Praying is boring! Prayer has become one of the problematic elements in religious life today. The language of prayer itself seems so artificial no matter what the language. Many people find it difficult to accept that prayers by so many apparently good and spiritual people have gone unanswered. One need only think of the Holocaust to wonder whether prayer can affect God's plans and why, despite prayer, such awful things happen. And lots of Jews find the synagogue rituals of prayer, no matter in which denomination, stultifying and uninspiring. Yet prayer is an integral part of the Jewish tradition.
In English, the word 'pray' means 'beg'. 'I pray you, give me something to eat' may be a little old fashioned as a way of expression. But still, it conveys the meaning clearly. In origin, praying equals begging or asking. This in itself is enough to put some people off. Now if we pray in English then of course the restrictions of the English language will affect the way we think about the words we use. But in Hebrew the words used for prayer are so many and so varied that the impression ought to be quite different when using the Hebrew language. So let us examine these words and see what conclusions we arrive at.
In the Torah, prayer is expressed with many words and in different ways. Abraham and Moses both use the word tefilla for prayer which later on will become the predominant word used to describe the way humans try to relate to or intercede with God. When Abraham tells Avimelech that Sarah is his sister, not his wife in order to survive in an alien environment, Avimelech is visited by God in a dream and warned not to interfere with Sarah. God tells Avimelech that if he leaves Sarah alone ' He (Abraham) will pray for you and you will live.' And the episode continues ' So Abraham prayed to God and God cured Avimelech.' The word used here is tefilla. It is an interesting aside that when Pharaoh is plagued earlier in Genesis for taking Sarah there is no mention of Abraham praying for him. Whereas Avimelech who according to the text is both moral and God fearing merits prayer. Anyway, here, praying is clearly the equivalent of asking God for something. Similarly when Moses intercedes with God the same word, tefilla, is used 'And Moses prayed to God.'
Isaac uses a different word when appealing to God on behalf of Rivka. He uses the word le'ater which is usually translated 'to entreaty' and God responds with the same word. 'And Isaac entreated with God about his wife...and God entreated with him.' Moses also uses this word in appealing to God to remove one of the plagues. 'And he appealed to God.' after being asked to do so, using the same word, by Pharaoh. The fact that Pharaoh did not ask Moses to pray and the word for prayer lehitpallel is not used, says something about the word tefilla as a conduit between man and God. It requires a two way interaction. If a person's mind is blocked, nothing gets through.
The first word that might possibly mean something more akin to meditation, for thinking about God or expressing inner thoughts rather than asking for something is the word used of Isaac just before he meets Rebecca for the first time 'And Isaac went out to meditate in the field.' There the word use is lasuach which is commonly understood to derive from the root that means 'to speak' but as one would expect there are other possibilities. This is the one chosen by the rabbis although Ibn Ezra goes for the more obvious root meaning plants (so Isaac went out, according to him, to look at his fields and see how the crops were growing).
It is also suggested that the phrase used of Judah when he 'draws near' to Joseph to appeal for his brothers is related to prayer but the word itself, Vayigash, has no specific connotations to prayer in an etymological way. One might add the word litsok 'to cry out' which the Hebrew slaves are described as doing, but here too, I take this to mean more an expression of pain than an appeal to God. On the other hand Moses uses this word when he appeals to God on behalf of his sister Miriam 'And Moses cried out to God, saying 'God please heal her, please.'
When Moses appeals to God after the Golden Calf episode and begs God not to destroy the people he uses the word vayechal which, although translated as 'And he appealed' 'And Moses appealed to the face of God' is the same word as 'to begin', as, for example in the sentence 'Then they started calling in the name of God.' Similarly the word lechanen to try to find favor with God is used by Moses 'And I tried to find favor with God at that time.' When Moses is asking for something from God he also uses the word 'please' as a form of request, 'And Moses returned to God and said 'Please'' or 'And he said, if I can please You' and as he does when Miriam is stricken with leprosy in the example mentioned above.
