Prayer (Tefilah or Davening)



Much of the information below was obtained with permission from the Judaism 101 and Chabad in Cyberspace sites.


At STBCTC, we pray according to a daily Minyan Schedule. Prayer services are held every day: in the morning (Shacharis), in the afternoon (Minchah), and in the evening (Ma'ariv). The times for each prayer service are based on when the sun rises and sets.


Daily prayers are collected in a book called a siddur, which derives from the Hebrew root meaning "order," because the siddur shows the order of prayers. Similarly, the word seder refers to the order of the Passover home service.


Prayer does not need to be said at a synagogue. However, prayer is more readily accepted when done with a group, and many prayers as well as the Kaddish may only be said in a Minyan (a quorum of ten people).


Prayer may be said in any language but Hebrew is preferred.



Purpose of Prayer

Prayer is an essential constituent of religion. It is for the soul what food is for the body. As fire flickers upwards, drawn to its supernal source, so prayer issues forth - the Divine within man drawn to the Divine beyond. It is hard, if not impossible, to conceive of faith in G‑d without some concept of prayer.


The act of prayer and the belief in a personal G‑d and in Divine Providence are interdependent principles. The religious person senses this in times of plenty, when he wishes to express gratitude, or in times of need, when he needs comfort, by communing with his Maker and Sustainer. In times like the months of Elul and Tishrei, periods of Heavenly and personal examination and judgment when vital decisions about our immediate future are in the balance, we turn to G‑d with more fervent prayers than usual.



Important Prayers

Undoubtedly the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism is the Shema. This consists of Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21, and Num. 15:37-41. Note that the first paragraph commands us to speak of these matters "when you retire and when you arise." From ancient times, this commandment was fulfilled by reciting the Shema twice a day: morning and night.


The next major development in Jewish prayer occurred during the Babylonian Exile, 6th century BCE. People were not able to bring sacrifices to the Temple at that time, so they used prayer as a substitute for sacrifice. "The offerings of our lips replace the bulls," said the prophet Hosea. People assembled to pray three times a day, corresponding to the three daily sacrifices. There was an additional prayer service called Musaf on Sabbaths and certain holidays, to correspond to the additional sacrifices of those days. Some suggest that this may already have been a common practice among the pious before the Exile.

After the Exile, these daily prayer services continued. In the 5th century BCE, the Men of the Great Assembly composed a basic prayer, covering just about everything one might want to pray for. This is the Sh'moneh Esrei, which means "18" and refers to the 18 blessings originally contained within the prayer. It is also referred to as the Amidah (the standing, because we stand while we recite it). This prayer is the cornerstone of every Jewish service.


The blessings of the Sh'moneh Esrei can be broken down into 3 groups: three blessings praising G‑d, thirteen making requests (forgiveness, redemption, health, prosperity, rain in its season, ingathering of exiles, etc), and three expressing gratitude and taking leave. But that makes 19! And we just said that this prayer is called 18?


One of the thirteen requests (the one against heretics) was added around the 2nd century CE, in response to the growing threat of heresy (primarily Christianity). But already at that time the prayer was commonly known as the Sh'moneh Esrei, and the name stuck, even though there were now 19 blessings.

Another important part of certain prayer services is a reading from the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and the Prophets. The Torah has been divided into 54 sections, so that if each of these sections is read and studied for a week, we can cover the entire Torah in a year every year (our leap years are 54 weeks long; regular years are 50 or so; we double up shorter portions on a few weeks during regular years). At various times in our history, oppressors did not permit us to have public readings of the Torah, so we read a roughly corresponding section from the Prophets (referred to as a Haftorah). Today, we read both the Torah portion and the Haftorah portion. These are read on Mondays, Thursdays, Sabbaths and some holidays. The Torah and Haftorah readings are performed with great ceremony: the Torah is paraded around the room before it is brought to rest on the bimah (podium), and it is considered an honor to have the opportunity to recite a blessing over the reading (this honor is called an aliyah).

That's the heart of Jewish prayer. There are a few other matters that should be mentioned, though. There is a long series of morning blessings at the beginning of the morning service. Some people recite these at home. They deal with getting up in the morning, and things we are obligated to do daily. There is a section called P'sukei d'Z'mira (verses of song), which includes many Psalms and hymns.

There are also other particularly significant prayers. The Kaddish is in Aramaic and praises G‑d. Here's a small piece of it, in English:

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire family of Israel, swiftly and soon. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever. Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty...

There are several variations of the Kaddish for different times in the service. One variation is set aside for mourners to recite, with the congregation only providing the required responses. Other variations separate the different sections of the service.

Another important prayer is Aleinu, which is recited at or near the end of every service. It also praises G‑d. Here is a little of it in English:

It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to ascribe greatness to the Molder of primeval creation, for He has not made us like the nations of the lands... Therefore, we put our hope in you, Ado-nai our G‑d, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor... On that day, Ado-nai will be One and His Name will be One.

On certain holidays, we also recite Hallel, which consists of Psalms 113-118.


Many holidays have special additions to the liturgy. A special prayer book called the Machzor is used on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.

Outline of Services
There are a few other prayers but that's a pretty good idea of what's involved. Here is an outline of the order of the daily services:

  1. Evening Service (Ma'ariv)
    1. Shema and its blessings and related passages
    2. Sh'moneh Esrei
    3. Aleinu
  2. Morning Service (Shacharis)
    1. Morning Blessings
    2. Psukei d'Z'mira
    3. Shema and its blessings and related passages
    4. Sh'moneh Esrei
    5. Hallel, if appropriate
    6. Torah reading (Mondays, Thursdays, Sabbaths and holidays)
    7. Ashrei (Psalm 145), Aleinu, and other closing prayers, Psalms and hymns (recited at the end of Musaf on Sabbaths and holidays)
  3. Additional Service (Musaf) (Sabbaths and holidays only; recited immediately after Shacharis)
    1. Sh'moneh Esrei
    2. Aleinu and other closing prayers, Psalms and hymns
  4. Afternoon Service (Mincha)
    1. Ashrei (Psalm 145)
    2. Sh'moneh Esrei
    3. Aleinu

After each morning service, STBCTC follows the custom of reading additional psalms.


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