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prayer, Jewish

Summary and Keywords

Although some of the inspiration for later Jewish prayers undoubtedly came from the ancient Near East and the early books of the Hebrew Bible, there was at that early period of development little connection between the formal liturgy, as represented by the Temple cult, and the spontaneous entreaties of the individual. During the Second Temple period, the two methods of expression began to coalesce, and the literature included among the Dead Sea Scrolls testifies to the recitation of regular prayers at fixed times. The Talmudic rabbis laid down instructions for some statutory prayers, such as the shema‘ and the ‘amidah, and these gradually formed the basis of what became the synagogal liturgy.

Keywords: Hebrew Bible, Temple, synagogue, Talmud, manuscripts, location

Earliest Origins

As is the case with many aspects of Jewish religious thought and practice, the earliest origins of Jewish prayer are to be sought in the books of the Hebrew Bible and in the broader cultures of the ancient Near East by which they were influenced. These cultures record both communal and personal prayer, with the latter style of worship usually conducted in a formal fashion by the leading figures of the community, such as the rulers and the priests, rather than being expressed in an emotional manner by a humble and powerless individual. The worshippers often offered praise to the deities for providing them with the gifts of nature and for dispensing justice. Included among the prayers were expressions of regret for inadequate behaviour and requests for forgiveness. In exchange for the loyalty of the homeland, the people, or the city, which he represented to the deity or deities, the suppliant expressed the hope that they would as a group benefit from divine munificence, especially when they were engaged in battling their foes. Whatever date is to be assigned to the Hebrew and the Israelite traditions, they were regarded as authoritative religious sources by the Jews who adopted the books of the Hebrew Bible as their scriptures, and numerous texts presuppose that one of the central pillars of their liturgy was the Temple in Jerusalem. Animal sacrifices and related rituals were conducted there by the priests, assisted by the levites, and, with the exception of a few formulas that were recited on special occasions, there is little textual or archaeological evidence that specifically points to communal or individual prayers being offered at the same time. Some scholars have suggested that the book of Psalms represents a record of just such prayers, while others have argued that the Jerusalem Temple was a sanctuary of silence. There are undoubtedly references in some of the Psalms—as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible—to worshippers visiting the holy place, waxing eloquent about the rituals conducted there, and insisting that these should not be a matter of cultic formality but should also reflect high degrees of religious belief and sincerity. This does not, however, necessarily mean that the priests had a hymn book and that prayer was central to their temple ceremonials. If such a negative conclusion is indeed justified, it may be argued that the Hebrew Bible provided later Jews with a source for a formal, communal worship without words. Did it, on the other hand, have nothing to offer them by way of precedents for improvised, personal prayer? Such a claim would be nothing short of preposterous, since there are numerous texts that testify to the existence of entreaties made to God on the part of many individuals throughout the Hebrew Bible. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samson, and Hannah are reported to have offered personal and seemingly extemporized prayers to God. These prayers seem to be unrelated to the worship of the Temple and have been described by Moshe Greenberg as a more democratic and egalitarian way of making one’s approaches to heaven. In contrast to the formalities of the Jerusalem cult, such appeals to God represented an individual form of piety that was calibrated by the exigencies of the moment and the emotions of those involved in critical situations.1

Second Temple Period

The gradual establishment of a Judahite state following the return to the Jewish homeland after the Babylonian Exile brought with it important developments in the sphere of Jewish prayer. Although the priesthood and the Jerusalem Temple appear to have gained in importance, there is also evidence of other Jewish shrines in Araq el-Emir in Transjordania, as well as in Elephantine and Leontopolis in Egypt. What is more, the earlier distinction between cultic formality and individual entreaty gradually gave way to a closer relationship between the two. Penitential prayers that occur in the late biblical books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel were more extensive and formal than the simpler ones that predate them. They contained humble approaches to God that acknowledged Jewish failures of the past, recognized his supreme power, and promised an improved standard of religious behaviour, in the hope of obtaining divine favour. There were historical references and an educational intent, but the prayers did not yet constitute any regular or fixed ritual. As Jewish literature came to be expressed not only in Hebrew but also in Greek and Aramaic, so the prayers recorded in the books of the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha took on wider forms of content. References to angels, the cosmos, the end of time, and intensively mystical matters were included among the prayers of the righteous individuals, and there were more examples of prayers for divine assistance for individuals or the people as a whole, often inspired by special circumstances. The 2nd-century bce book of Ben Sira testifies to a Jewish wise man’s enthusiasm for the Temple, side by side with praises of liturgy, piety, and sincerity. The literature discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls includes the recitation of regular prayers at fixed times. Some of the major themes to be found in such liturgical texts relate to the special roles of the people of Israel, the Temple, and the city of Jerusalem.2


