55. Patterns and Principles of Jewish Prayer

Dwight A Prior

This article is adapted from the first lecture in a four-part seminar given by Dwight Pryor on his tour of Britain in 1994 under the auspices of Christian Friends of Israel-UK


Prayer should be at the very heart of a disciple’s life. I am convinced that studying the patterns and principles of Jewish prayer can help us as Christians to pray more effectively and earnestly. Our study of Jewish prayer, therefore, is intended to be a spiritual endeavor, not merely an academic or historical exercise. These principles can help us to pray more like our Lord prayed and to better understand the prayer He taught His disciples — for Jesus lived very much within the context of the Jewish traditions of His day Surely this alone is a good reason to study these things — to imitate Jesus.

In our study we will find it helpful to examine general patterns of Jewish prayer as well as looking at specific prayers. Many of these prayers date to the four centuries before Jesus, and therefore would have been known to Him and incorporated into His prayer life.

As we study, let us avoid just accumulating more data for our minds. It is important that each of us seizes or lays hold of those things which we find particularly valuable. Our aim should be to pray more frequently and with greater focus because of this study. In Hebrew, the heart and the mind of a person are both connoted by the same word, Lev. There is an inseparable connection between the two. Prayer thus involves not only the emotions of the “heart” but also the content of the “mind”. Feeling as well as focus, conviction and content, characterize Jewish prayer. We will see a particularly powerful example of this in the Lord’s prayer.

The story is told of a young Jewish lad who lived on an isolated farm with his family. They were quite poor and lived simple lives. One day the boy got to travel to a village with his father He was drawn to a synagogue where he heard prayers being recited. His heart was touched, so he went in and sat down to listen to the prayers. The boy was deeply moved and wanted to join in the prayers, but he could not read the Siddur, the Hebrew prayer book. So he closed his eyes and simply prayed the alphabet, ‘Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, Dalet, Hey, Vav.’ He recited the alphabet over and over again. Then he said, “O God, I don’t know how to pray or what to say; so please take these letters and form them into the words that You would like to hear.”

God, no doubt, hears such prayers, for His Spirit searches our hearts when we pray. Earnestness is imperative in prayer, but content is important also. We should mature in our prayer lives and even develop skill in the way we pray. This is not to take away from child-like devotion, but to add maturity to it. We are more than beggars; we are sons and daughters of the King, and we should approach Him accordingly.

A Hebraic Perspective

Our perspective on prayer in this study will be Hebraic, just as we teach others to look at the Bible through Hebrew eyes. The Hebraic point of view was common to Jesus and the New Testament authors. We in the United Kingdom, the USA and other parts of the Western world are very much conditioned by a Hellenistic or Greco-Roman way of thinking, which differs considerably from the Hebraic or Judaic world of Jesus’ day.

Israelis even today relate to life and to one another quite differently than say Englishmen. For instance, I have noticed when riding your London commuter trains, that everyone on board sits quietly, preoccupied with their own thoughts or activities. They focus their eyes intently on their newspaper or book, seldom looking up and even more rarely speaking with a stranger. Riding a bus in Jerusalem, by contrast, can be quite a different experience, as many of you know. Israelis will crowd in on one another, talking and gesturing animatedly. They do not hesitate to speak to, query or even scold a stranger. An Israeli bus ride can be a lively and even rowdy experience by British standards!

Prayer similarly can reflect either a Greco-Roman mindset or a Hebraic-Judaic one, and it can be rewarding to break out of the former into the latter. This will help us to think like Jesus and the disciples of the earliest Church.

Our Hebrew Heritage

In Romans 11, Paul reminds us that we are grafted into the olive tree of Israel, and we can partake of the fatness, or nourishing sap, of that living tree. He cautions Gentiles not to be arrogant, however, lest we forget that the root supports us and not we the root! (Unfortunately we have not heeded his warning. Historically the Church has done exactly the opposite — as if the tail were wagging the dog. With our arrogant attitudes and triumphalistic conduct toward the Jewish people, we have attacked the very tree of our ingrafting.)