In addition to these unusual words, most commonly Moses communicates with God using the word likro to call 'And he called on the name of God. As God passed by, he called.' and Moses regularly uses the word lomar 'to speak'. So that what emerges from looking at the Torah, are two three levels of approach to God; to ask for something and allied to it, to beg for something urgently. By way of contrast there is the usage meaning 'to express oneself to God' and to communicate with God. As Daniel puts it later on the bible 'He [Daniel] took it upon himself, thrice daily to turn to Jerusalem and to say his blessings and to pray and to thank God.'
By the time of Daniel, living in exile in Babylon in the fifth century before the Common Era, a pattern emerges of three different elements in the area of what we call 'prayer'. There are the ritual blessings, the brachot, blessings that are referred to in the Torah as in 'And you shall eat and be satisfied and thank the Lord your God.' as well as those made over the first fruits and the tithes. There is of course the Biblical process of praising and thanking God, one thinks of Samuel's mother rejoicing in his birth and what greater texts of praise are there than the Book of Psalms? This very powerful tradition was essential to the Jewish spiritual tradition, but in the pre-Ezra world there is nothing specified or legislated for as 'official' prayer. The Levites singing in the Temple over the sacrifices is the only record of a formal function for singing the praises of The Lord. There is the Reading of The Shema, referred to as an obligation in the Torah as a statement of commitment. But this is not what we mean by prayer. There is the obligation to read from the Torah. Before Ezra, this too was not a feature of regular community activity. But nothing has yet officially been instituted as an act of communal worship called 'prayer'.
The Midrash extends the list of words used to describe prayer to ten. 'Rabbi Yochanan said 'There are ten words that are used (to mean) prayer, to open oneself up, to cry, to groan, to exalt, to engage, to importune, to express pain, to call, to fall down before, to express oneself, to appeal.' But in effect the word 'tefilla' came to be used overwhelmingly throughout the later books of the bible and beyond. The process was obviously a complex one with many different facets and aspects.
The word lehitpalel, to pray, is a reflexive verb based on the root PLL, PALAL. If the word lefalel means to express, as in 'Pinheas stood on his feet and spoke', then lehitpalel means to 'express oneself '. So on one level it means to express one's inner feelings. But it is used in various other, different ways in the Torah. In addition to its use as a way of appealing to God it is also used as an expression of hope, of a deep desire that lies beneath surface in the way that Jacob did not dare hope that he would see his son Joseph again 'I did not imagine (express the hope) that I would see your face again.' The word used there is filallti. But the word is also used of 'Judges', felillim. And so the reflexive version, lehitfalel, would mean 'To judge oneself'. This is another dimension of prayer, self-examination. Prayer is an opportunity to look in on oneself.
According to most authorities, there is an obligation, implicit in the Torah to pray to God in a very personal and unstructured way. It is not just the thanking of God for the good things that happen, it is more than that. Maimonides puts it this way 'It is a positive commandment to pray every day as it says, 'And you will serve the Lord your God'. By tradition they learnt that this service is prayer. Because it says 'And you will serve Him with all your hearts. The Wise men said, 'What is the service that is done with the heart? This is prayer.' He goes on to say, 'If a person was used to appeal and to ask or if he (or she, the obligation applies equally to women) found it difficult to express himself he should speak according to his ability and at whatever time he is able to. And so the number of prayers was according to each person's ability. Some would pray only once a day and others would pray lots of times. They would pray towards the Temple in any place that he was. And this was the way it was from the times of Moses our teacher until Ezra.' In effect prayer was and remains a Torah imperative, a personal obligation to relate to God, not necessarily to ask for anything but as the word itself implies, to stand before God, to judge oneself and to express one's inner feelings and thoughts.
It was the Babylonian exile that introduced a new dimension. There the synagogue, or to be more precise, the Study Center, functioned as the community focal point replacing the Temple. As there was no sacrificial system in exile, studying it became a substitute for performing. In addition, according to Maimonides, the influence of the alien languages led to the loss of Hebrew as a natural means of expression and indeed the deterioration of linguistic expression in general. Some form of community prayer began as an addition to study and authority for this innovation was found by asserting that Abraham Isaac and Jacob had each begun the custom of praying formally to God at different times of the day.' Abraham instituted the morning prayer as it says, 'And Abraham got up early in the morning to go to the place where he stood', and 'standing' can only mean prayer as it says 'And Phineas stood up and prayed'. Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer because it says, 'Isaac went out to speak in the field towards evening.' And talking can only mean prayer as it says, 'A prayer of a poor man as he faints and before God he pours out his speech'. And Jacob instituted the evening prayer as it says, 'And he approached the place', and 'approach' can only mean prayer as it says, 'And now do not pray for this people and do not raise (your voice) for them in song and prayer and do not approach me.'
