Author Archives: Rabbi Abraham Millgram

About Rabbi Abraham Millgram

Rabbi Abraham Ezra Millgram (1900-1998) served as a congregational rabbi, a Hillel director, and from 1945 to 1961, Educational Director of the Commission on Jewish Education of the United Synagogue of America. During several decades of active retirement in Jerusalem, he published a number of books, including Jerusalem Curiosities (Jewish Publication Society) and A Short History of Jerusalem (Jason Aronson).

Biblical Prayer

The foremost way of worshipping God in ancient Israel, from antiquity through the year 70 C.E., was through sacrifice, primarily of animals. Alongside that worship, though, there existed another form of worship: prayer. Unlike sacrifices, biblical prayer was not an established, ritualized communal practice. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Worship, published by The Jewish Publication Society.

In addition to the sacrificial rites there was a collateral form of worship, unofficial but fully recognized–private prayer. The Bible records private prayers by almost every important personality with whose life and activity it deals. The religious men and women turned to God in prayer, and their prayers, as recorded in the Bible, touch the heart and stir deep religious sentiments. 

Solomon’s Prayer

In general, the personal prayers in the Bible–exclusive of the Psalms–are very much like the prayers that we would utter today. Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple may serve as an example. It contains all the elements of prayer-praise and thanksgiving, confession and intercession:

jewish biblical prayer“0 Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like Thee, in heaven above, or on earth beneath; who keepest covenant and mercy with Thy servants, that walk before Thee with all their heart; … Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded! Yet have Thou respect unto the prayer of Thy servant, and to his supplication, 0 Lord my God, to hearken unto the cry and to the prayer which Thy servant prayeth before Thee this day; that Thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day…. And hearken Thou to the supplication of Thy servant, and of Thy people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place; yea, hear Thou in heaven Thy dwelling-place; and when Thou hearest, forgive” [I Kings 8:23, 27-30].

Like all the prayers uttered by biblical personalities or ascribed to them, Solomon’s prayer is addressed directly to God. There are no priests or other intermediaries, nor does Solomon offer any sacrifices to win God’s favor. Solomon supplicates God with words that come from the heart, and his prayer is uttered in the utmost faith that if he is deserving his prayer will be heard and answered.

Kabbalah & Jewish Prayer

Rabbi Millgram’s thorough but critical survey of the influences of the Kabbalah (mysticism) of the Zohar and later Lurianic Kabbalah on Jewish liturgy is reprinted with permission from Jewish Worship, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

In addition to enriching the siddur [prayer book] with prayers and hymns of superb quality, the kabbalists took the ultimate step of transforming all prayer into an esoteric exercise and the whole siddur into a kabbalistic tract. The central objective of prayer was to effect the union of the Shekhinah [God’s presence or indwelling, understood as a feminine aspect of the divine] and the Holy One, blessed be He, or to restore the divine perfection that was damaged by sin.

The process of prayer consisted of concentration, or kavannah, on the esoteric significance of each prayer and especially on the divine names in it. This kind of kavannah, said the kabbalists, can bring unity into the divine essence and thus achieve the redemption of Israel.

In order that the mystic may be ever aware of this central aim and properly apply mystic kavannah to his prayers, each prayer was preceded by preparatory introductions. From the point of view of religious inwardness and piety, this kabbalistic use of kavannah represents a considerable decline in the concept as used in the Talmud and in the Jewish philosophical and ethical literature of the Middle Ages. Instead of being a pious concentration on prayer, a pouring out of one’s heart before God, kavannah was turned into a concentration of mystic intentions aimed at affecting the cosmic order and thus insuring divine aid.

Mystical Meanings and Meditations

The kabbalists not only transformed their own prayer into a mystic ritual requiring deep concentration on various aspects of their esoteric system, but also influenced the official liturgy of the synagogue. Although they did not alter traditional prayers, they read into them many esoteric doctrines. These new mystic meanings gained wide acceptance even among the uninitiated. They penetrated the liturgy with hardly any resistance.

