Understanding How to Daven an Amidah — How to Pray from Your Heart

In the course of several shiurim I taught “For Women Only,” we studied concepts of Tefilah (Prayer) that seem worth sharing with men, too.

The Shacharit service in the Morning and Mincha in the Afternoon are Torah-based, time-centered commandments, while Maariv at Night was added later by our Sages. (That is why we do not conduct a formal “Cantor’s Repetition” –chazarat ha-Shatz — of the Amidah during Maariv). For each Tefilah, the central components are: (i) the Sh’ma(although not at Mincha) and (ii) the Amidah. The Sh’ma is recited at Shacharit and Maariv in fulfillment of the Torah commandment to recite it b’shakhb’kha u-v’kumekha(“when you lie down and arise”). The Talmud teaches that those words are not understood literally but as a command to recite
Sh’ma during the time of day when most people typically prepare to lie down (evening) and the time of day when they typically arise (morning). So we recite every night and morning the two Sh’ma paragraphs that include the Torah obligation — b’shakhb’kha u-v’kumekha. We add the third paragraph of the Sh’ma to fulfill the Torah mandate that we remember, every day of our lives, that Hashem took us out of Egypt.

(Indeed, there are Six Memorials that we must remember every day of our lives: (i) Y’tzi’at Mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt; (ii) our assemblage as a Nation at Har Sinaiand what we saw, heard, and experienced at Matan Torah; (iii) Hashem’s gift of the Holy Day of Shabbat; (iv) what Amalek did to us as we were weak and tired; (v) the incident of the Golden Calf; and (vi) what Hashem did to Miriam in the Wilderness.)

We already are accustomed to reciting two blessings beforeeating bread (al n’tilat yadayim and ha-motzi). So it is not alien to learn that we recite two blessings before fulfilling the commandment to recite Sh’ma (at Shacharit: (i) Yotzer Or u-Voreh Choshekh and (ii) Ahavah Rabah) (at Maariv: (i) ha-Ma’ariv Aravim and (ii) Ahavat Olam). Similarly, just as we recite certain blessings after eating bread or other foods (e.g., Birkhat ha-Mazon; Bo-rei N’fashot ; al ha-Michyah), so we recite the blessing Ga’al Yisra’el after the Sh’ma. (In addition, at Maariv, we recite the blessingHashkiveinu, and some add another.) This “package” of (i) blessings before Sh’ma, (ii) the three paragraphs of Sh’ma, and (iii) blessings after Sh’ma, then, is supposed to connect immediately with the “package” of blessings we call theAmidah.

Thus, the matrix of core elements of the formal Jewish Prayer Service are:

* 2 brakhot before Sh’ma:

  • at Shacharit: (i) Yotzer Or u-Voreh Choshekh and (ii)Ahavah Rabah
  • at Maariv: (i) ha-Ma’ariv Aravim and (ii) Ahavat Olam.

* Sh’ma in its three paragraphs

* The Ga’al Yisra’el brakhah after Sh’ma

* The Amidah

As we explore the 19-blessing daily Amidah itself (reduced to 7 blessings on Shabbat and Yom Tov days when we avoid petitioning Hashem), we first consider the opening three blessings of any Amidah and compare those expressions of love and closeness with the way we would approach anyonefor help. When we come with a petition for assistance or just come to “ask for a break” (as in “please gimme a break”) – whether seeking help from a politician or even at a job interview — we initially grasp at some basis to open the discussion by seeking ways to associate on common ground with the person before whom we are supplicating – “Mr. Governor, I think you knew my father.” “Madame Senator, I think my father was in a foxhole in Europe with your father during the Second World War.” “Sir, I think we went to the same college.” (Cf. the “Game of Jewish Geography.”) Well, in like fashion, we begin the Amidah by seeking to create a place of common ground with Hashem by recalling to Him that we are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, the descendants and heirs to Hashem’s blessing to Avraham: “V’nivr’khu b’kha” (B’reishit12:3) – that Avraham’s name shall be invoked in blessing. And so we recall the lineage we share and end by invoking Avraham in blessing — “Magen Avraham.” In other words, “You knew my father, and You actually had promised him that, if his sons or daughters ever need something, they should not hesitate to come by your office and ask.”

