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Jewish Prayers: Prayers and Blessings

Tefilah: Prayer

The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. It is derived from the root Peh-Lamed-Lamed and the word l'hitpalel, meaning to judge oneself. This surprising word origin provides insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer. The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d.

The Yiddish word meaning "pray" is "daven," which ultimately comes from the same Latin root as the English word "divine" and emphasizes the One to whom prayer is directed.

For an observant Jew, prayer is not simply something that happens in synagogue once a week (or even three times a day). Prayer an integral part of everyday life. In fact, one of the most important prayers in Judaism, the Birkat Ha-Mazon, is never recited in synagogue!

Observant Jews are constantly reminded of G-d'-s presence and of our relationship with G-d, because we are continually praying to Him. Our first thought in the morning, even before we get out of bed, is a prayer thanking G-d for returning our souls to us. There are prayers to be recited before enjoying any material pleasure, such as eating or wearing new clothes; prayers to recite before performing any mitzvah (commandment), such as washing hands or lighting candles; prayers to recite upon seeing anything unusual, such as a king, a rainbow, or the site of a great tragedy; prayers to recite whenever some good or bad thing happens; and prayers to recite before going to bed at night. All of these prayers are in addition to formal prayer services, which are performed three times a day every weekday and additional times on sabbaths and festivals. See Jewish Liturgy.

The Need for Prayer

Many people today do not see the need for regular, formal prayer. "I pray when I feel inspired to, when it is meaningful to me," they say. This attitude overlooks two important things: the purpose of prayer, and the need for practice.

One purpose of prayer is to increase your awareness of G-d in your life and the role that G-d plays in your life. If you only pray when you feel inspired (that is, when you are already aware of G-d), then you will not increase your awareness of G-d.

In addition, if you want to do something well, you have to practice it continually, even when you don't feel like doing it. This is as true of prayer as it is of playing a sport, playing a musical instrument, or writing. The sense of humility and awe of G-d that is essential to proper prayer does not come easily to modern man, and will not simply come to you when you feel the need to pray. If you wait until inspiration strikes, you will not have the skills you need to pray effectively. Before I started praying regularly, I found that when I wanted to pray, I didn't know how. I didn't know what to say, or how to say it, or how to establish the proper frame of mind. If you pray regularly, you will learn how to express yourself in prayer.

Kavanah: The Mindset for Prayer

When you say the same prayers day after day, you might expect that the prayers would become routine and would begin to lose meaning. While this may be true for some people, this is not the intention of Jewish prayer. As I said at the beginning of this discussion, the most important part of prayer is the introspection it provides. Accordingly, the proper frame of mind is vital to prayer.

The mindset for prayer is referred to as kavanah, which is generally translated as "concentration" or "intent." The minimum level of kavanah is an awareness that one is speaking to G-d and an intention to fulfill the obligation to pray. If you do not have this minimal level of kavanah, then you are not praying; you are merely reading. In addition, it is preferred that you have a mind free from other thoughts, that you know and understand what you are praying about and that you think about the meaning of the prayer.

Liturgical melodies are often used as an aid to forming the proper mindset. Many prayers and prayer services have traditional melodies associated with them. These can increase your focus on what you are doing and block out extraneous thoughts.

I also find it useful to move while praying. Traditional Jews routinely sway back and forth during prayer, apparently a reference to Psalm 35, which says "All my limbs shall declare, 'O L-rd, who is like You?'" Such movement is not required, and many people find it distracting, but I personally find that it helps me concentrate and focus.

Hebrew: The Language for Prayer

The Talmud states that it is permissible to pray in any language that you can understand; however, traditional Judaism has always stressed the importance of praying in Hebrew. A traditional Hasidic story speaks glowingly of the prayer of an uneducated Jew who wanted to pray but did not speak Hebrew. The man began to recite the only Hebrew he knew: the alphabet. He recited it over and over again, until a rabbi asked what he was doing. The man told the rabbi, "The Holy One, Blessed is He, knows what is in my heart. I will give Him the letters, and He can put the words together."

