General
Specific

Prayer - General

Question: I was wondering if women have to say daily prayers and which ones they have to say if they do. I would also like to know that if they do have to say certain prayers; at what age do they begin? I am asking because I am 13 but not really religious but I say the Shema, and food prayers and I wanted to know if I have to say anything else.

Answer:  You did not specify whether you wanted a response from an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform point of view.

Within the Reform movement, I don’t know what kind of obligation you would have to say prayers.  From the Orthodox point of view, you are not obligated to perform positive mitzvot (Those that tell you to do something) that are limited by time (such as prayer at specific times of the day); but you would be obligated to say prayers over food.

From my point of view as a Conservative Rabbi, I believe that after one has passed the age of Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah (for boys, 13, and for girls, 12) one is obligated to perform all mitzvot; and I also consider that men and women are equally obligated in mitzvot.

A Jew’s basic prayer obligation is to say the Shema (and its blessings) twice a day; pray the Amidah three times a day; and say blessings before and after eating.  There are other opportunities during the day to recite other prayers and blessings, but these are the most basic.  A traditional Siddur, such as Sim Shalom, will contain all of this.


Question: Since outer space travel is thought of as a very real possibility for the not so near future, I have a question. When a Jew is up in space, where shall he/she face when davening ? Since you can see the entire Earth from up there... how could you face East?

 

Answer:  When we pray, we are supposed to face Jerusalem.  Jews in this country face East, because Israel is to our East.  However, Jews in Australia would face West; and Jews in South Africa face North.

Therefore, Jews in space would face “down” towards Earth and Jerusalem!


Question: I am writing a paper for my study of religions class.  I was wondering what day of the week you worship in the temple, and if you could give a brief overview of what is done.

 

Answer:  I make it a practice not to answer questions for college students writing papers, but instead to steer you to the library to do some research on your own.  I will tell you that the main Sabbath service is on Saturday morning (or sometimes Friday night in Reform synagogues).

Jewish Worship, Rabbi Jacob Milgram

Jewish Liturgy, Ismar Elbogen, translated by Raymond Scheindlin

To Pray as a Jew, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin

Service of the Heart, Evelyn Garfiel


Question: Since I do not speak or understand Hebrew fluently, will my prayers to Hashem be recognized fully.  I know hashem knows all but I ask this question to know if my non Hebrew words will be effective.  I always start my prayers with Barukh atah Adonai Elohenu melekh ha-olam and then the rest of what I want to say in English.

 

Answer:  First of all, there is no question that God certainly understands all languages.  Your prayers will be as effective in English (or Spanish, French, German, Italian, Arabic, Amharic, Chinese, Russian, Portugese, etc.) as in Hebrew.

However, I want to encourage you to take the time to learn some Hebrew.  For over 3000 years, Hebrew has been the language of Jews.  Our Siddur and most of our classical sacred literature is written in Hebrew.  It is the international language of the Jews, as well as the predominant language of the State of Israel.  If you understand Hebrew, you can walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world, and follow along with the service.  If you understand some Hebrew, you can read and study Torah, Tanakh, Midrash, and Mishnah in the original language.  It is truly a beautiful and fascinating language.


Question: I have a really important question. I went to day school since I was a kid, and my teacher once told me that all children’s prayers are carried up to G-d by m’lakhim (angels, I guess) right away.  Now that I’m 14 does this still apply, and did it ever? And are you allowed to talk after saying Shema at night?  Because I was told you weren’t. I always feel safe knowing that G-d is listening to my prayers, but, because I’m not as religious as a lot of other people does that mean my prayers are less important?

 

Answer:  I believe that God hears the prayers of everybody, young and old alike.  There may be a statement somewhere in the Talmud (the Talmud says a LOT of different things) that prayers are carried up to God by angels, but there are certainly many other indications that God hears prayers directly.  All prayers are important, and your prayers are no less important or urgent even though you are not as “religious” as some other people.

There is a halakha (Jewish law) that one should not speak after reciting the bedtime Shema, because the last thing on your mind before you go to bed should be God.  You might want to delay reciting the bedtime shema until right before you are ready to go to sleep.  However, in my opinion, the halakha not to speak following the shema is not as critically important as mitzvot like giving tzedakah or keeping kosher.  So if you do talk after the shema, I wouldn’t worry about it.


Question: What is the origin of physically swaying forward and backward during the act of praying?

