The evolution of Jewish prayer began in flames, liquidation and the Romans crushing the tiny state of Judea. Even after the Temple’s embers ceased smoldering, Jews could no longer serve God as He demanded in the Book of Leviticus. Prayers that never played a central role in the Temple Service, now emerged with resurrected significance alongside the Temple’s ruin. Jewish liturgy is the child of destruction. Yet, it soon converted to the voice of the downtrodden, a vehicle of hope and the official means for Jews to express gratitude towards their Maker over the last 2000 years.
True, there has always been Jewish prayer. Abraham disputed; Rebecca sought. Jacob struggled; Moses fell on his face: all in prayer. To deny the historical actuality of Jewish prayer pre-70 is to ignore humanity’s universal need to seek out the Divine. We pray because we’re human. Biblical Judaism – probably as a polemic against this natural tendency – rejects prayer as a transcendent outlet. Instead we get our hands dirty, lighten our wallets a bit and serve our Deity by slaughtering animals by the myriads. Over the last 2000 years, starting with the Temple’s Destruction, Jews have been weaned off the Temple cult, culminating in some modern-day Rabbis even denying animal slaughter as an ideal worship that ought to be reinstated. After all, they could reason: words are abstract, beautiful… holy; and a cow is a bloody mess.
A famous Rabbinic dictum declares that God considers the recitation of the Biblical verses on sacrifices religiously equivalent to one sacrificing animals in the Temple itself. Lovely that God’s eyes see no disparity, but how should we feel? Can I also internalize this theology of replacement, and accept wide-ranging Service of the heart? It appears that this can be compared to a person who loves playing basketball, and the Divine divulges that it is just as good to simply ritualistically utter an NBA handbook three times a day. While he might get credit in Heaven for such excursions, we have to question the experience’s equivalence to real substantial action. In the Temple, most animal offerings were eaten, at least in part, by the donor. In other words, BBQ was the Service. When we compare that – as the primary method of Service – with today’s manifestation – where prayer is primary – the sheer volume of liturgy recited cyclically in the pews should raise a few eyebrows. We replaced a holy dinner with recitation. And, Jews pray and pray a lot.
But, why? Why do we pray so much? Why do people sit in the pews all day Yom Kippur, all morning Tishah be-Av and countless hours abound? When we look towards the Medieval Rabbis, the question is even further compounded. While Maimonides counts praying but a moment daily as one of the 613 Biblical commandments, Nahmonides on the other hand, claims that this minimal prescription does not even exist. For Nahmonides, at least on a Biblical level, prayer is not about thanking the Deity or building a relationship, but crying out to your Maker in a time of need. Thus, it is clear Rabbis created the prescriptive nature of the tri-daily version of prayer Jews recite, not God.
While it is remarkable that most of what Jews do in synagogue daily is not officially deemed prayer by the Rabbis, every element of the service obviously fills some function. Meaning, apart from the Amida, almost all other elements of the prayer service serve some other function than formal prayer. For instance, morning blessings were moved to synagogue from the bedroom because people had trouble doing them at home. Pesukei Dezimra is meant to get you in the mood for what follows. The blessings before and after Shma, and the Shma itself, are recited to fulfill an alternative obligation. But none of these recitations are Halakhic prayer.
Yet, when one considers synagogue life today on a typical Shabbat morning, with mesheberachs, prayers for the State, soldiers, Israel, etc., Av HaRaḥamim, An’im Z’miros, songs at the end of prayers, blessings on all aliyot, annual Torah recitation cycle, Haftorah, communal musaf, rabbinic speeches, long p’sukei d’zimra, etc., etc., etc., it is clear that one of the goals of synagogue itself is to keep you in synagogue. Evidently, just as Jews picked up vocabulary, food and dress over the last 2000 years of Exile from their host countries, they repeatedly enlarged the prayers as well and built it up piece by liturgical piece.
One significant example of this phenomenon can be seen in the weekly Sabbath recitation of the Haftorah. No theologian or historian has definitively identified the circumstances that led to Jews to start reciting the weekly Haftorah, but proponents of one of the more famous explanations hypothesizes that Jews were forbidden to read from the Torah, so they instituted a weekly Haftorah reading so a Biblical text would still be read Shabbat morning during synagogue. Yet, when Jews were permitted to chant from the Torah again, the Haftorah remained an integral element of the Service. In other words, the Haftorah Service that was created because of persecution, somehow became embedded in the very consciousness of the Service, and could not be detached or omitted. The ball of foil grows and grows.
Contemporaneous prayer is conceived and created by the exiled Jew for the Exile. For the free, BBQ is the Service; it is not ever-expanding. It is not expressing hope for redemption or a cessation of intermittent genocide. It is not having women recite the whole book of Psalms. It is not additional prayers for auspicious days. It is not slichot. It is joyous and physically orientated. The more Jews were raped, enslaved, slaughtered, maimed, and generally not in control of their own destiny, the longer prayer services have gotten. Indeed, expressions of sadness as well as happiness have become the domain of liturgy. The exiled seeks catharsis in words, not in action, as he has no control over his own fate. With the ingathering of the Jews, may we find reason for expressing our gratitude and hopes more concretely.