As Christians, our Hebrew heritage is rich and our debt to Israel is enormous. Apart from the Jewish people there would be no patriarchs, no prophets, no scriptures, covenants or promises. Indeed there would be no Messiah, no church and no salvation. Even civilisation as we know it is indebted to Israel. The bedrock of ethical monotheism that undergirds Western society is an inheritance from Israel. We know the true God to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and it was Israel’s prophets who taught us the ideals of justice, freedom, nghteousness, mercy and compassion. The historic Christian concepts of hospitals and orphanages sprang from the fertile soil of prophetic ideals. All these social values and ethical imperatives have come to us from Israel and are not the bi-product of the Hellenism of Greece and Rome.

And yet, perhaps no greater treasure has been bestowed on us than the prayer life of Israel. Unknown to most, Christian worship draws deeply from the ancient patterns and principles of Jewish prayer and worship in the synagogue. Our study of Jewish prayer will take us into the very heart of Judaism and the Hebraic worldview, and give us a better basis for understanding Jesus’ practice of prayer.

Jewish Prayer

Jewish prayer is inseparably connected with two key elements of Jewish life. The first is the Siddur, the Jewish Prayer Book. The second is the Synagogue.

The Bible itself contains many examples of prayer, important elements of which are incorporated into the Siddur. Some of these are personal, some are corporate in character Consider these examples: the prayer of Moses in Numbers 12:13 (the shortest prayer in the Hebrew scriptures), the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the first Temple in 1 Kings 8, Hezekiah’s prayer in 2 Kings 19, the Aaronic or Priestly Benediction of Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face towards you and give you peace.”). And of course, there are many examples of prayers and petitions in the Sepher Tehellim (“Book of Praises”) or the Psalms, which was the Hymn Book of Israel’s worship.

The Synagogue

The synagogue emerged as an unprecedented institution in antiquity. Its origins are uncertain, but many believe the foundations for the synagogue are to be found in the Babylonian captivity. Because the Jewish people were exiled, far away from the Temple in Jerusalem, the synagogue may have served as a substitute “small sanctuary” for prayer and worship. Other scholars dispute this, maintaining that synagogues existed before the Jews were exiled to Babylon. What we do know for certain is that the existence of synagogues in Israel is attested to in Jewish literature as early as the third century before Christ.

The concept of the synagogue was a landmark idea in the history of world religions. Its influence extends into both Christianity and Islam. The synagogue’s central function was as a Beit Kenesset or House of Assembly. As such, it served also as a House of Prayer (Beit Tephilla) and a House of Study (Beit Midrash).

The synagogue represented a new mode of worship in at least two respects. First, religion was democratised. In synagogal assemblies there was no priesthood or professional clergy conducting the service. Every member was considered a priest in God’s kingdom, and every able bodied male was qualified to come to the platform to read one of the seven sections of the weekly Torah portion in a Shabbat service, for instance. In the synagogue, the Torah was accessible to all and the central feature of the worship service. The Torah was at the very heart of all that went on, augmented by readings from the Prophets. In the synagogue there were no sacrifices save the sacrifice of lips in praise and prayer and of minds in study of God’s word.

Secondly, the synagogue represented the domestication of religion. The spiritual life of Israel was not limited to the great Temple, at certain seasons, with its official priests and Levites. Rather it was to involve every man, at least every Sabbath, and from house to house. The earliest synagogues actually met in homes, not in formal buildings like today. Nearly all of the ancient synagogue remains excavated in Israel, for example, date to no earlier than the third or fourth centuries after Christ. Like the Apostles and disciples gathered together in the upper room of someone’s home (in Acts 1), the early synagogues consisted of small groups assembled in homes for prayer, study and fellowship. This domestic orientation toward the small sanctuary as the dwelling place of the Most High God was innovative and influential.

