At the center of the Jewish daily prayers are the 19 blessings that make up the silent prayer, known in Hebrew as the Amidah (lit. “standing”) or Shemoneh Esrei (“eighteen,” since there were originally 18 blessings), which we recite three times daily.
What Is the Amidah?
The Torah instructs us to pray to G-d for our needs.
The sages established that this is done three times every day, and they composed words of praise and requests to be said at those times.
We pray the Shacharit (“morning”) prayers in the morning, Minchah (lit. “gift” ) in the afternoon and Maariv (from the same root word as erev, “evening”) at night.
The prayers themselves are identical, but they are framed by readings that vary according to the time of day. Most notably, in the morning prayers, the Amidah is preceded by “Verses of Praise,” which include six chapters from Psalms and other readings. This section is followed by the “Blessings of Shema” in preparation for the Shema, followed by the reading of the Shema prayer and a concluding blessing. Then we say the Amidah.
The afternoon Amidah is preceded only by the Ashrei prayer (Psalm 145), and the evening Amidah follows the Blessings of Shema and the Shema.
What Does the Amidah Look Like?
Walking into a synagogue, it is easy to tell when the congregation is saying the Amidah versus the rest of the prayers.
Prior to the Amidah, the entire congregation rises and takes three steps back, then three steps forward. The Amidah is said in an inaudible undertone. At its conclusion, the person praying takes three steps back and then three steps forward. This prayer is not interrupted by any announcements or accompanied by any singing. We bow four times during the Amidah, twice at the beginning and twice close to the conclusion.
Facing toward Jerusalem, every person concentrates on his or her prayers, often looking inside a prayerbook. Many sway gently, as they mouth words that only they and their Creator can hear.
In the morning and afternoon (but not at night), if there is a quorum of 10 adult males present, the reader (chazan) chants the Amidah a second time. The congregation responds “Blessed is He and blessed is His name” after G-d’s name is mentioned, and “Amen” following every blessing.
There is also the addition of kedushah, a responsive chant that tells of how the angels praise G-d.
Every day of the year we are obligated to pray three times a day. On select days of the Jewish calendar there are variations to the Amidah, but it always includes the first and last three blessings of the Amidah:
On Shabbat and on the festivals, only seven blessings are said. In other words, there is only one blessing between the first and last three, unlike the weekday Amidah, which has 13 blessings in the middle.
In addition, on Shabbat and on the festivals and Rosh Chodesh(the first day of the Hebrew month), we pray a fourth Amidah, also composed of seven blessings. This Amidah (Musaf) is recited following the morning prayers. On Yom Kippur we pray the Amidah a fifth time. This additional prayer (Neilah) is recited after Minchaon Yom Kippur.
Summary of the Amidah
The 19 blessings are divided into three sections: praising G-d, followed by a number of requests, followed by a few paragraphs of thanks to G-d.
This is how one might summarize the content of the entire Amidah:
• The great G-d of our forefathers who shields Abraham.
• The Almighty and powerful One, who causes all events to happen, including the resurrection of the dead.
• G-d is holy.
• For intellectual enlightenment.
• To be returned to a state of closeness with G-d.
• To be forgiven.
• To be redeemed from pain and strife.
• To be healed.
• Our produce should be good and plentiful.
• All Jews should be returned to Israel.
• The Jewish judges shall return to rule.
• Our enemies should be defeated and annihilated (this is the 19th blessing which was added during the Roman era).
• The pious should be rewarded.
• G-d’s presence should return to Jerusalem.
• Moshiach should arrive.
• Our prayers should be heard and accepted.
Gratitude and Thanks
• The Holy Temple and its service should be restored.
• We thank G-d for keeping us alive and providing for us constantly.
• We should have much peace and goodness in our lives.
Understanding the Structure of the Amidah
The first three blessings correspond to our forefathers:
1. In the first one we refer to G-d as “The One who shields Abraham.”
2. When Isaac was saved from near death at the Akeidah the angels said, “The one who resurrects the dead.”
3. The theme of holiness is especially associated with Jacob, thus we conclude the third blessing saying “The holy G-d.”
With the fourth blessing, we begin to pray for our human needs:
4. We must ask for wisdom before all else since, absent of wisdom, we cannot accomplish anything at all.
5. After we have wisdom, we begin to recognize our faults and correct them. Therefore we pray for repentance after praying for wisdom.
6. Only after we have corrected our ways, we can ask for forgiveness for past wrongs; therefore we pray for forgiveness after praying for repentance.