 

Answer:  The term for that kind of swaying back and forth is “shuckeling.”  It is based on a verse from Psalms 35:10, “All of my bones shall say, “Adonai, who is like you, you save the poor from those more powerful, the poor and the destitute from those who would rob them.”  The idea that all of one’s bones, one’s whole body, should be involved in praising God led to the custom of moving one’s whole body back and forth during prayer.  It is a custom most visible in Orthodox communities.  Some non-Orthodox Jews shuckel, but it is a learned kind of behavior that one would not do unless one spent time in an environment where it is done.  I myself shuckel, though not with the wild movements that you might see in Yeshiva dovening.  I find that it helps my concentration, a kind of meditative action to aid my prayer.


Question: My 11 year old daughter has informed me that the chorus at her public elementary school is singing the Hashivenu in Hebrew for the spring concert. I am not sure since the name of Adonai is used if this is even proper. My daughter is the only Jew that I know of. My feeling is that this is sacred and I am uneasy that something from the liturgy is used in a public concert by non Jews. I wasn’t sure if it was acceptable.  The principal of our religious school said that they have to substitute Ha-Shem.  Is there a problem here?

 

Answer:  My gut reaction is that there is not necessarily a problem for either Jews or non-Jews to use the name of God in the course of a musical program.  However, in the context of the Hashiveinu prayer there would be a problem for your daughter, although not for the non-Jews in the choir.  The problem is that if your daughter is saying that particular berakha at an inappropriate time and context (i.e., not in the context of an evening service around the recitation of the Shema), she would be saying a berakha l’vatala, a blessing in vain, a violation of the third commandment.  However, I do not believe that halakha would consider non-Jews to be bound by this prohibition to the same level as Jews, so reciting a Jewish berakha would probably not be a serious problem.

However, it would be impossible for your daughter to substitute the word Hashem for the name Adonai unless the entire choir was doing the same.  Therefore, I would agree with the principal of your school, and suggest that the choir substitute the word Hashem for Adonai.


Question: In Jewish prayer, exists two forms of prayer, Bakasha and Hodaha.  Can you tell me how to have authentic prayer with both of these types of prayer?

 

Answer:  In our liturgy, the Amidah is the prayer par excellance.  The weekday Amidah is the best example of a blending of three types of prayer:  praise, bakashah (requests), and Hoda’ah (thankfulness).

The Amidah begins with a blessing reminding God of who we are - the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob [Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah].  The next blessing praises God for God’s mighty deeds - sustaining the living and giving life to the dead; supporting the falling, healing the sick, freeing the imprisoned.  The third berachah (blessing), the kedushah (holiness) speaks of God’s absolute holiness, distinctness from human beings.

In the fourth through the 16 berachot, we ask for various bakashot (requests):  intelligence, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, healing, abundance, freedom, justice, protection from enemies, protection for the righteous, return to Jerusalem, the coming of the Messianic era, compassion and attention.

Finally, the last section contains hoda’ah, thanking God for listening to our prayer as well as for the gifts which God has given us.  Actually, of the three berachot in this section, only one of them is technically hoda’ah.  The first asks God to accept our prayer as offered, in place of the sacrifices that we used to offer; the second is a beracha of thanksgiving; and the third is a prayer for peace.

All this aside, authentic prayer is whatever words are formed by your heart, mind, and lips.  Any praise you give to God, any request you make of God, and any thanks you give to God are authentic.  The words in the Siddur are only our starting point - prayer should go beyond the printed word.  I can suggest, however, that you take the model of the Amidah of beginning with praise, continuing with bakashot, and concluding with hoda’ah, as the most appropriate form of prayer.


Question:

1.  Is it appropriate to go to the gym, or exercise PRIOR to reciting morning prayers?

2. What is the latest time one should recite shaharit?

 

Answer:  I know of no reason why exercising per se prior to praying would be a problem, except that according to the Shulhan Arukh, one should not eat or even drink anything but water (or other weak beverages) before prayer, because one should give proper thanks to God before enjoying the benefits of God’s world.  Since it might be difficult to do strenuous physical activity on an empty stomach, then one might be required to eat and/or drink in order to exercise.  The Shulhan Arukh does permit eating and drinking if one’s hunger or thirst prevent one from proper kavanah (intention) during prayer [Orah Hayyim, 89:3-4], but this leniency was not meant to allow people to go to the gym if that would also make them more likely to need to eat and drink.  If this is the case for you, that you need to eat and drink before exercising, then perhaps you ought to delay going to the gym.

On the other hand, according to Maimonides, one may eat and drink before prayer.  In this case, going to the gym should cause no problem whatsoever.

