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Prayer Books: The Power of Prayer

The power of prayer is expressed in the metaphor of God "enthroned on the praises of Israel." Prayers of petition invoke His presence; paeans of praise establish it. Both forms of prayer are found in the Bible. At the Red Sea, the Children of Israel proclaimed God's saving power:

I will sing unto the Lord for He has
       triumphed gloriously; 
Horse and rider has He hurled into the
The Lord is my strength and my song; 
He has become my salvation.
This is my God, and I will praise Him, 
My father's God, and I will exalt Him.

Exodus, 15:1-2

Hannah, longing for a child, "prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly":

Oh Lord of Hosts, if thou wilt take
notice of my troubles and remember me, 
if thou wilt not forget me and grant
me a son, I will give him to the Lord
for all the days of his life.

Samuel, 1: 11

Granted a child, who was to become the Prophet Samuel, the mother offered this prayer:

My heart rejoices in the Lord, 
Through Him, I hold my head high
There is none except thee, 
None so holy as the Lord 
No rock like our God ...

He will guard the footsteps of his
But the wicked will sink into silence
For not by might shall a man prevail ... 
The Lord is judge to the ends of earth.

Samuel, 2:1,2,9, 10

The Psalms contain prayers of both public praise and private petition, exalting a just yet merciful God, calling upon His justice, pleading for His mercy. Prayers accompanied the sacrificial rites in the Temple, and prayers and scripture readings became the form of worship in the synagogue. The rubric of the synagogue liturgy, blessings, prayers, and scripture was ordained by the rabbis in late antiquity. Rav Amram (d. c. 875) laid out the order of prayer for the entire year in his prayer book Seder Rav Amram, as did also Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah.

Though the prayer book was unitary and always in the Holy Tongue, its versions were various. At the heart were the rabbinically ordained Eighteen Benedictions (seven on the Sabbath) and the Shema, "Hear O Israel," verses of the Bible. Local custom added benedictions, psalms, piyyutim (prayer poems), and special prayers. Unlike the Bible which, viewed as the word of God, was a text admitting of no alteration, the prayer book, as the creation of the Jewish people, was open to variation and particularly to addition.

The rubric of prayer has remained constant, a few changes taking place in the order of prayers and the text. The most pronounced changes which took place over centuries were in augmenting the liturgy to reflect local religious usage and communal interests. History and geography played their role in creating variety in prayer books. This variety has an overarching unity, a basic unified text and order, but there is as well a division of rite: Ashkenazi and Sefardi; Romaniot (Byzantine) and Roman; and such localized versions as those of Avignon, Carpentras, Catalonia, Aragon, Yemen, Aleppo, and Cochin. Communities favored liturgical works by native sons, partly out of communal pride, but also because such liturgy often commemorated historic events in the life of the particular community-from martyrdom to miraculous saving. Prayers for specific monarchs appear in a number of prayer books, and in the case of the Avignon rite, special prayers for the Pope! In recent centuries, translations of the Hebrew prayers into the vernacular have added to the variety.

The many siddurim (daily and Sabbath prayer books), mahzorim (holiday prayer books), Selihot (penitential prayers), tikkunim (prayers and texts for study for special occasions) on the shelves of the Library of Congress illustrate the richness of Jewish liturgical creativity. Three groups are especially worthy of note: some early printed prayer books; the liturgy in translations; and liturgical works commemorating special historical events.

Sources:Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).