There is no reference in the Bible to official prayers at these three times of the day and so one must suppose that the tradition was meant to refer to informal and personal prayer at this stage. It was on the return from Babylon that Ezra adopted the new ideas of community service and study and prayer and retained them even though the Temple service was restored. The synagogue in Judea became a center both for education and for prayer. By tradition, the prophets had instituted the System of the Mishmar and the Maamad. The land of Israel was divided up into zones and these local communities sent their priests and Levites up to Jerusalem for a two week period to stand by and participate in the Temple. While they were doing this, the local community gathering in the synagogue to study what was going on in Jerusalem, and to pray. This was of course a brilliant method of educating the messes and involving them in the religious system. But there is no necessary connection made between the Mishmar and prayer.
In addition to introducing the regular weekly reading of the Torah in synagogues, Ezra, in the fourth century before the Common Era, is credited (by Maimonides at least) with having instituted the three times a day prayer system to run parallel with the Temple service. This seems to have been the basis of the clashes between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees objected to these Pharisaic innovations and argued that they would detract from the mystique and authority of the Temple. The rabbis argued that these were necessary devices to ensure that education reached everyone and was not just the preserve of the priesthood. However these prayer services still seem to have been informal and optional and were designed to assist with the performance of the individual obligation to pray. Community service still revolved around the Temple. So for the first two Temples of Jewish history prayer was a personal expression, in any language at any time with guidance but no compulsory structure or formulation. The lack of structure is reflected both in the later establishment of the text of the 18 Benedictions known as 'The Amidah' or indeed as Tefilla, prayer, in later legal terminology and in the debate as to how many services were obligatory during the course of each day.
When the Second Temple was destroyed, there was an existing alternative, the synagogue, which functioned as an educational center and had a prayer system that with minor modification could replace the sacrificial system as the community act of worship. At this moment prayer then acquired a dual function. It was still a medium of individual self expression. But it now became the medium of communal cohesion. It was officially decreed that prayer would substitute the two 'Eternal' community sacrifices of Dawn and Afternoon. There was still some debate about the evening prayer because the community sacrifices accounted for the morning and the afternoon, so what sacrifice was the evening prayer equivalent to? Nevertheless Rabbi Gamliel squashed any opposition over this issue and declared the evening prayer 'an obligation'. In addition there was the reading (notice the word reading for it applied to the text of the Torah) of the Shema, to which the rabbis added the paragraphs and their blessings before and after that was said twice a day. Extracts from the Book of Psalms were added before the Shema in the morning service, to praise God, following Daniel's formulation that one should praise God before asking for anything.
The text of the 'Eighteen' blessings that we call the Amidah, the prayer said standing, began to be formalized in the years immediately following the destruction of the Temple, by the rabbis at Yavneh. It was based on earlier compilations and came to be known as, simply 'The Prayer'. It is a magnificent piece of literature. Its poetry creates a simple series of rhythms and alliterations that makes it easy to learn by heart and at the same time creates a sense of excitement and climax. This is lost when the prayers are translated into another language. For example the opening blessing goes 'Our God and God of our Fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.' Now the word God, in English has a hard sound, the frequent repetition sounds staccato and uncomfortable in English. But the Hebrew is 'Eloheynu, Velohey avoteynu, Elohey Avraham, Elohey Yitschak vElohey Yaacov.' The sound of the 'El' is soft, there is a flow of lullaby-like sweetness and the soft 'vav' sounds rather than hard consonants. This poetic rhythm and song runs right through the Amidah. That is why it is so easy to memorize (and also to gabble through).
