A rabbi looks at the Jewish approach to prayer.
Jewish prayer is understood to fulfill the commandment, “You shall serve God with your whole heart” (Deuteronomy 11:13). Communal prayers are offered three times daily and require a quorum of ten Jews. Private prayer, of course, includes special blessings and prayers throughout the day, including the first words a Jew recites upon awakening to express gratitude to God, setting a tone for whatever is to be that day:
In your presence I give thanks, Living and Sustaining Ruler, for you have returned my soul within me with compassion – abundant is your faithfulness.
Jewish prayer, while allowing for spontaneity, is largely contained in the siddur, the prayer book. The structure of prayer is largely praising God in thanksgiving for both the universal (e.g., creation of the world, nature, sustenance) and the parochial (e.g., the Exodus from Egypt, gift of revelation at Mount Sinai, life in the Promised Land of Israel).
Jewish prayer is both individual and communal, but the majority of the liturgy is framed in the communal plural. Jews do not pray just for their well-being, or for the healing of a family member; they pray for them within a larger community of people who need sustenance and protection, comfort and healing. While Jews stand as individuals before God in prayer, they stand with a community of Israel behind them and along side them. Hence in Jewish tradition, the preferred form of prayer is in a quorum of at least ten worshippers (called a minyan).
Jewish tradition is very clear about prayer being an essential component of the life of the Jew even at the most difficult of times. In illness a Jew recites prayers to stimulate hope and strength and to help release tension and worry. The prayer for a particular sick person should request healing for all people who are ill.
Prayer is a conversation with God for the amelioration of whatever is the most fearful of concerns; for the power to endure what humans cannot comprehend; for the capacity to feel the love of family and friends; for courage; and lastly, for an awareness of God’s love.
Prayer is a life support. It is also a life-uplifting plea and a powerful statement of one’s values and concerns.
Prayer is not only an opportunity for spiritual engagement; it is also a vehicle for teaching, instilling, and celebrating Jewish values and the faith journey of the Jewish people.
This moral instruction centers on the Jewish obligation to heal the world, Tikkun Olam. Selections from the psalms and wisdom literature, hallmark prayers from early and medieval Jewish sources, and textual references that detail observances in biblical times, buttress the teaching that all Israel is responsible one for the other. This hallmark extends to all humankind, all who have a place in the world to come.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after marching in Selma with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, famously said, “I felt my legs were praying.”