Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 15 January 2022 / 13 Shvat 5782

The Amidah: Introduction

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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“Prayer is not a miracle. It is a tool, man’s paintbrush in the art of life. Prayer is man’s weapon to defend himself in the struggle of life. It is a reality. A fact of life.”
(Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer)

We have reached the most central and possibly most potent prayer in the Siddur — the Amidah. It is so essential that it is prayed three times a day on a regular weekday, four times on Shabbat and the Festivals, and five times on Yom Kippur. During the week it is recited in the morning, in the afternoon and at night. Why three times? Our Sages introduced the recitation of the Amidah in the morning and in the afternoon to parallel the daily offerings that took place in the Holy Temple each morning and afternoon. The third Amidah corresponds to the nightly burning of the fats and the limbs of the afternoon service. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy (1075-1141) was one of the most profound and eloquent philosophers in the era known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. He writes in his seminal work called Sefer HaKuzari that “prayer is the spiritual food of the soul.” Just as the body cannot live without physical nourishment, the soul cannot survive without spiritual nourishment. Subsequently, we need to pray three times a day just as we need to eat three times a day.

Composed with Divine inspiration by the Men of the Great Assembly, the Amidah is a truly astonishing work. Its final format was established by the court of Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Talmud (Brachot 28b) identifies Shimon HaPekoli (“the cotton merchant”) as being the arranger of the blessings in the order we use today.

The Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 1), in explaining why the Men of Great Assembly composed the Amidah, writes that after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the Jewish year 3338 he sent the remnants of the Jewish People into exile. Due to the variety of languages they were exposed to, the younger generations was not able to articulate their needs or praise G-d clearly through prayer. They found themselves unable to express themselves in Lashon Hakodesh — the holy language of the Torah — as there was not yet any formalized prayer to help them convey their requirements and aspirations in an appropriate and acceptable manner. Subsequently, the Men of the Great Assembly felt compelled to compose a series of prayers to restore a sense of purpose to those who were reciting them.

From where did the Men of the Great Assembly understand that it was possible to substitute, in a sense, the lack of Temple services with prayer? A verse in Hoshea (14:3) states: “And let our lips substitute for bulls (i.e. Temple offerings).” This concept is indeed stated in the prayers in the Siddur, where we declare, “Master of the Universe, You commanded us to bring the Tamid (continual) offering … the Tamid was discontinued and we have neither a Kohen serving, nor a Levi on his platform, nor a Yisrael at his station. But, You said, ‘Let our lips substitute for bulls.’” Consequently, the Amidah was established, to assist us in articulating our needs and desires in the most effective way possible.

It may seem, at first glance, that the function of the Amidah is to enable us to ask G-d for all of our personal requests. But in his far-reaching and indispensable work called Chovot Halevavot — Duties of the Heart — the brilliant ethicist and philosopher Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Paquda of Zaragoza (1050-1120) explains that the Amidah is so much more. When we beseech G-d to grant us our wishes, he explains, it is not to make G-d aware of our needs. G-d, being Omniscient, certainly does not need us to reveal to Him our hearts’ desires. Rather, by articulating our needs we are actually reinforcing to ourselves our complete dependency on G-d. We are placing our absolute trust in Him, acknowledging that it is only He who can grant us our requests.

In discussing the Amidah, the beginning of chapter five of Tractate Brachot (30b) says, “One should not stand to pray (the Amidah) unless it is with a sense of reverence. The pious individuals would prepare for one hour and only then pray, in order that they might direct their hearts to their Father in Heaven.” Rabbeinu Yonah explains that they would first meditate on the Omnipotence of G-d as compared to the frailty of mankind, and only then would they begin the recitation of the Amidah. However, the Vilna Gaon understands the mishna slightly differently. He observes that there seems to be a grammatical nuance in the mishna’s wording that suggests that the hour of preparation was not only dedicated contemplation. Rather, it was also a time for all of the preparatory prayers that are recited before the Amidah.

Due to its great significance, our Sages instruct us to introduce the recitation of the Amidah with the following declaration: My L-rd, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.” (Tehillim 51:17)Regarding this declaration, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer quotes his revered father-in-law, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter (1915-2001), one of the heads of the famed Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland and one of the acknowledged spiritual leaders of his generation. Rabbi Gifter points out that the Ramban understands the Hebrew word used in this verse for “my lips” — sefati — as alluding to “sefat hanahar,” the banks of the river. Riverbanks stop the water from overflowing and they also ensure that the water flows only in the direction which the riverbanks define. According to Rabbi Gifter, the soul is analogous to the water, and the human body is akin to the riverbank in that it stifles and suppresses the spiritual aspirations of the soul by “forcing” it to adapt itself to the demands of the corporeal at the expense of the transcendent. But, when a person stands in supplication before his Creator, in complete subjugation and with a pure heart, the soul surges past the “riverbanks” of the body, leaving behind its physical confines as it stretches upwards to join together with its Father in Heaven.

That moment is called the Amidah.

To be continued…

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