Jewish Prayer
A basic explanation of the nature of prayer is that it is simply a “personal” conversation between an individual and G-d. But, if prayer is personal, what is the advantage of formal prayer? On the surface, formal prayer seems rote and automatic, not at all personal. But how often would most people pray, if they were not required to do so. It is easy to say “Thank G-d” when something good happens, or to pray for help when things go wrong. But how many of us would think to thank G-d for the myriad of miracles we witness every day? And how often would we pray for the well-being of others if our own lives are running smoothly? By requiring that we pray a fixed number of times a day, the Rabbis ensure that we are in communication (however imperfect) with G-d each day. People who pray every day often find that prayer helps them anchor their day. Life in the frenetic-paced world of today is so chaotic. But, fixed prayer ensures that twice or three times a day we can stop, slow down, and completely focus on our relationship with G-d and the cosmos. It’s the best tranquilizer in the world.

Prayer is always meaningful. But in many ways Jewish prayer is special and unique. Unlike other religions, each Jew prays individually — no leader is necessary, just ourselves. In Judaism, both private and public prayer have a place and special meaning. Private prayer makes it possible for people who are unable to participate in congregational prayer (for example, women with young children) to communicate on a sublime level with G-d. The value of public prayer is that each individual in the group contributes a special element, and all of the elements combined add up to a more perfect whole. There is also an important symbolic meaning to public prayer. When ten or more people convene for the purpose of prayer, they symbolically represent all of Israel. When an individual prays with a congregation, that individual is praying with the entire Jewish people. Nevertheless, even in a minyan, each individual who is capable of praying is required to recite the prayers personally. And, of course, the central prayer – the Amidah – is recited privately.

The special prayers that Jews recite each day express the historical experience and basic values of our people. In these prayers we reaffirm the articles of Jewish faith and give voice to our hopes for the future, not only of the Jewish people, but for all humankind. We become a part of our history, a connection with the past, present, and the future. Perhaps the most valuable asset of prayer is that, even if only for a few minutes each day, it brings us closer to each other and to G-d.

The Shabbat morning (Shacharit & Mussaf) prayer service is an especially beautiful and moving service. It not only encompasses all of the major elements of the Jewish prayer service, but the tenor of the service is fundamentally enhanced by the holiness of the day. On Shabbat, Jews refrain from doing any kind of creative labor. Instead the day is spent in reverent homage to the ultimate Creator — G-d.

The following is a brief explanation of each major section of the Shabbat Shacharit service. For reasons of space, it is impossible to include the actual prayers as well as the explanations. This is unfortunate, because the prayers themselves evoke a deep emotional response which can only be felt, not explained. To get the full benefit of this module, the reader might wish to first read the prayer or blessing in the Siddur (prayer book), and then read the explanation presented here:

The Shabbat Service

It is no accident that the first and last thing Jews do every day is pray. What could be more appropriate in these moments of quiet reflection than to thank G-d for the myriad blessings of each day. The morning blessings are recited (some privately upon awakening, and some publicly in the Shacharit service) to express our gratitude to G-d for enabling us to start a new day, refreshed and reinvigorated.h concept of G-d, and the last four lines express the faith we have in G-d.

Originally, the Verses of Praise were an optional part of the prayer service and were recited privately. Today, these verses are recited every day, in private and public prayer. The Verses of Praise consists of a series of psalms, preceded and followed by a special blessing. The recitation of these psalms is intended to prepare and uplift the soul, purify our thoughts, and make us worthy to approach G-d in prayer. Following the Verses of Praise, the Half Kaddish is recited to indicate that a subsection of the prayer service has now concluded, and we continue with a major section of the prayer service, namely, the blessings of the Shema and the Shema. [The Half Kaddish and other versions of Kaddish are explained after Ein Ke’elohaynu in the section called Kaddish.]

At one time the morning congregational service began with the Shema. All preliminary prayers were said privately. Consequently the introduction to the Shema was the call to prayer or Borekhu. This marked the beginning of the public prayer service. Although preliminary prayers are now said publicly, Borekhu still remains the introduction to the Shema. Since Borekhu calls the congregation to public prayer, it is not said when praying privately.