Historical study has not yet established whether the synagogue began its life as some sort of official institution that evolved into a religious assembly, whether it was created in the land of Israel or in the Diaspora, or whether it was totally independent of the Temple or became an alternative or replacement for it. What is clear is that formal Jewish prayer began to be recited in the synagogal milieu only at some point in the first centuries of the rabbinic period. In earlier times, up to and including the first Christian century, the synagogue was the place where Jews gathered on Sabbaths and festivals to read and study biblical texts, to acknowledge God’s role in their history, to practice their religious traditions, and to host visitors. As it took on more formal liturgical functions after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, so it became, between the 2nd and 6th centuries, a center of communal worship. It also acquired more standardized physical characteristics, some of them borrowed from the Greco-Roman environment in which most Jews functioned. The Temple and the synagogue were not, however, the only liturgical contexts out of which rabbinic prayer emerged. There was an institution known as the ma‘amad, according to which the Jews who were left behind when the priest and levites from a particular area entered the Temple to serve there, fasted, recited biblical verses, and perhaps also offered some form of prayer. In addition, the study of scriptural texts appears to have developed liturgical as well as educational aspects. The needs of individuals surely also continued to elicit from them the kinds of liturgical responses that are already documented in the earlier periods.3

Rabbinic Blessings

The corpus of Talmudic texts that is the source of historical knowledge about the emergence and ultimate success of rabbinic Judaism dates from about the second until the late 6th or early 7th century. In addition, there is a whole genre of midrashic literature that may often contain traditions that could be as early as the oldest Talmudic texts but might also sometimes be dated many centuries later, even into the early medieval period. Difficult as it is to use these sources in a sound historical fashion, it is possible to trace what was included in rabbinic prayer by the end of the Talmudic period. Among the earliest contents were those that appear to have predated the formalization of liturgy within the synagogue. In the context of daily life, it was customary to bless God or to call upon God to bless oneself or one’s fellows. These simple praises or invocations acquired a more complicated and lengthy structure as rabbinic prayer evolved. The grace after meals, for example, began as an act of thanksgiving—perhaps in the form of a simple benediction in praise of God for the food provided—and attracted more content and additional benedictions that included matters that were central for rabbinic theology. Among these were the land of Israel, the restoration of the Temple, and a host of essential, daily requirements. The most famous Jewish benediction is surely the priestly benediction of Numbers 6:24–26, which had been popular even in biblical times (as exemplified in a silver amulet from the 6th century bce) and retained a place in rabbinic prayer even when its early tendency was to opt for rabbinic rather than biblical formulations. For the Talmudic rabbis, study of Torah was so central to their religious ideology that they attached blessings to its commencement and conclusion. Moving from the study house to the home, attention must be paid to the marking of the arrival of the Sabbath on Friday evening and its termination on Saturday evening with special benedictions known as the qiddush (sanctification of the Sabbath) and the havdalah (replacement of the Sabbath by the weekday). It is highly likely that it was only later that communal and synagogal prayer included texts to mark those occasions. Also to be noted in the domestic scene was the haggadah recited within the family on the first evening of Passover. Taking its lead from biblical instructions to explain to the younger generation the religious significance of the exodus from Egypt, and undoubtedly influenced by Greek and Roman table customs, the Seder (“order”), as it later came to be known, began life as a didactic and religious exercise and progressively adopted the character of formal liturgy, albeit avoiding a move from home to synagogue, at least until the contemporary period. Although the earliest texts of mystical and pietistic prayers known as hekhalot are from a later period, and only gradually found a place in standard rabbinic liturgy, it has been convincingly argued that a Jewish concern with angels, the cosmos, and Gnostic ideas had its origins in earlier centuries.4