The latest time one should recite the shema is the end of the third hour of the day (equal to 1/4 of the time between sunrise and sunset).  The latest time one should recite the amidah is the end of the fourth hour (equal to 1/3 of the time between sunrise and sunset).


Question: In your clarification of heaven and hell you speak of a waiting place is technically hell, right?  Well my Christian friend is contradicting me here he is saying that you can never join God in heaven if you are still stained with sins and considering that we Jews only shed our sins once a year on Yom Kippur how are we supposed to join god in heaven?  In this waiting place are your sins purged?  Can you please give me exact verses in the old testament where I can prove him wrong?

 

Answer:  Some Christian believe that one may not go into heaven without accepting Jesus as one’s savior, because they understand the Hebrew Bible to imply that one may not cleanse oneself from sin without a sacrifice.  This is a misreading of the Hebrew Bible.  The best example:

Hosea 14:2-3, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.  Take with you words and return to the Lord.  Say:  You shall forgive all iniquity and teach us the good way, and let us render for bulls the offerings of our lips.”

--words (prayer) replaces bulls (sacrifices)

The picture of heaven and hell that I have written about do not come from the Bible.  The concepts of Heaven and Hell did not exist during the Bible period.  They were developed later.  Jewish concepts of heaven and hell can be found in Rabbinic literature, such as the Talmud.


Question: You said that Jews believe that anyone can pray to God. How is that accomplished since the only way to get into the presense of God is done by the high priest only (once a year) and only by the shedding of blood which I hear is not done anymore.

 

Answer:  Models of prayer are found throughout the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) - Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Moses . . . they all prayed directly to God.  In Biblical times, prayer was often accompanied by some kind of offering or sacrifice, but there are numerous Biblical models of human beings speaking to God without involving the shedding of blood.

The once-a-year sacrificial ritual of the high priest is not a prayer ritual, but rather an atonement ritual.  Realize, however, that atonement and forgiveness are not solely dependant on sacrifice - when the Temple was destroyed, prayer replaced sacrifice.  We believe that God desires and commands numerous other means of atonement aside from the shedding of blood.

First of all, sacrifice (according to Leviticus 4:1-2 - “When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of Adonai’s commandments ...“) only could potentially cleanse from unintentional sins, so sacrifice in and of itself is insufficient.  This process of replacing sacrifice had already begun to happen in Biblical times.

*Prayer and righteous acts preferable to sacrifice:*

Psalms 40:7 - “Sacrifices and offerings You did not desire, but my ears you have opened for me.  Burnt offerings and sin offerings You have not required.”

*Repentance as a means of atonement*

II Samuel 12:13 - “So David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against Adonai.’  And Nathan said to David, ‘Adonai has already forgiven your sin; you shall not die.’ “

(David atoned through his confessional prayer)

see also Psalms 51:16-19

*Obedience obviates the need for sacrifices*

I Samuel 15:22 - “Samuel said, ‘Has Adonai as much desire in burnt offerings and peace offerings, as in obeying the voice of Adonai?  Behold, to obey is better than a peace offering; to hearken is better than the fat of rams.’ “

see also Micah 6:6-8

*Prayer replaces sacrifice*

Hosea 14:2-3 - “Return, O Israel, to Adonai your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.  Take with you words and return to Adonai.  Say:  You shall forgive all iniquity and teach us the good way, and let us render for bulls the offering of our lips.” see also I Kings 8:46-50, in which King Solomon predicts a time when Jews will be in exile without a Temple sacrificial system, and God will hear prayers and forgive sins.

*Tzedakah - Charity is preferable to sacrifice* Proverbs 21:3 - “Performing charity and justice is preferred by God to a sacrifice.”

Hoseah 6:6 - “For I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifices, and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”

see also Proverbs 10:2, 11:4, 16:6, and Daniel 4:24 (verse 27 in a Christian Bible)


Question: I’m interested in “Jewish meditation”.  i know that it is part of our tradition, and is still used in chassidic movements.  how do i learn more without getting involved with the fringe Orthodox?

 

Answer:  I can recommend some books on Jewish meditation, but the best way to learn would be to contact your local Conservative (or Reform) synagogues, and see if any of them have - or are willing to start - a Jewish meditation group.

There is a book called Jewish Meditation, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, which might be a good starting point for you.

I also recommend contacting Jewish Lights Publishing, which has published a number of books on the subject, including a book entitled Minding the Temple of the Soul, by Tamar Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld, a book of diagrammed physical meditative exercises using various pieces of Jewish liturgy.  They can be reached at:

Jewish Lights Publishing
P.O. Box 237
Sunset Farms Offices
Route 4
Woodstock, Vermont 05091

800-962-4544

www.jewishlights.com

I hope these resources help.