The Shema is more than just a prayer — it is the Jewish profession of faith. For generations, Jews have marked the most meaningful events of their lives with the recitation of the Shema. It is said when one rises in the morning and when one retires at night; in joy; in despair; in thankfulness; in resignation; when praising G-d; when beseeching G-d; and even when questioning G-d. It is usually the first prayer taught to children, the last thing on the lips of martyrs and is part of the deathbed confession. No one can miss the emotion in a Jew’s voice when he/she intones: Shema Yisrael, Ado-nai el-oheinu, Ado-nai echad. Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One. (Deut. 6:4)

    1. 1st and 2nd Blessings
      The blessings of the Shema lead up to the actual recitation of the Shema itself. 1. The first blessing is the blessing of G-d the Creator. In this blessing, we bless, praise and thank G-d for the miracle of creation and acknowledge G-d’s ongoing involvement in that process. The Shabbat version of the blessing varies slightly from the weekday version in that it focuses more on G-d’s supremacy as the ultimate Creator. The first blessing is broken down into six segments. 1) The first segment blesses G-d for the creation of the Universe. 2) The second segment thanks G-d for the creation and affirms G-d’s supremacy in all things. 3) the third segment affirms G-d’s greatness as we perceive it in the form of the heavenly bodies. Because the heavenly bodies are so awe inspiring, we are further inspired to praise their Creator. 4) On Shabbat the fourth segment differs from the weekday version in that in focuses on and praises the Sabbath Day. 5) The fifth segment blesses G-d for making it possible for us to act in accord with the Angels in honoring G-d the Creator. 6) The sixth segment reviews all of the above and blesses G-d as “Creator of the Lights.” 2. The Second blessing, leading to the actual recitation of the Shema, blesses and thanks G-d for choosing His people, Israel, with love. We ask G-d to instill in our hearts the ability to understand and elucidate, listen, learn, teach, safeguard, perform and fulfill all of the words of the Torah.
    2. Paragraphs of the Shema
      Next comes the actual recitation of the Shema itself, which consists of three paragraphs, each a selection from the Torah: 1.The first paragraph (Deut. 6:4-9) begins with the profession of faith “Shema Yisrael …” (see above) and continues to define our relationship with G-d. “You shall love G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources.” We are instructed to engrave G-d’s commandments upon our hearts, teach them to our children, speak of them at all times, bind them as a sign upon our arms and on our heads above the eyes (tefillin), and write them on the doorposts of our homes and gates (mezuzah). 2.In the second paragraph (Deut. 11:13-21), G-d promises us prosperity if we follow his commandments. G-d also warns us of the consequences if we turn our hearts away from Him. And, once again, G-d reminds us that if we keep His commandments in our hearts and minds at all times, we will attain heaven on earth. 3.In the third paragraph (Num. 15:37-41), we are commanded to wear tzitzit (fringes on the corners of our garments). These fringes serve as a reminder to us of G-d’s commandments and the need to observe them and thereby become holy. It further reminds us of G-d’s role in redeeming the Jewish people from Egypt, thereby affirming His role as our G-d.
    3. Blessing of Redemption
      The three paragraphs of the Shema are followed by the blessing of redemption in which we evoke G-d’s past role as the redeemer of Israel and ask Him to redeem us again, We conclude with the blessing of G-d who has redeemed Israel.

