Ancestors and the Amidah

The central element of worship in any service is the Amidah, literally “the standing,” which the Sages simply called “prayer,” par excellence. All other elements of a morning service up until the Amidah – “dawn blessings,” “verses of song,” the ritual recitation of biblical passages in the Shema and blessings that accompany them – these are all worshipful. But the Amidah functions as the very definition of Jewish worship.

When the Temple stood, the key word for worship was avodah, literally “service,” and referred to the pageantry of sacrifices. Following the destruction of that visible avodah/worship, the Sages shifted the focus to עבודה שבלב/avodah she’bah lev, or “the service of the heart,” by which they mean offering this central prayer. [Sifrei Ekev 41, Talmud Taanit 2a.]

The basic historical scheme – the movement from sacrifices to prayer – is well-known to practicing Jews. We read about sacrifices in the Torah, but nowadays instead we pray at the morning/Shaharit and afternoon/Minhah hours when people once gave offerings. (The evening/Aravit service is a little different. Let’s leave it aside for the moment.)

This historical development can feel like progress, an advance from a more primitive to a more refined worship, in which we meet God in our spirits, hearts and minds. As the prophet Hosea said [14.3]: “Take words and return to God … Let us offer our lips instead of bulls.” I certainly prefer our worship instead of a religion of sacred barbecue. (And that’s not even considering the political implications of what happens on the Temple Mount!)

But it’s not the whole picture. Traditional Judaism treats the destruction of the Temple as a terrible loss – a symbol of a broken and unredeemed world, and of exile. Seen through that lens, prayer looks like a poor substitute. At best it is an accommodation to this broken world but is not how things should be. Yet that negative approach is totally inadequate as a description of how people should feel during the “service of the heart,” which should be spiritually deep and ennobling.

Is there a dialectical way to hold both poles? Can we both prize prayer as truly fundamental to religious consciousness, yet remain aware that it became normative Jewish practice only after the catastrophic destruction?

To capture this, I turn to a great Talmudic passage [Berakhot 26a, cf Bereshit Rabbah 68.9] that speculates about the origin of prayer. One sage offers the view that prayers developed as substitutes for sacrifices, historically true, but not too inspiring. Another sage says, no, actually our biblical ancestors devised the system of thrice-daily prayers! Abraham instituted Shaharit, Isaac devised Minhah and Jacob created Aravit. As is common in Midrash, there are biblical proof-texts for each claim. The passage concludes that this view must be correct: our biblical ancestors created the prayers, but after the Temple was destroyed, the Sages fixed prayer times that connected them to the sacrificial system.

Whenever you encounter a midrash, a rule or a teaching, ask yourself: what religious need did this satisfy? What question did it answer? What doubt did it resolve? In our case, the authors of this midrash did not really think that, back in the mists of history, Abraham composed the Amidah. But with this fanciful little legend, they asserted that prayer is central, not accidental, to Jewish spirituality. We don’t daven because the wicked Titus and the Roman Legions destroyed the Temple. We daven because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob prayed, just like we do.

A medieval author, R. Tzidkiya b. Avraham HaRofeh [13th century, Italy] goes one better. He reports a legend that the ministering angels composed the Amidah [Shibbolei HaLeket, 18] based on events in Bible times! They composed one blessing when Abraham was saved from Nimrod’s fiery furnace, another when Isaac was rescued at the Akedah, and so on. In this version, the prayers we recite each day are woven into the metaphysical fabric from threads of the Torah.