It’s a strange business, this praying that we do together on Friday nights. We gather in this sacred space and we speak words that are written in our prayerbooks that Jews all over the world have been saying together for a very long time. Some of the prayers in our siddur are more than two thousand years old.
But, why? What are we doing when we pray? What is the point?
People speak and recite words for many reasons. We speak to communicate with each other about subjects that are significant and trivial as a matter of our daily lives. We sometimes speak or sing words as a form of creative expression, as in theater, music or poetry. We use words, on occasion, just to help us to understand ourselves. When people talk to themselves, for example, they may find that saying the words in their heads out loud can help them to focus their thoughts, make sense of their situation, and decide what they believe.
The reasons why we pray can include all of these purposes. The words of the siddur are an odd mixture of poetry, philosophy, meditation and exclamation. We pray to communicate the foundations of our beliefs: One God who is the Source of our being, the One who gives us a set of instructions for living life meaningfully, and who represents our highest aspirations for building the world of our dreams.
We also pray as a form of creative expression. Prayer is more akin to art and poetry than argument and persuasion. We speak the words of the prayerbook, not because they are factually correct, but because they convey the feeling of being alive and of being in relationship with God and our highest selves. When the psalm says, “How great are Your works, Adonai,” we might logically respond by pointing out that there are many things in our world that are not so great. Does this verse accurately describe the way we think of malaria and poverty? Of course, not. But the point of prayer is not to describe what is. It is, like poetry, to describe what we yearn for, and who we wish to become when we consider the best within us.
Prayer is also a way of grappling to understand ourselves and our life’s meaning. When we are going through hardship or a time of loss and pain, prayer helps us to put our life in perspective, to remind us to live with hope, and to find comfort in the miracles that surround us. Prayer gives us strength to rise above our hardships and to see ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves.
Jewish worship is highly liturgical, as a sociologist would say. That means that there is a richly developed tradition of the “right” words that we are “supposed” to say. The sages of the Talmud recognized a problem with such a tradition. If a person becomes so used to reciting the same dense liturgy week in and week out, day in and day out, there is a danger that it will become a mechanical activity, devoid of meaning.
For this reason, the Shulchan Aruch, one of the most authoritative codes of Jewish law, says: “It is better to offer a little bit of prayer to God with intention than to offer much without intention” (Orech Chayim 1:4). Prayer is not supposed to be offered just with the lips. For it to be meaningful, the heart and mind must be engaged as well.
However, there also are advantages to praying with a set form of prayer. When we pray the words of the T’filah, the central prayer of every service, we are reciting—more or less—the same words that are used in synagogues across the world, and words that were recited by the early rabbis of the Talmud. A set liturgy connects us to the Jewish people in time and space.
Also, the words of the siddur give us a way of eloquently expressing ourselves that would be difficult if every prayer were a spontaneous prayer. Creativity in prayer is not always frowned upon or discouraged in Jewish tradition. There are times and places when the best words are the words of your own heart. But there are few of us who can spontaneously compose words that will express the deepest feelings and thoughts within us. The siddur gives us words tested by time to express our awe and our apprehensions, our joy and our yearning for a better world.
Finding the right balance between a set liturgy and the heartfelt expression of our hearts is an ideal that the rabbis of antiquity struggled with, just as we struggle with it today. In the Talmud, there is an exchange between Rabban Gamaliel, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer—three of the giants among the early rabbis. Rabban Gamaliel, as usual, took the most formal and the most austere position. He said, “You should say the full set form of the T’filah prayer every day, just as the rabbis composed it.” Rabbi Eliezer, the most iconoclastic of the three, disagreed. He said, “If you make your prayer a fixed form, saying it by rote, then you have not really prayed at all.”
It was Rabbi Akiva, the sage who always strived to reconcile and integrate the tradition, who offered a middle way. He said, “If you know and understand the prayer as composed by the rabbis, and if you can recite it fluently, you should say the set version of the prayer. However, if not, you should be encouraged to offer the abbreviated words that you understand and can recite meaningfully” (M. Berachot 4:3-4).
Jewish prayer is a balancing act between the experience of coming together as a community, united in a shared tradition, and the experience of expressing our own individual yearnings, hopes and heartache before God. There is a tradition of reciting these words at the end of the T’filah: “יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי לפניך ה’ צורי וגואלי,” “May the words of my mouth and the stirrings of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:15). We ask God for the ability to make both the set words and the feelings that lie beneath them true and meaningful.
So, what have been your most meaningful prayer experiences? When has prayer helped you to define and refine your beliefs? When has prayer had the power of poetry to elevate your soul and give you a sense of purpose and meaning? When has prayer come to you in a moment of pain or uncertainty to give you the strength to persevere? When has your prayer been a moment that joins the blessings of being a part of a community with the blessing of being at peace deep within your own heart of hearts?
Prayer can be and do all of those things when it rises from deep within us and calls out to that which is high above us and all around us.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Learning about Jewish Prayer from Yoga
How to Pray?