The central prayer of each service is the Shemoneh Esrei, also known as the Amidah. This prayer encompasses all facets of life, both physical and spiritual and epitomizes the concept of Jewish prayer. The Shemoneh Esrei was originally composed by the Men of the Great Assembly in the fifth century B.C.E. and was finally recorded in its present form about the year 100 C.E.. It has been recited by Jews two or three times a day since then. Reciting the Amidah, fulfills the actual obligation to pray. In fact, it is usually recited twice during the morning and afternoon service, once quietly by each member of the congregation, and then repeated by Prayer Leader (Chazzan). This repetition was instituted for those who cannot yet pray on their own, for the Sages understood the spiritual hunger of those still learning to pray. By listening intently and repeating Amen at the end of each blessing, these worshippers are considered to have fulfilled their obligation to recite the Amidah. Shemoneh Esrei means “eighteen” and the weekday version of the Shemoneh Esrei originally consisted of eighteen blessings (a 19th blessing was added in the third century C.E.). The other name for this prayer is “Amidah” which means to stand. When we recite the Amidah, we are standing in the presence of G-d. On Shabbat, all blessings that emphasize our personal needs and requests are omitted, and only seven blessings are recited. These seven blessings focus on our relationship to G-d and emphasize the sanctity of Shabbat. The number seven represents wholeness, completion and peace, a most appropriate theme for Shabbat. These seven blessings are broken down into three sections:

    1. Blessings of Praise
      The first three blessings of the Amidah are devoted to praise of G-d and defining our relationship with Him. 1.Shield of Abraham (History) In the first blessing, we introduce ourselves to G-d and define ourselves as His faithful followers. We reemphasize our history and lineage, identifying ourselves as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As we again affirm our covenant with G-d, we beg His protection based on this covenant. 2.Restores the Dead to Life (Power) In the second blessing, we again recognize the unique power of G-d. We extol His greatness in giving and sustaining life, healing the sick, freeing the captive, and raising the fallen. We speak of G-d’s great mercy, and of life after death (“Blessed art Thou, Lord, who makes the dead live”). In this blessing, we once again praise G-d the Creator of all things and humbly accept G-d’s great power over all living things. 3.Sanctification In the third blessing, we emphasize the holiness of G-d. By proclaiming G-d’s holiness, we are emphasizing his separateness from us. In Bereshith (Genesis) it is stated that the human being is created in G-d’s image. This means that, of all G-d’s creations, only the human being is capable of attaining holiness. However, lest we become vain, we must constantly remind ourselves that the holiest of humans can never become as holy as G-d. In this third blessing, we once again affirm the supreme holiness of G-d and remember that, in His holiness, G-d is separate from us. During the repetition of the Amidah, a special prayer called the Kedushah is recited, which further expands on the holiness of G-d.
    2. Body of the Shabbat Amidah
      On weekdays, this middle section of the Amidah consists of 13 blessings which ask G-d for his intervention on behalf of our physical and spiritual needs. Because it is unseemly to concern ourselves on Shabbat with personal needs, or to request that they be fulfilled, these blessings are omitted, and instead we focus our single blessing on Shabbat itself. 4. Blessing of G-d Who Sanctifies Shabbat In this blessing, we affirm the holiness of Shabbat as a day of remembrance of the creation. We thank G-d for giving us this covenant between G-d and Israel, the sanctification of the Sabbath day. We acknowledge our special privilege in being the people chosen by G-d to receive the blessing of Shabbat and promise to pass it on to our children through the generations.
    3. Blessings of Thanksgiving
      In the last three blessings of the Amidah, we ask G-d to accept our prayers, we thank Him for past, present, and future kindnesses, and pray for peace. 5. Restoration of G-d’s Presence to Zion Before the destruction of the Temple, we asked G-d to accept animal sacrificial offerings. This blessing was altered after the destruction of the Temple. In this blessing we ask G-d to accept prayer as our offering in lieu of animal sacrifice. It is through this prayer that we are drawn closer to G-d. In this blessing now we ask G-d to respond to what we bring to Him, not what we ask of Him. Throughout the blessing, we ask G-d to receive — to receive our prayer, to receive our love, to be received favorably by Him. And, finally, we ask G-d for the restoration of the Temple and the restoration of the Divine Presence to Zion, embodied in the final redemption of our people. 6. Thanksgiving In each of the previous blessings we have petitioned G-d, or in some way expressed our own needs. In this blessing, our needs are not mentioned. Instead, we thank G-d. We thank Him for our lives, for His miracles which we witness every day, for His compassion. This blessing affirms the importance of gratitude in our daily lives to each other and to G-d. Ingratitude is vanity at its worst. When directed against others, it is a sin, and when directed against G-d, it borders on heresy. This blessing reminds us of the necessity of thanksgiving. 7. Peace In ancient times and, unfortunately also in present times, many nations measured their national glory and prestige in terms of war and conquest. In this blessing we are reminded that, while we are sometimes compelled to wage war, peace is the ideal to strive for on all levels — peace between individuals and peace between nations.
    4. Personal Meditation
      During the silent repetition of the Amidah, individuals add a personal meditation. The Talmud records eleven sages who added their own supplication to the Amidah. Eventually the one by Mar, a fourth-century rabbi, found its way into the prayer book. Judaism believes that one of the worst sins that we can commit is that of lashon hara (“an evil tongue”). Rabbinic opinion considers this is a worse sin than murder. It is also one of the hardest sins for frail humans to avoid. For this reason, we especially ask G-d’s help to “guard our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking deceit.” We pray for the strength to endure the calumny of others towards ourselves and ask for G-d’s intervention for justice in these matters. In keeping with Talmudic tradition, we ask G-d to open our hearts to his law. In an additional prayer which was added later to the silent meditation, we affirm that our prayer is not only for ourselves, but also for the furthering of G-d’s glory. We again ask G-d to accept our prayers and to grant us peace. Following the Silent Meditation, Full Kaddish is recited indicating that a major section of the prayer service has now concluded. [For an explanation of Full Kaddish and other forms of Kaddish, see Kaddish.]