Next, when supplicating before a person who wields power and influence, one typically transitions to praising the achievements of the person whom he is petitioning. “Thank you, Governor, for the changes you have made in your first term, the initatives you have launched. You have changed the climate of hope. You have confronted this social crisis, that economic dilemma, the litigation flood.” (The comparison can apply to any state or political party.) Well, it seems only natural that we similarly would thank Hashem as we inch towards bringing Him our petition: “Thank you, Hashem, for all You have done: With kindness, You sustain the whole world with livelihood; You revive the dead; You support the fallen; You heal the sick; You free those imprisoned.”

Makes perfect sense that a real person petitioning G-d would follow this rhythm.

To add extra meaningfulness to our words, we might do well to personalize this prayer, fighting the tendency to allow prayer to become rote from daily repetition, andthink in our “minds’ eyes” of actual, personal examples we have experienced, witnessed, or lived through: “With kindness You sustain the whole world with livelihood” (thinking, as we say the words, of the time we got the job we sought, the promotion, the raise, closed the big deal, got the unexpected tax refund); “You support the fallen” (thinking, as we say the words, of the friend or relative who went into therapy, mired in deep depression, and has bounced back productively); “You heal the sick” (thinking, as we say the words, of the friend or relative whose examples of recovery from grave illness are striking); “You free those imprisoned” (thinking, as we say the words, of Soviet Jewry of the 1960s and 1970s, Ethiopian Jewry, and the Jews freed from Iran and from Arab Lands like Syria and Iraq in our own lifetimes).

From this foundation, we typically would conclude introducing ourselves by saying that the politician or job interviewer – whomever we are petitioning – really is someone who is well known, does so much, and is highly regarded by others. And that is how we conclude ourAmidah introduction: You are Holy, and Your Name is Holy, and the holiest [entities] praise You every day!” This is not rote prayer – rather, this is the way that people really communicate with power when they come for help.

And then we begin our twelve paragraphs of petition and supplication.

This is the way of Jewish Prayer. The Amidah should be personalized every time we pray it. Be Waldo: Put yourself into the picture, and then look for yourself in the Siddur. Unknown to most, for example, the halakha expressly encourages us to add real personal prayers, in whatever language we can speak them, inserting them into the various paragraphs of the Amidah – preferably in the paragraphs most pertinent to the respective petitions. Thus, in the face of stress in earning livelihood, we insert the personal supplication into the “prayer for seasons” – M’varekh ha-Shanim. For health and recovery, we insert a personal petition into the R’fa’enuparagraph. And, if we are not certain which paragraph is appropriate for insertion, we may insert any prayer on any reasonable subject into the Sh’ma Koleinu paragraph.

By inserting such personal prayers, we indeed personalizeTefilah. Every Amidah is the same – yet becomes fresh and different. How can it be boring and rote when each prayer takes on new foci?

Yes, of course, we recite it three times every day. That is challenging. So it requires some perspective. What if your President, your Governor, your job interviewer is not inclined, for whatever the reason, to grant the entirety of your petition at the time you appear at your meeting? What do you do then?

You wait a while, and then you struggle and cajole to get another meeting, if only it would be possible, to follow up. Or maybe you donate $2,000 (or 5 or $10,000) to attend a soiree for a charity you do not really endorse but at which the politican will show up. You hope that maybe you can rub shoulders, just get in his or her face so that she remembers you, is reminded that you exist and are waiting to hear back.

That is the perspective of the thrice-daily prayer. We do not always get everything we have asked for, but we have an open door to return for a follow-up meeting, to ask again. And again. And again. And again.

At what point would it be rote, would it be boring, would it be too many meetings with the job interviewer, the CEO, the Congressional representative, the United States Senator, the President? Rote? Au contraire, mon frere — it would great!

So that is what we get — three audiences a day.

Not every prayer and petition and request is answered the way we seek. But, hey, it took two thousand years of Jewish prayers — three times a day, millions of people, generation after generation — before He permitted us to realize the actualization of the request to return to Jerusalem. So it takes time.

Jerusalem took approximately 1,800 or 1,900 years. But see that not only as two milliennia but alternatively as a third or a half of a People’s lifetime — because that was a People prayer. So maybe some prayers in your personal life will take a third or a half of a lifetime to realize. Maybe that’s 20 years or 30 or 40.

Nu? So get started.