Rabbinic Liturgy

At some point, all the elements discussed above coalesced into a formal liturgy. Views on how and when this occurred range from an assumption that the Dead Sea Scrolls mark the beginning of the development, through the claim that Rabban Gamaliel in the 2nd century innovated the whole process, to the argument that formalization was still being undertaken in the early medieval period. Be that as it may, and leaving aside the matter of precisely when (if ever) a majority of the Jewish people followed rabbinic instructions, the late 2nd century Mishna, within the Talmudic corpus, presupposes the existence of a number of daily prayers that are prescribed for the observant Jew. The two central prayers are the shema‘ and the ‘amidah. The shema‘ is not actually rabbinic prayer but rabbinic use of biblical passages that are concerned with devotion to God, ritual detail, and the didactic element in religion. It probably started its Jewish liturgical life as no more than the recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4 or perhaps 6:4–9, but was then expanded to include Deuteronomy 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–41. It may have been contributed to the pool of Jewish liturgy by pre-rabbinic scribal or priestly groups. These three paragraphs came to be introduced and followed by special benedictions reflecting early rabbinic theology about the creation, the role of Israel, the exodus from Egypt, and divine protection. A parallel text, used in a similar manner, and, like the shema‘, included in the Nash Papyrus from the 3rd century bce, as well as in the earliest known tefillin, is the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. It is remarkable that the theological controversies and tensions of the early Christian centuries led to the abandonment among some Jewish circles of a liturgical use of the Decalogue. Probably originating in a more popular environment than the shema‘, the ‘amidah prescribed for Sabbaths and festivals consisted of benedictions dealing with the biblical patriarchs, life after death, and divine sanctity at the beginning, and cultic restoration, thanksgiving, and peace (including the priestly benediction) at the end. The daily ‘amidah (which may well have been introduced at a later date than the versions used on the Sabbath and on festivals) contained the same first three and last three benedictions but also listed the Jew’s daily requirements. These consist of requests for knowledge, repentance, pardon, redemption, healing, plentiful produce, an end to exile and persecution, restoration of autonomy, removal of apostasy, blessing of the righteous and of converts, the reestablishment of Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty, and the success of prayer. What is often overlooked is the fact that, in common with most rabbinic traditions, the liturgy was by and large transmitted orally. It was part of what the rabbis called the Torah Shebe‘alpeh, that is, the “oral Torah,” the authoritative religious teachings that were known by heart and not written down, as had been the Torah Shebikhtav (the “written Torah”), the biblical scriptures.5

Scientific Study

While the study of Jewish prayer was of interest to Jewish scholars in earlier periods, it was not until the 19th century that it changed from a primarily devotional exercise into scientific and critical analysis. The leading figure was Leopold Zunz, whose initial studies—all of them in German and part of the growing discipline of Wissenschaft des Judentums (“Judaic studies”)—were essentially intended to demonstrate that there was much about Jewish literature in general, and the Hebrew liturgy in particular, that was of cultural value and could be admired within the purview of Western intellectual thought. He concerned himself with the detailed differences among the various medieval rites and was particularly interested in liturgical poetry and synagogal custom, but he set the tone for all subsequent academic approaches. The first comprehensive study of Jewish prayer from the Bible to the modern period was produced—also in Germany—by Ismar Elbogen. He began his researches and publications early in the 20th century, gradually took account of some of the early discoveries in the Cairo Genizah, and produced what long remained the classic study, Der jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung (1913). He had an acute historical vision but was also anxious to promote a degree of mild reform in the prayer book. He thus tended to denigrate the medieval period, the mystical traditions, and the eastern European forms of prayer. That said, his reference work is still an indispensable source; it was translated into Hebrew in 1972 and into English in 1993. Although in his articles he did sometimes provide the detailed evidence about what Jewish prayer looked like in the medieval period, he was more enthusiastic about painting a broad historical picture and tracing the history of synagogal custom as he saw and approved it. Louis Finkelstein in New York made good this deficiency by offering close textual analyses of the ‘amidah and the grace after meals in articles published in the 1920s. He made reference to some Genizah texts, but his main sources were the medieval liturgical works, some important manuscripts, and the early printed texts. His lists are still useful in compiling a history of how the various rites evolved, but his proposal to date some of the prayer texts as early as the Maccabean period was not widely accepted. Jacob Mann, of London and then Cincinnati, was the first researcher to give major attention to what the Genizah texts demonstrated for liturgical historians; he concentrated on the prayer book of the Jews of the land of Israel in and around the Crusader period. He was such an avid and industrious researcher that he laid the foundations of all later work in this field (as well as numerous others), even if his vast erudition and the intensity of his efforts sometimes meant that some details needed to be corrected by later scholars. Texts were also the concern of Ernst Daniel Goldschmidt of Jerusalem, who published numerous articles on the medieval rites that were later and posthumously collected into one volume. He described some medieval developments as he analysed the rites, but he wrote as a student of manuscripts and editions and a philologist, not as a historian. His fellow scholar in Jerusalem, Joseph Heinemann, on the other hand, was intrigued by the history of Jewish prayer and the literary and theological trends that could be uncovered by way of a literary-critical and form-critical approach. He identified the various domestic, cultic, and academic contexts which spawned early rabbinic liturgy and argued for an ongoing elasticity of textual form from the early Christian period until the Genizah material almost a thousand years later. The historical study of Jewish liturgy was then firmly on the map of Jewish scholarship. A major fillip to its progress was provided by Naphtali Wieder, who was educated in Germany but taught in London and in Israel. It was only in his later years that he became highly prolific and encouraged a project to publish all his articles in two volumes. He cited a welter of fresh manuscript sources and offered novel and exciting interpretations of these, at times touching on matters that went beyond the immediate liturgical text and touched upon broader religious, historical, and cultural matters. A combination of history and theology also appealed to Jakob Petuchowski in Cincinnati. He tackled liturgical poetry as well as statutory prayers and tried to direct future research by summarizing what had been discovered to date. By the final quarter of the 20th century, there was growing interest in treating the history of Jewish prayer in a comprehensive way and in promoting a multidisciplinary approach. Younger scholars such as Richard Sarason, Larry Hoffman, Paul Bradshaw, Ruth Langer, and Stefan Reif were to a degree inspired by the earlier researchers mentioned above, but they also saw the need to move into less well-charted territory. Jacob Neusner also raised a generation of younger scholars, including W. S. Green and Tzvee Zahavy, who questioned the dating of rabbinic sources and thereby brought fresh perspectives to the whole topic. At Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Joseph Tabory also encouraged the historical study of the prayer book and provided essential bibliographical guides, as well as editing an important series of publications under the title of Kenishta. The new availability of all the Genizah collections, as first provided by the Cambridge University Library and then later by other libraries, and the Friedberg Genizah Project, which provided digital images of most of them, made a major impact. Ezra Fleischer, in the latter part of his career, added to his study of liturgical poetry the historical analysis of how rabbinic prayer evolved. He took issue with Heinemann and preferred to see Rabban Gamaliel in the 2nd century as the founder and compiler of the statutory rabbinic prayers. Uri Ehrlich, who did stalwart work on making material available online and on the textual history of the ‘amidah, followed Fleischer, while Reif and Langer raised historical and literary questions about Fleischer’s suggestion. Recent work done on the Dead Sea Scrolls and on the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha has also clarified some historical issues, while those scholars with a special interest in the modern world have examined how modern Jewish religious movements have tackled the content and message of the prayer book.6


