Communal Prayer

Isn't it better to pray alone, without distractions?

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Reprinted with permission from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press. 

The Rabbis, stressing the importance of communal prayer, say, no doubt with a degree of hyperbole, that when prayers are offered in a congregation God will never reject them. Some of the more sacred prayers can be recited only where a quorum of ten, the minyan, is present. The prayers in the standard liturgy are in the plural form: "Help us;" "Pardon us;" "Bless us;" "We give thanks to Thee."

Psychological and Social Reasons for Minyan

Various reasons are given by the Jewish teachers for the advantage of communal over private prayer. Menahem Meiri [a 13th century Talmudist from Provence] stresses the psychological advantage: "Whenever a man is able to offer his prayers in the synagogue he should do so since there proper concentration of the heart can be achieved. The Rabbis laid down a great rule: Communal prayer has especial value and whenever ten pray in the synagogue the Shekhinah [the divine indwelling] is present."

Judah Halevi's Kuzari [a 12th century defense of Judaism] is in the form of an imaginary dialogue between the kind of the Khazars and a Jewish sage. The king asks, why all this emphasis on communal prayer? Would it not be better if everyone recited his prayers for himself where, on the contrary, there is greater concentration and purity of thought without distraction? The sage replies that an individual, praying on his own, may pray for others to be harmed, but a community will never pray for harm to come to one of its members. Furthermore, an individual may make mistakes when mouthing the words of the prayers whereas when people pray together they make up for one another's shortcomings.

A Mystical Rationale

The Zohar gives a mystical reason. When an individual prays, his prayers do not ascend to God until there has first been a heavenly investigation to determine whether he is worthy for his prayers to be accepted. Communal prayers, on the other hand, ascend immediately to the heavenly throne without any prior investigation.

It Takes All Kinds

In an astonishing rabbinic saying, when communal prayers are offered on a fast day in a situation of dire necessity such as failure of the rains to come, there must be sinners among the supplicants, otherwise the prayers will not be answered. As the Rabbis put it, among the ingredients of the incense prepared in Temple times, one was the evil-smelling galbanum, which had nonetheless to be mingled with the other sweet-smelling spices before the incense could be used. The Jewish community is not a community of saints but is composed of all types of persons who, including the notorious sinners, find strength in coming together for a common purpose.

A folk etymology understands the [consonant] letters of the word tzibbur, "community," as representing the [initials of] the words tzaddikim ("righteous"); beinonim ("average"); resha'im ("wicked"). It takes all sorts to make a Jewish community as it takes all sorts to make a world.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.