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Prayer is a precious privilege and a sacred obligation, one that should be exercised, cultivated and developed by every believer and community of faith. A study of Jewish prayer can illuminate and enrich our understanding and practice of this "service of the heart."
At the center of Jewish life and worship for millennia, prayer was foundational for Yeshua and the Apostles, who regularly worshiped at synagogues (Lk 4:15-16) and frequently ascended to the Temple for the appointed times of prayer (Ac 3:1). Indeed the assemblies of the first church patterned themselves after the core features of teaching and prayer that characterized Shabbat synagogue services. Believers would hear the Apostle’s teaching and engage in (literally) "the prayers" (Ac 2:42).
This last reference may well be to the prevailing litany of Jewish prayers recited daily, such as the twice-daily Shema (Dt 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Nu 15:37-41) and the thrice-daily Amidah (the Standing Prayer of eighteen benedictions). The prayer Jesus taught his disciples is considered by many scholars to be a condensed version of the Amidah.
The great corpus of Israel’s devotional life from before, during and after the time of Jesus was collected in the Siddur, the Jewish Prayer Book. A thoughtful study of the Siddur (such as the Authorized Daily Prayer Book by J.H. Hertz) will yield fruitful insights and important principles that can expand our understanding and enliven our practice of prayer.
Jewish prayer eschews any form of magic or incantation. A magical worldview, unlike the biblical one, operates on the premise that the cosmos is permeated by impersonal powers and pantheistic forces that can be manipulated by esoteric knowledge or repetitive techniques, such as repeatedly invoking a mantra or the secret name of a deity. In some church settings, the name “Jesus” is repeated loudly, again and again -- as if invoking his name frequently or forcefully enough will achieve the desired result. Jesus himself warned against this kind of “vain repetition” (Mt 6:7 KJV), typical of the heathens or gentiles.
Jewish prayer is reckoned as the service of the heart. It is an outpouring of the soul, in heart-to-heart, person-to-person communication with the King of the Universe. Not some Force or Power but a Person created the cosmos – One who can be known and addressed by name. Thus praise, petition and thanksgiving characterize Jewish prayer. The Siddur is suffused with expressions of adoration, affirmation, praise, celebration and thanksgiving to the Lord God of Israel.
Jewish prayer displays a keen sense of corporate identity. “Our Father, Our King” (Avinu, Malkeinu) is a typical form of address. Indeed, the full panoply of Jewish prayers are recited in the context of a minyan (quorum) at the synagogue, reinforcing this awareness. This same sense of community consciousness is seen in The Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father... Give us daily bread... Forgive us our trespasses... Lead us not into temptation... Deliver us from the evil one..." (Mt 6:9-13). Personal praise and petitions surely have their place in prayer (consider David's Psalms, for instance). But in Messiah Yeshua we have been joined to a covenant community of the faithful, even as fellow citizens of the commonwealth of Israel. Our prayers should reflect this corporate awareness and continually remind us of our collective responsibilities.
Jewish prayer focuses on the Kingdom of God. The Sages were not so preoccupied with material needs as we in the West. They were consumed with a passion for Israel and indeed all the nations to submit to the Kingship of God and His redemptive reign. They earnestly petitioned for the wicked to be pulled down and for God’s righteousness to prevail, for salvation and justice to roll down like a mighty river. They longed for the day when the Lord would be one and His name one in all the earth, when the whole world would recognize the true and living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as King, and abide by His will. It is no coincidence then that this same passion burns at the heart of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “Our Father... Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done!