We must be careful not to look upon the synagogue through Hellenistic eyes, as if it were the Jewish version of a church. Of course, for that matter even our thinking about “church” is often more Hellenistic than Hebraic. The New Testament, for instance, never speaks about “going to church,” and yet we commonly think in those terms. The church is not a building we go to, but a people being built up into a holy habitation for God’s indwelling. We are the church, the witnessing body of Christ, and when we gather together for study, prayer and fellowship, we assemble as the church — whether it be outdoors, in a house, or in some building. The early Puritans understood this principle, and that is why they called their place of assembly or church building, the “Meeting House”. Similarly the synagogue was not a building (though it might be associated with a building). It was a house of assembly for community prayer, study and fellowship.

In later centuries, as today, specific structures were built for synagogal functions. These synagogue buildings, where possible, would be located on high ground within a town — or sometimes a pole with a flag would be placed atop the building — for easy visibility. (This is the precedent for later church steeples.) In many ways, these synagogues were rather like community centres, hosting all kinds of people and activities. They served as a focal point for a community’s social and religious life. Travelers or pilgrims would look to a synagogue for an overnight stay or a meal. Public meetings would be held there. It was a Beit Kenesset, a Beit Midrash, and a Beit Tephilla. It also could serve as a Beit Din, a religious and judicial court where elders would meet to govern the community and deal with disputes. In other words synagogues became an organizing hub for all spheres of Jewish life and religious practice.

Judaism does not think of religion as simply one component of life. There is thus no Hebrew word for religion; God’s holiness should penetrate into every aspect of our existence, even the secular. All of life is to be seen as an expression of the spiritual reality of the Kingdom of God. In Jewish prayers known as berakhot or benedictions, every aspect of one’s daily life, no matter how mundane or earthy, is brought under the domain of the King of the Universe — for all of life is to be sanctified. God’s Kingship should rule and reign over every aspect of our lives, both personal and communal.

The synagogue therefore was a hub for all aspects of Jewish life. It was not a church where only religious services were held. However, among its many functions the synagogue did serve as a focal point for Jewish prayer, and that is the focus of our interest in this study.

The Siddur

For a public prayer service to be held in a synagogue, a minyan or quorum of at least ten people must be assembled. In the time of Jesus this quorum could be made up of men and women. The Siddur would be their common guide to prayer. Most of the prayers in the Siddur can certainly be prayed alone, but even then one prays from a communal frame of reference. Certain prayers, however, are recited only when a minyan is present.

Some of the beautiful prayers and blessings of the Prayer Book originated as early as four centuries before Jesus, from the time of Ezra and the sages of the Great Synagogue. Other prayers, for instance, can be traced to the time of the Maccabees in the second century. Jesus would have known and utilized these ancient prayers. The basic structure of the Prayer Book was already in place in the Second Temple era.

Through the centuries of Jewish experience, then, the Siddur became a compendium of the heartfelt prayers, petitions and praises of the Sages of Israel. It contains the liturgy for prayers in the synagogue and in the home (including such things as the benediction following a meal). This treasury of Jewish devotion is of paramount importance in Jewish life; indeed one can never fully appreciate Judaism or the Jewish spirit apart from it. A great Jewish scholar once said that to really know Judaism one must “feel” it. It engages the heart as much as it informs the head. This is part of the power and the charm of the Siddur. It allows us to “feel” Judaism, including the Jewish spirituality that was so much a part of Jesus’ world.

Up to this very day, the Prayer Book has exerted a profound influence upon Judaism. For thousands of years now, the ancient prayers of lsrael preserved in the Siddur have linked one generation to the next in a great chain of being. We too can join that great cloud of witnesses when we draw upon the principles of Jewish prayer to inform and inspire our own devotions.

Principles of Jewish Prayer

Before we examine specific prayers in the Siddur, let us look at some of the principles that characterize Jewish prayer in general. And let us do so with the aim of enhancing the focus, fervency and frequency of our own prayer lives.

