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Jewish Prayers: The Amidah

The Amidah is the central prayer of all four services: shacharit (morning), mincha (afternoon), maariv (evening), and mussaf (additional). The word Amidah literally means standing, because it is recited while standing. It is also known as Shemoneh Esrei, meaning eighteen, because it originally consisted of eighteen blessings, and as tefilah (prayer) because it is the most important Jewish prayer. The obligation to pray three times a day, which was established by Ezra and codified in the Talmud (Berakhot 26b), is fulfilled by reciting the Amidah.

In the 5th century B.C.E., the 120 men of the Great Assembly composed the basic text of the Amidah. The exact form and order of the blessings were codified after the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century C.E. The Amidah was expanded from eighteen to nineteen blessings in the 2nd century C.E., under the leadership of Rabbi Gamliel the Elder in Yavneh. The additional blessing (against heretics) was initially meant to combat the threats posed by the Samaritan and Sadducee sects, and was permanently added to the liturgy when Jewish converts to Christianity began to inform on Jews to the Roman authorities.

Laws and Customs

One should stand with one's feet together while reciting the Amidah as a show of respect for God. The rabbis add that this pose mirrors the vision of angels that Ezekiel had in which the feet of the angels appeared as one (Ezekiel 1:7). The custom is to face the direction of Israel, and if one is in Israel, to turn to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. This shows respect for the Temples, which were central to Jewish life, and reminds one that the synagogue was established to try to fill the gap in Jewish life left by the Temples' destruction. In many synagogues in the west, the ark is on the eastern wall of the synagogue for this reason.

The Amidah is a person's opportunity to approach God in private prayer, and should therefore be said quietly. The words must be audible to oneself, but one should be careful to pray softly enough not to disturb others. If one is alone, it is permissible to raise one's voice slightly if it helps concentration. It is forbidden to interrupt the Amidah even to greet an important person. One should not even acknowledge a greeting. Only a grave emergency justifies interrupting the Amidah, since it is considered a conversation with God.

There are several interesting customs relating to one's physical position while saying the Amidah. Before one begins the Amidah, it is customary to take three small steps forward as if one is approaching a king. Some say this was derived from Abraham who "came forward" to pray for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:23). Where there is not much space, it has become the practice to take several tiny steps back before taking the three symbolic steps forward. To humble oneself before God, one bends the knees and bows at both the beginning and the end of the first blessing while saying "Barukh atah" (Blessed are you). One should stand erect in time to say God's name, "Adonai." In the sixth blessing, for forgiveness, when one says the words "hatanu" (we have sinned) and "pashanu" (we have transgressed), it is customary to lightly beat once upon the chest with one's right hand. This symbolizes that the heart is the source of the temptation to sin. One bows again during the eighteenth blessing, for thanksgiving, both at the beginning, during the words "Modim anahnu lakh" (We thank you) and at the end with the words "Baruch atah." At the end of the Amidah, in the meditation after the last blessing, before reciting the line, "Oseh shalom bimromav," (He who makes peace in his heights) one takes three steps backwards, mirroring the three steps forward taken at the beginning. While saying that line, it is customary to bow three times: toward the left, toward the right, and then forward. This is again symbolic of a subject leaving a king.

The Amidah affords the opportunity to insert one's private prayers. During the eighth blessing, for healing, many siddurim (prayer books) include a prayer that asks God to heal a specific person and has a place to insert the name of anyone who is sick. This is done by saying the person's Hebrew name, then "ben" (son of) or "bat" (daughter of), and then his or her mother's name (for example, Joseph ben Sarah or Miriam bat Sarah). Personal requests may be made during any of the blessings, but in the sixteenth blessing specifically, which asks God to hear our prayers, it is appropriate to insert one's own requests. The appropriate place in this blessing is after the words "raykam al teshivanu" (do not turn us away empty). These additional prayers can be said in any language for any need.

At every service except for maariv, the chazzan (cantor) repeats the Amidah after the congregation has recited the prayer privately. This repetition is called hazarat ha-shatz. It was instituted originally for the benefit of those who were not able to recite the Amidah properly on their own. By listening and answering "Amen" at the end of each blessing, these worshipers fulfilled their obligation of prayer. The reason the Amidah is not repeated at maariv is because the Talmud treats maariv as originally having been optional, meaning that it does not have the same level of obligation.

During his repetition, the chazzan adds a prayer called Kedushah (holiness), which proclaims the holiness of God in the language that the angels are said to have used. Kedushah is said only with a minyan (quorem of ten), and may not be interrupted for conversation. Like the Amidah itself, it should be said while standing with one's feet together. Even if one happens to be present, and not praying, while the Kedushah is recited, one must stop what he is doing and join in. It is customary to raise oneself slightly on one's toes three times when saying Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh (holy, holy, holy) to symbolize the movement of the angels and to reach towards God with one's whole body. There are some minor differences between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi texts of Kedushah. One other change in hazarat ha-shatz is that when the chazzan reaches the blessing of thanksgiving (modim), he recites the standard blessing while the congregation recites silently the "Thanksgiving Prayer of the Rabbis" (modim d'rabbanan), which is a composite of short thanksgiving prayers said by various Talmudic sages.

