Prayer in Jewish Life – Part 2

Oil painting of a cross with colorful background.

In Judaism, prayer is largely a group activity rather than an individual activity. Although it is permissible to pray alone and it fulfills the obligation to pray, you should generally make every effort to pray with a group, short of violating a commandment to do so...

Group Prayer

Most of our prayers are expressed in the first-person plural, "us" instead of "me," and are recited on behalf of all of the Jewish people. This form of prayer emphasizes our responsibility for one another and our interlinked fates.

A complete formal prayer service cannot be conducted without a quorum of at least 10 adult Jewish men; that is, at least 10 people who are obligated to fulfill the commandment to recite the prayers. This prayer quorum is referred to as a minyan (from a Hebrew root meaning to count or to number). Certain prayers and religious activities cannot be performed without a minyan. This need for a minyan has often helped to keep the Jewish community together in isolated areas.

Berakhot: Blessings

A berakhah (blessing) is a special kind of prayer that is very common in Judaism. Berakhot are recited both as part of the synagogue services and as a response or prerequisite to a wide variety of daily occurrences. Berakhot are easy to recognize: they all start with the word barukh (blessed or praised).

The words barukh and berakhah are both derived from the Hebrew root Beit-Reish-Kaf, meaning "knee," and refer to the practice of showing respect by bending the knee and bowing. There are several places in Jewish liturgy where this gesture is performed, most of them at a time when a berakhah is being recited.

According to Jewish tradition, a person should recite 100 berakhot each day! This is not as difficult as it sounds. Repeating the Shemoneh Esrei (the 18 benedictions which form the core of liturgy) three times a day covers 57 berakhot all by itself, and there are dozens of everyday occurrences that require berakhot.

Who Blesses Whom?

Many English-speaking people find the idea of berakhot very confusing. To them, the word "blessing" seems to imply that the person saying the blessing is conferring some benefit on the person he is speaking to. For example, in Catholic tradition, a person making a confession begins by asking the priest to bless him. Yet in a berakhah, the person saying the blessing is speaking to G-d. How can the creation confer a benefit upon the Creator?

This confusion stems largely from difficulties in the translation. The Hebrew word "barukh" is not a verb describing what we do to G-d; it is an adjective describing G-d as the source of all blessings. When we recite a berakhah, we are not blessing G-d; we are expressing wonder at how blessed G-d is.

Content of a Berakhah

There are basically three types of berakhot: ones recited before enjoying a material pleasure (birkhot ha-na'ah), ones recited before performing a mitzvah (commandment) (birkhot ha-mitzvot) and ones recited at special times and events (birkhot hoda'ah).

Berakhot recited before enjoying a material pleasure, such as eating, drinking or wearing new clothes, acknowledge G-d as the creator of the thing that we are about to use. The berakhah for bread praises G-d as the one "who brings forth bread from the earth." The berakhah for wearing new clothing praises G-d as the one "who clothes the naked." By reciting these berakhot, we recognize that G-d is the Creator of all things, and that we have no right to use things without first asking his permission. The berakhah essentially asks permission to use the thing.

Berakhot recited before performing a mitzvah (commandment), such as washing hands or lighting candles, praise G-d as the one "who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us..." to do whatever it is we are about to do. Reciting such a blessing is an essential element of the performance of a mitzvah. In Jewish tradition, a person who performs a mitzvah with a sense of obligation is considered more meritorious than a person who performs the same mitzvah because he feels like it. Recitation of the berakhah focuses our attention on the fact that we are performing a religious duty with a sense of obligation. It is worth noting that we recite such berakhot over both biblical commandments and rabbinical commandments. In the latter case, the berakhah can be understood as "who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to obey the rabbis, who commanded us to..." do whatever it is we are about to do. See Halakhah: Jewish Law for an explanation of the distinction between biblical and rabbinical commandments.

Berakhot recited at special times and events, such as when seeing a rainbow or a king or hearing good or bad news, acknowledge G-d as the ultimate source of all good and evil in the universe. It is important to note that such berakhot are recited for both good things and things that appear to us to be bad. When we see or hear something bad, we praise G-d as "the true Judge," underscoring the fact that things that appear to be bad happen for a reason that is ultimately just, even if we in our limited understanding cannot always see the reason.

Form of a Berakhah

Many of the berakhot that we recite today were composed by Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly nearly 2500 years ago, and they continue to be recited in the same form. All berakhot include the phrase "Barukh atah Ha-shem, Elokaynu, melekh ha-olam," Blessed art thou L-rd, our G-d, King of the Universe. This is sometimes referred to as shem u'malkut (the name and the sovereignty), the affirmation of G-d as king.

The use of the word "thou" is worth discussing: in modern English, many people think of the word "thou" as being formal and respectful, but in fact the opposite is true. Thou (and the corresponding Hebrew atah) is the informal, familiar second person pronoun, used for friends and relatives. This word expresses our close and intimate relationship with G-d.

Immediately after this phrase, the berakhah abruptly shifts into the third person; for example, in the birkhot ha-mitzvot, the first two phrases are blessed art thou, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who sanctifies us with his commandments and commands us... This grammatical faux pas is intentional. The use of the third person pronoun ("who") while speaking to a person in Hebrew is a way of expressing extreme respect and deference. This shift in perspective is a deliberately jarring way of expressing the fact that G-d is simultaneously close to us and yet far above us, intimately related to us and yet transcendent. This paradox is at the heart of the Jewish relationship with G-d.


Steve Cohen

Steve Cohen is the founder of Apple of His Eye

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