History of Jewish Prayer

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The Talmud records refinements in the practice and content of prayer, but it is only with the writings of the post-talmudic sages (Geonim) of Babylonia and their successors in North Africa and Europe that we find entire prayer books in circulation. Some were composed by respected rabbinic scholars at the request of far-flung communities seeking an authoritative text of the required prayers for daily use, Shabbat, and holidays.

Medieval sources, especially the wealth of texts unearthed since the early 20th century, also reveal a long history of liturgical poetic creativity (piyyutim) in the Land of Israel (whose liturgical traditions had been lost) and in Diaspora communities. Relatively few of these piyyutim remained in use in the various local rites that developed in the Middle Ages. They were composed as alternative wordings of the standard rabbinic prayers or as expansions of them; they did not attempt to alter or supplant either the themes or the structures of classic liturgy.

A similar approach is evident in the liturgical creativity of the medieval mystics. Kabbalah brought to Jewish prayer (as to all of Jewish religious life) a radically new understanding of its purpose and efficacy: uniting disparate aspects of divinity that were rent asunder at the time of Creation. Nevertheless, the kabbalists did not revolutionize the externals of Jewish prayer. They introduced hymns and supplementary prose prayers, and they added short meditations to be recited as introductions to the classic prayers. Even those additions, though, were often devoid of the esoteric language of the speculative theological works of Kabbalah, making them more easily accepted among non-kabbalists.

The Hasidic revolution, too, avoided making radical changes to the established liturgy, although a considerable body of supplementary prayers emerged from it. Hasidism's main contribution was to give worship, particularly in the form of contemplative prayer, center stage in Jewish religious life. The unrestrained motions and ecstatic melodies of prayer among early Hasidim marked their communities as radical departures from the strict social norms of East European Jewry.

As modernity called into question the intellectual and social underpinnings of Jewish life, some communities responded by making accommodations, reforming the liturgy and reshaping the experience of worship to meet changing sensibilities. Some synagogues introduced sermons and prayers in the local vernacular, musical instruments, and choirs. Some excised from their prayer books doctrines that came to some to seem outmoded or unacceptable.

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