1. In Jewish prayer there is no trace of magic, incantation or vain repetition.

In some Christian circles, I have often witnessed prayers that border on magic. It might involve the constant repetition of a particular word or name, for instance. I remember at one meeting seeing people pacing about, breathing deeply and in a forceful way, repeating the name; “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” over and over again in an almost mantra-like way. They seem to assume that invoking the name frequently enough or forcefully enough will bring about the desired effect.

Magic is based on the principle that the universe is permeated by certain impersonal powers or forces that can be manipulated by special knowledge or technique. To know the secret name of a god, for example, is believed to give one power over it. To rub the golden lamp and say the magic word “Shazzam!” is to force the genie to do your bidding.

This kind of magical worldview infested Christianity from the earliest centuries through the heresy of Gnosticism. Esoteric knowledge (gnosis), given only to a select inner circle of advanced disciples, was believed to be the true liberator and source of spiritual power. In the pagan world of the Far East, such knowledge, and the techniques employed with it, would free one from the endless wheel of karma and reincarnation. You might be instructed how to invoke the power of the controlling deities of the five heavens by the mantric recitation of their secret names in meditation. These same principles and philosophies are very evident today in the literature of the the New Age Movement. With the right mantra or right thinking or right confession you can “demonstrate” or manifest the reality you desire.

Biblical prayer knows no such practice and is not based upon a magical view of reality. Not some Force or Power controls the universe, but a Person — who can be known and addressed by name but never manipulated or controlled by it. Those of us returning to our Jewish roots must be particularly careful about this. The tetragrammaton, YHWH, is a sacred name (it must be treated with respect because it reveals the character of the holy God) but it is not a secret name (that properly pronounced or invoked automatically empowers one). Nor is the Hebrew name of Jesus, Yeshua, a name that magically invokes power. All power is in Jesus, the person, and His name reminds us of that.

In Hebrew thought, a name represents the person, his character, nature, or authority. A name in and of itself has no power, nor the particular pronunciation of it; rather the efficacy of a name is in the person it represents. The sons of Sceva in Acts 19 discovered that the name “Yeshua” had no magic power over demons. They knew Jesus’ name but they did not know Jesus; they tried to invoke His power without being subject to His authority. Their use of His name was a vain repetition.

2. Jewish prayer is an outpouring of the soul.

Prayer is not a religious ritual or a spiritual technique but a heart-to-heart, person-to-person communication with the King of the Universe. Thus praise, petition and thanksgiving characterize Jewish prayer. The Siddur is suffused with expressions of adoration, praise, celebration and thanksgiving. Prayer is thought of as the service of the heart.

3. Jewish prayers are congregational and community orientated.

“Our Father, Our King” (Avinu, Malkenu) is a typical expression in Jewish prayer. We are part of and we pray with and for the community. As we mentioned before, Jewish prayers are commonly prayed in the context of a minyan at the synagogue, and so the sense of corporate identity is reinforced. Even when you pray alone, you still pray as a representative of the congregation and petition on their behalf as well as for your own.

We see this same sense community orientation in The Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father. . Give us daily bread…, Forgive us our trespasses…., Deliver us from the evil one. . . This perspective is not natural to those of us living in the West. We are too steeped in the Greco-Roman emphasis upon individualism. We Americans even pride ourselves on our rugged individualism, but this attitude is quite alien to Jesus’ world and His prayers. Surely personal petitions have their place in prayer (consider David’s pleas in the Psalms, for instance), but as a pattern these must never take precedence over our awareness of being part of a corporate body.

We must never forget that we who were estranged from the God of Israel and not even a people, because of Jesus we have been brought into fellowship with the family of God and the community of faith. To have our sins atoned by Christ’s blood is to be reconciled to God as “our Father” and to be adopted into His family as sons and daughters in good standing. It is to be joined to community, even as fellow citizens of the commonwealth of Israel. Our prayers should reflect this corporate awareness and continually remind us of our collective responsibility.

