingdom of Judah, carrying its leaders into captivity. Shortly thereafter, Persia defeated Babylonia and allowed the exiles to return home. Waves of emigration back to the Land of Israel followed, all the way into the middle of the fifth century, when Nehemiah arrived on Persia's behalf to oversee its colony in the making. Nehemiah cites a prayer in which Israel reaffirms its covenant with God, and in it, God is praised for being "great, mighty, and awesome."

    Apparently, these were the adjectives that Rabbi Chaninah was used to hearing in the Amidah's opening line, but the prayer leader in the story added several other epithets of praise. Chaninah condemned what he considered an overabundance of verbiage, because it seemed to imply that if only we could pick enough words of praise, we would be able to describe God adequately. According to Chaninah, only the three words "great, mighty, and awesome" are appropriate, and we wouldn't even say them were it not for the fact that Moses used them separately here and there in the Five Books of Moses (the first five books of the Bible, which Jews call the Torah), and if Nehemiah hadn't provided a precedent when he strung them together in his day. Chaninah concludes that the Men of the Great Assembly, who followed Nehemiah in leadership, must have canonized them in their prayer, so that Chaninah and the Jews among whom he prays now use them similarly. The point of the story is the lesson that while praise of God is a good thing, too much praise is inappropriate. We learn also that even though communal prayer is an invention of the Rabbis, its language is frequently rooted in biblical precedent.

    We see too that for the Rabbis, the most central prayer in Jewish liturgy was the Amidah. In the third century C.E., the Amidah was already being led by a specially appointed representative of the congregation, who stepped down to an area in front of everyone else, or who thought of himself as doing so, and who began, as we still do, with the words of praise that Nehemiah had known. Until the twentieth century, these prayer leaders, and all the Rabbis too, were always men, so all our talmudic or medieval accounts feature men in these positions, never women. Nowadays, we still have such prayer leaders, and they may be men or women. They are usually trained as cantors (about whom we will have more to say in chapter 4), and they still lead prayer responsively, although they do not "go down" to do so. Instead, they usually "go up" to a platform where people can see them. A further and more important difference is that ever since the ninth century, they have not had to memorize or make up the prayers as they go along, the way the prayer leader in our story does. Instead, they chant the prayers aloud from a prayer book called a siddur—pronounced see-DOOR or, commonly, SIH-d'r—meaning "order [of prayers]." Actually, the siddur contains only the daily and Sabbath (or Shabbat, pronounced shah-BAHT) liturgy. Holiday prayers are in a separate volume called a machzor (pronounced mahkh-ZOHR or, commonly, MAHKHz'r), meaning "cycle" and referring to the festivals that recur according to an annual cycle of time. A third and final book of prayer that is commonly used accompanies the festive dinner that inaugurates Passover—the seder (pronounced SEH-der or, commonly, SAY-der and, like siddur, which sounds similar, another word denoting the "order" of the prayers for the occasion). That book is called the haggadah (pronounced hah-gah-DAH or, commonly, hah-GAH-dah), meaning "recounting," since the purpose of the seder is to recount the tale of how God freed Israel from Egyptian bondage.

    The most important lesson from the story, however, and the main reason for introducing it here, is what it tells us implicitly about the Rabbis' view of God. The prayer leader is faulted for imagining that he can ever capture God's essence, even if he has all the words of praise in the Hebrew language. In theory, no words of praise should be said at all, since God is beyond description. But the Bible praises God anyway, so in practice we do too, although we are careful not to say too much. We do not want to give the impression that we are really capturing the essence of a God who is so utterly beyond our descriptive capacity as to be actually beyond the scope of human language.

    "Great, mighty, and awesome" are the three words that make it into the permitted vocabulary that introduces the Amidah. They point to the fact that the Bible (and therefore the Rabbis) picture God mostly as a mighty ruler. But since human language can never fully get at the essence of God, we should not imagine that God is really like that. The biblical God is described also as being many other things, not all of them compatible with one another. As the Rabbis put it, "The Bible speaks in human language" in order that we can understand it, but God cannot be limited to what that language is capable of saying. God is therefore not really a ruler who hears our prayers the way the Roman emperor hears his subjects' petitions. Though God may hear prayer, God does so in a way that is beyond our language to describe.


Meet the Author

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, has served for more than three decades as professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He is a world-renowned liturgist and holder of the Stephen and Barbara Friedman Chair in Liturgy, Worship and Ritual. His work combines research in Jewish ritual, worship and spirituality with a passion for the spiritual renewal of contemporary Judaism.

His many books, written and edited, include seven volumes in the Prayers of Awe series: Who by Fire, Who by Water—Un'taneh Tokef; All These Vows—Kol Nidre; We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism—Ashamnu and Al Chet; May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism—Yizkor; All the World: Universalism, Particularism and the High Holy Days; Naming God: Avinu MalkeinuOur Father, Our King; and Encountering God: El Rachum V'chanun—God Merciful and Gracious. Hoffman also edited the ten-volume series My People's Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries, winner of the National Jewish Book Award; and coedited My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award (all Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Hoffman cofounded and developed Synagogue 2/3000, a transdenominational project to envision and implement the ideal synagogue of the spirit for the twenty-first century. In that capacity, he wrote Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life (Jewish Lights).

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