Question: Does the Jewish religion believe that prayer and faith helps the healing process?  Why or why not?

 

Answer:  Judaism believes that prayer can be effective, and special prayers for healing are part of most synagogue services.  If God created us and gave us life, then God can certainly help along the healing process for one who is sick.  To some extent, this is a matter of faith.  However, there have been several medical studies proving that prayer has a positive effect on healing.  Others studies have shown that people who are active participants in a faith community tend to live longer, healthier lives.  Also keep in mind that Jews believe that human beings have an obligation to heal, partially based on the Scriptural command (Leviticus 19:16), “Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother.”  In a sense, we are partners with God in the healing process.


Question: I participate in a small congregation here on line where prayers for ill are recited nightly.  Could you please forward any suggestions I could introduce to the participants, like meditations, Psalms, or prayers that soothe and heal.  any suggestions, would be greatly appreciated.  Our services last for an hour, but I always like to introduce new verses, and psalms. I refer to the Siddur as my guide.

 

Answer:  The National Center for Jewish Healing has a number of resources that will help.  First, they have a quarterly newsletter which has some good ideas and readings for healing services.  Second, they have some publications that might be of interest.

They have a booklet entitled, “When the Body Hurts, The Soul Still Longs to Sing,” as well as a publication called, “A Leader’s Guide to Services and Prayers of Healing.”  Both contain some good suggestions for the type of service in which you are involved.  They also publish (along with Jewish lights publishing, see below) Healing of Soul, Healing of Body, edited by Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, a book containing 10 Psalms of healing (16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150) along with explanations and meditations.  They can be reached at:

The National Center for Jewish Healing

9 East 69th Street
New York, NY  10021
212-772-6601

Jewish Lights Publishing has some interesting resources as well.  The newest book, which I have just begun to peruse, is:

Minding the Temple of the Soul, by Tamar Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld, is a book of diagrammed physical meditative exercises using various pieces of Jewish liturgy.

They can be reached at:

Jewish Lights Publishing
P.O. Box 237
Sunset Farms Offices
Route 4
Woodstock, Vermont 05091

800-962-4544

www.jewishlights.com

I hope these resources help.


Question: I have a daughter who was diagnosed with leukemia three weeks ago. Could you suggest prayers I can say every day for her recovery.

 

Answer:  I am so sorry to hear of your daughter’s illness.  There is a prayer found in traditional Siddurim called a “Mi Sheberakh,” which is a traditional prayer for healing.  Also in the Siddur, look at the Amidah at the blessing which begins, “Heal us, Adonai . . . “ and the hashkiveinu blessing after the Shema in the evening service.  You might also look at Psalms 27, 30, and 121.

May God grant her a refuah sheleima, a complete recovery.


Question: I read recently in "The New Jewish Baby Book", by Anita Diamant, that "there is a formal set of payers said during pregnancy by traditional Jews during the daily prayer service".  I own both the Artscroll siddur and Siddur Sim Shalom and I am unable to find these prayers.  Can you please tell me about these prayers and where I can find them?  I would like to include them in my daily shaharit service.

 

Answer:  B’sha’ah Tova (May the birth happen at a propitious moment) on your wife’s pregnancy!  The footnote in the New Jewish Baby Book, Anita Diamant, points to a book by Rabbi David Simcha Rosenthal, “A Joyful Mother of Children.”  I am unfamiliar with the book, but I would imagine that there are pregnancy prayers in it.  The only source I could find is a book called Lifecycles, Edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein.  In it are a few appropriate prayers.   The problem is that while the prayers are “out there,” they are almost exclusively of the genre of “Techines,” Yiddish folk prayers.  It is very difficult to find them in translation.


Question: I read in the Jewish Week that the Vatican, as part of an interfaith council, was requesting that Jews remove anti-Christian references from  our liturgy.  I have never seen any such anti-Christian elements. Can you tell me if there are such things, or to what they may be referring?

 

Answer:  I am unaware of any anti-Christian references in the liturgy.  I had also never heard of this request of the Vatican -- but I would be interested in seeing them point to some anti-Christian liturgy.

There is some anti-Christian material in the Talmud, written at times when Christian persecution of Jews was quite harsh.  However, asking for that to be removed is like asking for the Nuremburg laws to be rewritten, removing references to Jews.  Both are historical documents which need to be read and understood in the proper context.