4. Jewish prayer focuses on the kingdom of God.

The great emphasis in Jewish prayer is always on the One to whom prayer is addressed — as the King over His created universe — and on His Kingdom — His active reigning as Sovereign and Lord. The Sages were not so much preoccupied with material needs as being consumed with a passion for all of Israel and indeed all of mankind to submit to the Kingship of God, even the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They looked for, longed for, and earnestly petitioned for the wicked to be pulled down and for God’s righteousness to prevail, for justice to roll down like a mighty river. They longed for the day when the Lord would be One and His name One in all the earth; when the whole world would recognize the God of Israel as King. In that great day, Zechariah reports, we will all go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) at the House of Yahweh. In that great Messianic age, no longer will there be a need for the redemption of Passover or the giving of the Torah at Pentecost, but the thanksgiving of Tabernacles will continue even greater than before. In the meantime, God’s rule must be evident in the lives of His people. Thus it was the earnest and intense desire, the very heartbeat of Jewish prayer, to see God’s Kingdom at work — to see God ruling and reigning in the community of Israel and eventually in the whole world.

5. In Jewish prayer God is acknowledged as Personal.

The prayers of the Siddur address the God of Israel in direct speech, as a Person. God is not some pantheistic, impersonal cosmic force; He is personal, He has a name, and one speaks directly to Him. How amazing! That ones so lowly as we, can speak directly to the King of the Universe. Indeed Scripture assures us that He eagerly desires to commune with us. If one of the greatest joys in a natural father’s life is when his children ask to spend some quality time with him — how much more is our Heavenly Father desirous of a close relationship with us? He is eager to hear our prayers and praises. Jewish prayer addresses God directly and personally because of His very character as Avinu, Our Father.

6. In Jewish prayer God is acknowledged as Powerful.

Even though He is known as “the God of Israel”, Yahweh is not a regional, tribal, or local deity: He is Melekh HaOlam, King of the Universe. He is the Cosmic Creator, The Sovereign Judge, and the Loving Father of those who submit to Him. In the history of Israel and in the ministry of Jesus there are various occasions when God does battle with local deities. For example, the twelve plagues in Egypt were all related to the deities in the Egyptian pantheon, starting with the God of the Nile. The God of Israel demonstrated that He is superior to all these “gods”. Again, on the Sea of Galilee Jesus confronted the local storm God, Baal, when He commanded the storm to cease and in effect rebuked the god of thunder. The God of Israel is greater than any Baal. He is King of the Universe. Amazingly this Sovereign of all creation has chosen the nation of Israel, the least of all people, to be bearers of His reputation in this world. In their prayers and praises to Him, Yahweh is always acknowledged as the powerful King of the Universe and God over all.

7. Jewish prayer reminds us of great truths about God.

Prayer is suffused with praise (yadah) that is characterized by confession, declaration or proclamation of truths about who God is and what He has done, about His character and His conduct, His attributes and His actions. We praise Him for who He is and petition Him to be in this world who He is already in Heaven. In so praying we ourselves are continually reminded of these vital truths about God and our responsibilities toward Him. God is exalted and we are edified. Prayer ultimately is not to conform God to our wishes but to transform us into His will. Jewish prayer reminds of this by continually setting before us the truth about God.

8. Jewish prayer references many Biblical texts and allusions.

The Scriptures bear faithful witness to the truth about God, to His character and conduct. Therefore Jewish prayers often are taken straight from Scripture and spoken out as corporate or personal prayers. The Psalms are used extensively in this manner. The Shema, which contains two texts from Deuteronomy and one from Numbers (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, Numbers 15:37-41) is prescribed for prayer twice daily. These are just some of many examples in the Siddur of how Scripture itself is the basis for prayer.

9. Jewish prayer is a daily duty.

Like Joshua of old, the Jewish people meditate on God’s word twice a day in prescribed prayers. Every morning and every evening the Shema is recited, for instance. These times of prayer correspond to the morning and evening sacrifices in the Temple, with prayer being seen as the sacrifice of our lips. Thrice daily the Amidah is prayed. And at least a hundred occasions a day are to be found to recite benedictions, praising God as the King of the Universe. This philosophy of prayer is expressed in Psalm 16:8, “I have set the Lord continually before me”. Throughout the day, every day and in every circumstance, our lives should be God-centred. Jewish prayer daily promotes that consciousness with us.

