Where do our prayers come from, and why do we pray three times a day? The Talmud discusses the source of our thrice-daily prayer service, offering two opinions as to the inspiration for this practice (B. Berachot 26b). The first approach suggests that the three forefathers each instituted one of the services: Abraham inaugurated the morning shaharit prayer, Isaac introduced the afternoon minha service, while Jacob was the first to pray the evening ma'ariv.
One later commentator punned on the Yiddish word for prayer - davenen - saying that it comes from the Aramaic meaning "of our fathers" (Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov, 19th century, Eastern Europe). Thus our prayers are ancient rites that date back to the beginning of the history of our people.
A second approach holds that the prayers were established to correspond to the daily Temple sacrifices: Each morning in the Temple, the tamid was offered and shaharit corresponds to this sacrifice. Minha reflects the daily afternoon tamid sacrifice, and ma'ariv marks the evening burning of leftovers on the altar.
The sages go further, explaining that according to this line, the stipulated times for the sacrifices also give the prescribed times for the prayer services. For example, the disagreement as to whether the morning tamid could be offered until midday or only until the fourth hour after sunrise is mirrored in an argument as to the required time for shaharit.
Comparing the two opinions presented in the Talmud, a difference is apparent: While the first approach clearly identifies those who instituted the prayers - our forefathers - the second approach merely tells us why they were designated. The Talmud does not identify the legislating body which instituted the prayers corresponding to the Temple sacrifices.
Significantly, Rashi (11th century, France) explains that it was none other than the Men of the Great Assembly who established the three prayer services as a reflection of the Temple service. The Men of the Great Assembly was a body of 120 sages that was formed in the latter part of the First Temple period and continued through the Babylonian Exile until the beginning of the Second Temple period.
Identifying the Great Assembly as the legislating body is noteworthy, as Rabbi Ya'acov ibn Habib (1445?-1515/1516) points out, for this institution existed while the Temple was standing.
Ibn Habib was born in Castile, Spain, but upon the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 made his way to Portugal and then on to Salonika. In Spain he was already a renowned scholar and head of a yeshiva, and when he reached Salonika he continued his rabbinic and scholarly work, playing an important leadership role in the community. His halachic works were widely quoted in his day and after his death, though much of what he wrote has not survived.
His fame, however, is associated with the Ein Ya'acov, a compilation of the non-legal passages from the Talmud, supplemented with an occasional commentary. With the Ein Ya'acov, Ibn Habib rounded out his halachic and communal efforts, as he sought to provide direction and guidance in his turbulent times. The book has endured as a treasure trove of talmudic aggada. The work's popularity has been bolstered by editions printed with later commentaries to the aggadic passages.
Ibn Habib notes that the Men of the Great Assembly could not have instituted the prayer services as a replacement for the sacrificial service, since at the time the Temple was still functional. Thus the newly instituted prayers were to complement - not supplant - the Temple sacrifices.
Elsewhere in his commentary, Ibn Habib reports that one of his congregants asked him on Yom Kippur after reading the avodah, the passages that describe the Yom Kippur Temple service: "How can this be considered the holiest day of the year nowadays? The focus of this day was the Temple service - the sacrificial offerings and the incense - yet today regrettably this is all missing?"
Ibn Habib tells us how he responded. "I encouraged the questioner with this answer: I reminded him that apart from the priestly sacrifices, we have another type of service that is more wonderful and more valuable: the Levite service. The many Levites would sing and play instruments to thank and praise the Almighty. And we could say that this service was greater than the sacrifices, since the sacrificial service was performed with the hands, while the songs were sung with the mouth and with meditative thought."
Ibn Habib identified our prayers with the Levite song and not with the animal sacrifices, suggesting that the Levite accompaniment was a more significant manner of worship than offering up of sacrifices. To buttress this innovative contention, he continued: "Isn't this obvious, for sacrifices were legally limited to the physical Temple confines, while prayer in any pure place redefines that location as a Temple microcosm."
The thrust of his argument is clear: The ultimate worship of the Almighty is not by burning animals. Heartfelt prayer, mirroring the Levite song, is the true path to God. Thus, even when sacrifices formed the central daily ritual, they were accompanied by prayer.
In truth, the secondary nature of the sacrifices is an idea expressed during the First Temple period by the prophet Micah (Micah 6:6-8): "With what shall I approach the Almighty, bow before the God on high? Should I come before Him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? Would the Almighty be pleased with thousands of rams? Myriads of streams of oil? Should I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my womb for the sin of my soul?"
Micah roundly rejects the sacrifices as the ultimate divine service, seeing the Temple offerings as peripheral to the true path, suggesting a route that comes from the inside: "It has been told to you, O man, what is good and what the Almighty demands of you: Only to do justice, and love of kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.