What Happened To Jewish Prayer? – A Mekori Perspective – Part I: Introduction

“It is a positive commandment [mitzvat aseh] to pray each day, as it is said, ‘And you shall serve HaShem your God’ (Shemot 23:25). From the part of the Oral Torah heard by Mosheh himself, they learned that this ‘service’ is a reference to prayer. And it is said, ‘And you shall serve Him with all of your heart’ (Devarim 11:13). The hakhamim said regarding this verse (b.Ta`anit 2a), ‘What is this service that is in the heart? This is prayer.”

(Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah 1:1)

Jewish prayer 1And so begins the laws of prayer in the Mishneh Torah. The Rambam goes on to explain that throughout the Biblical era prior to the Babylonian exile each person composed his own prayers in pure Hebrew (called “yehudit” – cf. Nehemyah 13:24). Hazal relate to us that the morning, evening, and afternoon times of prayer were instituted by the avot themselves (cf. b.Berakhot 26b). However, after Ezra HaSofer returned with the exiles from Babylon, he set up the supreme court of 120 hakhamim (a court unmatched at any time in history) known as the Anshei Keneset HaGedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”). These great visionaries set up the entire system of what is recognizably rabbinic Judaism today; the official formula of berakhot and the proper occasions to recite them, the minyan, the synagogue system, public kriat ha-torah, and the texts of the prayers were all instituted by Ezra and his grand beit din.

The reason for this sudden change in protocol was that, due to the exile, the majority of the Jewish people were unable to adequately compose their prayers, let alone in their own native language of Hebrew (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 1:4). To remedy this, the hakhamim created a standard prayer of eighteen short blessings to express the collective and individual praises, gratitude, and needs of the Jewish nation (1:5). The hakhamim knew that praying and expressing religious concepts in foreign languages – or, more accurately the inability to verbalize them in Hebrew – could be a doorway to avodah zarah and religious misconception. One example of such misconception is illustrated by the common [mis]translation of the Hebrew word kippur (כפור) by the English term “atonement,” which is an expressly Christian idea related to their idolatrous conceptions of God. This is why prayers and blessings that are said in foreign languages, although allowed, are subject to intense rabbinical scrutiny. The translation of their wording and content must be by an expert, and even in translation such blessings require the mention of the Hebrew names of God (i.e. untranslated) in order to be halakhically valid (cf. Hilkhot Berakhot 1:6, and the comments of Rav Yosef Qafih z”l there).

The purpose of composing various blessings, and developing them in accordance with a set structure and formulation, was to make them “well-ordered prayers and blessings in the mouth of all Israel, so that all of the subject matter of each blessing will be prepared and ordered in the mouth of the non-native Hebrew speaker” (1:6). The people who occasioned the drafting of the prayers and blessings were not religiously educated. It is not as if they were all benei yeshivah.I Rather, the text of the Tanakh shows that they were fairly ignorant of Jewish laws, the Hebrew language, and even elements of their own culture. Only the scholarly elite such as Ezra and his colleagues still understood the Torah and its laws. And this is the point: the prayers were meant to be relatively simple to memorize for the sake of such under-educated people, but their text has grown to be something that is overwhelming and unfortunately irrelevant to many. What happened?

nosha'oth comparedOver time, the text of the prayers has grown from something that – in the rite that I personally use – consists of a few double-sided pages and takes roughly 7-15 minutes to complete (depending on the time of day) into something that spans hundreds of pages and requires anywhere from 20 minutes to more than an hour and a half. And this is just for daily prayers. When we look at the nosah for the entire year, the Rambam records roughly 20 pages of text whereas the common mahzor set today includes six or seven volumes, each of them containing several hundred pages. So, I ask again, what happened to Jewish prayer? What caused something that was easily memorized and required relatively little time to perform to become a task that cannot be reasonably completed without having a textbook and half an hour?

If we are going to be completely honest, we have to admit that most “orthodox” Jews – whether they were raised in religious Jewish homes, are baalei teshuvah, or are gerim – alternately do not enjoy prayer, do not pray properly, and in many cases simply neglect daily prayer altogether. The reasons for this are simple:

[a] The nosah is incredibly long.

[b] The physical posture employed is passive rather than active.

[c] It requires uncomfortable equipment.

[d] The prayers are hurried and rushed through, leaving all but the trained ‘murmurer’ behind.

[e] Late kabbalistic additions are many times strange and change the simplicity of focus.

[f] There is much mis-education regarding the true nature of prayer and its centrality in the daily worship of the One God of Israel.

All of the aforementioned reasons tend to cause a sense of futility and intimidation in religious newcomers while cultivating a numbness among seasoned participants. These factors often lead people not to care about or even desire understand what they are saying, being more concerned with racing through a mumbled string of paragraphs to fit everything in. Even our children have become infected with this dysfunctional relationship to prayer. I have watched as young benei yeshivah race through their shemoneh esrei, counting out the seconds and only reaching 12 to 15 before they take three steps backward. And we know this is true. I would bet that the majority of us have, at one time or another, witnessed young men rocking back and forth during prayer – giving an external show of participation – while being completely disengaged.