The public reading of the Torah predates congregational prayer. Unlike other religions, the sacred books of the Jews were considered to belong to the entire community, not just a privileged few. Although our sages were responsible for its interpretation, there was no monopoly on the study of Torah. In fact, universal religious education is one of the primary precepts of traditional Judaism. Although public Scripture reading began with Moses, for a long time there was no universally established order. At different times in Jewish history various customs regarding public Torah reading were followed. Around the Maccabean period (second century B.C.E.) the rule of consecutive annual reading became the universal practice. This means that public reading must begin where it left off the previous Sabbath morning and that the entire five books of Moses are read within the year. The weekly Torah reading has been divided into 54 portions (or parshiyot) according to the number of weeks in a leap year (according to the Jewish calendar). In normal years when there are only 50 weeks, double portions are read on selected Sabbaths, in order to complete the reading of all Five Books of Moses within a one-year period. Reading of the Torah Removing the Torah from the Ark is accompanied by great ceremony. The congregation rises, a prayer is recited praising G-d and His Torah, and the Ark is opened. The congregation then recites a sentence from Numbers (10:35) relating how the Ark was carried forward in the wilderness of Sinai. Then follows a quote from Isaiah (2:3) heralding the future, messianic period. This is followed by a personal meditation (“Brikh Shemei” – “Blessed is the Name”) blessing G-d and the Torah. The Torah Scroll is then removed from the Ark and lifted up by the Prayer Leader who recites the first sentence of the Shema and several other passages which are repeated by the congregation. The Torah is then carried from the Ark to the bimah (table), from where it is read. It is usual to have seven people called to the reading of the weekly Shabbat parsha (portion). It is considered an honor to be called to the Torah, especially on special occasions (birth of a child, child’s Bar Mitzvah, marriage etc.). Each person called up recites a short blessing, follows along with the reading of the weekly portion and concludes with another blessing. An eighth person is then called up to the bimah for the MAFTIR and the reading of the prophetic portion (HAFTORA), which often paralles the message of the weekly Torah reading.

At the conclusion of the Torah Service, the Torah is returned to the Ark with great ceremony. The Prayer Leader lifts the Torah into his arms and recites part of a verse from Psalms. The Torah is then carried back to the Ark in procession (often stopping to allow congregants to touch or kiss the Torah). While this procession takes place, the congregants chant from Psalms (Psalm 24 on weekdays, and Psalm 29 on Shabbat and festivals). As the Torah is put back into the Ark, the congregation recites a passage from Numbers (10:36). Finally, the Ark is closed.

