No survey of the Jewish take on the meaning/purpose of life/creation would be complete without a section from Jewish liturgy. Prayers are usually not looked upon as a source for wisdom and are usually ignored when looking for an answer to the meaning of life. But the Jewish prayers are not really just prayers. They are relics from the holy world of the Bible, abstracts of the rabbinic lore of the Talmud, and microcosms of Jewish philosophy and mysticism. These prayers express the deepest spiritual ambitions of this ancient people and the most intimate pathways of their relationship with God. If any book in Judaism can be considered the summation of all of Judaism, it is the Siddur.
What is the Siddur? First we must translate the word. ‘Siddur’ comes from the Hebrew word that means ‘arrangement’ or ‘order’. It is the established order of prayers that were collected, written, inspired, or otherwise ended up as the Jewish system of worship. The origins of this collection are lost in the murky waters of second temple history, but we can trace a good deal of it.
It begins with the Bible itself. Included within the Chumash are a blessing, a few short prayers, two long poems, some quotes that became classic expressions, and several passages that sum up the most important concepts - a good deal of which found their way into the Siddur. Among these is the famous declaration, the 'Shema', which states the oneness of God. The Tanakh greatly augmented the material available for prayer. A good deal of the Siddur comes from the Psalms. These timeless expressions of longing for God amidst the trials and tribulations of life were selected as the epitome of Jewish prayer. From the simple gratitude to the divine Shepherd in Psalm 23 to the outpouring of praise in Psalm 145, commonly known as ‘Ashrei’, the Psalms cover the entire spectrum of Biblical spirituality. But many passages from the Prophets and the rest of the Writings also were selected. The angelic recital of the ‘Kedusha’ (Isaiah 6:3) became the supreme declaration of God’s holiness.
During second temple times the first efforts to organize a system of prayer began through the legislation of the Great Assembly. This was probably their most lasting achievement, though we don’t really know how much was put together during their time (between 450 – 300 BCE) and how much was done later. Jewish tradition maintains that the central prayer known as the ‘Amidah’, or ‘Standing Worship’ originating with this ancient group. The Amidah was a series of blessings that cover the spiritual and material needs of an agricultural and Temple based society that prized wisdom, righteousness, and community above fame, money, and power. The basic structure of the Jewish blessing – ‘Blessed are You Hashem …’ originates with the Amidah. This structure was augmented to include blessings for commandments and foods, using a slightly expanded format – ‘Blessed are You Hashem, our God, King of the universe…’ The Amidah became known as the ‘Shemoneh Esrei’ (18) - the number of blessings it contained at one point in its history. It has since been expanded to 19 according to the Talmud Bavli but the original number/name stuck.
Blessings for all kinds of foods were added during Mishnaic times, as were the bulk of the blessings for commandments and singular events in life or in nature. The times for prayer were established as were different services for different times of day and different days of the year. Shabbat prayer differed from weekday prayer, as the prayers of the other celebrations differed from Shabbat and from each other. The specific commemorations of each celebration probably became more or less fixed during this time, although they were likely based on earlier customs. Thus Passover had an entire service revolving around the eating of the Pascal lamb and the unleavened bread, though by the time of the Mishna the Pascal lamb was likely no longer in common practice. This service was the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt. By the time of Mishna it included the four questions that form the core of what would be called the Hagaddah.
It was during the Talmudic (200 - 500) and post-Talmudic (650-1050) periods that it all came together in a final form. The earliest known Siddur, the Seder (arrangement) of Rav Amram once and for all established Jewish prayer in the manner that it would forever be known. Though we no longer have a definitive original of this Siddur, we can be fairly sure of its contents. Almost everything that a modern Jew is familiar with from daily, weekly, and annual services is there, along with a host of other blessings and prayers for every imaginable occasion. The Aleinu declaration, which closes every prayer service with a statement of faith and hope, was written during this time, though its universal use probably dates much later. A good deal of the Hagaddah of Passover was added during this time.
Medieval times saw a smaller number of changes, as the basic structure was already there and could no longer be tampered with. The 13 principles of faith, a statement of creed based on the philosophy of Maimonides, was added in one of two popular forms. During this period mysticism also entered into prayer, though usually in the form of long poems with countless allusions to profound mystical concepts such as the mystical unity of God. Aramaic and Hebrew incantations were added before the performance of mitzvot, alluding to the mystical intentions buried in acts or the words. This was the period in which prayer acquired its sense of meaning more than the simple words implied. It became almost part and parcel of Jewish prayer that the literal meaning of the words only scratches the surface of some deeper meaning that only those versed in mysteries could penetrate. For the rest, it was enough to know that something else lay hidden there.
The effective close of additions to the universal structure of the Siddur came during the Tzefat period, which we shall hear much about later on. This place and this century (about 1520-1620), with its unique combination of mysticism and codifying the Jewish laws and customs, introduced, among other things, the custom of greeting the Shabbat with song and prayer. The Kabbalat Shabbat service, arguably the last addition to Jewish prayer that has become (almost) universally accepted, was vintage Tzefat. The hills, the cool air, the trees, the fields, the sense of the divine within the natural, all combined to give a magical feeling to the approaching sense of holiness that was Shabbat in Tzefat. Nowadays, Kabbalat Shabbat is probably the single most anticipated service in Judaism.