At a time when there were no printing presses, written texts were at a premium. Very few had access to the printed word. The oral skills were essential. We see in the Talmud how 'memory tricks', phrases that contained a sequence of letters reminding one of the topics, are to be found throughout the text. So prayer was formulated that was easy to remember and that contained virtually the complete gamut of personal and national issues that one might want to raise or 'discuss' with God. The Amidah was designed as a menu of ideas and concerns that would enable a person to be selective and focus on what was particularly appropriate at any one moment. That one could insert one's own requests at appropriate stages also reinforced the possibility that the text was to interact with the individual. So that the design was for personal prayer to be integrated into the community service for those unable or incapable of making up their own or of improvising. Not everyone had or has that capacity. It was understood that however hard a person tried it would be all but impossible to concentrate on every word of the Amidah.
There is an old story, I heard in yeshiva, of a wonder rabbi coming into town and the locals ask the rabbi of the town whether he had some test to see if the visitor was genuine. He replied, 'Ask him if he has a secret method of concentrating on the Amidah from start to finish. If he says he has, then you'll know he is a fake.'
Given the communal nature of the new prayer structure it became increasingly difficult to combine personal prayer with communal prayer. The rabbis were very definite in wanting prayer to be a positive spiritual experience. 'One should not get up to pray in a state of sadness nor laziness nor laughter nor idle talk nor light heartedness nor empty words but in a state of (the) joyful (desire to carry out a) Divine command.' This is perfectly illustrated by Rabbi Akiva's 'problem'. When he went up to pray (as the representative of the community) he finished first so as not to trouble them by taking a long time. But when he prayed for himself he started first in one corner of the synagogue and after everyone had left could be found still lost in prayer in the opposite corner. The rabbis developed a new term 'Iyun Tefilla' Looking deeply into prayer, to contrast it with conventional or routine performance. They understood that genuine prayer is a difficult and fraught process. 'Four things require (Divine) support, Torah, Good Deeds, Prayer and Earning a living.' Nevertheless they still required prayer to be a personal, reflective and focused process. As Rabbi Eliezer said, 'If a person makes his prayer routine, his prayer will not be accepted.' On the other hand prayer was and is the ultimate way of getting closer to God ' If only a person would pray all day long.' The rabbis were also eager to emphasize that individuals could add their own petitions into the established structure of the Amidah. It is now incorporated into the Shulchan Aruch, the Code Of Jewish Law, that one may add one's own personal requests into any one of middle blessings of the Amidah. They did not specify the language or the phraseology, merely suggested not to go on for too long.
The two types of prayer, personal and communal, should have stayed separate and complementary but increasingly they became fused. The skills and methodology of personal prayer became subsumed under and integrated into communal prayer. The result is that although individual rabbis composed beautiful poems and prayers they did not alter the character of praying. Until the mystics starting their innovations, particularly the school of Isaac Luria, the Arizal, in Safed, the art of private prayer was all but lost. Only hints remain such as the Mishna in Brachot, 'One should only stand to prayer when one is in a serious mood. The early pious men used to wait one hour before praying in order to focus their minds on their Father in Heaven.' The prayer experience for these pious men was so profound that it required hours of preparation, beforehand and raised them to such a level that they needed time to 'wind down' afterwards. What did they do? What were their methods? We can only guess. But clearly there was more to prayer than just turning up and reciting some set phrases.
It is time and circumstances that have brought us to this present state where prayer has lost its luster and the individual no longer dares to be innovative or personal. Despite the dramatic attempts of the Kabbalists of Safed in the Seventeenth century and the early Chassidim, little can found nowadays of creative, spiritual prayer that has roots in the Jewish traditions of meditation and dveykut the art of getting closer to God (with the possible exception of some Chassidim particularly in Jerusalem). But this does not mean that we cannot experiment. The Torah obligation to pray to God remains in force. Although the rabbis encouraged individuals to add their own prayers within the existing structures they did not in any forbid people from developing their own prayers and their own devotional or meditational exercises. We can still do this. It can be done within the service structure by focusing on specific lines and words in a way, one supposes that Rabbi Akiva did. It can be done by arranging periods of preparation before prayer or after the way the 'Early Chassidim' did and it can be done by creating ones own private prayers and services at times that suit or at times that are meaningful to each individual. We have in general lost this skill but there is no reason or law why we should not try to regain what was lost and restore personal tefilla to its original purpose of talking privately to God, revealing ones inner secrets, fears and aspirations and at the same time examining ourselves and judging not to convict or find guilty but to encourage and move on.
