In Judaism, there are both public and private aspects of prayer. Jewish prayer is both set and spontaneous. The Talmud defines prayer as the service of the heart (Ta’anit 2a), thus suggesting that prayer should express the deepest feelings and longings of the soul. Through our long history, these longings have taken shape and been formed into a myriad of blessings (berachot) for nearly every occasion, both ordinary and extraordinary, and a fixed liturgy for prescribed times and seasons.
For instance, there is a berachah (blessing) for every type of food and drink. There is a blessing to be recited upon seeing wonders of nature. There is a blessing when one recovers from grave illness or survives danger. Virtually every aspect of life is marked by a blessing. Perhaps one of the most often recited blessings is the Shehecheyanu (Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this time). This blessing provides a wonderful way to mark special occasions in our lives (e.g., the birth of a child) or a new venture or even the tasting of a season’s first fruits.
In addition to blessings for various occasions, there are prayers that are recited regularly. Traditionally, Jews daven (pray) three times a day—evening, morning, and afternoon—and there is a fixed form to these prayers, which can be recited privately or at services in a synagogue.
Jewish Values as Expressed in Prayers
Our prayers transmit values and ideals. For instance, in the Ve’ahavta, which is recited at every evening and morning service, we find: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, with all your strength, with all your being. Set these words, which I command you this day, upon your heart. Teach them faithfully to your children; speak of them in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” This passage stresses the love of God, the value of learning, and the importance of transmitting Judaism to the next generation.
Within Judaism, there are many different types of prayers. We offer prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of petition. Some are simply praises of God while others are reflections on our aspirations and ideals. The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah, based on the verb lehitpalel, which means “to judge oneself.” Thus Jewish prayer is not so much a pleading before God as a process of self-reckoning. Through prayer, we regularly assess ourselves and our relationship with others and with God.
Our rabbis were aware that because we had a structured service it would be easy to fall into a routine repetition of the prayers. They warned against this: “When you pray, do not let your prayer become routine, but let it be a sincere supplication. . . .” This means that, when we read the words of the prayer book, we should infuse them each time with new life and meaning. We must learn what the prayer has meant to past generations—but more than that what it can mean to us. As each generation in the past has brought its own insights to the text, it is for us to bring our own deepest thoughts, hopes, dreams, desires, and even fears as we confront the text. Further, the words of the prayer book and the setting of the synagogue should inspire us to offer the prayers of our own hearts as each of us attempts to reach within ourselves and beyond ourselves.
Prayer is not reserved for synagogues alone. While prayer together with the community is highly valued, individual prayer is also encouraged. Many Jews recite the Shema upon retiring at night and acknowledge God when they awake in the morning.
A beautiful statement found in Midrash Tehillim teaches: “When you pray, pray in the synagogue of your city; if you are unable to pray in the synagogue, pray in your field; if you are unable to pray in your field, pray in your home; if you are unable to pray in your home, pray on your couch; and, if you are unable to pray on your couch, meditate in your heart. This is the meaning of the verse: ‘Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.’” Judaism emphasizes the importance of communal worship. Sometimes people feel that they have not gotten out of a worship service as much as they ought to have gotten. It is unrealistic for us to expect that every time we attend a service we will feel as if we’ve been touched by God. No person can live a life made up entirely of what psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.” While we can’t expect to have a unique and ineffable experience every time we attend services, there is value in being together with fellow Jews and sharing in the life of the community. The worship service need not be a metaphysical experience in order to be “successful.” We have to ask ourselves what should really be the outcome of the service. Our prayer book frames the answer for us: “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.”