Repetition in Prayer
by Rabbi Roger Herst
As a rabbi, the most common complaint I hear about Jewish ritual in the synagogue is that the repetition of prayers is boring. The complaint is not only common but justified.
First, let’s look at Jewish prayers dispassionately. Petitions and adorations of God in ancient times reflected an intimate relationship between a Jew and his deity. Over the years, these prayers were canonized into a liturgy that has come to be recited three times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Such prayers were not “free form” but followed a prescribed pattern. Orthodox (fully observant) Jews still recites these prayers daily.
Now a Reform or Liberal Jew would like to recite some of these prayers when moved to do so, but not necessarily on such a rigorous schedule. And more importantly, he would like to believe that in speaking with God the meaning of his prayers are 1) well considered and 2) sincere.
Now here’s the kicker. Can God, however omniscient, really listen to every Jew recite his daily prayers three times per day, along with the billions of pious petitioners in Islam (who recite their prayers five times per day) and Christianity? Would Deity want to?
As far as I can determine in Jewish history, the mitzvah (commandment) to say prayers (as a substitute for animal and gain sacrifices) is in the recitation, NOT the communication or intention. What I mean by that is the commandment is to fabricate the words on the lips. Yes, just say them. It’s not essential to think of the meaning with each and every recitation. Sixteenth century scholar Moses Isserles battled with this problem and recognized that a pious Jew is not compelled to recite even the most sacred parts of the liturgy with kavanah, intention. It’s just a psychological impossibility.
And that makes sense. You’d go crazy trying to think of everything you pray when you do it over and over and over and over. Yes, in can become an Orthodoxy in its own right, but is is more a discipline than a one-to-one communication with God.
I like praying in the synagogue not because I believe God is listening to me. Surely, He/She isn’t. I do it to link myself with other Jews throughout the ages who are reciting the same prayers. It unifies us as a people in time and geography.
Is it boring? It certainly can be. But how bad is that when compared with the reward of of bonding with fellow Jews?
Roger Herst is an ordained reform rabbi and the author of nine books, most recently his Rabbi Gabrielle series of thrillers, published by Diversion Books. He lives in the Washington, DC area with his physician wife.