Boda, Mark J., Daniel K. Falk, and Rodney A. Werline, eds. Seeking the Favour of God. 3 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006–2009.Find this resource:

    Ehrlich, Uri. The Weekday Amidah in Geniza Prayer Books: Origins and Transmission. In Hebrew. Jerusalem: Yad ben-Zvi, 2013.Find this resource:

      Elbogen, Ismar. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. Translated and edited by R. P. Scheindlin. Philadelphia, Jerusalem, and New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1993.Find this resource:

        Finkelstein, Louis. “The Development of the Amidah.” Jewish Quarterly Review 16 (1925): 1–43, 127–171.Find this resource:

          Finkelstein, Louis. “The Birkat Ha-Mazon.” Jewish Quarterly Review 19 (1928–1929): 211–262.Find this resource:

            Fleischer, Ezra. Eretz-Israel Prayer and Prayer Rituals as Portrayed in the Geniza Documents. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988.Find this resource:

              Goldschmidt, Ernst Daniel. Studies in Jewish Liturgy. In Hebrew. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1978.Find this resource:

                Heinemann, Joseph. Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns. Translated and edited by Richard Sarason. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1977. English translation of an expanded version of the Hebrew edition.Find this resource:

                  Hoffman, Lawrence A. The Canonization of the Synagogue Service. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979.Find this resource:

                    Hoffman, Lawrence A., and Paul Bradshaw, eds. Two Liturgical Traditions. 6 vols. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991–1999.Find this resource:

                      Langer, Ruth. Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat Haminim. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                        Levine, Lee I. The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

                          Petuchowski, Jakob J. “The Liturgy of the Synagogue.” In Approaches to Ancient Judaism, vol. 4. Edited by W. S. Green, 1–64. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983.Find this resource:

                            Reif, Stefan C. Judaism and Hebrew Prayer: New Perspectives on Jewish Liturgical History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

                              Reif, Stefan C. Problems with Prayers: Studies in the Textual History of Early Rabbinic Liturgy. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006.Find this resource:

                                Tabory, Joseph. Jewish Prayer and the Yearly Cycle: A List of Articles. Ramat Gan and Jerusalem: Jewish National and University Library, 1992–1993.Find this resource:

                                  Wieder, Naphtali. The Formation of Jewish Liturgy in the East and the West: A Collection of Essays. In Hebrew. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1998.Find this resource:

                                    Zahavy, Tzvee. Studies in Jewish Prayer. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.Find this resource:

                                      Zunz, Leopold. Die Ritus des synagogalen Gottesdienstes geschichtlich entwickelt. Berlin: Julius Springer, 1859.Find this resource:


                                        (1.) See Stefan C. Reif, Judaism and Hebrew Prayer: New Perspectives on Jewish Liturgical History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 22–52.

                                        (2.) See Mark J. Boda, Daniel K. Falk, and Rodney A. Werline, eds., Seeking the Favour of God (3 vols.; Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006–2009).

                                        (3.) See Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).

                                        (4.) See Tzvee Zahavy, Studies in Jewish Prayer (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990).

                                        (5.) See Joseph Heinemann, Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns, trans. and ed. Richard Sarason (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1977).

                                        (6.) Cf. Stefan C. Reif, “Prayer and Liturgy,” in Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies, ed. Naomi Seidman, 2014.

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