Prayers and Blessings
For observant Jews, prayer is a continual part of every day
Prayer should be done with the proper mindset, in Hebrew, and with a group
There are traditional blessings to be recited whenever one performs a commandment, enjoys a material pleasure or experiences an unusual event
An important, biblically-commanded prayer is grace after meals
The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. It is derived from the
root Pe-Lamed-Lamed and the word l'hitpalel,
meaning to judge oneself. This surprising word origin provides insight into the
purpose of Jewish prayer. The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether
it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of
G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it
provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in
the universe and our relationship to G-d.
The Yiddish word meaning "pray" is "daven,"
which ultimately comes from the same Latin root as the English word "divine"
and emphasizes the One to whom prayer is directed.
For an observant Jew, prayer is not simply something that happens in
synagogue once a week (or even three times a
day). Prayer an integral part of everyday life. In fact, one of the most
important prayers in Judaism, the Birkat
Ha-Mazon, is never recited in synagogue!
Observant Jews are constantly reminded of G-d'-s presence and of our
relationship with G-d, because we are continually praying to Him. Our first
thought in the morning, even before we get out of bed, is a prayer thanking G-d
for returning our souls to us. There are prayers to be recited before enjoying
any material pleasure, such as eating or wearing new clothes; prayers to recite
before performing any mitzvah (commandment),
such as washing hands or lighting candles; prayers to recite upon seeing
anything unusual, such as a king, a rainbow, or the site of a great tragedy;
prayers to recite whenever some good or bad thing happens; and prayers to
recite before going to bed at night. All of these prayers are in addition to
formal prayer services, which are performed three times a day every weekday and
additional times on shabbat and
festivals. See Jewish
The Need for Prayer
Many people today do not see the need for regular, formal prayer. "I pray when
I feel inspired to, when it is meaningful to me," they say. This attitude
overlooks two important things: the purpose of prayer, and the need for
One purpose of prayer is to increase your awareness of
G-d in your life and the role that G-d plays in your
life. If you only pray when you feel inspired (that is, when you are already
aware of G-d), then you will not increase your awareness of G-d.
In addition, if you want to do something well, you have to practice it
continually, even when you don't feel like doing it. This is as true of prayer
as it is of playing a sport, playing a musical instrument, or writing. The
sense of humility and awe of G-d that is essential to proper prayer does not
come easily to modern man, and will not simply come to you when you feel the
need to pray. If you wait until inspiration strikes, you will not have the
skills you need to pray effectively. Before I started praying regularly, I
found that when I wanted to pray, I didn't know how. I didn't know what to say,
or how to say it, or how to establish the proper frame of mind. If you pray
regularly, you will learn how to express yourself in prayer.
Kavanah: The Mindset for Prayer
When you say the same prayers day after day, you might expect that the prayers
would become routine and would begin to lose meaning. While this may be true
for some people, this is not the intention of Jewish prayer. As I said at the
beginning of this discussion, the most important part of prayer is the
introspection it provides. Accordingly, the proper frame of mind is vital to
The mindset for prayer is referred to as kavanah, which is generally translated
as "concentration" or "intent." The minimum level of kavanah is an awareness
that one is speaking to G-d and an intention to
fulfill the obligation to pray. If you do not have this minimal level of
kavanah, then you are not praying; you are merely reading. In addition, it is
preferred that you have a mind free from other thoughts, that you know and
understand what you are praying about and that you think about the meaning of
Liturgical melodies are often used as an aid to forming the proper mindset.
Many prayers and prayer services have traditional melodies associated with
them. These can increase your focus on what you are doing and block out
I also find it useful to move while praying. Traditional Jews routinely sway
back and forth during prayer, apparently a reference to Psalm 35, which says
"All my limbs shall declare, 'O L-rd, who is like You?'" Such movement is not
required, and many people find it distracting, but I personally find that it
helps me concentrate and focus.
Hebrew: The Language for Prayer
The Talmud states that it is permissible to pray
in any language that you can understand; however, traditional Judaism has
always stressed the importance of praying in Hebrew. A traditional
Chasidic story speaks glowingly of the prayer
of an uneducated Jew who wanted to pray but did not speak Hebrew. The man began
to recite the only Hebrew he knew: the
alphabet. He recited it over and over again,
until a rabbi asked what he was doing. The man
told the rabbi, "The Holy One, Blessed is He, knows what is in my heart. I will
give Him the letters, and He can put the words together."
Even the more liberal movements are
increasingly recognizing the value of Hebrew prayer. My grandmother told me
that fifty years ago, you never heard a word of Hebrew in a
synagogue. Today, the standard Reform prayer
book contains many standard prayers in Hebrew, generally followed by
transliteration and an English
translation. I have heard several Reform rabbis read from the
Torah in Hebrew, also generally followed by an
English translation or explanation.