The Haredi/Hasidic approach to prayer has arguably destroyed its original intent, having replaced it with cheap spiritualism and over-active emotionalism. If we want a meaningful prayer experience wherein we feel at once close to and humbled before the Creator, then we need to re-align ourselves with the wisdom of Hazal and the halakhah. We need to re-discover prayer as a deep form of worship and of aligning oneself with the Divine will.

In this series of posts, I intend to address several of the issues with Jewish prayer in our times and what I see as needing to change in order to restore the beauty, simplicity, and meaning of this “service of the heart.”

6 thoughts on “What Happened To Jewish Prayer? – A Mekori Perspective – Part I: Introduction

  1. Great post. Just curious though: I’ve long been trying to figure what is the true nature of prayer – i.e., what is it supposed to accomplish? I’ve been approaching a conclusion that views the point of prayer rather more as internalizing certain “truths” (necessary or correct) and tying our knowledge to God, rather than prayer as a “Divine ATM”, if you will, i.e. a mechanism by which we ask for items/health/etc. and are thereby duly granted an [unknown] binary “yes/no” answer.

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    • לק”י

      Shalom, AY.

      Thanks so much for your hizzuq.

      I have in mind to deal with the subject of your question in a later post since I, too, have been wrestling with this same question.

      While I certainly agree that there is absolutely no such thing as theurgy and that such a concept is not taught outside of `avodhah zarah, I do not think that prayer is merely a psychological exercise. Prayer IS communication by us to God. Communication from God to us, however, is not called “prayer” but “prophecy,” and as such not everyone is privy to it. Instead, prayer is us communicating to God our allegiance and gratitude to Him; acknowledging that we are not the source of our own lives. This is much like a subject shouting out to the King from the crowd as he passes by in procession; he is overcome by the presence of the King and shouts out statements of allegiance, praise, and gratitude – and he knows that the King hears him – however the King does not personally respond to him.

      Since Hazal explicitly say that the purpose of berakhoth is “ke-dhey le-hazkiyr eth ha-borei thamiydh – in order to make mention of the Creator constantly” (cf. Rambam, MT – Hilkhoth Berakhoth 1:1ff) and they further require that the one praying or making a berakhah be mashmia` `oznaw (i.e. cause his own ears to hear what he is saying), I think that we can safely say that there is also an element of inculcating spiritual truths as well. In prayer, we also align ourselves with the Divine will and stay in constant reminder of our place and our purpose in the world.

      As for making requests of God in prayer, I think that we can and that we should. I believe that with the exception of prophets and other special individuals, prayer is almost never accepted on an individual level, but on communal and national levels. It may also take an unexpected amount of time for prayer to come to fruition. We can see examples of this throughout the Tanakh. I personally view these types of personal requests as being akin to putting money into the public charity box – you put it in and the Parnas distributes it as He sees fit. We may not know who is the beneficiary of our devotion, but our duty is to give it.

      I reject, however, this trumped-up and emotional view of prayer that either produces fakers or fallout – “fakers” because due to social pressure they make big elaborate shows of movement during prayer that is obviously contrived, and “fallout” because when [especially young people] are sold a bill of goods about prayer that it is some kind of two-way conversation and “connection” to God by which one is meant to be mystically enraptured, they do not have this experience and ultimately become disillusioned with prayer altogether. This is usually because those selling them this line are actually “fakers.” The only people who are content with this idea of prayer are mentally weak and unstable people who convince themselves that they receive Divine messages and that they are literally communing with God. This, of course, is not true, but because they are pre-disposed to believing nonsense they believe it is. Instead, Hazal teach us that we are to stand still in prayer with our eyes humbly lowered at all times “like a servant before his master.” Not only this, but we are also supposed to bow all the way down, multiple times, touching our knees and faces to the ground on a daily basis. Instead, most pace the aisles, shake and sway, and mutter – there is no way that such a posture during prayer can inspire yirath shamayim.

      I have much more to say on this subject and, if HaShem allows, I will discuss it further in a future post.

      Hope this was helpful,

      Kol tuv,

      YB

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  2. Can you clarify what you mean by “[mis]translation of the word kiyppur (כיפור) by the English, Christian term ‘atonement,’”? Are you considering atonement to be a Christian “term” despite its other non-Christian “meaning” (#3 Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary)? Are you opposed to modern-day translation of כפור as atonement?

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    • לק”י

      Shalom,

      Thanks for your questions.

