World of the Sages: Paths in prayer

Our prayers are ancient rites that date back to the beginning of the history of our people.

shofar blowing 88 (photo credit: )
shofar blowing 88
(photo credit: )
Who instituted the prayer services 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. Brachot 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. For each of these attributions, a biblical source is provided: And Abraham rose early in the morning and he [went] to the place where he stood before God (Genesis 19:27). "Standing" (amud) is a term used to describe prayer in the Bible (see Psalms 106:30), thus we have Abraham's early morning Shaharit. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening (Genesis 24:63). The term for "meditate" (lasuah) may refer to prayer (see Psalms 102:1), thus we have a reference to Isaac instituting the afternoon Minha prayer. For Jacob and the evening Arvit, the following verse is cited: And he came upon a certain place and he rested there for the night for the sun had set (Genesis 28:11). The word for "he came upon" (vayifga) is an expression for prayer (see Jeremiah 7:16). Our prayers are therefore 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, a tamid sacrifice was offered and Shaharit corresponds to this sacrifice. A second tamid offering was sacrificed daily in the afternoon and that sacrifice is paralleled by the Minha service. The evening Ma'ariv service marks the burning of leftovers on the altar which was done each night in the Temple. How are we to understand this ostensibly historical disagreement: Who really established our prayer rites? One possible approach is to say that the forefathers instituted the prayers and the sages later connected them to the Temple sacrifices. Thus we have two enactments: Our forefathers mandated the prayers, the sages enacted the parameters of the prayers based on the Temple rites. Alternatively, it could be suggested that the forefathers innovated the concept of the three daily prayers. Yet prayer services did not become widespread practice until Temple times. Using a legal analysis we could offer a variation on this approach: The Talmud may be describing two sources of the prayers - the historical source and the legal source. In legal theory, historical sources are the factual background for the legislation of a law. Historical sources themselves do not create normative law, they merely tell the story of why the law was enacted, of how the law was inspired, of what issue the law comes to address. A law only becomes normative when it has a legal source, that is, an act recognized by the system as being able to create binding law. In our case, the historical source of our prayers may indeed date back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The binding obligation to pray, however, is not due to the prayers of our forefathers. The three daily prayers became normative law when our sages enacted the requirement to pray, paralleling that obligation with the concurrent Temple sacrifices. While over the generations many may have followed in the footsteps of our forefathers and prayed daily, prayer as a requirement incumbent on all was only instituted by the sages during the second Temple period. There are numerous examples of laws that have a source rooted in history and a later legal source that makes the practice mandated law. Thus, for instance, the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve of a kosher animal is traced back to the blow Jacob received during his struggle with a mystery assailant: Therefore the children of Israel eat not the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip to this day (Genesis 32:33). Nevertheless, the prohibition only became normative law when it was enacted years later at Sinai (see M. Hullin 7:6 and Maimonides's commentary). Beyond the legal analysis of historical and legal sources of Halacha, the dual sources of our prayer services suggest a two paradigms for the the prayer endeavor. We don't all pray in the same manner: There are those of us who stand in prayer, like a lone Isaac in a field, hoping that when we lift our eyes our beloved will magically be approaching. We pray as individuals, almost alone in a hostile world. Our travails are personal and our heartfelt prayers reflect this solitude. Even when we stand with a congregation, our prayers are essentially lone ventures, journeys we undertake with just our siddur (prayer book) for company. The pace of the congregation seldom matches the beat of our supplications. While we acknowledge the value of the community, we often find it limiting or even suffocating. All we want is a quiet corner in the synagogue to offer our sincere prayers to the Almighty. Such supplicants follow the path of our forefathers, forging their own prayer. Others come to synagogue primarily to pray with the community. For us, the only true prayer service is one undertaken together with peers. We thrive on the communal singing, on saying passages aloud and together. Left alone without a community, our prayers are empty; they go nowhere and in a flit they are thankfully over. In an honest appraisal, we know that our prayers cannot reach the heights we desire, and we sincerely hope that on the coattails of our peers our supplication will be accepted. Such supplicants reflect the sacrifices in the Temple, where essentially the service was communal. Of course life is rarely, if ever, cut of one cloth. Most of us oscillate between the two paradigms: One day we crave a private corner, the next we feel as though we have nothing to say without the community. We have two paradigms of prayer - the prayer of our forefathers and the Temple sacrifice service - so that each of us can find a path, regardless of the mood in which we find ourselves. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.