Prayer 101

For religious Jews, prayer is an obligation, fulfilled several times daily by reciting a prescribed liturgy containing praise of God, requests, and expressions of appreciation. The texts and practices of prayer, while broadly common to all Jewish communities, vary according to local customs, ethnic origins, and ideologies. The study of Jewish prayer thus affords insights into the history and anthropology of the Jews and an introduction to Jewish theology.

Themes and Theology

Jews pray for various reasons, categorizable as communication with God and communion with other Jews. As communication with God, Jewish prayer–in forms cast in antiquity and reshaped by succeeding generations–gives expression to the values and the needs of individuals and of the Jewish people. Jews give thanks to the Creator for the wonders of the universe, express loyalty to the One who imparts instruction (“Torah”) about bringing holiness into one’s life, and ask for the Redeemer to heal the wounds suffered by body and soul. As communion with other Jews, prayer gathers the community for collective introspection and instruction–and strengthens Jewish social bonds.

The Synagogue

This institution began as the Jewish community’s gathering-place, whose primary function was the public recitation of Scriptures. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, daily communal prayer soon became an established Jewish practice, and it too took place in the synagogue. The complexity of Jewish prayer and the expectation that prayer-leaders demonstrate musical training and improvisational ability led to the creation of a cadre of trained cantors, whose profession continues even now to enrich synagogue life.

prayer quizRabbis, on the other hand, were originally teachers of Torah independent of synagogue affiliation. Only in modern times, as the synagogue has developed into a voluntary membership association, have most practicing rabbis become employees of synagogues. Although synagogue buildings are equipped similarly worldwide, there is no independent tradition of synagogue architecture or interior design.

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