When people ask me how Jews pray, I begin with a story. It comes from a great nineteenth-century rabbi.
An old man enters the sanctuary for the first time.
His face is dirty and his clothes are too big. He stands out among the well-dressed crowd.
Then he picks up the prayerbook and opens it. He is, however, holding it upside down.
Nevertheless, he tries to start singing along. His words are mumbled and incorrect. After a while, he gives up trying to keep up with the crowd.
He just lifts up his eyes towards heaven and repeats the same Hebrew word over and over again.
After a while, the other people in the sanctuary start to get annoyed. They point at him. They shake their heads. One of them goes to the rabbi and suggests he ask the man to leave.
The rabbi stares at them and says, “That man has spoken more to God in that one word than some of us ever will. Look at him and learn: God hears the words of our heart.”
Jewish prayer begins in the heart. It is more than a recitation of words. It is an outpouring of the soul. It bridges heaven and earth. Prayer links each of us with the God who created us.
The heart helps explain why Jews pray. Prayer reflects our shared longing for closeness to God. But how Jews pray is a different question. The how has a more logical answer. It reveals tools and practices we can all use.
As we will see, Jews pray in three ways. We pray with words of gratitude, praise, and petition. Let’s look at them in reverse order.
1. Petition: Sometimes we ask God for things. We ask for health, wisdom, healing, and nourishment. We ask to feel closer to God and experience more blessings in life. We ask for freedom from addictions and pain.
In petitioning God, we do not imagine God is some sort of vending machine dispensing favors when we ask nicely. Rather, prayers of petition remind us of what is worth asking for.
That’s why Jews pray from a book, though we make room for spontaneous words. Having a book helps us avoid simply asking for what we feel like right now. We ask for what is truly worthwhile and important.
2. Praise: The second way Jews pray is through praise. We describe God’s mercy, power, wisdom, creativity and love.
Now God does not have an ego that needs to be stroked. We don’t impress God by saying how mighty and awesome God is. We don’t score points by coming up with the most flattering description of the Almighty.
We praise so that we grow in humility. We praise to remind ourselves of our humanity. We also praise to generate excitement. Have you ever felt caught up at a sports event or rally?
You hear chants and shouts and feel emotional uplifted? That’s human. Emotions are powerful and contagious. Praising God helps lift up our emotions and brings us closer to the divine spirit. It’s not always rational. But it works.
3. Gratitude: Gratitude is at the core of how Jews pray. It’s the overarching emotion of about 85 percent of the prayers in the Jewish prayerbook. That’s not surprising. The Hebrew word for a Jewish person—Yehudah—means “one who is grateful.” Gratitude is central to a life of faith.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said indifference is the root of all sin. Well, gratitude is an answer to indifference. It attunes us to the beauty and wonder of life. It also spreads.
Sparks of Gratitude
About a year ago, I was in my of study when a member of the congregation came by and asked to chat. We sat down, and he asked if I knew the words of a blessing he had just heard. He didn’t know how it went except that it started with the phrase Baruch atah Adonai, “Blessed are You, O God.”
“OK,” I said. I didn’t want to be rude and tell him every blessing starts with those three words. So I asked him to tell me where he heard it?
“I was having dinner at a restaurant. Just a few tables away from me, right as I was eating, a man proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes, and everybody in the restaurant cheered. Then the man walked quietly over to a corner, put a yamacha on his head (a sacred Jewish headcovering worn in prayer), and said some type of blessing. His fiance’s eyes filled with tears. I barely heard what he said, but it was quite short.”
“The blessing,” I said, “may have been the Shehecheyanu. Did it go like this: Baruch atah adonei eloyanu melech ha-olam shechyanu, v’kiamanu v’higeeanu l’zeman hazeh ? The words mean, ‘Blessed are You, O God, sovereign of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this joy-filled moment.”
“Yes,” he said excitedly, “That’s it! Do you have a copy of it?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Good,” he said.
“I am planning to propose to my girlfriend this weekend, and I want to say it with her.”
Unbeknownst to them, the random couple in a restaurant released powerful sparks that transformed another couple’s life. A blessing of gratitude became a source of inspiration.
Blessings express our feelings. They are words that come from the heart. And as the great Jewish sage taught, “Words from the heart enter the heart.”
What is Your Favorite Type of Prayer?