“Worshiping G-d with All One’s Heart”
(Updated and revised from Eikev 5762-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Traditional Jewish prayer is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, prayer is meant to be a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, as the prophet Jeremiah, Lamentations, 2:19, urges: שִׁפְכִי כַמַּיִם לִבֵּךְ, Pour out your heart like water, toward the face of G-d.  Similarly, when considering the biblical source for prayer, the rabbis of the Talmud cite the verse in this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, from Deuteronomy 11:13, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם, and to worship Him with all your heart, again underscoring the need for spontaneous and emotive prayer.

In stark contrast to the concept of heartfelt Hebrew prayer, we find the actual structure of the traditional prayer service to be rigid and fixed. There appears to be little room for emotion or spontaneity. The rabbis tell us when to pray (morning, afternoon, evening), where to pray (preferably in a synagogue, with a quorum), and how to pray (in Hebrew, using a fixed liturgy). This obligatory character of traditional prayer seems to contradict the entire philosophical raison d’etre of prayer.

In approaching this great paradox of Hebrew prayer, we must first attempt to fathom the rabbinic understanding of prayer which governs its ritual practices. Rabbi Jochanan, a 3rd century sage of the Talmud, Berachot, 21a, states: וּלְוַאי שֶׁיִּתְפַּלֵּל אָדָם כׇּל הַיּוֹם כּוּלּוֹ, Would that a person pray all day long. More than importuning for longer or additional prayer services, Rabbi Jochanan’s statement actually reflects the rabbis’ conception of our total dependence on the Creator.

What exactly is this dependency? Those familiar with Jewish tradition are well aware of the abundance of ritual blessings recited in Jewish life: a blessing for bread, for wine, for thunder and lightning, for good news and bad news, upon seeing natural wonders, when beholding a king, etc. There is even a blessing known as אֲשֶׁר יָצַר , recited upon exiting the bathroom after tending to one’s bodily needs.

Blessed are You L-rd our G-d King of the universe, Who has fashioned the human being with wisdom, and has created within him many openings and many cavities (arteries, veins, ducts, etc.). It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if but one of them were to be ruptured, or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are you G-d, Who heals all flesh and continues to act wondrously.

Physical human frailty is an established fact. We all are aware, unfortunately, of embolisms, aneurysms, and sudden heart attacks that result in the virtually instantaneous death of seemingly healthy individuals. Rabbi Jochanan’s statement to pray “all day long” is really a plea for humans to acknowledge this frailty by, in effect, saying “Thank You” to the Creator for every breath, every heartbeat, every moment of life. One who truly recognizes the extent of human mortality and dependency, must thank G-d at every possible moment.

But, Jewish tradition also requires that we be active participants in the “real” world. Both verses, found in Exodus 20:9 and Deuteronomy 5:13, that are part of the Decalogue, declare: שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד, וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ . Humans are intended to be G-d’s “partners” in creation, to help achieve perfection of the world. How then can we be expected to “pray all day”?

To resolve this conflict, the rabbis structured our prayers, Schacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), and Maariv (evening) to represent constant, day-long prayer. This provides us with the opportunity to be “partners in creation” by giving us time to perform productive work in between the times for prayer. Upon rising in the morning, we thank G-d for restoring our souls; in the middle of the workday, when we are about to consummate that “big deal,” we stop again to thank G-d; and before entrusting our souls into His hands while we sleep, we once again thank G-d for sustaining us.

But why must the prayers be so rigid and fixed? Why must we recite our prayers at specific times, and in special locations? Why is Hebrew the preferred language?

Most often, when humans turn to G-d, we do so out of need. When things go well, rarely do we remember to thank G-d; but in times of crisis, we are swift to plead. By establishing fixed times for prayer, the rabbis have eliminated this “selfish” aspect of prayer. Rather than approach G-d solely in times of need, we now come to G-d regularly, both in times of need, and in times of no special need. We are in effect saying, “I’m there for You, G-d, because I know You’re always there for me. And even when I’m tired, fatigued, exhausted, not in the mood, I come to You in prayer, because I know that You always do the same for me.

This “structure” of Jewish prayer, serves another vital function in enhancing prayer. Jews come together to worship in prayer quorums at synagogues in order to underscore the partnership of the People of Israel in prayer. By coming together, we state that we are prepared to share our prayers with all Jews. By sharing our prayers, we offer a far more “perfect” prayer–each member of the congregation contributing his or her own “best” to the communal prayer. That is why Hebrew prayer is, for the most part, plural prayer. “Heal us O L-rd,” we pray. “Grant us peace,” we say. Rather than allow our prayers to be reduced to a self-centered petition, we pray for all who are ill, for all who are in need of blessing. Furthermore, by praying in Hebrew, we offer up the same prayers, and even the same words, which our ancestors have uttered for thousands of years, and, hopefully, the prayers that will be recited in future generations.

Acknowledging self-centeredness, and, at times, selfishness, as major deficits of spontaneous prayer, our rabbis nevertheless recognize the efficacy of certain elements of this form of prayer. Consequently, individuals are encouraged to insert their own personal petitions in the appropriate moments of communal prayers. Furthermore, the Talmud states that prayer need not be limited to fixed times, or recited only in Hebrew. To the contrary, one may supplement traditional prayer by offering additional prayers at any time and in any language.

The rabbis also recognize that at least one particular element of spontaneous prayer is critical for ultimate fulfillment: the element of כַּוָּנָהkavanah, often translated as awareness, feeling, or devotion. By praying with kavanah, obligatory prayer can be transformed into truly perfect prayer. Each time we pray with kavanah we reach upward to achieve a perfect connection with G-d, by allowing our fixed, obligatory, prayer to become as emotional and as personally meaningful as spontaneous prayer.

It is through this structure that our prayers reach their crescendo. Jews the world over pray facing Jerusalem. Jews in Jerusalem turn toward the Temple Mount, and Jews on the Temple Mount face the Holy of Holies. The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 21:4), explains, that the collective prayers of Israel are gathered by an angel from this most Holy place. The angel then carries these prayers up to heaven, and places them as a diadem on G-d’s crown, imploring the Creator, “G-d, how can You now refuse the perfect prayers of Your people, Israel?!”

This is the magic of Jewish prayer. We achieve perfection by sharing, by reciting the exact ancient Hebrew prayers of our ancestors, by praying as part of a congregation, and by affirming strongly, through both words and action, that we are part of Klal Yisrael.

It is this would-be “perfect prayer” which we strive to offer. With its achievement, we know that the Al-mighty will not refuse our heartfelt petitions, and that our hopes for the ultimate redemption for all humankind will come to fruition soon in our days.

May you be blessed.