Question: Why are the 10 commandments no longer accepted as part of the daily liturgy?

 

Answer:  According to the Mishnah, Tamid 5:1, the morning service recited by the Temple Priests included the recitation of the 10 commandments before the Shema.  According to the Talmud, Berachot 12a, this was discontinued in the early days of Christianity for polemical reasons, because the early Christians were claiming that the 10 commandments were the ONLY part of the Torah that was revealed by God.  Thus, in order to emphasize that the 10 commandments are no more important than any of the other mitzvot in the Torah, the early rabbis took them out of the liturgy.


Question: On Friday evenings we say “brachot” for the wine and for the bread.  Since we are only two plus a baby and the glass of wine for the “bracha” is full, my husband usually poors back the rest of unused wine into the bottle.  Is that allowed?

 

Answer:  It is not a stupid question -- it is actually a very insightful question.  The main issue is that one may not say a blessing on the same cup of wine twice -- the second time would be a berakha l’vatalah, a blessing in vain.  That is why, for example, at a Jewish wedding ceremony there are two cups of wine under the hupah; one for each of the two berakhot.

However, as long as there is wine remaining in the bottle in addition to the wine in your cup, after you pour back the unused wine it becomes mixed with other wine upon which you have not yet said a berakha.  The next time you use that bottle, you pour out a mixture of “new” wine and “used” wine, but since there is some new wine in the cup, you may recite the berakha again without fear of a berakha l’vatalah.

Therefore, as long as you do not pour out the entire bottle into your wine cup to say the berakha, there is nothing wrong with your current practice (if you do empty the bottle into the cup say a berakha, and then pour the remainder back into the bottle, then obviously the entire quantity you pour back has already had a berakha said over it, and you should not say another berakha over it).

Prayer - Specific

Question: What is the meaning of Yitzchak’s blessing to Ya’akov "may God give you the dew of the heavens."  According to the Talmud, God cannot withdraw dew since the world cannot subsist without it (ta’anit) also according to the BRITANNICA dew has no utility and creates fungus which is harmful to plants?

Answer:  First thing -- it is often best not to trust Talmudic science or biology.  They are often wrong.  I'd go with Britannica on the utility of dew from a scientific point of view.

Dew, in Jewish thought, represents an intangible form of moisture during a dry season.  We pray that the crops will get enough moisture throught the air and the ground to sustain life.  Certainly, God being all-powerful, could withdraw dew from the world.  Apparently, according to Ta'anit, God would not do so for it would cause the destruction of the world.

According to the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, Yitzchak's blessing to Ya'akov "May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth" is a metaphor for abundance, reinvigoration, and God's beneficence.


Question: In the Amidah we pray for dew and rain from Dec. 4th to Passover as noted in Conservative prayer books. Since Judaism uses a lunar calendar how do they justify the use of a rigid date such as Dec. 4th as the time to pray for dew and rain. Why not Nov. 10th?  Is the date arbitrary?

 

Answer:  You correctly point out that the Hebrew calendar is generally a lunar/solar calendar, and thus fixing the beginning of the prayer for rain on December fourth or fifth is on its surface, puzzling.

To add to the puzzle, in Israel the liturgical change is made on the first of the month of Heshvan, shortly after the conclusion of Sukkot.  It is only in the diaspora, outside of Israel, that the liturgical change is fixed solely according to the solar calendar, on December 4 or 5.

The determination of which day to begin the prayer for rain was calculated according to the expected beginning of the rainy season.  Since the rainy season in Israel begins right after Sukkot, the liturgical change was made at that time.  Outside of Israel, however, the main Jewish community during the Talmudic era lived in Babylonia.  Their rainy season began 60 days after the start of the vernal equinox, and thus it was ruled that the liturgical change should begin from that day.

According to our calendar the 60th day following the equinox falls on November 20 or 21, depending on whether fall begins on September 20 or 21.  This still leaves us 13 days away from December 4/5.  The final piece of the puzzle comes from the fact that the Jewish calendar never made the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar!  In 1582 Pope Gregory decreed that 10 days should be dropped from the Julian calendar (the day after October 5 was October 15) to adjust the calendar.  This calendar became known as the Gregorian calendar, changing the way in which leap years were calculated every four years, to account for the inaccuracy of the Julian calendar.  From then on, on centennial year ending with -00, the calendar would only add leap years on centennial years divisible by 400 (such as 1600 and 2000), but not on centennial years indivisible by 400 (1700, 1800, and 1900).  Today, the two calendars differ by 13 days.  If you subtract 13 days from December 4/5, you arrive at November 20/21, 60 days after the vernal equinox according to the old Julian calendar.


