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.

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9 Responses to “Repetition in Prayer”

  1. avatar

    אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוון ליבו לשמים

  2. avatar

    I’m afraid this piece hinges on some very bad (read: Kaplanian) theology. If God isn’t listening, then there is no point to Judaism or any other theistic religion. The moment we cease to believe that our prayers are heard is the moment we cease to be practicing normative Judaism.

    Endless, mindless, anti-intellectual mouthing of syllables which are meaningless to most Jews is not prayer or worship. It’s really almost blasphemous! The school of thought in liberal Judaism which this essay represents is a stark departure from the entire spirit and thrust of 5,000 years of Jewish Tradition and history, which is to live in Covenantal relationship with a living, loving, LISTENING God.

    Let’s say, hypothetically, that the “listening” God of classical Judaic Monotheism doesn’t actually exist. Then, prayers only mean something if they have a psychological effect on us. This can only happen if we comprehend them and intend them. The vaguely meaningful feeling we get by being linked to our fellow Jews across time and space by uttering the same phonetic sounds is quite powerful and overwhelming at times, but it is not “prayer” according to any traditional understanding. So, even if you have a naturalistic concept of God, you are not fulfilling any mitzvah by merely mouthing empty words. The words are not sacred in themselves–we confer sanctity on them by uttering them reverently and intentionally, and by living to what they demand.

    • avatar

      Very thoughful and well argued. But, I fear, the requirement of thinking about every word and directing each symable to God, is just unrealistic. I know many pious worshipers and they would like to believe their words are heard, but the manner of their rapid-fire recitation belies that. In theory it should be as written, but the practice falls far short. Perhaps the gap is caused by philosophic differences in what we humans perceive when we say “hearing.” Does God hear like hmans, with some super organ like an ear? Or are we speaking about this process metaphorically? Jews speak to God very personally,but do the majority believe that this God attends to their words? If it were true, I dare say we would have many more pious Jews than we do.

      Even if God doesn’t hear (cr by nature CAN’T hear) there can still be a profoundly personal value in prayer.

      • avatar

        Thanks for your reply, Dr. Herst!

        I think it should be axiomatic and uncontroversial that when any modern, non-fundamentalist monotheist speaks of God “hearing”, they don’t mean in the literal, physical, anthropomorphic sense. Too many people think that believing in a “personal” God means believing in an anthropomorphic God, and therefore reject the entire paradigm. In fact, conceiving of God physically and anthropomorphically is considered heresy in many monotheistic traditions, including much of normative Judaism. We are to conceive of Biblical depictions of anthropomorphic immanence as allegory and metaphor for spiritual immanence.

        I agree with you that a stringent requirement of “thinking about every word and directing each syllable to God” is unrealistic, but I am adamant that it should be an end that we strive for. Anything less than this might be a deeply spiritual and valid Jewish practice (perhaps a form of meditation), but I wouldn’t call it prayer since it’s not communication with God. The unpopular and uncomfortable implication of this is that nontheists or even those with a Spinozan or Kaplanian theology can’t actually engage in “prayer” as understood by the three major monotheistic religions. I have to agree with that.

        There is no question that a majority of non-orthodox Jews fall into this strange category, despite the fact that they may keep kosher or wear tefillin. The solution is not to lower the bar to make normative thinking “kosher”, but rather to encourage exploration of traditional claims and finding ways to frame them liberally. Look at Classical Reform–it hardly gets more liberal or intellectual than that, but they never lost their grip on classical theism!

        We can’t change our concept of prayer to accommodate what people are doing INSTEAD of praying. Such vocabulary should be prescriptive rather than merely descriptive. Perhaps if people were encouraged to wrestle with the liturgical texts in the vernacular rather than being given license to go on “auto-pilot”, they would be challenged to absorb some of the wisdom and message of the Siddur. To borrow from another tradition–“Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” What people pray, people believe, and what people believe, they live out.

  3. avatar

    But on the other hand, the rabbis teach in (for example) B’rachot 29b that one who makes his prayer a fixed task has not prayed at all. What does it mean to make it a “fixed task”?

    “R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him. The Rabbis say: Whoever does not say it in the manner of supplication. Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it. R. Zera said: I can insert something fresh, but I am afraid to do so for fear I should become confused.” (Soncino translation)

    I think Chazal are telling us: don’t phone it in; make it relevant and personal and really mean what you say. I’d rather say less and mean it than make my prayer a fixed, and ultimately pointless, task. (That said, I’d also rather that we not jettison so much of the traditional content from our services; there’s beauty and inspiration there.)

  4. avatar

    I’m reminded here of the 20th-century American Catholic author Flannery O’Conner, who said of the sacrament of the eucharist that if it’s only a symbol then forget about it.

    The rabbi here does not even attempt to suggest the physiological inflection of the body in prayer: the changes that take place as we move into a meditative state of prayer practice. For a non-theistic approach to prayer, this at least might justify why one prays.

    To state that “God” – whatever our concept of “the Deity” – isn’t “listening” (however metaphorically we understand that), that we pray out of custom and as part of the community of Jews removed from time and space constraints gives me no reason to wish to pray. I might as well do laundry to connect myself with all the people throughout history who have ever done laundry.

    “Listening” doesn’t need to be literal and there as many images of God as there are those who utter prayer. But without some sense of Essence why would anyone bother?

  5. avatar

    I think the responses here have been rather judgmental. If Rabbi Herst (or any Jew, for that matter) finds prayer as purely ritualistic practice either meaningful or efficacious (or both) who are any of us to criticize or denigrate that practice? Quite frankly, I have known a great many Jews (and people of other faith traditions) who do find meaning and comfort in ritualized prayer without constant focus on intent or meaning.

  6. avatar

    I am not even a Jew (yet!)but I think I have a handle on this. How that is possible says something! It is why I turned to Judaism. We worship and praise G-d, He doesn’t worship or praise us. This is our obligation, not our chance to be heard or get our wishes granted. As I understand it, we aren’t to ask Him for anything. We are to give, not receive. Am I missing something or have you all become moe like Christians?

    • avatar

      Call me a mystic, but just as I seek to praise God in all of Creation, I also see a world in which all of Creation calls out to me. And what is that if not prayer?

      I am much more uncomfortable with the idea that prayer is obligation (the worst way of understanding mitzvot) than that in the very act of living joyously we are choosing to say yes and thus making our lives a prayer. And I pray formal prayers and I also consider my walks and quiet times, and my writing a form of prayer.

      There is nothing wrong with petitionary prayer (‘asking for something’), but to understand every desire we have to be a prayer of sorts would make me more comfortable. We are always in union/communion with the indwelling presence of God. How sad it would be not to cry out to the God we feel detached from when we suffer, how very inhuman it would seem to suggest that in our vulnerability we wouldn’t do so.

      Phyllis, your last statement troubles me, about becoming ‘more like Christians.’ There is a wide variety of prayer practice and views of God among Christians like any other religion. There are Jews who understand a personal God and Christians who are surprisingly non-theistic.

      All the best to you, Phyllis, as you seek meaning in Jewish spirituality.

      I must say, that for me, something a repeated mantra of “thank you” is the only prayer I can utter.

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