What is Jewish Prayer?
Jewish people call prayer ‘the service of the heart’. The Hebrew word for prayer is ‘tefillah’ (prayers = ‘tefillot’). In Yiddish praying is called ‘davening’. To daven means ‘to pray’.
There are Two Kinds of Prayers
1. There are the prayers which all Jews say, like the Shema. These prayers are written down in a prayer book called a siddur, which tells us what order to say them in. We can call these ‘set’ prayers.
2. There are our private prayers, which can be about anything we like. These are not written down anywhere.
Prayer can take the form of saying thank you to God for His goodness. It can thank Him for the wonders of nature. prayer can also be asking God to satisfy our needs. Praying can comfort us when we are in times of trouble.
Although God does not need our prayer, He values it.
Our prayers may be long or short. The most important thing is that we really mean what we say and that we think about what we pray. In Hebrew this is called ‘kavanah’.
The best place to achieve kavanah is in the synagogue, but we can also pray at home or in any other suitable place. The synagogue is a good place because praying among a minyan (a prayer quorum consisting of ten or more males over the age of 13) is especially good for kavanah. Even so, most tefillot can be said without a minyan.
We can pray ‘in our head’; without speaking, but most Jewish people like to say their prayers out loud. The tefillot written down in the siddur are normally said in Hebrew, but our private prayers may be said in any language. People who can’t read Hebrew may say all their prayers, even those in the Siddur, in their own language.
Blessings (Brachot) and other Important Prayers
We say brachot (blessings) both in synagogue and at home. We say them before we enjoy something nice, like food, and we also say them before we do a mitzvah (commandment) and at special events or special times in our lives.
All the brachot we say during the day start with the words: “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam…” (‘Blessed are You, Lord, Our God, King of the world …), but they each have different endings. The brachot we say before performing a mitzvah start with the words: “Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kidushanu bemitzvotav ve-tzivanu…”
- For example, the bracha on the mitzvah of washing one’s hands ends “al netilat yadayim”.
- The bracha on the mitzvah of lighting candles ends “lehadlik ner shel…”
- The bracha on eating bread ends “ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz”.
- The bracha on drinking wine ends “borei pe-ri hagafen”.
- The bracha on eating vegetables ends “ borei pe-ri ha-adama”.
- The bracha on doing anything for the first time that season or year ends “she-hecheyanu ve-kiyemanu ve-higiyanu la-zman ha-zeh”.
There are also some special prayers that we say every day:
This prayer is the oldest prayer that Jews say. It says that we believe in God and we agree to do all of His mitzvot. The most important parts of the Shema are the beginning, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad” and the verse “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed”.
The Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah)
This is the long prayer in the middle of most prayer services – each person prays it quietly to themselves, and then the chazan (prayer leader) prays it out loud with everyone listening and sometimes joining in. The name of this prayer literally means ‘18’, because it used to contain 18 blessings. In modern times it has 19 blessings, but on Shabbat it has only 7 (although the middle blessing said on Shabbat is very long). Religious Jews say it every day, three times a day. This prayer is also called the ‘Amidah’ because it is said while standing up (‘amidah’ means ‘standing up’). The first and last three of its 18 blessings mainly thank and praise God for all that he has given us.
Another important prayer that is recited at or near the end of every service is Aleinu. This prayer also praises God.
Whenever someone else says a blessing, Jews say ‘Amen’ to reinforce and support what they have said. The Amen may be at the end of a sentence or paragraph. When you say Amen, you are saying that you are agreeing with what was said in the prayer. You do not say ‘Amen’ to a prayer you said yourself as it is obvious that you agree with what you said.