Order and Content of the Blessings

There is a logical basis for the order and content of the blessings. One Talmudic source provides scriptural foundations, another suggests that each is associated with a historic or miraculous event, and another relates the blessings of the Amidah to the prayer of Hannah. Either way, the Amidah contains three sections: a three-blessing introduction made up of praises of God; thirteen petitions to God for various needs; and a closing of three blessings of thanksgiving. The model for this structure is how one would approach a powerful ruler or how a servant would approach a master.

The Amidah is introduced with a verse that requests, "Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare Thy praise" ("adonai sfatai…"). The first three blessings of praise appeal to God as the protector of our forefathers, and extol His powers and holiness. The blessings of petition ask for six personal needs: knowledge, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, health and economic prosperity. They also plead for six needs of the Jewish people: ingathering of the exiled, restoration of justice, destruction of Israel's enemies, reward for the righteous, restoration of Jerusalem, and the coming of the Messiah. The final supplication asks God to hear our prayers. The closing three blessings speak of the hope of return to Temple worship, thanksgiving to God, and a prayer for peace. Following the Amidah, one says a meditation that is based on the silent supplications of various rabbis recorded in the Talmud.

Changes in the Weekday Amidah

The only difference between the Amidah of the different services of the day is the final blessing, for peace. In the Ashkenazi tradition, a shorter version of this blessing, starting with the words "shalom rav" is said at mincha and maariv. The reason for this is that the blessing for peace is based on the themes of the Priestly Blessing that was said in the time of the Temple and this Priestly Blessing was not said in the afternoons or evenings. In Hasidic liturgy, the shorter version is said only at maariv, indicating the different level of obligation that maariv has. In the Sephardi tradition, it is not said at all.

There are a few changes to the Amidah based on the time of year. Some changes are made between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During these ten days, lines are inserted in the first two and last two blessings and slight changes are made in the conclusions of the third and eleventh blessings to stress the role of God as king and judge. The line praising God as the bringer of rain in the second blessing ("mashiv haruach umorid hagashem") is said only in the winter (between Shemini Atzeret and the first day of Pesach) since this is when rain is needed in Israel. During the summer, the Sephardim, Hasidim, and Ashkenazim who live in Israel substitute a mention of dew ("morid hatal") instead of rain. In the ninth blessing, for economic prosperity, one adds the words "vten tal umatar livracha" (give dew and rain for blessing) in the winter, between the night of December fourth and Passover, instead of simply "vten bracha" (give blessing).

On the minor holidays on which work is not restricted, the weekday Amidah is still said. On intermediate days of holidays and on Rosh Chodesh (the new month), a prayer called ya'aleh v'yavo is incorporated into the seventeenth blessing, asking God to remember us for good on the holiday. On Hanukah and Purim, one adds a paragraph called al hanisim thanking God for miracles and summarizing the story of the holiday into the eighteenth blessing. On mincha of fast days, the congregation adds the prayer aneinu (answer us) as part of the sixteenth blessing, begging God to answer us in our time of trouble. On Tisha b'Av at mincha, one adds a paragraph called nahem (comfort us) to the fourteenth blessing, on Jerusalem (v'liyerushalayim). Since Tisha b'Av commemorates the destruction of the Temples, this is a prayer for consolation on the destruction of Jerusalem.

Another addition is in maariv on Saturday night. In the fourth blessing, for knowledge (ata chonen), one adds atah honantanu, a declaration of separation between Shabbat and the week. When a festival follows Shabbat, one instead includes a paragraph beginning vatodi'einu that talks of the distinction between the levels of holiness of Shabbat and holidays.

The Shabbat and Holiday Amidah

In all versions of the Amidah, the first and last three blessings stay the same. The middle thirteen blessings, however, are said only on weekdays. On Shabbat and holidays they are replaced by a single blessing that relates to sanctification of the day. The main reason for this is that the Talmud says it is forbidden to ask for one's personal needs on Shabbat. Doing so reminds one of what is lacking, which takes away from the feeling of spiritual and physical contentment that should be present on Shabbat and holidays. Others say that on Shabbat, one lives as if the messianic age has arrived and therefore has no need to petition God; the petitions are thus eliminated and replaced with other prayers. Parts of this middle blessing, the paragraph that begins, "elohenu velohei avotenu retze bmnuchatenu" (Our God and God of our Father, be pleased with our rest), and the part that contains requests to "sanctify us through Thy commandments," remain the same on every Shabbat and festival. The beginning of this middle blessing changes, however, between the three services of the day. The Friday night service stresses God's sanctification as it relates to the creation of the world. The Shabbat morning service speaks of God's command to Israel to keep the Shabbat as set forth in the Ten Commandments. The Shabbat afternoon service stresses the unity of God and the singularity of the Jewish people. Also, on all holidays, but not on Shabbat, ya'aleh v'yavo is incorporated into the middle blessing.