Even liberal Judaism is increasingly recognizing the value of Hebrew. My grandmother tells me that fifty years ago, you never heard a word of Hebrew in a Reform synagogue. Today, the standard Reform prayerbook contains the text of many prayers in Hebrew, and many of the standard prayers are recited in Hebrew, generally followed by transliteration and an English translation. I have heard several Reform rabbis read from the Torah in Hebrew, also generally followed by an English translation or explanation.

There are many good reasons for praying in Hebrew: it gives you an incentive for learning Hebrew, which might otherwise be forgotten; it provides a link to Jews all over the world; it is the language in which the covenant with G-d was formed, etc. To me, however, the most important reason to pray in Hebrew is that Hebrew is the language of Jewish thought.

Any language other than Hebrew is laden down with the connotations of that language's culture and religion. When you translate a Hebrew word, you lose subtle shadings of Jewish ideas and add ideas that are foreign to Judaism. Only in Hebrew can the pure essence of Jewish thought be preserved and properly understood. For example, the English word "commandment" connotes an order imposed upon us by a stern and punishing G-d, while the Hebrew word "mitzvah" implies an honor and privilege given to us, a responsibility that we undertook as part of the covenant we made with G-d, a good deed that we are eager to perform.

This is not to suggest that praying in Hebrew is more important than understanding what you are praying about. If you are in synagogue and you don't know Hebrew well enough, you can listen to the Hebrew while looking at the translation. If you are reciting a prayer or blessing alone, you should get a general idea of its meaning from the translation before attempting to recite it in Hebrew. But even if you do not fully understand Hebrew at this time, you should try to hear the prayer, experience the prayer, in Hebrew.

Group Prayer

Most of our prayers are expressed in the first person plural, "us" instead of "me," and are recited on behalf of all of the Jewish people. This form of prayer emphasizes our responsibility for one another and our interlinked fates.

In Judaism, prayer is largely a group activity rather than an individual activity. Although it is permissible to pray alone and it fulfills the obligation to pray, you should generally make every effort to pray with a group, short of violating a commandment to do so.

A complete formal prayer service cannot be conducted without a quorum of at least 10 adult Jewish men; that is, at least 10 people who are obligated to fulfill the commandment to recite the prayers. This prayer quorum is referred to as a minyan (from a Hebrew root meaning to count or to number). Certain prayers and religious activities cannot be performed without a minyan. This need for a minyan has often helped to keep the Jewish community together in isolated areas.

Berakhot: Blessings

A berakhah (blessing) is a special kind of prayer that is very common in Judaism. Berakhot are recited both as part of the synagogue services and as a response or prerequisite to a wide variety of daily occurrences. Berakhot are easy to recognize: they all start with the word barukh (blessed or praised).

The words barukh and berakhah are both derived from the Hebrew root Bet-Resh-Kaf, meaning "knee," and refer to the practice of showing respect by bending the knee and bowing. There are several places in Jewish liturgy where this gesture is performed, most of them at a time when a berakhah is being recited.

According to Jewish tradition, a person should recite 100 berakhot each day! This is not as difficult as it sounds. Repeating the Shemoneh Esrei three times a day (as all observant Jews do) covers 57 berakhot all by itself, and there are dozens of everyday occurrences that require berakhot.

Who Blesses Whom?

Many English-speaking people find the idea of berakhot very confusing. To them, the word "blessing" seems to imply that the person saying the blessing is conferring some benefit on the person he is speaking to. For example, in Catholic tradition, a person making a confession begins by asking the priest to bless him. Yet in a berakhah, the person saying the blessing is speaking to G-d. How can the creation confer a benefit upon the Creator?

This confusion stems largely from difficulties in the translation. The Hebrew word "barukh" is not a verb describing what we do to G-d; it is an adjective describing G-d as the source of all blessings. When we recite a berakhah, we are not blessing G-d; we are expressing wonder at how blessed G-d is.

Content of a Berakhah

There are basically three types of berakhot: ones recited before enjoying a material pleasure (birkhot ha-na'ah), ones recited before performing a mitzvah (commandment) (birkhot ha-mitzvot) and ones recited at special times and events (birkhot hoda'ah).