From then on the situation varied from community to community. There were always slight variations between Ashkenazi (Northern and Eastern European) custom and Sefaradi (Spanish and Mediterranean) custom. Further differences entered as both cultures grew and developed. Some introduced more mysticism and some tried to steer away from it. The Beit Kenesset (House of gathering) of the Sefaradim and the Shul (synagogue) of the Ashkenazim became the most prominent feature of a Jewish community. Ashkenazim referred to prayer as davening, the Yiddish equivalent.
Houses of worship adapted to the changing norms of the place were the Jews lived, much as the Jews themselves did. Eventually the old wooden structures of Eastern Europe were replaced by air conditioned and carpeted modern buildings with the ubiquitous plaques along the walls and an exquisite ark for holding the Torahs in the wall facing the direction of Jerusalem. There was always an honored place for the rabbi and loads of books in the back. People davened in their reserved seats, and chatted with their neighbors during the breaks or whenever convenient. Jewish prayer became identified with the building that housed it – the shul, temple, synagogue, or Beit Kenesset. It had found a permanent home, but perhaps had lost some of its spontaneity.
The original Hebrew word for prayer is tefilla, a somewhat difficult word to trace to a Hebrew root. Classically, it has been associated with a rare Biblical word that means ‘to judge’. Hence, the phrase ‘to pray’ is translated into Hebrew as lehitpallel, which although it appears completely different in transliteration, is intricately related to the word tefilla. This longer word means something like ‘to judge oneself’. To some degree, that is really what tefilla is supposed to be – introspection by renewing one’s relationship with God.
Rabbinic texts from the past describe tefilla as a type of deep meditation. Indeed in the Shulhan Aruch, the masterpiece of Rav Yosef Kara of Tzefat whom we shall meet later, the highest level of prayer is ‘the attainment of stripping away all sense of the physical while the power of thought reaches a degree close to prophecy’ (Orach Chaim 98:1). This is not an isolated statement of a Tzefat mystic. It is codified in the most universally accepted text of Jewish law. It is highly unlikely that such a state will be reached in typical davening. Few Jews even entertain it as a goal. Nevertheless, it does present a perspective of what prayer is supposed to be as opposed to what it actually is.
Perhaps at one point in Jewish history, prayer was a private affair between man and God. In a sense, talking to God is talking to oneself, being as God can be found in the deepest recesses of the self. Prayer was supposed to be a spontaneous outpouring of emotional and spiritual energy directed from person to Creator (and perhaps in the reverse direction as well). With the institution of set times, places, and texts for the prayers, it was inevitable that a good deal of the spiritual spontaneity would be lost. The meditative component remained accessible to anyone who was willing to spend the time and energy to get there, but the pace and atmosphere of most shuls/synagogues ruled out this possibility for all but the most dedicated. In the end, it became a way for everyone to be essentially on the same page - to say the same thing at around the same time in a community setting – and know that they are fulfilling the Jewish obligation of praying to God.
Should it be more than this? Yes, of course it should. Will it ever be more than this? With the ever-increasing inundation of computerized devices in our lives and the corresponding increasing dependence of the mind on outside sources, prospects look dimmer by the year. Jewish prayer was meant to be a self-induced state of heightened spiritual awareness. Such a state requires sustained concentration to penetrate into regions of the mind that lie beyond the normal waking state.
The Hebrew word for this concentration is kavanah, a term that means aim or direction. The mind must be directed inward as opposed to outward. The haphazard affair that constitutes normal mental activity simply will not do. It’s not mere ‘thinking’, which focuses on a specific mental problem. Nor is it allowing the mind to wander wherever it chooses, otherwise known as spacing out or chilling. It is somewhere in between. It requires trained use of the imagination, a little-understood faculty of the mind, along with full engagement of the will, an even less-understood faculty of the mind. Kavanah might best be described as ‘willful direction of the imagination towards the inner world of the spirit’.
How does one actually get there? This is the frustrating dilemma that almost every Jew who is serious about davening has to face. The dilemma stems from an intense desire for genuine spirituality confronted by the realities of communal uniformity. The two rarely go well together. The result usually involves throwing in the towel on the spiritual in order to conform to communal standards. But it doesn’t have to be like this. If one cannot reach spiritual goals in the communal setting, opportunities must be found in a non-communal setting. It might mean occasionally davening privately, surrounded by nature, unconstrained by time and social distractions. It might mean meditating about what one is saying instead of just saying it. It might even mean temporarily ditching the standard format altogether and just finding one’s own path to God. How is your relationship with God? Do you have one at all? Is God distant or unavailable? Tefilla is a spiritual barometer. It is ‘judging oneself’ in regards to these vital questions.
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