HMS; 5764-12 Prayer I: The Basic Structure of Jewish Prayer

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

December 22, 2003

Number 5764-12 Prayer I: The Basic Structure of Jewish Prayer

All religions share a basic format for a worship service. They take a central prayer or ritual and then construct the service around that ritual, to highlight that central part of the service. Like spokes around a wheel, each part of the service points to the central core of what the religion is all about. Usually we find one of two types of rituals at the center. Most western religions have a public ritual at the center. A ritual that must be done when people have gathered together to affirm their belief in the central tenet of the faith. It demands that the service have a set time and a set format. Everyone who gathers needs to know what is expected of them and when they need to gather to affirm their commitment. It is a very strong way to anchor a service. When people gather together to affirm their beliefs, the communal action strengthens the faith of the individuals. It is very unlikely in this construction for people to stray from the path of the faith. But there is one weak spot. While communal action is strong, not every individual may feel like gathering at the appointed time and place. It may not always be convenient for everyone. At such times there may be some present who are mouthing the words and not fully committed to the central ritual.
The other kind of ritual at the center is found in many Eastern religions. At the center of their worship is a very individual kind of ritual. Such rituals do not depend on a set time or place. Any time or any place can be right for prayer. In fact, in some Eastern religions, the temples are open any time of the day or night so all can enter to pray when they are so moved. Time is not important, but commitment is crucial. It is a very strong commitment to faith, but it too has a weak spot. Individuals can go a long time between moments of worship. Years could pass before the desire to express one’s faith arises again.
Judaism is a religion that straddles both the east and the west. Therefore, when Jews gather to worship rather than a wheel with spokes extending from the center, our worship is more like and ellipse, a circle that has two centers. One center around which half the service revolves is a public prayer requiring a set time and place. The other center is an individual prayer that requires separation from the community.
The central public prayer of Judaism is the Shema. It’s place in the service begins with the Borchu and ends just before the Amida. It is recited aloud, often sung by the entire congregation. It is encased in blessings and sometimes with poetry. The early parts of the service point to this climax of prayer when we recite the three passages from the Torah that make up the Shema.
The central individual prayer of Judaism is the Amida. It is recited individually (not just silently), one stands apart from the congregation and can adjust or add to the formula in the Siddur according to one’s needs. The later parts of the service point to this climax of prayer, when we stand and pour out our hearts before G-d. As the days and seasons change, so do our needs, so the Amida changes with the ebb and flow of the calendar.
The Shacharit (Morning) service has both centers. The Mincha (afternoon) service has only the private center since it is done while we are still working and it is not easy to gather for public prayer. The Maariv (evening) service has only the public center (although an Amida was later added to its format) recognizing that at the end of the day we can and should gather together in prayer to strengthen each other to face the darkness of night.
We will begin next week, to examine in detail these crucial central rituals and then look to see how the rest of the service points to the center.

Next week: Prayer II: The Shema

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