7. After we have completed repairing our past misdeeds, and we want to continue to grow in our Torah study and service of G-d, we recognize how the great difficulties in our lives hinder us from that growth, so here we pray for redemption from the general difficulties of life.
8. After we have emerged from the greater difficulties, we realize the various particular ailments we have that need to be healed, and so we pray for healing.
9. During illness there is no desire for food. So after praying for healing, we are ready to pray for abundance in produce and livelihood.
10. After we ask for our basic needs to be filled, we begin to pray for greater and more general blessings, namely the gathering of all the Jewish people in Israel.
11-12. The gathering of the Jewish people will be followed by reinstating the judges who will punish the wicked, therefore the next two blessings are the requests for reinstating our judges and for punishing the wicked.
13. This causes the exaltation of the righteous, which is the following request.
14. These developments leading up to the coming of the Messiahwill take place in Jerusalem, so here we request that G-d return His Divine presence to Jerusalem.
15. The verse states, “After the sons of Israel will return [to Jerusalem], they will seek ... David their king,” so here we request the coming of the Messiah who will be a descendant of KinG-david.
16. At that point, the Holy Temple, which G-d refers to as “my house of prayer,” will be rebuilt. So here is the request that G-d accept all our prayers.
17. Then we will resume the service in the Holy Temple. So here we ask that the service of the Holy Temple be re-established.
18. This is followed by a blessing of thanks for all the good G-d bestows upon us. Emphasizing that, although we have just alluded to the fact that we are currently in exile with all its accompanyinG-difficulties, we acknowledge the abundant good that G-d gives us each and every day.
19. After mentioning G-d’s kindnesses to us, we beseech G-d to continue to bless us and be gracious to us.
Why We Need a Set Liturgy for the Amidah
Maimonides writes that until the destruction of the Holy Temple, everyone prayed in their own words. When the Jews were in exile, however, their language became a mix of a distorted Hebrew and some of the other languages of the regions of their exiles. As a result, they weren’t able to express themselves properly in prayer. Therefore Ezra and his rabbinical court established a set text for everyone to use.
The prayers we say take the place of the daily sacrifices brought in the Holy Temple. The Men of the Great Assembly (who composed and compiled the prayers) knew exactly which words and letters to use that would substitute for the sacrifices and bring about the same spiritual effect as the sacrifices would have. Creating Spiritual Results
Some commentaries explain that every word and letter in the liturgy—in addition to its literal meaning—alludes to various names of G-d and spiritual beings in the supernal worlds. In our prayers we are not only praying for and affecting our own fate, but also that of the angels and spiritual spheres. In saying the words prescribed by our sages, we connect to those spiritual energies alluded to on a mystical level.
Prayer, as it is understood through the lens of Jewish mysticism, is not just about expressing our conscious feelings. Rather, it is a time when we uncover and create deeper and holier feelings of which we may, as of yet, be unaware. This occurs specifically through the liturgy that our sages have established with the help of Divine inspiration.
There is an additional need for a fixed text when it comes to praising G-d. Praising any entity implies the ability to judge and evaluate that entity. In other words, one who praises is expressing some degree of superiority over the praised one. A layperson telling a world-class musician, “I think you play well,” can be considered humorous or disrespectful.
For us humans to praise G-d for His power and kindness, etc., denies His true indescribable greatness and the unbridgeable gap between us finite creations and the Infinite Creator.
Therefore the Talmud tells us that it is prohibited for an individual to choose how to praise and describe G-d’s greatness, which would be an act of evaluating and limiting G-d’s greatness. Rather we use the prescribed praises that our sages have composed, based on verses from the Torah.
Perhaps it can be added that the same applies to the requests in the Amidah. Requesting also implies at least some sense of entitlement and deservedness.
At the very least it shows that the one requesting has the right to speak to the one being asked. At the very least it shows that the one requesting has the right to speak to the one being asked. If we were to truly fathom the infinity of G-d’s presence and our own smallness, we wouldn’t feel worthy of asking Him anything. Therefore, every request we have, indeed the very concept of prayer in the first place, needs to be “justified” by being mandated and alluded to in G-d’s word, in His Torah.
Despite all this, it should be noted that our sages throughout the generations have recognized and cautioned against the risk of the fixed liturgy becoming routine and absent of genuine feeling. Some rabbis have encouraged those praying to add personal intentions or requests in the middle blessings, especially in “Shema Koleinu,” so that one’s prayers will be said with genuine feeling and passion.