There are many good reasons for praying in Hebrew: it gives you an incentive
for learning Hebrew, which might otherwise be forgotten; it provides a link to
Jews all over the world; it is the language in which the covenant with
G-d was formed, etc. To me, however, the most
important reason to pray in Hebrew is that Hebrew is the language of Jewish
Any language other than Hebrew is laden down with the connotations of that
language's culture and religion. When you translate a Hebrew word, you lose
subtle shadings of Jewish ideas and add ideas that are foreign to Judaism. Only
in Hebrew can the pure essence of Jewish thought be preserved and properly
understood. For example, the English word "commandment" connotes an order
imposed upon us by a stern and punishing G-d, while the Hebrew word
"mitzvah" implies an honor and privilege given
to us, a responsibility that we undertook as part of the covenant we made with
G-d, a good deed that we are eager to perform.
This is not to suggest that praying in Hebrew is more important than
understanding what you are praying about. If you are in
synagogue and you don't know Hebrew well
enough, you can listen to the Hebrew while looking at the translation. If you
are reciting a prayer or blessing alone, you should get a general idea of its
meaning from the translation before attempting to recite it in Hebrew. But even
if you do not fully understand Hebrew at this time, you should try to hear the
prayer, experience the prayer, in Hebrew.
Most of our prayers are expressed in the first person plural, "us" instead of
"me," and are recited on behalf of all of the Jewish
people. This form of prayer emphasizes our responsibility for one another
and our interlinked fates.
In Judaism, prayer is largely a group activity rather than an individual
activity. Although it is permissible to pray alone and it fulfills the
obligation to pray, you should generally make every effort to pray with a
group, short of violating a commandment to do so.
A complete formal prayer service cannot be conducted without a quorum of at
least 10 adult Jewish men; that is, at least 10 people who are obligated to
fulfill the commandment to recite the prayers. This prayer quorum is referred
to as a minyan (from a Hebrew root meaning to count
or to number). Certain prayers and religious activities cannot be performed
without a minyan. This need for a minyan has often helped to keep the Jewish
community together in isolated areas.
A berakhah (blessing) is a special kind of prayer that is very common in
Judaism. Berakhot are recited both as part of the
synagogue services and as a response or
prerequisite to a wide variety of daily occurrences. Berakhot are easy to
recognize: they all start with the word barukh (blessed or praised).
words barukh and berakhah are both derived from the Hebrew
root Beit-Reish-Kaf, meaning "knee," and refer to
the practice of showing respect by bending the knee and bowing. See animation
at right. There are several places in Jewish
liturgy where this gesture is performed, most of them at a time when a
berakhah is being recited.
According to Jewish tradition, a person should recite 100 berakhot each day!
This is not as difficult as it sounds. Repeating the
Shemoneh Esrei three times a day (as all
observant Jews do) covers 57 berakhot all by itself, and there are dozens of
everyday occurrences that require berakhot.
Who Blesses Whom?
Many English-speaking people find the idea of berakhot very confusing. To them,
the word "blessing" seems to imply that the person saying the blessing is
conferring some benefit on the person he is speaking to. For example, in
Catholic tradition, a person making a confession begins by asking the priest to
bless him. Yet in a berakhah, the person saying the blessing is speaking to
G-d. How can the creation confer a benefit upon the
This confusion stems largely from difficulties in the translation. The Hebrew
word "barukh" is not a verb describing what we do to G-d; it is an adjective
describing G-d as the source of all blessings. When we recite a berakhah, we
are not blessing G-d; we are expressing wonder at how blessed G-d is.
Content of a Berakhah
There are basically three types of berakhot: ones recited before enjoying a
material pleasure (birkhot ha-na'ah), ones recited before performing a
mitzvah (commandment) (birkhot ha-mitzvot) and
ones recited at special times and events (birkhot hoda'ah).
Berakhot recited before enjoying a material pleasure, such as eating, drinking
or wearing new clothes, acknowledge G-d as the
creator of the thing that we are about to use. The berakhah for bread praises
G-d as the one "who brings forth bread from the earth." The berakhah for
wearing new clothing praises G-d as the one "who clothes the naked." By
reciting these berakhot, we recognize that G-d is the Creator of all things,
and that we have no right to use things without first asking his permission.
The berakhah essentially asks permission to use the thing.