On Shabbat and holidays, an extra Amidah is added to the service, called tefilat musaf (additional prayer). This has the same basic structure as the other Shabbat Amidahs but stresses the sacrificial offerings of the Temple in the middle blessing. The only musaf that is noticeably different from this pattern is that of Rosh Hashanah. This Amidah, the longest of the year, has a middle section that contains three long blessings. These are called Malkhuyot (kingship), which emphasizes God's sovereignty over the world; Zikhronot (rememberances), which stresses God's remembering the deeds of men and the covenant; and Shofarot (sounding of the ram's horn), which speaks of God's revelation to Israel and of the ultimate redemption.

Also on holidays, any kohanim (descendents of the priestly tribe) recite the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim) before the last blessing of the chazzan's repetition of the Amidah. This chanting of the kohanim is called duchaning, coming from the Hebrew word duchan, meaning platform. In most of Israel and also in Sephardi congregations everywhere, the kohanim chant the blessing every day of the year during the shacharit Amidah in accordance with the practice in the Temple, and also during musaf whenever it is said. In Ashkenazi synagogues outside of Israel, the Priestly Blessing is recited only during the musaf Amidah of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Succot, and Shavout because of an idea that the Priestly Blessing should only take place in an atmosphere of cheerfulness, and a holiday has extra happiness.

During the Priestly Blessing, the kohanim come to the front of the synagogue. Anyone sitting behind the kohanim should come forward to be included in the blessing. One should face the kohanim and should stand with the head bowed and eyes looking down as a sign of respect and humility. One should not look at the kohanim to allow better concentration on the words, and to prevent distraction both for oneself and for the kohanim. Some say this is because of the Talmudic statement that in the time of the Temple, one's eyes would be weakened if he looked at the hands of the Priests while they gave their blessing.

Reform Judaism's Changes to the Amidah

There are significant differences between the traditional Amidah and that said in Reform congregations. The traditional liturgy has been revised repeatedly by the Reform movement, in order to shorten the service and omit passages not in line with Reform doctrine. As a result, references to a personal messiah as opposed to a messianic age, resurrection of the dead, restoration of the sacrificial cult, and the existence of angels are all rephrased. Changes have also been made to conform with the egalitarian nature of Reform Judaism.

The first blessing is mostly unchanged, except that it includes Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah in addition to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in keeping with the egalitarian nature of Reform Judaism, and in recognition of the significant contributions of the Matriarchs. Most Reform prayer books change the text to read "redemption" instead of "a redeemer." The second blessing talks of resurrection of the dead, a doctrine not accepted by Reform Judaism. It is amended to affirm God as the source of all life who has implanted within us eternal life. In the third blessing about holiness of God, the Hebrew that might literally be translated as "holy beings" (angels) is changed to "those who strive to be holy." With regard to the middle blessings, the first four are retained, although they are rewritten in a gender-neutral language (For example, God is referred to as a Sovereign or a Ruler, and not a Father or a King). In the fifth blessing (refaenu), the traditional "who heals the sick of His people Israel" is changed to "Healer of the sick" to be more inclusive. In the sixth blessing, for economic prosperity, the phrase "Bless our year like other years" is omitted. The next blessing, for ingathering of the exiles (teka b'shofar), is rewritten. The Reform version begins like the traditional text, but in place of the petition for the ingathering of the exiles, it goes on to emphasize hope for universal freedom. The blessing for justice (hashiva shofteinu), is also rewritten to express the hope for universal justice instead of the restoration of Israel's judges. The blessing against heretics (lemalshinim) is omitted. The blessing for the righteous is abridged. The blessing for Jerusalem is rewritten. Instead of beseeching God to rebuild Jerusalem and reestablish the Davidic monarchy, the Reform version is a prayer for the present and continuing welfare of the land and people of Israel. It also alludes to the connection between Zion and the messianic hope. In the blessing concerning the Davidic dynasty, the hope for restoration of the Davidic commonwealth is broadened into a concept of a Messianic Age. The last middle blessing (shomea tfila) is abridged. With regard to the last three blessings, in the one on Temple worship, the traditional references to sacrificial worship are omitted; instead, a thought on the theme of God's nearness to all who seek God with sincerity is used. The blessing of thanksgiving uses the complete text, rendered in gender-neutral language. The content of the last blessing is unchanged, although the translation is more freely done.

Sources: Donin, Rabbi Hayim Halevy. To Pray as a Jew. New York: Basic Books Inc, 1980.
Internet FAQ Archives. Last updated 14 May 2001. Accessed 22 May 2001.
Kolatch, Alfred. The Jewish Book of Why/the Second Jewish Book of Why. Middle Village, New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1981