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Question: The Gemara in Berachot teaches that the Sages authored our prayers. If so, it would seem that we did not pray before this time. Did we pray before their innovation or not?

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Synopsis: The Gemara on Ta’anit (2a) explains that Deut. 11:13, “…to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart,” refers to a type of service that is of the heart, meaning prayer.

The Patriarchs were not yet bound by the Torah, yet our Sages teach that they nonetheless observed the mitzvot, including prayer. They teach that the Patriarchs established the three daily prayers (Berachot 26b). Abraham established Shacharit, the Morning Prayer; Isaac instituted Mincha, the Afternoon Prayer; and Jacob introduced Ma’ariv, the Evening Prayer. These references, however, point to the time of day these prayers are said rather than to the formal text of the prayers.

In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Rambam records prayer as the fifth positive mitzvah. The Chafetz Chayyim lists prayer 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 of the Temple service.

Last week, we cited Rambam’s discussion of prayer in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Tefillah 1). He says that we are required to pray daily, praising G-d and imploring him for all our personal needs, followed by thanking Him for all He has given us individually. The quantity, wording and order of the prayers were not formally established. Since it is a positive precept that is not dependent upon time, women and slaves are required to pray.

After the Jews were exiled and interspersed among the nations, Rambam continues, they no longer all spoke the same language, and many were unable to articulate a proper Jewish prayer to express their needs.

Ezra the Scribe and his Beit Din then established the text as well as the times for the prayers. They organized the 18 Benedictions of the Amidah (Megillah 17b-18a) and set 2 daily prayers to correspond to the 2 Daily Offerings in the Holy Temple: one for the morning offering, Shacharit, and one for the afternoon, Mincha. On days that had an Additional Offering, such as on Sabbath and Festivals, they instituted a third prayer, Mussaf. They also established an optional evening prayer, called Arbit or Ma’ariv, which all of Israel ultimately took upon themselves as an obligatory prayer.

Rambam then discusses the role of the sheliach tzibbur, which was established for those who do not know the prayers and are not able to recite the prayers themselves. The fact that a distinction was made between those who know how to pray and those who do not is proof that some had memorized a text while others had not mastered it.

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Answer: Yet, when one refers to tefillah, prayer – more specifically the prayer that one is duty-bound to pray three times daily – one is referring to the Shemoneh Esreh, the eighteen benedictions that constitute the Amidah, instituted by Ezra and his Beit Din – as we cited from Rambam. As we noted, the Gemara (Megillah 17b-18a) explains the scriptural sources for each of the eighteen benedictions and the reason for their sequence. A nineteenth benediction – “V’lamalshinim – And for the slanderers” – 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 encompasses 19 benedictions.

That the Amidah is the tefillah considered to be the central focus of each prayer session is evidenced by the following halacha cited by the Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 109:1): “One who enters the synagogue and finds that the congregation is praying [the Amidah], if he is able to start [his Amidah] and conclude before the chazzan reaches the Kedusha or the Kaddish [at the Amidah’s conclusion], he may pray.”

Rema (in his glosses) adds: “Similarly [this includes] the Amen of Ha’Kel HaKadosh and of Shome’a Tefillah, as they are compared to Kaddish and Kedusha.” The Mechaber continues, “If not [if he can’t conclude in time], he is not to pray; [this applies only] in the event that the [designated latest] time [of that particular tefillah] is not yet passing.

“And should he enter [the synagogue] after the [congregational] kedusha [recital], if it is possible for him to begin [his Amidah] and conclude before the chazzan reaches Modim [the benediction of thanksgiving], then he should [begin to] pray; however, if not, he should not [begin to] pray. The same rule applies if he is [not able to conclude before the chazzan reaches Modim but he is] able to reach Modim [in his own silent Amidah], or one of the other benedictions for which one bows, at the same time that the chazzan reaches Modim – in that case, he should commence with his prayer….”

The Mechaber proceeds to relate numerous other situations relating to the latecomer, where the individual has to respond with the congregation to the chazzan in the course of his repetition of the prayer.

Regarding the Mechaber’s statement that if he reaches one of the other benedictions for which one bows at the same time that the chazzan reaches Modim, then he should commence with his prayer, as the Mishna Berurah (Orach Chayyim 109: sk8) explains: “Even though he is unable to recite the Modim D’Rabbanan together with the congregation, this is not a matter of concern; he is [seen] bowing with them and thus it is permissible l’chatchila (ab initio)….”

From this halacha, we see that the Amidah is the main component of tefillah. Nevertheless, when one joins in a prayer session, one surely finds that there is far more to our daily tefillah service than the Amidah alone.

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.