10. Jewish prayer is a disciplined activity.

The Siddur is a book of prescribed prayers. Though private extemporaneous prayers are always permitted and, at certain places in the order of prayer, even encouraged, Jewish prayer by and large utilizes the discipline and devotion of prescribed prayers.

Many Christians, especially from some Protestant, Pentecostal or Charismatic backgrounds, have difficulty with this concept — since it seems to reduce prayers to mere rote. This, however, is as illogical as saying that the reading of poetry cannot be emotionally moving. The great poets operate within the discipline of their craft and yet convey in eloquent language sublime thoughts and intense feelings about life. How much more about God? Prescribed prayers can be effective conveyors of our hearts and thoughts to God. They can give voice to what our heart would say if it were so inspired as the Scriptures or so eloquent as the Sages, including Jesus himself. Repetition, per se, is not a bad thing (indeed it was the primary way of learning in Jesus’ world); it is vain repetition that is to be avoided. Empty or meaningless repetitions of words, no matter how lofty, is never authentic prayer, and the Sages consistently caution against it. Fervency and focus must accompany true prayer — which brings us to our next principle.

11. Jewish prayer is a focused devotion.

The key to all disciplined prayer, as to all Jewish prayer, is “kavannah”. This concept refers to the intentionality and the intensity of prayer. Praying should be a focused activity with both content and devotion, engaging both mind and heart, characterized by both focus and sincerity. It must be devout prayer, conscious of what is said and to whom it is said. The bowing motion you may have observed in an Orthodox Jew praying, for instance, at the Western Wall, is an aid to and a reflection of the prayer’s earnestness and intensity. The tallit or prayer shawl pulled up over his head is to help block out any distractions; he in audience with the Sovereign of the World and his undivided attention is required. The right attitude is essential –one that is appreciative and respectful, joyous and reverential. “Don’t begin your prescribed prayers if you are sad, downcast or in a bad mood,” say the Rabbis. “First sing some songs or hymns; lift your spirit so you can pray with joy.” Kavannah is the key that unlocks the treasure of Jewish prayer.

12. Jewish prayers are spoken in Hebrew.

The great devotional focus of the Siddur is preserved and facilitated by the use of the “sacred tongue”,’ Hebrew. Though there have been times in Jewish history when this might have been changed, Hebrew has remained distinctively the language of Jewish prayer. This continuity has conferred a universal and timeless appeal to the Siddur, and has historically linked one generation to the next in their devotions to God.

By reciting certain portions of the Siddur it is possible for us today to pray some of the very prayers that would have been a part of Jesus’ life and in the language that He knew. We can utter some of the same devotions that would have been recited daily (and with great kavannah, I’m sure) by the Apostles and disciples as they awaited the promised Spirit in an Upper Room in Jerusalem. What an awesome prospect!

Hebrew prayer, then, forges spiritual links between the people of God that span many generations and thousands of years. In 1995-96 Jerusalem celebrates its tri-millenial anniversary as David’s capital. For 3000 years this city of the great King has heard the echoes of devout Jewish prayers directed to the God of Israel, even the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe. In a special way our faith in Yeshua (Jesus) connects us to that remarkable heritage. It is our great privilege, therefore, and to our enormous enrichment to study the timeless record of the Jewish Prayer Book, the Siddur. We will find therein a great variety of prayers like threads in an exquisite tapestry — of which The Lord’s Prayer is a miniature portrait.

(Dwight A. Pryor’s seminar on Jewish Prayer was recorded on four audio tapes by christian Friends of Israel-UK. The article above is taken from the first tape. The complete set of four tapes in an album with accompanying study guide may be ordered by writing to the author and requesting his latest catalog of books, tapes, and videos. Address your inquiry to the centre for Judaic-christian Studies, PO Box 293040, Dayton, OH 45429, USA.)

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 3 No 3, Prayer, Autumn 1995)