The Amidah is the core of every Jewish worship service, and is therefore also referred to as HaTefillah, or “The prayer.” Amidah, which literally means, “standing,” refers to a series of blessings recited while standing.
Using the image of master and servant, the Rabbis declared that a worshipper should come before his or her master first with words of praise, then should ask one’s petitions, and finally should withdraw with words of thanks. Thus, every Amidah is divided into three central sections: praise, petitions, and thanks.
Originally, Jewish prayer was largely unstructured. Although the Rabbis eventually codified the format and themes of each of the blessings, it was initially left to the creativity of individual prayer leaders to generate the specific wording of the blessings. Individual communities in different countries began to settle on somewhat standard versions of the prayers over time. Today the variations between the traditional texts of the Amidah in different communities are fairly minor.
The Amidah is recited silently by all members of a congregation–or by individuals praying along–and then, in communal settings, repeated aloud by the prayer leader or cantor, with the congregation reciting “Amen” to all the blessings of the Amidah.
The First Three Blessings
The first three blessings of praise of the Amidah in every worship service are always the same, with only minor variations for weekdays, Shabbat, and holidays. The first blessing is called Avot, Hebrew for “ancestors,” and serves as an introduction to the God of our biblical heritage, connecting us to the Divine. Immediately before reciting the Amidah, the tradition developed of taking three steps backward and then forward again to symbolize entering into God presence. Mentioning the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–and in liberal congregations, the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel–this blessing praises God for remembering their good actions, and by implication, asking God to hear our prayer favorably because of their merit. The blessing begins and ends with a formal bow at the knees and hips, symbolically demonstrating our subservience to God.
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