“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)
And 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?
Over 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.”