Berakhot recited before enjoying a material pleasure, such as eating, drinking or wearing new clothes, acknowledge G-d as the creator of the thing that we are about to use. The berakhah for bread praises G-d as the one "who brings forth bread from the earth." The berakhah for wearing new clothing praises G-d as the one "who clothes the naked." By reciting these berakhot, we recognize that G-d is the Creator of all things, and that we have no right to use things without first asking his permission. The berakhah essentially asks permission to use the thing.

Berakhot recited before performing a mitzvah (commandment), such as washing hands or lighting candles, praise G-d as the one "who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us..." to do whatever it is we are about to do. Reciting such a blessing is an essential element of the performance of a mitzvah. In Jewish tradition, a person who performs a mitzvah with a sense of obligation is considered more meritorious than a person who performs the same mitzvah because he feels like it. Recitation of the berakhah focuses our attention on the fact that we are performing a religious duty with a sense of obligation. It is worth noting that we recite such berakhot over both biblical commandments and rabbinical commandments. In the latter case, the berakhah can be understood as "who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to obey the rabbis, who commanded us to..." do whatever it is we are about to do.

Berakhot recited at special times and events, such as when seeing a rainbow or a king or hearing good or bad news, acknowledge G-d as the ultimate source of all good and evil in the universe. It is important to note that such berakhot are recited for both good things and things that appear to us to be bad. When we see or hear something bad, we praise G-d as "the true Judge," underscoring the fact that things that appear to be bad happen for a reason that is ultimately just, even if we in our limited understanding cannot always see the reason.

Form of a Berakhah

Many of the berakhot that we recite today were composed by Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly nearly 2500 years ago, and they continue to be recited in the same form.

All berakhot use the phrase "Barukh atah Hashem, Elokaynu, melekh ha-olam," Blessed art thou L-rd, our G-d, King of the Universe. This is sometimes referred to as shem u'malkut (the name and the sovereignty), the affirmation of G-d as king.

The use of the word "thou" is worth discussing: in modern English, many people think of the word "thou" as being formal and respectful, but in fact the opposite is true. Thou (like the Hebrew atah) is the informal, familiar second person pronoun, used for friends and relatives. This word expresses our close and intimate relationship with G-d.

Immediately after this phrase, the berakhah abruptly shifts into the third person; for example, in the birkhot ha-mitzvot, the first two phrases are blessed art thou, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who sanctifies us with his commandments and commands us... This grammatical faux pas is intentional. The use of the third person pronoun while speaking to a person in Hebrew is a way of expressing extreme respect and deference. This shift in perspective is a deliberately jarring way of expressing the fact that G-d is simultaneously close to us and yet far above us, intimately related to us and yet transcendent. This paradox is at the heart of the Jewish relationship with G-d.

Birkat Ha-Mazon: Grace After Meals

One of the most important prayers in Judaism, one of the very few that the Bible commands us to recite, is never recited in synagogue. That prayer is birkat ha-mazon, grace after meals.

In Deuteronomy 8:10, we are commanded that when we eat and are satisfied, we must bless the L-rd, our G-d. This commandment is fulfilled by reciting the birkat ha-mazon (blessing of the food) after each meal. Reciting birkat ha-mazon is commonly referred to as bentsching, from the Yiddish word meaning "to bless." Although the word "bentsch" can refer to the recitation of any berakhah, it is almost always used to refer to reciting birkat ha-mazon.

The grace after meals is recited in addition to the various berakhot over food recited before meals.

Birkat ha-mazon actually consists of four blessings, three of which were composed around the time of Ezra and the Great Assembly and a fourth which was added after the destruction of the Temple. These blessings are:

  1. Birkat Hazan (the blessing for providing food), which thanks G-d for giving food to the world,
  2. Birkat Ha-Aretz (the blessing for the land), which thanks G-d for bringing us forth from the land of Egypt, for making His covenant with us, and for giving us the land of Israel as an inheritance,
  3. Birkat Yerushalayim (the blessing for Jerusalem), which prays for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming of the messiah; and
  4. Birkat Ha-Tov v'Ha-Maytiv (the blessing for being good and doing good), was added after the destruction of the Temple, although it existed before that time. It emphasizes the goodness of G-d's work, that G-d is good and does good.

In addition to these four blessings, the full birkat ha-mazon incorporates some psalms and additional blessings for various special occasions (holidays, guests, etc.).

Sources: Judaism 101