During the Temple period, the Shabbat was further sanctified by a second sacrificial service known as Mussaf (which means “additional”). Now that we do not have the Temple, we further sanctify this special day with an additional Shabbat prayer service called Mussaf. The Mussaf service is similar to the morning Amidah, with the same opening and closing blessings, but with a different middle blessing. This middle blessing focuses on the sanctification of the Sabbath day through the special sacrifice which was offered in the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of animal sacrifice, we recite the portions of the Torah which deal with these sacrifices and pray for the speedy rebuilding of the Temple, and the ingathering of Jewish exiles to Israel. The following prayers conclude the Sabbath service:

The following prayers conclude the Sabbath service:

The Ein Ke’elohaynu is a beautiful hymn extolling G-d’s uniqueness. It begins “There is none like our God; there is none like our Master; there is none like our King; there is none like our Savior.” The four designations for G-d’s name (God; Master; King; Savior) are arranged as they appear in the Torah. Each name represents a different dimension of the unique nature of G-d. The last line of the hymn is followed by Talmudic passages regarding the burning of incense in the Temple. This part of the prayer is actually educational in nature. The rabbis were concerned that each Jew engage in formal Torah study each day, so they incorporated it as part of the morning prayer service. While the insertion of learning material in a prayer service may seem odd, Judaism elevates Torah learning almost to the level of prayer itself. At this point, following the Talmudic passages, the Rabbi’s Kaddish is recited by mourners.

Kaddish means “sanctification”. Although this prayer is often associated with mourning, it is not a prayer for the dead; rather, it is a public sanctification of G-d’s name. Historically, it has been the duty of every Jew to publicly extol the name of G-d and to publicly testify to our faith in Him. Kaddish is recited only in a congregation because there can be no public sanctification of G-d’s name without a public assembly. The purpose of the prayer is not only to praise G-d — many other prayers do that and can be said individually. The purpose of the Kaddish is to evoke a unique, public response from the congregation: “May His great Name be blessed forever and ever”. There are four slightly different versions of the Kaddish. The Rabbi’s Kaddish is said by mourners after a portion of Torah study (as in Ein Ke’elohaynu). The Whole Kaddish is recited by the CANTOR at the conclusion of a major portion of the public prayer service and it includes a special verse asking G-d to accept all of the prayers that were recited. The Half Kaddish is an abbreviated Kaddish that is said by the Cantor at the conclusion of a minor or introductory portion of the public prayer service, and the Mourner’s Kaddish, at the end of the service (after Aleinu and the Psalm for the Day), is recited by close relatives of the deceased for 11 months following a person’s death. Whether the Kaddish is recited by a Cantor or a mourner, all members of the congregation say the responses.

Aleinu is the final prayer of every prayer service. According to tradition, Joshua composed the prayer after he led the Jews across the Jordan. Aleinu was originally only said in the Rosh Hashana prayer service, but sometime during the thirteenth century, it became the closing prayer for each service. The prayer consists of two paragraphs. The first paragraph praises and thanks G-d for making Israel a nation of distinct character. We draw a parallel between the vanity and emptiness of others who worship false gods, and the worship of the true G-d of Israel. We bless and praise G-d and proclaim His superiority and uniqueness. In the second paragraph, we pray for the perfection of the world under the rule of the Almighty when we will share the blessings of the true G-d with all the nations of the world. We look forward to the day when Hashem and His commandments shall reign supreme. Although Aleinu is the concluding prayer of the service, it is followed by a psalm for the day (Shir Shel Yom) and a final hymn (Adon Olam).

During the Temple period, it was the custom of the Levites to chant a psalm for each day of the week as part of the service. By the twelfth century, people were customarily reading the unique psalm for that day at the end of the morning prayer services. On the Sabbath Psalm 92 is recited.

Adon Olam is a beautiful hymn which was probably composed in the eleventh century by Solomon ibn Gabirol. It consists of ten lines. The first six lines express the Jewish concept of G-d, and the last four lines express the faith we have in G-d.


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