Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 10 May 2014 / 10 Iyyar 5774

The Shemoneh Esrei

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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1. The site of the Holy Temple is the place where all prayers ascend to Heaven. Accordingly, one should direct his prayers towards Jerusalem, the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) and specifically the Holy of Holies.

2. When saying the name of G-d, which is pronounced Ado-nai, one should have in mind that G-d is the Master of all, Who always was, is, and will be.

3. When saying the name Elo-heinu or Elo-hei, one should have in mind that G-d’s powers and abilities are unlimited.

4. Prayer was instituted in place of the Temple service, and just as the Temple service required full concentration, so too one must fully concentrate on the words of prayer. Ideally, one should focus on the meaning of each word of the entire Shemoneh Esrei. If this is too difficult, then one should try to concentrate at least on the first blessing. In fact, in the times of the Talmud, if one failed to have proper concentration for the first blessing he would have to repeat it. Today, one does not repeat the first blessing in such a case, out of concern that he will not concentrate the second time either.

5. At the word “blessed” one bows forward at the knees; at the word “You” one’s head and body are bent forward; finally, the body and head are straightened when G-d’s name is said.

We bow at the beginning of the first blessing when we say the phrase, “Blessed are you, G-d”. There are several reasons given for this practice:

1) We bow before G-d, just as one bows before a mortal king, expressing our humility and subjugation. Although, unlike a mortal king, G-d does not really need our honor, since we show people of stature proper respect, relating to G-d too casually would constitute a slight to His honor.

2) Another reason given for bowing towards the earth is to remind us that we come from earth and we will one day return to the earth. This humbling thought should help a person to focus on what is truly important and pray accordingly.

3) Yet another reason for bowing is to symbolize the drawing down of Divine flow and blessing from the higher spiritual realms into this world. In fact, the word “blessing” connotes drawing down and increasing.

The phrase — “Blessed are You, G-d” — has posed a great difficulty for many of the early commentators because its most simple meaning seems to imply that we are giving G-d a blessing, something which is clearly impossible when referring to G-d. For this reason many explain that the intent of the above phrase is to praise G-d as the Source of all blessing.

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