In order to direct the worshiper’s thoughts to the "real" meaning of the prayers, the kabbalists provided introductory meditations, especially before the various rituals of the liturgy. Thus we find an introductory prayer which is still recited before putting on the prayer shawl [tallit] for the morning service: "Even as I cover myself with the tallit in this world, so may my soul deserve to be clothed with a beautiful tallit in the world to come in the Garden of Eden. Amen."

The kabbalistic content of this prayer is unmistakable. Its mystical symbolism of the soul wrapped in a tallit in the world to come survived even after the modernists had applied their fine comb to the prayer book and eliminated almost all the kabbalistic elements.

While wrapping oneself in the tallit one recites four biblical verses:

"How precious is Thy lovingkindness, O God!

And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Thy wings.

They are abundantly satisfied with the fatness of Thy house;

And Thou makest them drink of the river of Thy pleasures.

For with Thee is the fountain of life;

In Thy light do we see light.

O continue Thy lovingkindness unto them that know Thee;

And righteousness to the upright in heart." (Psalms 36:8-11)

And while putting on the tefillin [phylacteries] two biblical verses are recited;

"And I will betroth thee unto Me forever;

Yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness and in justice,

And in lovingkindness, and in compassion.

And I will betroth thee unto me in faithfulness;

And thou shalt know the Lord." (Hosea 2:21-22)

The selections are obviously not kabbalistic compositions. But the mystics saw in the biblical figures of speech kabbalistic hints, such as taking "refuge in the shadow of God’s wings," "the fountain of life," "them that know Thee," and of course the obvious kabbalistic doctrine of the "betrothal" of God to his "bride," Israel. These verses were introduced into the ritual of putting on tallit and tefillin by a 17th-century kabbalist, Rabbi Nathan Shapira, and they are still part of the ritual.

Uniting the Holy One and the Shekhinah

Most of the introductory meditations initiated by the kabbalists do not rely on mystic hints. They speak clearly of the central goal of the prayer–"to effect the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Shekhinah [God’s presence–a feminine aspect of God, in the view of many kabbalists]." Thus the meditation read before putting on the tallitstarts off with this typical declaration:

"I am hereby ready to put on the fringed tallit in accordance with the halakhah [law] as the Lord our God commanded us in His holy Torah… in order to effect the union of the Holy One, blessed be he, and the Shekhinah in reverence and love… and to unite the first two letters and the last two letters of the Tetragrammaton [God’s four-letter name] in a complete union."

Most modern prayer books have eliminated this meditation, along with most other mystic prayers. The Sephardim [Jews of Iberian ancestry], however, still use them. Indeed, no modern censorship has been applied to the Sephardic prayer book. It is therefore replete with mystic symbolism and kabbalistic prayers.

Kabbalistic meditations penetrated into the services of the entire prayer cycle. Thus we find a mystic meditation before the sounding of the shofar [ram’s horn] during the Rosh Hashanah services. In addition to the usual formula indicating that the intention of the ritual is to "effect the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Shekhinah," there is an allusion to the concept of a divine court with a celestial "district attorney" in the person of Satan. When the shofar is sounded, its shrill sounds ascend to heaven and confuse Satan, thus permitting God’s attribute of mercy to prevail. This mystic concept is spelled out in the acrostic of the biblical verses recited on that occasion. The acrostic reads "k’ra satan" ("destroy Satan").

Still another example of the kabbalistic penetration into the yearly cycle of the synagogue prayers is the practice of reciting the 13 Divine Attributes [Exodus 34:6-7a] before taking the Torah from the ark during the major festivals. This is followed by a silent prayer: "O Lord of the universe, fulfill for good the desires of our heart." Both the recital of the 13 Divine Attributes and the prayer after it are of kabbalistic origin. Their source is a 17th-century kabbalistic work, entitled Sha’arei Tziyyon ("The Gates of Zion"), by Nathan Hannover. Because the prayer aroused opposition on the part of the modernists, some modern prayer books omit the prayer, though they retain the 13 Divine Attributes. The Sephardic prayer books, of course, contain the full prayer with all its kabbalistic formulas.

