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The Words Are Not Mine

"I want to pray. But everytime I open a prayer book, I see words that donít make sense to me. How can prayer be meaningful for me when the words Iím praying are not my own?"
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ONE OF THE MOST COMMON DILEMMAS for a person who has come to the recognition that it is time to start praying is, will it be my words, or theirs?

To pray in oneís own words makes prayer a personal experience, and isnít that what prayer is all about? Prayer in someone elseís words becomes perfunctory, as experience seems to verify.

Formal prayer is just that: formal. For some people, the prayer book is so daunting that it makes them want to crawl right back into their "foxhole" from which they may have emerged. But usually itís too late for that, and instead they fall into the black hole of the ritualized prayer.

And when they look at others who stand fervently in prayer, moving to-and-fro, with a strained look of humility on their faces, stuck in one spot for inordinate amounts of time, something inside says, "Should that be me also?" But something caustically says, "No, thatís not us. That kind of prayer is for, well, the kind that... but thatís not us."

Some remember their far eastern experiences, when they sat cross legged on mats, somewhere up in the Himalayas, and how uplifting an experience that was. All they had to do was meditate on a single word - just one word - and now they have so many to focus on.

To pray as a Jew is to pray like no other people, three times a day, and sometimes more. We donít sit and sing hymns, and we donít sit and hum a mantra. Instead, we read words composed by people of a generation from long ago, which tends to contribute to the awkwardness of the traditional Jewish prayer service.

In order to eliminate some of the awkwardness, it would help to have a historical perspective of the Jewish prayer service, and how it evolved into what it has become today.

The source of the obligation to pray is the following verse from the Torah itself: You shall fear God, and Him you shall serve... (Deuteronomy 6:13) What is this "service"? This refers to prayer. (Talmud Taíanis 2b)

The actual commandment is that, at least once a day, a person should verbalize praises of God, then make a request of Him, and then, follow up with some form of thanks. For example:

God, you are awesome and caring; could You please grant me a raise in salary; and by the way, thanks for last monthís raise in salary.
With a little sincerity, with such a prayer you might just fulfill the Torah obligation to pray.

Historically though, long before the Torah was even given, our ancestors were already praying three times a day. This is because our Forefathers Abraham (1813-1638 BCE), Isaac (1713-1533 BCE), and Jacob (1653-1506 BCE), were the sources of the morning, afternoon and evening services, respectively. (Talmud Brochos 26b)

But even then prayer was a very personalized experience, following the simple format of praise of God, request of God, and thanks to God. This left plenty of room for the individual to free-style, if you will.

One of the next major turning points in the evolution of prayer came long after Torah was given, around the year 929 BCE. The book of Samuel (Samuel, Book One, 1:12) speaks about a righteous woman of that time, Channa, who was barren and who longed to have a child.

Probably, Channa poured her heart out to God every day to have a child. But on one occasion, as she accompanied her husband Elkanah up to the Temple in Jerusalem, she poured her heart in prayer - silent prayer. It seems from the acting high priest at the time, Eli, that praying silently was not the normal way of praying to God.

As she prayed, Eli watched her mouth. But Channa was speaking to her heart; only her lips were moving, and her voice was not heard.
Eli said, "For how long will you be drunk? Stop with your wine!"
But Channa answered and said, "No, my lord, I am a woman with a saddened spirit, who has drunk neither new wine or old wine. I have only poured out my soul before God..."
Eli answered and said, "Go in peace, and the God of Israel will grant your request which you have asked of Him."

They were not accustomed to praying silently - Rashi.
From Channa, the rabbis learned the following lessons:
Channa was speaking to her heart - prayer requires intention.
only her lips were moving - the words of prayer must be pronounced
and her voice was not heard - one may not raise their voice in prayer
how long will you be drunk - one may not pray while intoxicated
But it wasnít until over 500 years later, during the period of the Men of the Great Assembly, (This was the court (Sanhedrin) set up by Ezra the Scribe, and which over the years (391-261 BCE) included 120 sages, many of which were prophets. They established many ordinances, of both a religious and civic nature.) that prayer was molded into a universal format. It was this text that became the basis of every traditional prayer book for the next 2,000 years, as Maimonides relates:
When the people of Israel were exiled in the days of the evil Nebuchadnetzar (423-353 BCE), they associated with the Persians, Greeks, and other peoples, and children were born to them in these foreign lands. The language of these children became mixtures of several languages. When a person spoke, he could not do adequately in a single language, but spoke instead in a jargon... When Ezra and his court saw what had happened, they set out to compose the eighteen benedictions in uniform order - the first three praise God, the last three thank God, and the middle ones are in the form of requests that represent the primary needs of each individual and of the entire community, so that these prayers would be familiar to everyone, so that they would learn them. This way, the prayers of the inarticulate could be as perfect as the most articulate. For this same reason they established all the blessings and prayers in uniform texts in the mouths of all of Israel, so that the content of every blessing would be familiar to the inarticulate. (Maimonides, The Laws of Prayer, 1:4)
Exile was the cause of the formalization of prayer, as it has been the cause of the various different versions of formalized prayer. Eventually, the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE) led to the inclusion in the prayer service of certain paragraphs that speak about the sacrifices that could no longer be offered up in the Temple. (The Talmud, in Megillah (30b), speaks about how the reading of the sacrificial service is looked upon by heaven as actually carrying the service out.)

