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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 9.4:
How do Jews pray?

Answer:

In public and in private; in groups and alone. Jews pray loudly and in silence; in Hebrew, English, and any other language you can name. Sometimes Jews even pray without language. Jews pray from the depth of their souls, at the tops of their lungs, and from the quiet of their hearts. It is difficult to point to a specific "Jewish" way of praying.

However, one's prayers must fulfill certain daily obligations, so a standard order of prayers has been developed to accomplish this. Still, even in a structured prayer service, there are many opportunities for a silent, personal supplication to G-d.

The introduction to the Artscroll Siddur (Orthodox) provides a good overview of the Jewish view of prayer, and the book To Pray as a Jew discusses more of the particulars.

The next question is: So, why do we pray at all. Often, when we think of 'prayer', we think of needs and requests. This is not necessarily the Jewish concept of prayer.

In Judaism, prayer is an introspective process. It is process of discovering what one is, what one should be, and how to achieve the transformation. Prayer is described in Torah as a service of the heart, not of the mouth (Talmud Bavli, Ta'anit 2a). By improving ourselves with prayer, we become capable of absorbing G-d's blessing.

The Hebrew word for prayer is tefila, based on the words 'to judge' or 'to differentiate'. The exercise of judgements is called 'pilelah', whose roots mean 'a clear separation'. Prayer is viewed as a means to define what truly matters, to ignore the trivialities.

So why pray? Doesn't G-d know our requirements already? In Jewish tradition, the purpose of tefila is not to tell G-d something, but rather to raise the level of the person praying by improving their perceptions of life so they can become worthy of blessing.

Note that Jewish law requires the worshiper to be aware that it is G-d being addressed, to "know before Whom you are standing" (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 28b). Thus, Jewish prayer is more than reading from a prayer book. Prayer requires the sense of standing in the presence of G-d and the intent to fulfill at least one of G-d's commandments. This intent is called kavanah.

Talmud teaches that the minimal level of kavanah required is that "one who prays must direct one's heart towards heaven" (Berakhot, 31a). The next higher level of kavanah is to know and understand fully the meanings of the prayers. The level following that is to free one's mind of all extraneous and interfering thoughts. At the highest level, kavanah means to think about the deeper meaning of what one is saying and praying with extraordinary devotion. Should circumstances make it necessary for a person to choose between saying more prayers without kavanah or saying fewer prayers with kavanah, the fewer are preferred. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 1:4)


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to questions@scjfaq.org. The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at maintainer@scjfaq.org.

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