Kabbalistic Prayers

"The mystics," says Israel Abrahams [in his Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, p. 29], "were the best prayer writers of the Middle Ages, and one would seek in vain for a Jewish Thomas a Kempis [medieval Catholic priest and writer] outside the ranks of the mystics." The prayers composed by the kabbalists are often not recognized as mystic prayers, because the mystical ideas contained in them are usually stated in simple liturgic style, without recourse to the esoteric terminology of the Kabbalah.

To be sure, this rendered their doctrines somewhat inexact. But the prayers benefited from the avoidance of controversy. They easily lent themselves to reinterpretation and thus became acceptable to all elements of the community.

A good example is the kabbalistic prayer recited before the Torah is removed from the ark. This prayer is known by its initial words as B’rikh Sh’mei ("Blessed be the name"). The prayer is taken verbatim from the Zohar and was introduced into the liturgy by [the 16th century mystic] Rabbi Isaac Luria. Its wide acceptance in modern synagogues, despite its kabbalistic origin, is due to its genuine liturgical quality, which is evident even in translation:

"Blessed be the name of the Sovereign of the universe. Blessed be Thy crown and Thy abiding-place. Let Thy favor rest with Thy people Israel forever: show them the redemption of Thy right hand in Thy holy temple…. Thou art He that feedeth and sustaineth all; Thou art He that ruleth over kings, for dominion is Thine.

"I am the servant of the Holy One, blessed be He, before whom and before whose glorious Torah I prostrate myself at all times: not in man do I put my trust, nor upon any angel do I rely, but upon the God of heaven, who is the God of truth, and whose Torah is truth, and whose prophets are prophets of truth, and who aboundeth in deeds of goodness and truth. In Him do I put my trust, and unto His holy and glorious name do I utter praises.

"May it be Thy will to open my heart unto Thy Torah, and to fulfill the wishes of my heart and of the hearts of Thy people Israel for good, for life, and for peace. Amen."

Minyan: The Congregational Quorum

Rabbi Millgram wrote before it became the prevailing (but not universal) custom, as it is now, for women to be included among those whose presence constitutes a minyan in non-Orthodox synagogues. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Worship, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Congregational worship [has traditionally been] preferred to private devotions because it enabled one to respond to the reader’s call to worship ["Bar’khu"] and to recite the Kedushah [the expanded third blessing during the reader’s repetition] of the [Amidah, or "Shmoneh Esreh"–the common core of every prayer service]. At a public service one could also hear the reading of the scriptural selections, and a mourner could recite the Kaddish. In addition, one experienced the interstimulation that comes from worship with coreligionists.

What constitutes a congregation? The answer is a minyan, a minimum of ten adult Jews (an adult Jew is any Jewish male who has passed his thirteenth birthday). The number ten was derived from the first verse of Psalm 82, which reads: "God stands in the congregation of God." The word edah (congregation) is also applied to the ten spies who, in the days of Moses, rendered a negative report on the land of Canaan. Hence it was established that a "congregation of God" consists of at least ten men.

In the geonic period the definition of the minyan was not rigid. In Massekhet Soferim (10:8), a late geonic work, we read that a minyan is required for the recitation of certain prayers–but, it is added, "our Sages in Palestine recite these prayers in the presence of seven . . . and some say even in the presence of only six." The practice of the Palestinians did not prevail, however. The rule of the Babylonian Jews was adopted everywhere, and a full quorum of ten men has been required for public prayer.

It has also been argued whether one may include in the minyan a boy under thirteen when only one person is lacking for the quorum.

Kippot (Head Coverings) in Synagogue

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Worship, published by The Jewish Publication Society.

ln Western society a gentleman “tips his hat” to a lady, and a Christian removes his hat upon entering a church. Not so in the Muslim world. To be bareheaded is to show disrespect and to be barefooted is a sign of reverence. No one is permitted to enter a mosque without first removing his shoes. In Judaism, both the hat and the shoes have retained their symbolic meaning, though not with equal weight or consistency.

