Question: The Gemara in Berachot states that the sages authored our prayers. Does that mean we didn’t pray beforehand?
Summary of our response up to this point: The Gemara (Ta’anit 2a) explains that “to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 11:13) refers to a type of service that is of the heart, i.e., prayer.
The Patriarchs and their progeny before the revelation at Mount Sinai were not bound by the Torah, yet our sages teach us that they nonetheless observed the mitzvot, including the mitzvah of prayer. They state that the Patriarchs established the three daily prayers (Berachot 26b). Abraham established Shacharit, Isaac instituted Minchah, and Jacob introduced Ma’ariv. They did not establish the formal text of these prayers. Rather, they set the times of day for prayer.
In his Sefer HaMitzvot, the Rambam records prayer as the fifth mitzvah in his listing of the positive precepts. The Chafetz Chayyim lists it as the seventh mitzvah in his Sefer HaMitzvot Hakatzar which includes only those precepts that are possible to observe outside the Land of Israel now that we are bereft of the Temple, suggesting that prayer serves as a replacement for the Temple service.
Last week, we quoted the Rambam’s discussion of prayer in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Tefillah 1). He writes that we are required to pray daily, praising G-d and imploring him for all our personal needs, followed by words of gratitude for all He has given us. Since it is a positive precept that is not dependent upon time, women and slaves are required to pray.
Originally, there was no set wording or order to the prayers. After the Jews were exiled and interspersed among the nations, however, they no longer all spoke the same language, and many were unable to articulate proper prayers.
Hence, the Rambam writes, Ezra the Scribe and his beit din established a set text as well as fixed times for prayer. They organized the 18 benedictions of the Amidah (Megillah 17b-18a) and set two daily prayers to correspond to the two daily offerings in the Holy Temple. They also established a third prayer, Mussaf, for those days on which an additional sacrifice would have been offered in the Temple. Finally, they also established an optional evening prayer, called Arbit or Ma’ariv, which all of Israel ultimately accepted upon themselves as an obligatory prayer.
The Rambam also discusses the role of the sheliach tzibbur, which was established for those who could not recite the prayers themselves. The fact that a distinction was made between those who knew how to pray and those who did not is proof that some had memorized a text while others had not mastered it.
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When one refers to tefillah – more specifically, the prayers one is duty-bound to say three times daily – one is really referring to Shemoneh Esreh, the 18 benedictions that constitute the Amidah, instituted by Ezra and his beit din. The Gemara (Megillah 17b-18a) explains the scriptural sources for each of the 18 benedictions and the reason for the order in which they are recited. A nineteenth benediction – “V’lamalshinim” – was added later by Rabban Gamaliel (II) Ha’Nasi due to slanderers and informers who sought to cause great harm to the Jewish people. As a result, Shemoneh Esreh actually includes 19 benedictions.
That the Amidah is the central focus of every prayer session is evident from the following halachot cited by the Mechaber (Orach Chayim 109:1): “One who enters a synagogue and finds that the congregation is praying the Amidah should act as follows: If he is able to start his Amidah and conclude before the chazzan reaches Kedushah or Kaddish [at the Amidah’s conclusion], he may pray. If [he can’t conclude in time], he should not start his Amidah.”