Berakhot recited before performing a mitzvah
(commandment), such as washing hands or lighting candles, praise G-d as the one
"who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us..." to do whatever it
is we are about to do. Reciting such a blessing is an essential element of the
performance of a mitzvah. In Jewish tradition, a person who performs a mitzvah
with a sense of obligation is considered more meritorious than a person who
performs the same mitzvah because he feels like it. Recitation of the berakhah
focuses our attention on the fact that we are performing a religious duty with
a sense of obligation. It is worth noting that we recite such berakhot over
both biblical commandments and rabbinical commandments. In the latter case, the
berakhah can be understood as "who sanctified us with his commandments and
commanded us to obey the rabbis, who commanded us to..." do whatever it is we
are about to do. See Halakhah: Jewish Law for an
explanation of the distinction between biblical and rabbinical commandments.
Berakhot recited at special times and events, such as when seeing a rainbow or
a king or hearing good or bad news, acknowledge G-d as the ultimate source of
all good and evil in the universe. It is important to note that such berakhot
are recited for both good things and things that appear to us to be bad. When
we see or hear something bad, we praise G-d as "the true Judge," underscoring
the fact that things that appear to be bad happen for a reason that is
ultimately just, even if we in our limited understanding cannot always see the
Form of a Berakhah
Many of the berakhot that we recite today were composed by Ezra and the Men of
the Great Assembly nearly 2500 years ago, and they continue to be recited in
the same form.
All berakhot include the phrase "Barukh atah
Elokaynu, melekh ha-olam," Blessed art thou
L-rd, our G-d, King of
the Universe. This is sometimes referred to as shem u'malkut (the name and the
sovereignty), the affirmation of G-d as king.
The use of the word "thou" is worth discussing: in modern English, many people
think of the word "thou" as being formal and respectful, but in fact the
opposite is true. Thou (and the corresponding Hebrew atah) is the informal,
familiar second person pronoun, used for friends and relatives. This word
expresses our close and intimate relationship with G-d.
Immediately after this phrase, the berakhah abruptly shifts into the third
person; for example, in the birkhot ha-mitzvot, the first two phrases are
blessed art thou, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who
sanctifies us with his commandments and commands us... This grammatical faux
pas is intentional. The use of the third person pronoun ("who") while speaking
to a person in Hebrew is a way of expressing extreme respect and deference.
This shift in perspective is a deliberately jarring way of expressing the fact
that G-d is simultaneously close to us and yet far above us, intimately related
to us and yet transcendent. This paradox is at the heart of the Jewish
relationship with G-d.
Birkat Ha-Mazon: Grace After Meals
One of the most important prayers in Judaism, one of the very few that the
Bible commands us to recite, is never recited during
services. That prayer is birkat ha-mazon, grace
In Deuteronomy 8:10, we are commanded that when we eat and are satisfied, we
must bless the L-rd, our
G-d. This commandment is fulfilled by reciting the
birkat ha-mazon (blessing of the food) after each meal. Reciting birkat
ha-mazon is commonly referred to as bentsching, from the
Yiddish word meaning "to bless." Although the
word "bentsch" can refer to the recitation of any
berakhah, it is almost always used to refer to
reciting birkat ha-mazon.
Grace after meals is recited in addition to the various berakhot over food
recited before meals.
Birkat ha-mazon actually consists of four blessings, three of which were
composed around the time of Ezra and the Great Assembly and a fourth which was
added after the destruction of the Temple. These blessings are:
- Birkat Hazan (the blessing for providing food), which thanks G-d for giving
food to the world,
- Birkat Ha-Aretz (the blessing for the land), which thanks G-d for bringing
us forth from the land of Egypt, for making His covenant with us, and for
giving us the land of Israel as an inheritance,
- Birkat Yerushalayim (the blessing for Jerusalem), which prays for the
rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming of the
- Birkat Ha-Tov v'Ha-Maytiv (the blessing for being good and doing good), was
added after the destruction of the Temple, although it existed before that
time. It emphasizes the goodness of G-d's work, that G-d is good and does good.
In addition to these four blessings, the full birkat ha-mazon incorporates some
psalms and additional blessings for various special occasions (holidays,
Finding a Minyan (Prayer Group)
As I said above, Jewish prayer is ordinarily a group
activity done with a quorum of 10 people called a minyan. If you are interested
in finding an Orthodox minyan in your area to
pray with, check out Go Daven, a
searchable worldwide database of Orthodox minyans. Just tell them where you
want to daven (pray), and they'll find you an Orthodox minyan, complete with
service times and even a link to a map!
If you would prefer a Conservative
synagogue, try the USCJ's Find a
Kehilla page. If you prefer Reform, try the
URJ's Directory of Congregations.
For Reconstructionist synagogues, try
the JRF's directory of
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