Divided up and exiled to different parts of the world, Sephardic Jews developed different versions of formalized prayer, as did the later Chassidic Jews, each one claiming to have the ultimate prayer service based upon a unique source. According to one source, there exist some 13 versions of formalized prayer. (The Maggid of Mezeritch.)

Whoís right? The law is, whatever your father used as his prayer book, thatís the tradition you should follow. Each traditional text is sacred and acceptable to God, when prayed with sincerity.

However, Maimonides, above, is referring specifically to the composition commonly called the Shemoneh Esrai, which means "18" because it is made up of the 18 blessings that forms the essence of each prayer service. The other essential feature of the morning and evening prayer service is the Shema, which has another verse from the Torah as its source. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

The extra blessing that brought the Shemoneh Esrai to 19 blessings, the Talmud relates, was added on just prior to the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE). This had been a time when Jewish apostates were growing in number and turning in observant Jews to the Roman authorities, and a prayer was added to combat them.

The rest of the prayer service is all based upon one or more ideas that are central to Jewish thought. The general concept for blessings is based upon a verse from the Torah that declares God to be the owner of the world. Blessings, Jewish law states, is our way of asking permission to enjoy Godís world.
(Mishnah Brura, 46:1:1; this refers specifically to blessings said before enjoying something. Other types of blessings include those one recites prior to performing a commandment, and those said to praise God.)

Special occasions, such as holidays, and special needs, such as asking forgiveness from God for errors made, led to the inclusion of other parts of the prayer service. Eventually, we arrived at the present day version of the prayer book, to which nothing substantial has been added. All that has changed is the format and order of some of the prayers, and in some texts, a few inclusions have made their way in.

But something Maimonides said earlier is important to focus on, because it helps to bridge the gap between my words and their words.

... And the middle ones are in the form of requests that represent the primary needs of each individual and of the entire community...
The words of the Shemoneh Esrai, the essence of the daily prayer service, were not simply chosen to suit the needs of the authors of that time. They were designed to reflect the continual needs of the nation as a whole, and the individual in particular.

The foreigness of the Shemoneh Esrai service, even for those who have sped through it for decades, is due to the fact that an individual doesnít yet relate to the impending need expressed by one or many of the 19 blessings. If itís not my need, then it remains their words.

The goal is to personalize the needs isolated in the Shemoneh Esrai, and for that matter, the rest of the prayer service. For those going through one crisis or another, that is not difficult to do.

One whose child suffers from a learning disability may find new sincerity when reciting the words, You give man intelligence.

One whose children have abandoned Jewish values will understand the importance of the words, Bring us back, our Father...

Another who feels the shame of improper behavior will feel a release when uttering the words, Forgive us, our Father...

A Jew who has to fight for his survival will say the words, See our affliction with a sense of urgency.

And anyone diagnosed with a fatal disease will break down when repeating, Heal us, God ...

Thus the difference between a heartfelt prayer and a perfunctory one is, how well one appreciates the specific need being addressed, and how God is the one who satisfies it. This is true for those blessed with few problems (they must constantly stay appreciative to avoid losing their blessing), and those who are down-and-out.

The task of the praying individual therefore, is to make their words, your words. How does one do that? By breaking down each blessing, and categorizing personal needs and blessings under a particular blessing from the Shemoneh Esrai.

How much does intelligence mean to you? How much should it mean to you? Do you value your health? Do you care about what happens after you die? Questions like these are important to ask, especially for building a bridge between oneself and the formalized prayer service.

The rabbis provided the structure into which to grow. It remains for the individual to use their imagination and some self-discipline to fill the structure out, and make it uniquely their own. It remains for the individual to transform the prayer service into the threshold across which lies tranquillity and universal harmony.


Even for those who accept the need to pray, a barrier to benefiting from prayer is the formalized text that is the basis of the daily prayer service. However, the text is merely a structure provided by the rabbis to focus us on what our true needs are, and to remind us who fulfills them. Identifying with the needs set out by the traditional prayer service is the most important step to personalizing formal prayer, and using it to achieve tranquillity and universal harmony.

© by Mercava Productions

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