If the symbolism of removing the shoes has faded somewhat among the modern Jews, the covering of the head as a symbol of reverence during worship has remained a religious symbol of significance. But the origin and development of this religious symbol is shrouded in uncertainty. We know that among the priestly vestments of Aaron and his sons there was a “headdress” for Aaron (Exodus 28:4) and “turbans” for Aaron’s sons (Exodus 28:40). These, the Bible tells us, were “for dignity and adornment.” In the [Babylonian]Talmud we read a lone but telling reference: “Rabina was sitting before R. Jeremiah of Difti, when a certain man passed by without covering his head [as a sign of respect]. How impudent is that man! he exclaimed” (Kiddushin 33a).

Moses Maimonides [12th-century Spain/North Africa] makes reference to this Talmudic incident in his famous philosophic work, The Guide of the Perplexed. He says: “The great men among our Sages would not uncover their heads because they believed that God’s glory was round them and over them.”

Though covering one’s head was regarded during the Talmudic period as a sign of respect, there is scant evidence that Jews in the Temple court or in the early synagogue were required to wear any headgear. In Christian Europe we have evidence of a disregard for this tradition, or at least inconsistency in its observance. “In the thirteenth century,” says Israel Abrahams, quoting a contemporary work, “boys in Germany and adults in France were called to the Law in synagogue bareheaded” (Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, London 1932, 301-2).

Synagogue Architecture and Interior Design

Rabbi Millgram’s speaks about pre-modern synagogue buildings But his description of the features of synagogue interiors is as accurate for present-day structures as for pre-modern ones, and could just as well have been expressed in the present tense, with a few exceptions. One is the last paragraph below, about windows. Contemporary synagogues feature many windows, often very large, both for light and for aesthetic and spiritual effect. Another is the observation that synagogue architecture is "simplicity itself," since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen the construction of many ornate and elaborate synagogue buildings. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Worship, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

In respect to its architecture the synagogue has at no time reflected any uniquely Jewish style. Being aliens everywhere, the Jews did not build with an eye to permanence.

Diaspora Conditions Often Dictated Modesty

Historians have characterized the medieval Jewish economy as one of liquid cash. The Jew never knew when he would have to pack up and wander forth to a new temporary home. Architectural style was therefore not a primary consideration. In addition, the vast majority of Jews were very poor, this despite their supposed wealth. Unless there was a wealthy patron, the general poverty of the community dictated extreme economy.

An added reason for not developing a uniquely Jewish style of architecture was the dispersal of the Jews among many nations, where they were always a small minority of the population. And the prevailing disabilities resulted in a lack of skills in the plastic arts–the Jews produced many scholars but few architects. Hence they usually relied on non-Jewish architects to interpret the Jewish tradition of synagogue practice.

Because there were some countries where Jews were not permitted to own land, synagogues were held by non-Jewish trustees or were leased on short terms. Under such conditions elaborate architectural structures were not prudent, and the development of a definitive architectural style was unlikely. Modesty to the point of drabness was the prevailing policy.

Unlike the cruciform of the church, the architectural shape of the synagogue lacked symbolic meaning. The synagogue was usually oblong or square, and its external appearance was usually unobtrusive. Especially in medieval Europe, anonymity and concealment were the better part of wisdom.

Conditions Permitting, Tall Was Good

In the Eastern lands the situation of the Jews was more stable. The Babylonian Talmud [BT] therefore specifies that the synagogue be the tallest building in town–and starkly admonishes that any city in which the roofs are higher than the synagogue will eventually be destroyed (Shabbat 11a). This provision, however, was seldom possible of execution, especially in the Christian countries where the Church appropriated this prerogative for itself. Woe to the Jewish community that dared build a synagogue taller than the local church.

Still, there were synagogues that dared compete with the dominant faith. They achieved their humble victory by building downward so that the synagogue was "taller" than the church within the structure. Building the synagogue partly below the ground also fulfilled the words of the psalmist: "Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord" (Psalm 130:1). This principle also found expression in having the spot where the reader stood somewhat below the synagogue floor, so that he could literally cry out to God "out of the depths."