Question: On a fairly regular basis one or two people enter the sanctuary during the silent reading of the Amidah.  Their regular seats are in the row in which I typically have a seat on the aisle, and while I am standing in prayer, they want to pass to their seats.  I find this very distracting from my prayers, but not wishing to embarrass them, I move and let them in.  Do you think my complaint is valid, and if so, what should one do or say in my position?  Or is this a matter for our ushers who might suggest that they wait at the back of the room?

 

Answer:  The amidah is the central prayer of our services.  We pray the amidah as if we were standing in the very presence of God.

Before beginning the amidah, one takes three short steps forward, representing a movement out of the world of humanity into the majestic presence of God.  While in God’s presence, one should speak to God with total kavanah - concentration and devotion.  It is disrespectful to God, for example, to interrupt prayer to speak with other people.  The traditional posture of prayer during the amidah is standing straight, with one’s feet together.  In past years, this was the traditional posture for appearing before a sovereign.  It is also the mystical posture of the angels in God’s heavenly court.  Shifting one feet and moving around is also disrespectful to the way one should behave in God’s presence.

You are correct that you should not be asked to move from your position while praying the amidah, even to allow people to move past you to their seats. [See the Halacha of the Month for details on concentration and devotion while praying the amidah.]

Therefore, when you are praying the amidah, you should not move to allow others to pass by you to their seats.  I suggest three approaches to your dilemma:

First, you could stand in the aisle just in front of your row during the amidah, so that someone could walk behind you into the pew.

Second, the next time this happens, following services you should gently tell the person who is asking you to move that it is your tradition not to move during the amidah, because it interrupts your concentration and your conversation with God.

Finally, you should ask the ushers to request that people wait in the back of the sanctuary during the amidah and the kedusha, and take their seats only after people are finished praying.


Question: What are the appropriate times for bowing during the recitation of the Amidah? I've noticed some people bowing three times at the end (first left, then right, then foward) and have just read that we bow twice at the beginning during the first blessing of Abraham. Also, what is the significance of stepping foward and backward at certain times? I was raised in a non-observant family and now am trying to discover these things as an adult.

 

Answer:  Before beginning the Amidah, it is traditional to take three steps forward.  When one prays the Amidah, it is as if one is in the presence of God, speaking face to face.  Taking steps forwards represents leaving the normal world in which we live and walking into the presence of God.  The roots of this practice go back to Roman times.  When entering the presence of the Emperor, it was customary to take three ritual steps forward and bow.

It is customary to bow both at the beginning and the end of the first berakha of the Amidah, by bending your knees at Barukh, bowing at the waist at ata, and straightening up at Adonai.

At the words Modim anahnu lakh near the end of the Amidah it is customary to bow at the waist, and at the end of that berakha it is customary to bow at the Barukh ata Adonai in the same way as at the beginning of the Amidah.

At then end of the Amidah, it is customary to take three steps backwards, leaving the presence of God, bow left, right, and straight ahead, and then take three steps forwards, returning to "normal space."  Again, this is based on a Roman custom on the proper way to take leave of the Emperor.


Question: Does a congregation say the Amidah during Shabbat services on Friday night if there is not a minyan?

 

Answer:  The amidah is indeed recited without a minyan, not only on Friday nights, but on Shabbat mornings or weekday minyanim.  In fact, since we are obligated to pray three times a day, and this obligation applies even if we are alone, we would still recite the amidah if we were praying by ourselves.

However, the "out loud" recitation of the first three berachot of the amidah or the leader's complete repetition of the amidah is only done with a minyan.  In addition, the part of the amidah known as the "kedusha," which is not recited during one's private, silent recitation of the amidah, is only done with a minyan, and only during the leader's "out loud" recitation or repetition of the Amidah.  If there is no minyan on a weekday or Shabbat morning or afternoon, the amidah would be done silently only, with no kedusha.

On Friday nights, however, there is never a repetition of the amidah - it is always done without the kedusha, silently.  Therefore, if there were no minyan for that service, the amidah would be said exactly the same way as if there were a minyan.


Question: I am becoming a Bat Mitzvah as an adult, my part of the service is to read the Sh'ma.  I need a simple explanation of the history and why we say it.

 

Answer:  The Shema consists of three passages from Deuteronomy and Numbers.  As far back as our sources go, the three paragraphs were always recited as a single unit.

The simplest explanation of the reason we recite the Shema twice a day is that the first two passages explicitly tell us, "You shall recite them . . . morning and night."

