Jewish prayer is as ancient as the Hebrew Bible, for the Torah records that even the patriarchs prayed to God in times of distress or to give thanks. In late antiquity, the Rabbis of the Talmud established formal structures and blessings to be recited for the various worship services.
Two of the earliest written versions of the prayerbook, called a siddur (meaning “order”) in Hebrew, were compiled in Babylonia by the sages Amram Gaon and Saadia Gaon in the ninth century CE. Over the centuries, scores of rabbis produced their own versions of the siddur, providing commentaries and additional religious poems as they were written and incorporated into a local community’s liturgy. Even to this day, while the talmudic structure of prayers remains the standard format, contemporary rabbis, denominational movements, and different ethnic communities within the Jewish people continue to update and publish new siddurim. Although separate prayerbooks exist for High Holy Day services and daily prayers, siddurim for Shabbat and holidays are more prevalent within any given synagogue and serve as the primer of spirituality for Jewish life.
Nearly all Shabbat and holiday siddurim are structured around significant liturgical units. The first of these, and often the first section one finds in a siddur, is morning blessings and psalms. Called Birchot HaShahar, or blessings of the morning, these were originally recited by individuals in their home as they awoke, washed, and dressed for the day. Later on, these blessings–such as thanking God for giving sight to the blind (once recited before one opened their eyes in the morning), raising the downtrodden (recited before standing up from bed), and clothing the naked (recited before getting dressed)–were transferred to the synagogue and included in the siddur.
To spiritually prepare the worshipper for reciting the obligatory major prayers of the morning, the Rabbis established that a series of psalms and selected passages from the Hebrew Bible should be recited each morning. Called Pesukei D’Zimra (verses of song), these readings were chanted, mumbled, or read silently by the individual worshippers in order to build up to the proper mood and reverential attitude for reciting the later prayers of the service.
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