A few notes for the halachically hardcore

Well, somewhat hardcore, as I have neither the depth of knowledge nor the ability to make HTML produce readable Hebrew to get into the Talmudic debates. But the history of the creation of prayer by the early rabbis is fascinating. Consider that time – the Temple and all its related social, cultural, and economic systems had been destroyed, the very home for God was gone, such that it seemed the covenant could be ending. How to hold this culture together, how to find a way to re-establish connection to God? Invent prayer to replace Temple sacrifice, along with a system of sages and rabbis to set the rules and guidelines.

Of course it was all more complicated than that. If you want a strong and not too-complicated overview, see the first chapter of Ruth Langer’s To Worship God Properly: Tensions Between Liturgical Custom and Halakhah in Judaism. Most of the following notes are drawn directly from her discussion.

The rabbis had to establish several keys things: that they still had a direct line to God, via the “oral tradition;” that prayer would be heard by God and be pleasing to him; and that prayer would fulfill the emotional and cultural realities of the Temple sacrificial system. They did this by establishing, over a period of time and with much wrangling between the Babylonian and Palestinian communities and traditions, shared guidelines about how prayer would happen and what the content of prayer would be. A greatly shortened and simplified version, as it applies to my project, follows. Langer’s discussion is deep and well documented, so assume any over-simplifications are entirely my fault.

Laws Establishing and Regulating Communal nature of prayers

1. prayer should happen communally, at least mainly

2. prayers must always be composed in the first person plural, for one must always see oneself in the context of community

3. certain kinds of prayers, davar shebikedushah (sanctification of God) require a quorum of ten men (don’t get me started on the missing women!)

4. Those who do know the words correctly can say them on behalf of those who do not. Listening to the prayers recited properly fulfills one’s own obligation to pray. (with the implication that saying the right words correctly matters a great deal)

5. Individuals may fulfill their obligations by responding amen or simply by listening. Amen is only a response to others. It is not a mandatory part of the blessing, and one does not respond to one’s own blessing.

6. Prayers may be said in any language. Only Priestly benediction had to be in Hebrew. Babylonian tradition was that angels only speak Hebrew so those praying in local tongues forfeit angelic aid in bringing their prayers before God.

7. Prayers require intentionality. One should have kavvanah (intentionality and attention) to fulfill any commandment properly.

8. Liturgical practices must preserve the honor of the community and not overburden it. The liturgical system must be acceptable and accessible to the community and must ensure that, at an emotional level, people will react well to what is being promulgated.

Laws that generate the framework for the composition of prayers

The earliest rabbinic texts assume a liturgy composed of series of blessings. The Babylonian Talmud ascribes to the second-century Rabbi Meir the requirement that a Jew has a basic obligation to recite one hundred blessings daily. But what exactly is a blessing? The rabbis established a unified system that guaranteed validity of spoken blessings by defining the legitimate structure of the blessings and providing rules for their combination and incorporation into a liturgical format “acceptable to God.”

1.a. A liturgical blessing begins with the word baruch.

1.b. A liturgical blessing must mention God’s name. A tannaitic tradition establishes that the use of the Tetragrammaton is preferred to reference to God as Elohim in a blessing.

1.c. A liturgical blessing must mention God’s sovereignty.

1.d. A liturgical blessing addresses God in the second person. The tradition from the Palestinian Talmud was that the blessing must include the word “you.” Babylonian tradition did not require “you.”

2. Every blessing begins and ends with a blessing formula. One line blessings need no concluding formula (eulogy), and when extended blessings form a series, only the first requires an opening formula.

3. The concluding blessing of the prayer must be correct. If one uses the wrong text, such as morning prayer in the evening, the prayer is still “correct” if the concluding blessing is about the correct time of day. (a good ending fixes anything – from where did you think Yiddish theater and so vaudeville and Broadway learned that?)

5. One may not include multiple topics in one blessing. This is connected to the principle that one does not bundle together commandments, as this prevents each item from receiving the proper kavvanah. Babylonian tradition insisted that two distinct subjects could not be included in the eulogy of a single blessing; Palestinian tradition was not as strict.

6. One may not recite an unnecessary benediction. This is from Talmud, with roots in the prohibition against improper use of the divine Name. Blessings gain their power from their invocation of God; blessings used improperly are potentially blasphemous.

7. One may not change the established form of a benediction. According to the 2nd century Rabbi Yose, anyone who deviates from the rabbinically established form of the benediction does not fulfill his obligation. Both Talmuds limit the right of individuals to alter the framework of the Amidah or to add blessings that deviate from the communal norm. This became increasingly rigid and codified, as a conservative force to stop additions and changes. (Which I find heavily ironic, since the entire prayer service was invented by the rabbis in response to drastically changed circumstances. Now, thousands of years later in a world they could not have imagined, I’m supposed to NOT change the words?)

8. One must bless before eating anything. Deriving benefit from the world, especially through eating or drinking, must be preceded by a blessing. To omit the blessing is failure to acknowledge that all in this world is ultimately God’s. Babylonian tradition extended this to say that eating without blessing is stealing from God and from the people Israel. (Hence my beginning attempts at blessings for food)

9. One makes a blessing only over the essential food of a meal. (Which I’ve reimagined as a blessing for what is essential)

10. One must recite a blessing before fulfilling any commandment. (For me, this is a blessing for engaging in tikkun olam)

11. Everything followed by a blessing must be preceded by one. (the rabbis were nothing if not logical and thorough)

12. Statutory Jewish worship consists of a precise series of blessings, offered at specific times of day.

The rabbis that were inventing and establishing prayer knew that an overly regulated system of prayers would preclude response to community needs and cultural change. At the same time, unrestrained variation would ultimately result in loss of the basic universal uniformity that were the groundwork for rabbinic claims for the authority and ultimate holiness of the system. Therefore, they developed, over time, principles that allowed liturgical text to incorporate some variation but also resist change. This openness to some kinds of change was gradually shut down, such that the Jewish religious community has become extremely conservative about significant changes in liturgy. That is a long discussion for another time and place. What matters for my project is understanding that Jewish tradition has always changed, even drastically, in response to the changing world, such that the attempt to find new words, even completely new understandings of god and divinity, IS Jewish tradition.

Oh, and one is allowed, even obligated, to pray in the language understood by the people. It’s okay, really, and just as holy. Well, except for that whole “the angels only speak Hebrew” thing from 2nd century Babylon.

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