Windows–Prescribed, But Sometimes Foregone

The Talmud also requires that synagogues always have windows (BT Berakhot 31a). The rabbis based this ruling on the example of Daniel’s place of prayer in which, the Bible says, "his windows were open in his upper chamber" (Daniel 6:11). A modern interpretation of this rabbinic requirement was given by the late Rabbi Kook. The windows in the synagogue, said Rabbi Kook, are to teach us that during our prayers we must be aware of the outside world. A Jew must not withdraw from the world and pray only for his own needs. But this architectural pattern, too, was not always followed. Windows at times were a liability because the prayers might be heard without and be considered an affront to the sensibilities of the non-Jews.

The Synagogue Interior–Functional, with Symbols

The interior of the synagogue was relatively simple and functional. It was devoid of such bold religious symbols as statues, crosses, crucifixes, icons, censers, fonts, relics, or reliquaries. In comparison with some houses of worship, the synagogue was simplicity itself. But it was not lacking in meaningful symbols.

Functionally the synagogue was well adapted to the usages of the tradition. This became evident the moment one crossed the synagogue threshold. The most striking object, located in the center of the synagogue, was the bimah, the raised platform on which the Torah was read. This boldly emphasized the central role of Torah in the synagogue worship. In the modern American synagogue the bimah has all but vanished. The platform in front of the synagogue has replaced the bimah, and the symbol of the Torah’s centrality has been obliterated.

The second prominent fixture of the synagogue interior was the aron ha-kodesh, the holy ark, wherein the Torah scrolls were kept. Originally there was only a chest with several shelves on which the scrolls were kept in a lying position. The chest was in a side room, and a curtain set it off from the congregation. During the talmudic period the chest was moved to the center of the east wall and made into a fixed part of the synagogue structure. The scrolls were appropriately adorned and were arranged in a standing position so that they could be seen when the ark was opened. The doors of the ark, too, were ornamented with lions and the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The curtain in front of the ark, known as the parokhet, became an essential adjunct of the ark in imitation of the tabernacle built in the desert. The Bible tells us that Moses "put up the curtain … and screened off the Ark" (Exodus 40:21). In the Jerusalem Temple, too, the Bible informs us that Solomon "made the veil" for the ark (2 Chronicles. 3:14).

Another symbol that was transferred from the ancient tabernacle and from the Jerusalem Temple was the eternal light. Here, too, the Bible records that one of the priestly duties was to keep the candelabrum lit "before the Lord [to burn] regularly" (Lev. 24:4). In the synagogue the eternal light (made of gold, silver, or burnished brass, depending on the opulence of the donor) hung in front of the ark and burned constantly. It symbolized the spiritual enlightenment which is forever emanating from the Torah.

Synagogue Art–The Ancients Had More

No permanent place of worship is devoid of some form of artistic expression. The synagogue was no exception. In addition to the adornments of the scrolls of the Torah and the ark, there were also decorations on the walls and floors. A number of ancient synagogues going back to the talmudic period have recently been excavated, among them the sixth century synagogue at Bet Alpha [in Northern Israel], with its beautiful mosaics depicting birds, animals, and human figures.

The most important of synagogue excavations was that of the Dura-Europos synagogue, which was erected in [Syria in] 245 C.E. This discovery revealed an ancient synagogue art of surprising beauty and originality. The frescoes and mosaics contain symbols of the zodiac, biblical scenes, and geometric figures. The murals are the earliest representations of biblical scenes on so large a scale, and they are regarded as the prototypes of Christian art. Among the panels are a number of colorful scenes from the Bible, such as the prophet Samuel in the Tabernacle of Shiloh (1 Samuel 3) and the three youths in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3). Apparently the Jews of the talmudic period did not refrain from adorning their synagogues with pictures of human beings, at least not in the third century C.E., when the Dura synagogue was erected.

In later centuries, however, the bias against human forms as synagogue decorations grew and in time prevailed. Such decorations came to be regarded as contrary to the second commandment: "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth" (Exodus 20:4). But the religious authorities were not consistent. Lions and eagles as synagogue decorations were to be found everywhere.