There is, however, a deeper theological reason that the Shema has taken its place as a central unit of our weekday and Shabbat prayers.  The Shema begins with a declaration of faith, an expression of the community's attachment to and wholehearted love for the one God. The second paragraph repeats these themes, and adds themes of reward and punishment as they were understood in the Biblical period.  I understand this paragraph to be teaching us that the way we behave can have a real impact on the quality of life on Earth.  This can be taken as an environmental message - i.e., if we sin by wasting natural resources, we will ruin the fertility of the world; or as a social message - i.e., if we sin by mistreating others, we will degrade the quality of the community in which we live.  The third paragraph builds on the mitzvah of Tefillin (and Mezzuzah) that were found in the first two paragraphs, and introduces the mitzvah of tzitzit.

For more information, see "Jewish Prayer," by Reuven Hammer; "To Pray as a Jew," by Hayyim Halevy Donin; "Jewish Liturgy," by Ismar Elbogen (translated by Ray Scheindlin); or "Jewish Worship," by Abraham Millgram.


Question: Why don’t we stand when we say the Shema?  What is the Hatzi Kaddish, how does it relate to the Kaddish?

 

Answer:  There is a discussion in the Talmud regarding the proper way to recite the Shema.  One opinion is that we should stand for the morning shema, because we are supposed to recite it "when we get up"  A second opinion is that we should recite it as we are - either sitting or standing, but we should not change our position.  For the most part, this second opinion has been accepted as halacha.  However, the standing vs. sitting debate has been an ongoing, 2000 year discussion.  Some of the ancient Jewish communities apparently used to stand for the Shema, while others did not.

The Shema is the most important theological statement of Judaism, and as such requires the highest level of kavanah (concentration and intention).  Since changing position is a distraction to one's concentration, I stand by the accepted halacha of not standing for the Shema.

There are five versions of the Kaddish.

The chatzi Kaddish, consists only of the two paragraphs beginning yitgadal and yitbarach.  The Kaddish shalem, or full Kaddish, has three additional lines after the two main paragraphs - titkabel, y'he sh'lama, and oseh shalom.  The mourner's kaddish is the same as the Kaddish shalem, omitting titkabel.  The Kaddish D'rabbanan substitutes a longer paragraph for titkabel, containing a prayer for the support of scholars.  The Kaddish D'itchad'ta, or burial Kaddish has an extended first paragraph, praying for the soul of the deceased in the world to come, and concludes like the mourner's Kaddish.

Since there are many different prayer books, I cannot answer your last question unless you are more specific about which edition of the Siddur you are using, and which page or which prayer you are questioning.


Question: my father passed away three weeks ago. I am now in the sheloshim period. my father, alav ha-shalom was orthodox.  I go to shul every morning to recite the Kaddish.  When there is no minyan do I say the kaddish silently to myself or eliminate it entirely?

 

Answer:  Kaddish is only recited in a minyan.  If there is no minyan, it is eliminated entirely.

You may choose, however, to substitute a Psalm, and recite that by yourself on those days when there is no Minyan.  Psalm 49 or 16 are appropriate, though you may wish to browse the book of Psalms and choose another one that has particular meaning for your and your father, alav Hashalom.


Question: What is the Blessing of the Sun?

 

Answer:  The Blessing of the sun is based on a passage from the Talmud Berakhot 59b, which asserts that every 28 years, the sun, moon, and stars are at the same relative positions as they were at the time of creation.

According to Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, every 28 years at the vernal equinox, the sun begins a new cycle.  When this cycle begins, the equinox occurs early Tuesday night.  On the following day, the first Wednesday, in the morning upon seeing the sun, a blessing (acknowledging God as the one who "did the work of creation") is said.  Some services also include Psalm 148 before the blessing, and Psalm 19 afterwards, as well as a few other standard prayers.

According to Albert Speir, The Comprehensive Jewish Calendar, the last two times this occurred were April 8, 1981 and April 8, 2009.


Question: For what reason is it tradition that one does not speak between washing hands and saying the berakhah before a meal?

 

Answer:  As a general principle, we should not speak between reciting a berakha and doing the action associated with that berakha, for the interruption would be a berakha levatalah, a blessing in vain, a violation of the second commandment against taking God’s name in vain.  Since netilat yadayim is done for the purpose of saying hamotzi, the two berakhot together form a unit, and any interruption between them would be a berakha levatalah.


Question: What is the history and the origin of exchanging the blessing, “be strong, be strong, etc.” after completing the reading of a book of Torah?