There is another feature of prayer that we have lost. This is the self analysis and the opening up of one's inner thoughts by using prayer as a way of having a conversation with God. Nowadays we have got used to opening up only to psychiatrists or counselors. But in earlier times, speaking to God fulfilled this function of expressing ones innermost thoughts and fears and agonies and indeed hatreds. This is one of the most important healing qualities of prayer because it helps a person recognize what is really going on inside that person's mind. The process of opening up to God as well as being therapeutic also helps a person come to his or her own conclusion about certain types of problems and issues. In this way, talking to God can evoke a response. One can realize very clearly oneself what the right course of action is once one has recognized honestly and openly what the real problem is.
The Biblical law of confession was required before a sacrifice could become effective as a means of atonement. But this confession was made not to another human but directly to God. One had to actually give expression to what one had done wrong. This way one recognized a problem rather than sublimate it. To open up completely to another person was looked at as both making oneself vulnerable and as an act of self-humiliation. But talking openly to God was seen as a way of healing and recovery.
There still remains the Rabbinic instruction to pray as part of a minyan, the ten needed to make up a community and to identify with a community to balance the solipsism of individuality. This double need to be part of a community and yet at the same time not to neglect one's personal spirituality is the essence of the Torah experience. However, we have allowed the synagogue to become the focal point of both community activity and prayer and this, to my mind is a mistake. We are now conditioned to think of prayer and synagogue as being almost synonymous. Yet for many, synagogue is an very stultifying and unspiritual experience. It has become a social arena where most of the participants are not there to pray but to talk, to see and be seen.
To make matters worse the service often goes on for too long and becomes something of an arena rather than a spiritually concentrated and uplifting experience. 'There were no happier days than the 16th Day of Av and Yom Kippur because on those days the daughters of Jerusalem used to go out in white garments. . .with music into the vineyards and they would say 'Young man open your eyes and see what you should choose.' This was part of an ancient tradition that on these two days encouraged the young men and women to go out to choose marriage partners. Isn't it strange that this should happen on Yom Kippur? And that indeed a good measure of the day would not be spent in the Temple or the synagogue but outside in the vineyards? It tells us something about how attitudes have changed. Similarly, the reason that on Festivals we call up only five people to read from the Torah and not seven is in order to rejoice on the Festival and have more time to be at home eating and drinking. The Talmud itself says, in the context of the number of people called to the Torah that on Festivals 'We come (to the Temple or the synagogue) later and we leave earlier'. And Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his notes on the Shulchan Aruch says that services on Festivals should be shorter than on a Shabbat in order to increase the joy of the day! The reality nowadays is that most Festival services take longer than those of a normal Shabbat.
Fashions in music change as well. Cantorial singing pleases some but it is not everyone's favorite. Tastes vary in Jewish music, by background and generation as much as elsewhere. Can it be said that any one musical tradition is 'right'? It is a shame if the desire to keep traditions recorded or to preserve historical experiences gets in the way and actually hampers current attempts to find a satisfying way of praying as a community and as an individual. Although the format has been established for communal prayer, the room for variety and individuality is still great and must be emphasized rather than be hidden as though it was in some way subversive. Just as no two people will agree on a range of political issues, the same goes for prayer and services. We must avoid the impression that there is only one format. Only by releasing creativity can prayer be more meaningful and exciting.
In fact it is a measure of the variety of Jewish life that there are so many different types and alternatives. Sadly it is only in very large concentrations of Jews that one can encounter these alternatives. But just as it is important not to neglect individual prayer, so too it is important to make community prayer an important and uplifting experience. In big cities there are choices. Otherwise one has to be creative. Sadly there is not enough spiritual creativity going on in our communities at this moment.