By Ludwig Schneider, Israel Today
Most of the Jewish prayers are brachot (benedictions or blessings), in which the one praying blesses God. Blessings begin with this formula:
Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu,
Blessed are You, O Lord our
God, King of the universe…
There are specific blessings for all occasions—for bread and wine on the Sabbath, for festivals like Passover and Hanukkah, and for simchot (joyous occasions) like bar mitzvahs and weddings.
Any individual Jew can pray alone in his room or at the Western Wall, but when the prayer occurs in the context of a religious service, there must be at least 10 men praying together, or a minyan. This is derived from Abraham’s struggle in prayer for the rescue of Sodom, going down to 10 men (Genesis 18:32).
In accordance with the daily sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, three prayer times were established, which were later taken up for the service in the synagogue:
Shacharit—The Morning Prayer
Mincha—The Afternoon Prayer
Ma’ariv—The Evening Prayer
At all three prayer times, these two prayers are recited: the Shmoneh Esrei (18 benedictions), and the confession of faith, Shema Yisrael, the “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The prayers are mostly from the Psalms. However, when the word sela appears, the one praying can add his own extemporaneous prayers and bring his personal requests before the Lord. The sela acts as a finale in the sense of “God is my final help.”
In addition, one is to pray after getting up in the morning and before going to bed, as well as before and after meals and on other set occasions. These prayers are contained in the common prayer book, the Siddur. The word siddur comes from seder (order) because the book gives directions about what to pray and when.
For the Jewish festivals there is the Machzor (cycles), which has several volumes and regulates the cycle of prayers throughout the year. Since the Jews were scattered among the nations and spoke many different languages, the Hebrew text is often printed on the right-hand page of the Siddur while a translation appears on the left-hand page.
A religious Jewish man wears a kippah (skullcap) when he prays. The word kippah means cap, which in turn can be linked with kapparah (atonement), implying that “I am covered by a propitiation.” A religious woman wears a headscarf when praying.
The men also wear a prayer shawl or tallit (Numbers 15:37-41; Deuteronomy 22:12), which has tzitziot (tassels) on each of its four corners. In the New Testament, this term is often translated as the “hem” of the garment.
During morning prayers observant men bind prayer straps or tefillin (phylacteries) to their arms and foreheads. Inside the small tefillin box, which is tied to the forehead, are the following texts written on parchment: Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21.
Jews always pray facing Jerusalem, and those who live in the Holy City pray facing the Temple Mount. In places of Jewish worship and in private homes abroad, a mizrach (a decorated plaque with a blessing, often Psalm 16:8-11) is often placed on the wall facing toward Jerusalem, indicating which way to face in prayer.
The posture of prayer includes bowing down, particularly when the name of God is spoken, or a spreading out of one’s hands before the Lord. Those who wish to demonstrate particular reverence will cover their heads with their prayer shawl or move back three steps. Placing your hands in your pockets while praying is considered irreverent.
While some holy days like Yom Kippur are solemn, prayer is supposed to be joyous, especially on the Sabbath and other festivals. For instance, on the festival of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), congregants rejoice like a bridegroom over the bride, dancing around the synagogue while holding the Torah scrolls in their arms.
Outward appearance is not the key factor when praying; however, the outward appearance should mirror one’s inward attitude.