Answer:  According to Otzer Dinim U'minhagim (A Digest of Jewish Laws and Customs), by J. D. Eisenstein, the custom of concluding the reading of a book of Torah with the phrase Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek originated in the Provence region of Southern France.

It is first mentioned by Rabbi Aharon Hakohen of Lunel, author of a work called Orchot Chaim, and quoted by Rabbi Joseph Cairo in his commentary to the Tur Shulchan Aruch.  Rabbi Aharon lived in Provence at the end of the 12th/beginning of the 13th century.

According to Rabbi Aharon (This is a paraphrase, not an exact quote):  The custom to conclude a reading from the Torah with the phrase hazak ve'ematz is based on an interpretation of Joshua 1:7-8, "But you must be very strong (hazak) and resolute (ve'ematz) to observe faithfully all of the Teaching that My servant Moses enjoined up on you. . . .  Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it."  When God charged Joshua with the word hazak, he must have actually been holding onto the Torah scroll, as indicated by the word this.  Therefore, when the reader finishes reading Torah, the congregation wishes him hazak ve'ematz to symbolize the hope that the words he has just read shall never leave his lips.

In the late 19th century, we find our custom in Aruch Hashulchan by Rabbi Aharon Epstein, that when we finish a book of Torah, rather than each reading, as was implied by the earlier sources, the congregation calls out Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek to the Torah reader.

I don't know the origin of the refinement of the custom today, that the Torah reader calls out Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek, and the congregation repeats.  However, I suspect it began as a way for the Torah reader to prompt the congregation to call out Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek.

 


Question: Although I am not Jewish myself, I have studied about Judaism extensively (both in a secular college and independently).  So far, however, I’ve been unable to answer this question:

 

The morning prayers are often related to specific actions taken as a Jew prepares for the day (opening the eyes, sitting up straight, putting on specific pieces of clothing).  Under most circumstances these blessings make sense, but what if a given prayer thanks God for a situation that doesn’t apply to that person?  For instance:  an incurable hunchback thanking God for “straightening the bent” seems hypocritical, and so does a blind man thinking God for “giving sight to the blind” (when it hasn’t actually happened). I myself am paralyzed from the waist down and unable to walk; would a Jew with a similar problem have to thank God for “firming man’s footsteps” anyway?

Answer:  According to Halakha (Mishnah Berurah 46:25), a deaf person, a blind person and a person unable to walk would indeed recite the berakhot of "hearing the rooster's crow," "giving sight to the blind," "straightening the bent," and "guiding our footsteps."  These berakhot thank God for things that we might experience as we begin our day, but they also thank God for a more general creation of the world.  Therefore, even if we cannot hear, see or walk, we can still be thankful that other people can.


Question: The penultimate line of Birkat Hamazon reads “Na’ar hayiti gam zakanti v’lo ra’iti tzadik ne’ezav v’zaro mevakesh lachem,” “I was young and now have aged, and I have not seen a righteous person forsaken, and his children begging for bread.” As much as I would be able to say this sincerely at the end of meals, it is a verse that has troubled me for some time. Is it meant to imply that such bad things to not happen to good people, and that there is no such thing as a poverty-stricken tzaddik? How do I reconcile this verse with what I know of the real world?

 

Answer:  Psalm 37, from which the verse you quote was taken (verse 25), reads almost like a prophecy of the Messianic era.  It depicts numerous images of God's support and love for the righteous, contrasted with images of the wicked being abandoned by God.  Some texts of Birkat Hamazon do not contain this verse at all, and other traditions which do have it suggest reciting this verse in a quiet voice, as it is a prayer for an ideal future, and not as a fact in our world today.  Although the version of Birkat Hamazon that I use contains this verse, my personal practice is to skip it entirely because I, like you, am uncomfortable with the image presented and therefore cannot bring myself to say the words.


Question: What is the history of the v’shamru prayer said during the Friday night service?  who wrote it, when, and why do we say it?

 

Answer:  V'shamru comes from Exodus 31:16-17.  Who wrote it depends on what you believe about the authorship of the Bible -- God, Moses, or some anomymous writer inspired by God.

It was most likely inserted into the Friday night liturgy to make an explicit connection between redemption (the subject of the previous berakha) and the observance of the Sabbath.


Question: When one is davening alone at home does he say TAHANUN and  if so on Mon. and Thurs does he say the long or short Tahanun?

 

Answer:  The recitation of Tachanun, either the long or the short form, does not require a minyan.  Therefore, one would recite the appropriate Tachanun even when davening alone at home.

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