United Synagogue Film Featuring Members of the Central Synagogue
Understanding the Shabbat Service
Why do we pray,to whom do we pray and how do we pray ,with particular reference to the Amidah?
These were all questions that Rabbi Yaacov Finn tried to answer as part of our 4 part series on “Practical Judiasm”
I will once again to attempt to summarise what we learnt at this amazing lecture on prayer and understanding the service and where appropriate take excerpts from his handouts.
Why do we pray and how?
Well there are a number of explanations and different views!
The Rambam in his Sefer Hamitzvot says that the 5th commandment – is that G-d commanded us to serve him.This command was repeated several times.
The Rambans commentary is that without a doubt the whole matter of prayer is not an obligation whatsoever but rather it is part of the Creator’s loving kindness towards us,that he hears and answers whenever we cry out to him.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a famous Israeli Philosopher, has a very controversial view and it is as follows :
“Religious belief is not an explanation of life, nature or history, or a promise of a future in this world or another, but a demand.”
“Prayer is not an attempt to bring the Creator to intervene in the order of Creation that He Himself established. Anyone who does not understand that the world of the Holy One, blessed be He, continues as usual, according to the natural order established by Him, and that prayer does not mean that one is asking G-d to change that order for one’s personal benefit, but that it is rather a means of communing with G-d through His service regardless of what transpires in the natural world – anyone who does not understand this has never in his life offered a prayer of one who believes in G-d.”
Rav.Joseph Soloveitchik in his book “The Lonely Man of Faith” says that “Prayer is basically an awareness of man finding himself in the presence of and addressing himself to his Maker,and to pray has one connotation only – to stand before G-d.”
He also says that the prayer community was born the very instant that the prophetic community expired.While within the prophetic community G-d takes the initiative -He speaks and man listens-in the prayer community the initiative belongs to man.He does the speaking and G-d the listening .
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz in his book “Laws and Morality in Jewish Tradition ” writes:
“No doubt, it is possible to pray ‘in ones heart’, without words and without any movement of the body. One may pray in silent meditation. However while such prayer may be appropriate for a being that is pure mind or soul, it is certainly not the adequate prayer for a being like man. The perfect prayer on earth is the one prayed not only by the soul of man but by the whole of the human being, body and soul. As the psalmist explains; “All my bones shall say Eternal, who is like unto you”. Mans situation requires that his very bones should be capable of prayer. But this is only possible if prayer too becomes a mitzvah unifying body and soul. Prayer therefore cannot be only silent mediation it has to be a spoken word. It has to be physical action, informed by intention. Physical protestation before G-d is no less essential for prayer than is spiritual concentration. The prayer of man should be human and not angelic.”
To be honest this took up a major part of the lecture and it really opened my mind up to the different views on why and how we pray.
We then spoke about the service itself and discussed how we start with the morning brachot(blessing) and then move on to the Pezukei D’zimrah(verses of praise from psalms and other).We where told that all of these psalms and blessings were to get us into the mood for the real prayers which are the “Shema Yisrael” and the “Amidah“
It was explained that we wouldn’t just meet a King or Queen without some type of preparation.We would need to dress and act accordingly and “psyche” ourselves up.Well even more appropriate when we are speaking to our Maker! We need to get ourselves in the correct”space” to be able to really pray.
The Amidah(Shemoneh Esrei) was originally 18 blessings and later a 19th was added.
Rav Soloveitchik says in his Koren Siddur as follows regarding the first blessing of the Amidah:
“Yet, the very institution of prayer is enigmatic. How can man possibly knock on G-d’s door, as it were? Who is man to appear before the Universal King and list his petty, insignificant needs? Would we dare act in this way before a king of flesh and blood?
We are abject, but beseeching G-d’s assistance in articulating our thoughts and words is not sufficient. Protocol must be observed. Mortal man, puny and insignificant, must first ask permission before engaging in a dialogue with the Infinite. Man needs a license, a matir. This critical element in the drama of prayer is provided by the first paragraph of the Amida. Containing no mention of our petty needs or mundane concerns, it is a blessing of the Almighty and an acknowledgement of His grandeur – an introduction which serves as the matir, the humble request for license which allows us to proceed to the gates of prayer.”
We also spoke about the choreography of taking 3 steps back and forwards and learnt a few different reasons for this as well as learning why the Shabbat Amidah is different to the week one.
Everyone ended the evening with delicious bagels/sandwiches and pastries from Hendon Bagel Bakery as well as drinks and wine.
As usual we had over 20 people attending and a good night of learning.
Please join us for our next session on the “Laws of Shabbat”