Now that we’re in the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana is just around the corner. This time last year I did a blog post outlining the core of the prayer service known as the Amidah or Shemoneh Esrei. Check it out here. Now I’d like to go into a little more depth.
The Origins of Prayer
It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day as it states, ” You shall serve Hashem, you’re God.” (Shemos 22:26) The Oral Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as Devarim 11:13 states, “And serve Him with all your heart” and our Sages said: Which is the service of the heart? This is prayer.
That quote is from the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Tefilah, Chapter 1, Misheh 1). He goes on to say that in the Torah there are no prescribed formulas, amounts, times, or particular ways to pray at all. The only real requirements are that one praises God, petitions for all their needs, and finally gives thanks to God. Then Rambam says that a person should do this “according to their own ability.” So how did we end up with highly regimented, 3 times a day method known as the prayer service?
As the Jewish nation was scattered and the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people lost a paramount connection with God. The ability to express themselves in Lashon Hakodesh (aka Hebrew) became limited. So a body known as the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshe Kinesset Gedolah) decided to institute a structure as a way of unifying the Jewish people. Also, if we are to believe that prayer has an actual impact on the world, setting specific topics for the Jewish nation to pray for would make sure those blessings would be covered and not just the desires of an individual.
Steps of the Service
As said above, the things prayer must accomplish are 1) praise God, 2) petition for your needs, 3) thank God. How does the Shemoneh Esrei accomplish this? Let’s take a look. Below is a list of all 18 prayers.
So the first step is praising God. The first three blessing correspond to this. Said by many to be the most important part of the Shemoneh Esrei, that if you nail these first ones it heavily impacts the rest of the davening. But why do we need to praise God? Does God really need us to compliment Him? Of course not. What praising God is about is us understanding who we are talking to. Think of it like a job interview. If you’re going in to ask someone for a job, wouldn’t it be a good idea to know who is going to conduct said interview?
Also known as the Patriarch, the core of this blessing is to reflect upon all that God has done for us up until this point. It’s His track record. In the interview metaphor, it’s the research of the interviewer’s history. The goal is to recognize and appreciate what God has already given us.
Translated as God’s Might. Now that we remember what God has done in the past, we remind ourselves what God currently does for us and what he can/will do for us. And the prayer lists these things; maintains his faith to those who are down trodden, sustains the world with kindness, heals the sick, etc. For the interviewer, it’s an understanding that this person can give you a job because they run the company. And there should be reverence and humility there.
3) Kedushas Hashem
Now Kedusha is often translated as holy. And when I hear holiness, I think of something that sparkles gold and can repel vampires. But in Judaism we regard Kedusha as something that is separate, set aside as special. So the prayer reads, “You are Kadosh, and your name is Kadosh…” and what it’s saying is that even though we’ve just familiarized ourselves with who God is and what God does for us, the truth is we have no real idea what we’re talking about. That God is so separate from us that the only concrete way we can relate to God is through the Name. Because God is infinite and at the same time One and also everything but definitely not physical. The nature of God is something you could ponder for a life time. But at this point in the service, we simply need to recognize that He is beyond us.
4-16) Petitions for Need
Prayers 4-16 cover requests for needs. I’m not going to go into them at this point, but I will point out that on Shabbos and Holidays, this section completely changes. For those times these 13 prayers are replaced with a prayer for the Holiness of the Day. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have their essential ideas and prayers in this section. And Shabbos has 4 variations of this prayer for each service.
The final requirement is to give thanks to God. And though this could be done with 1 prayer, we do it with three.
This prayer is dedicated to the return of the Temple service and its sacrifices. This sounds like a request so you’d think that it would be in the above category and not “giving thanks.” But here we come to understand the distinction between Tefiliah (prayer) and Avodah (service). Today tefiliah is our service to Hashem. But back when we had the Temple, the deepest, holiest, and most profound connection were the sacrifices of the Temple. The prayer service became a substitution for that. So with the Avodah prayer, we are thanking God that we still have a way to connect with Him. But then we recognize that there was a better way and that we wish for its return.
Literally, thanksgiving. A prayer devoted to seeing and thanking God for all He does for us. Pretty straight forward.
Shalom is often translated as peace and so once again it seems like a request. But as I’ve said before, Shalom isn’t about “no war,” but about being whole. So there’s a line in the prayer, “may it be good in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel… with peace.”Why would it need to be good in God’s eyes to bless us with peace? Isn’t peace what the whole of creation is about?
To understand this we need to understand the nature of a blessing. That in order to receive a blessing, we need to be in the place to receive it. Basically, it’s not worthwhile to bless me with becoming a professional NBA player. I’m a 5’6” white guy whose feet hurt after running on concrete. You can bless me all you want, but it ain’t gonna happen because I’m not in the place to receive that blessing. So what the Shalom prayer is about is being real with the fact that we are all in a place, seeing that place, being appreciative of that place, then understanding what place we should be heading for to best receive all the blessings we’ve just prayed to God for. And with that we end the Shemoneh Esrei.
So what do you do?
It’s a lot to take in and a lot to wrap your head around. Then on top of that, to keep in mind that you are actually speaking to Something as you say these blessings is another level of focus. But I’d suggest that if you want to make your prayer service more meaningful, contemplate these individual blessings. You don’t have to say them in Hebrew. You don’t even really have to read them all in English. Consider looking at the categories and contemplate them. What does Justice mean to you? Who do you know who needs healing? And take your time. The Shemoneh Esrei is a dedicated space for you and Hashem. It doesn’t matter if you fall behind. And if even that is a bit much for you, remember it’s about service of the heart. Contemplate what your heart needs and maybe try asking Hashem for it. Rosh Hashana is a uniquely special time for that connection.