The restriction on synagogue art resulted in an increasing reliance on Hebrew inscriptions for decorative purposes. These inscriptions served a dual purpose: they embellished the synagogue and edified the congregation. As an adornment Hebrew script, like Arabic, is an exquisite art form. As edification, the quotations utilized were mostly biblical verses suitable for creating a proper mood for prayer. The most frequent inscription was "Know before whom you stand" (Berachot 28b). Others were "How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts" (Psalms 84:2); "0 give thanks unto the Lord, call upon His name" (Psalms 105:1); "O Lord, hear my prayer" (Psalms 102:2); and many similar quotations.

Occasionally the glass windows were decorated with symbolic forms, but that was rare. Synagogue windows were usually few and small and their function strictly utilitarian. They were meant to admit some light and in warm weather some fresh air.

Reinterpreting Tefillin

Reprinted from Jewish Worship, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

On one of the tefillin there is a large Hebrew letter, shin. This was probably meant to indicate that the scrolls inside begin with the Shema and not with the Ten Commandments, which at one time were also included in the tefillin. On its opposite side there is a four-pronged shin, to indicate that only four selections are in each of the tefillin and not five, as was the case when the Ten Commandments were also included. But these historic reasons were forgotten and new ones were grafted onto the mysterious letter.Tefillin

One explanation is intriguing. The letter shin is combined with two other “letters” which were discovered in the tefillin, and together they form the word Shaddai-Almighty God. The two letters were found in the peculiar knots in the straps; the one on the head resembles the letter dalet and the one on the arm resembles the letter yod. The tefillin are thus to remind the Jew of his obligation to perform the commandments of Almighty God. This explanation is obviously contrived, but it has been accepted these many centuries as the real reason for the shin on the tefillin

With the passage of the centuries the universal high regard for the rite of the tefillin increased, and new religious meanings and values were discovered in the ritual. Maimonides found that the tefillin serve a singular purpose in the religious life of the Jew. They are a holy institution leading man to humility and the fear of God. The tefillin, says Maimonides, are of a high degree of sanctity. As long as the tefillin are on a man’s head and arm, he is humble and God-fearing; [he] is not drawn into frivolity and idle talk; and does not dwell on evil thoughts, but occupies his mind with thoughts of truth and righteousness. A man should therefore endeavor to wear tefillin the whole day.

The Tallit: Spiritual Significance

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Worship, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The tallit was to remind the Jew of the commandments of the Torah. How do the fringes of the tallit remind one of the commandments? The Jews’ search for a logical correlation between the tallit and the commandments of God was rewarded with intriguing discoveries. The numerical value of the word tzitzit (fringes) is 600. Each of the fringes contains 8 threads and 5 knots, making a total of 613. This number corresponds to the 613 commandments contained in the Torah.

It was also noted that in making the fringes one winds the long thread around the other threads between the 5 knots 7, 8, 11, and 13 times respectively. The first three numbers equal 26, which is the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton. The remaining number equals the numerical value of the word ehad (“one”)–the last word in the opening verse of the Shema. The fringes of the tallit thus not only remind the Jew of the 613 divine commandments, but also underscore the central doctrine of Judaism, that the Lord is one.

Ethical and theological meanings have also been read into the symbolism of the tallit. According to the Midrash, wrapping ourselves in the prayer shawl is to aid us in attaining a proper mood of reverence for God and a prayerful spirit during our worship.

“Rabbi Hezekiah also taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer-shawls, let them [ feel ] … as though the glory of the [divine] Presence were upon them, for . . . Scripture does not say: ‘That ye may look upon them’ [the fringes], but That ye may look upon Him [Num. 15:391, that is, upon the Holy One, blessed be He.” (Midrash Tehillim 2:99, transl. William Braude, The Midrash on Psalms, New Haven 1959)

The prayer shawl has remained an inseparable part of Jewish worship. Its importance can be judged from a touching incident that occurred in 1493. In that year the Jews of Sicily were despoiled of all their possessions and expelled from their homes. Before leaving the island they petitioned the authorities for the privilege of taking their prayer shawls with them. Their petition was refused.