The following notes are for a class I am giving this Shabbat about personal or constant prayer. For a long time, I thought Judaism had no such tradition but was limited to liturgical prayer. I started my religious life in a Christian environment where all prayer was spontaneous and personal. I have so enjoyed the return to biblical prayer through the liturgy. But it is important to remember the value of personal prayer as well (though my personal prayers sound different now than they used to — less telling God what to do and more praise and declaration of trust).
The stories and texts of the Bible reveal three kinds of prayer as part of the life of the people of God:
Crisis prayers: Such as Moses asking God not to destroy Israel, the Psalmist asking to be delivered from enemies, or the Jerusalem congregation praying for Peter to be let out of prison.
Liturgical prayers: Such as Israel’s prayer each time the Ark set out before them, the apparent use of some of the Psalms in temple liturgy, and Yeshua’s prayer which he gave to his disciples.
Personal prayers: Such as confessions of sin, expressions of thankfulness, and declarations of intimacy with God.
Crisis prayers and liturgical prayers will always have their place. But the regular practice of personal prayers is likely what biblical writers had in mind when they said:
–Be constant in prayer (Rom. 12:12).
–Pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17).
–When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret (Matt. 6:6).
–I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all thy wonderful deeds (Psalm 9:1).
–Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name (Heb. 13:15).
SOME JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS
Both in Judaism and in Christianity personal prayers are of great importance. Interestingly, the Bible assumes that people will pray but gives few guidelines about how to pray. Aside from a few guidelines, we need traditions to follow to guide us in methods of prayer. There is no such thing as the one right method of prayer.
In Christianity there are many traditions of personal prayer. One interesting tradition is the “breath prayer,” practiced especially by the Eastern churches. Richard Foster (Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home) says, “The idea has its roots in the Psalms, where a repeated phrase reminds us of an entire Psalm, for example, ‘O Lord, you have searched me and known me’ (Ps. 139:1).”
The most commonly used breath prayer is called the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” from Luke 18:13. The prayer is recited throughout the day and many times so that it becomes natural, like breath. One writer says this method of prayer is especially helpful when the mind is clouded with thoughts and the breath prayer helps to keep the focus on God and faith.
In Judaism, the most common example of personal prayer is the practice of reciting blessings. All blessings begin with, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe . . .” The following are commonly used:
–When seeing lightning: “. . . who makes the work of creation.”
–When hearing thunder: “. . . for his strength and power fill the universe.”
–When seeing a rainbow: “. . . who remembers his covenant, is trustworthy in his covenant, and fulfills his word.”
–When seeing the ocean: “. . . who made the great sea.”
–When seeing beautiful people, trees, or fields: “. . . who has such in his creation.”
–When seeing a Torah scholar: “. . . who has apportioned of his knowledge to those who fear him.”
–When seeing an outstanding secular scholar: “. . . who has given of his knowledge to human beings.”
–When first seeing a friend who has survived a life-threatening illness: “. . . who has given you to us and has not given you to the dust.”
–On hearing good news: “. . . who is good and does good.”
–On hearing bad news: “. . . the true judge.”
–When reading Torah: “. . . who has made us holy through your mitzvot and instructed us to busy ourselves with words of Torah.”
Also, in Judaism there are several traditions of personal prayer throughout the day. Similar to the breath prayer tradition in Christianity is a Jewish tradition of repeating holy sentences. One midrash says that Enoch was a shoemaker and used to say, “Blessed is his glorious name whose kingdom is forever,” and ever with each stitch (Yitzhak Buxbaum, Jewish Spiritual Practices, pg.443). In the Jerusalem Talmud we read about Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmeni who repeated the Shema over and over each night until he fell asleep. Other rabbis have recommended other verses or prayers to be repeated often, with an ideal of praising God with each breath (Buxbaum, pg. 445).
Finally, Hasidic rebbes, especially Rebbe Nachman of Breslov have recommended a practice called hitbodedut (Buxbaum, pg. 609). This means “self-seclusion” and involves solitude and personal conversation with God. Rebbe Nachman says, “You should speak at length, talk and talk some more, and argue with him to convince him to bring you close to him” (Buxbaum, pg. 611). This practice was featured in the popular Israeli film about a Breslover family called Ushpizin.