      1-2. First of all, the very word “atonement” is an overtly Christian word as it was invented by Christendom. Its etymology is “at-one-ment” and means “the unity of God and man through the sacrifice of [Yesh”u].” The Greek word that “atonement” is used to translate is καταλλάσσω, an emphatic form of αλλάσσω, which means literally “to transform [into something else]” and is used for “reconciliation” in the Christian bible. It is retrojected onto the Tanakh by Christian translations where they use it for kiyppur (כיפור).
      3. Yes, I am opposed to using “atonement” as a modern-day translation of kiyppur, and this is for several reasons:

      [a] kiyppur does not mean “to reconcile” or “to transform” AT ALL. It means “covering” or “to cover over.”

      [b] Using it, for instance, in terms like “Day of Atonement” (instead of Yom HaKiyppuriym) create a false equation between καταλλάσσω and כיפור which simply does not exist. It enables Christians to pejoratively say things like “You Jews trust a goat in the Temple for your ‘atonement,’ but we get our ‘atonement’ through faith in [Yesh”u].” Nothing could be more inaccurate and ridiculous, as if the pagan notion of καταλλάσσω (“transformation”) has anything to do with the day on the Hebrew calendar in which HaShem decides to “cover” our sins in His mercy, and even moreso if we do proper teshuvah. Christians are playing “transformers” or “hide-and-seek” with a pagan god who “cannot see” their sins because of some mystical blood supposedly applied to them through beliefs in their intermediary god (these concepts were not uncommon in the ancient world), whereas we Jews are not mystically “transformed” and we are not pretending that our sins were never committed. HaShem knows who we are and what we have done, but much like turning over a keliy to cover hamess found on the Shabbath of the mo`edh to hide it until it can be burned, HaShem chooses to ignore what we have done until we come to the end of our lives and our own deaths compensate for most everything – and with the hamess burned there is nothing left to cover over (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 3:3). The two concepts are completely alien to one another, as are the words used to express them.

      [c] One of biggest problems with Judaism and Jewish thought today, especially in the West, is that Jews think theologically like Christians. Because of this, pagan and idolatrous concepts introduced through the “kabbalah” feel right at home in Jewish minds. Jews have come to view God as a cosmic machine (“force” or “lifeforce”) that can be manipulated through kabbalistically circumventing the real work of character development and personal responsibility. I have watched as hundreds of people – men, women, and children – line up to receive a “blessing” from a “rebbe” or some other prominent Haredi figure before Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKiyppuriym. If Hazal tell us plainly that there is absolutely no substitute for teshuvah and that the success of our year is based not on anything other than the posture of our hearts, the level of our sincerity, and choices that we make, then why do people still seek hollow mystical assurances? It’s because they are hoping, as Christians hope, that God will play hide-and-seek with their sins by virtue of their faith in some theurgic mechanism. The Gemara says that even doing a good deed does not cancel out the effects of a bad one, how much less can the empty promises of self-styled holy men do so?

      I hope that this explanation has been helpful. HaShem ya`azor lanu lahazor bi-teshuvah shelemah.

      Kol tuv,

      YB

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      • Your explanation has certainly been helpful! However, I’m not sure if the word’s having been “invented by Christendom” is sufficient reason not to use the English word which does not exclusively carry such meaning today, at least outside of Christian circles. As it states HERE: “For a traditional Jew, atonement is expiation for his own sin in order to attain God’s forgiveness.”

        So how do you translate כִּפּוּר? Covering up? Considering your focus on etymology I would imagine you’re also opposed to translating it as “expiation”? – A word that “originally referred to warding off evil by using sacred rites or to using sacred rites to cleanse or purify something” (see HERE).

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      • לק”י

        Shalom,

        I’m glad that you found this helpful, but it remains my firm opinion that “atonement” having been invented by Christendom (a religion that is still very much extant) to explain one of their central religious ideas is precisely why Jews should not use the word in their translations. How is this different than wearing the clothing styles of idolaters? While the halakhah is firm that dressing like idolaters in a general way is not permissible, it is just as firm that the exceptions are when such styles are either not ssanu`a (modest) or are a particular invention by them for their idolatrous worship. I know that this is a simile, but I think that the logic is clear: “atonement” is a uniquely Christian term which is actively connected with their idolatry. And, as I said before, kiyppur does not mean “transform,” nor does it mean “to unify”/”at-one-ment” – AT ALL. The re-application of the term to Jews by the Encyclopedia or the English dictionary only serves the problem of a pejorative contrast between Jewish ideas and Christian theology. “Expiation” is inadequate for reasons that are self-evident given the definition you have cited.

        My preference, and how I translate it when learning aloud in a group or with a havrutha is “to cover” (e.g. “…Yom HaKiyppuriym covers…”). The fact that the word “cover” is vague is good thing for two reasons:

        [1] It begs an explanation, and while learning there is an opportunity to explain the correct idea from a religious (read, non-pagan) Jewish perspective.

        [2] It stops the listener/learner from assuming the assimilated idea of Christian “atonement,” since it does not reference the lexeme in their mental bank.

        I think that I may do a post in the near future on the contrast between “covering” and “atonement.”

        Best,

        YB

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