Sh’moneh Esrei — eighteen benedictions. So important in Judaism, simply called “the prayer,” haTefillah.
Those reciting it face Israel. Those in Israel face Jerusalem. Those in Jerusalem face the temple. If you’re not sure which way to face, the rabbis say, direct your heart toward God.
The prayer is also known as the Amidah, the Standing Prayer. We stand while reciting it out of respect. We pray it with our feet together. This is to help us remain at attention.
We take three steps forward and bow at the beginning. This is to DRAW NEAR to the Holy One. We take three steps back at the end. This is to WITHDRAW after we have completed our petitions.
There is not just one form of the Amidah. The one we pray on Shabbat is shorter. The middle petitions are replaced by a shorter section.
What better topic than to muse on the meaning of the greatest prayer in Judaism? For non-Jews, I hope this series will illuminate the beauty of Jewish prayer, a beauty which is sadly underestimated in much Christian opinion. For Messianic Jews, I hope this series will help you grow into an appreciation for a prayer tradition sadly underestimated in Messianic Judaism as well.
The Amidah has nineteen benedictions, since one was added later. It is still called the Sh’moneh Esrei, meaning eighteen benedictions.
The first three benedictions are praise. Rabbi Hanina said, “It resembles a servant who praises his master.”
The middle thirteen are petitions. Rabbi Hanina said, “It resembles a servant requesting some gift from his master.”
The last three are thanksgivings. Rabbi Hanina said, “It resembles a servant who has received his gift and takes his leave.”
The Amidah is recited silently, but with the lips moving. The tradition is to pray it so you can distinguish the words you are speaking but your neighbor cannot. It is a kind of mumbling. It is a mumbled prayer, like the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel:
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put away your wine from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” -1 Samuel 1:12-17
If you have ever prayed with a minyan, a group of Jewish men (and in some places women), you have experienced the silent Amidah. Throughout the room there are groanings, mumbling sounds. Those swaying and concentrating get louder and softer in a kind of rhythm. Throughout the room there are indistinguishable or barely distinguishable words.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I picture Hebrew words and phrases rising above the minyan and floating up into the heavens. I can almost see the prayers more than I hear them.
These groanings are the words of the needy. They are the prayers of the desperate. They are the prayers of Hannah replayed thousands of years later. All Israel is connected by prayer, and especially by the praying of the Amidah.
If you haven’t prayed this prayer in a minyan, what can I say? Go and learn.