Halacha L’Moshe Mi Sinai
Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg
Temple Sinai of Hollywood
January 12, 2004 – Number 5764-14
Prayer II: The Amida
The Shema represents only one form of prayer. It is public, it is at an assigned time and is said out loud by the assembled Jews. But what happens when our prayer is not for public announcement? When we feel like praying at a different time than anyone else? When the words announced are not the words that we carry in our hearts? How are we supposed to pray?
In ancient times, when the spirit moved our ancestors, they would bring an offering from the best of their crops or flocks to the great Temple in Jerusalem and there assign it to the alter to be a personal gift to G-d. Since the destruction of that Temple, Jews have used prayer, an offering of the heart, instead of a physical gift to G-d. That prayer is the Amida, known to the Rabbis of the Talmud as “HaTephilla”, the prayer par excellance.
The standard of the Amida is the weekday version of the prayer, it is also called the “Shemona Esray” or the “Eighteen” because it has nineteen blessings it in. Actually it once had only 18 blessings but in Talmudic times, another blessing was added. Why that blessing was added depends on which blessing we think is the nineteenth one. Scholars are not in agreement as to which one was added by the Sages.
The weekday Amida has three sections. The opening three blessings, the 12 middle blessings and the final three blessings. Every form of the Amida has this three part style, with the middle section changing to fit the occasion. The first three and last three blessings always stay the same.
The model we use for understanding the Amida is format for a audience with a great king or queen.( A just ruler, not a despot) When we are invited to speak of something with the monarch, we are invited on a particular day to the throne room for our audience. The room is filled with guards and officers of the kingdom. There are other petitioners there as well, waiting their turn. The ruler comes in and all rise as he or she takes their place on the throne on the platform at one end of the room. The scribe calls out the name of the first person who will have an audience and the work of the day begins. When we are called, we advance to a place near the center of the room. We bow and recite the format of greeting for a ruler. We affirm our loyalty to the king and remind him that his father was a good king to our father and his grandfather was a good ruler to our grandfather. We also call attention to the fact that this king is a powerful king, one who can make our petition have an effect on the entire realm if he so desires. That is why we have come, to appeal to his power to make things happen for good. So we launch into our petition and finally when we come to the end we close with another bow and then a formal closing, we thank the king for his time and wish peace to his kingdom.
This is exactly the format of the Amida. The Amida is not really recited “silently” rather it is done “individually”. First we take three steps to approach G-d. We are now face to face with our Creator. We open with two bows, at the beginning and end of the first blessing extolling our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors. The second blessing affirms that G-d is powerful, so powerful that G-d can revive the dead. The third blessing is unique to G-d, it affirms that G-d, unlike humans, is holy, and the source of great holiness. This is expanded when we repeat the Amida out loud into the Kedusha, a poem of praise for the holiness of G-d. In the middle section are the petitions we ask of G-d, for wisdom, health, good weather for a bountiful crop, good judges, good rulers and a return to the greatness we once knew in history. If we have a particular need, we can add it to the appropriate blessing. For example, if we know someone is ill and wish to add a petition for their good health, we add it to the generic blessing for health. The last blessing in this section, is a generic blessing that G-d should hear our prayers. Any need that we have that did not fit into any of the other petitions, can be added here.
The final three blessings close our meeting with G-d. there is the unique to G-d blessing that worship in the Temple will be restored, then we thank G-d for listening and close with a prayer for peace. The Sages added, after Sim Shalom, a sample of what a personal prayer could look like and it was so good that it too became part of the Amida. When we finish we take three steps backward and return to the rest of the congregation. The Amida is usually then repeated out loud, for the sake of those who may not be able to read and take part in this most important section of the service. They reply “Amen” to each blessing to make it their own. “Amen” is the official term that means, “I agree and affirm what was just said”
On Shabbat, the day G-d rested, we do not petition G-d. We take out the twelve central petitions and replace it with one blessing thanking G-d for the restful peace of Shabbat. Other holidays have similar changes to speak to the message of the holy day.
Next week: Prayer III: The Format of the Service