The Jewish tradition is so ancient, with generation after generation adding layer after layer of opinion and perspective. It can be overwhelming. Like so many great thinkers have argued: the more we find out, the more we realize what we don’t know. It’s not surprising to me that many people confuse the Jewish practice of prayer with that of making blessings. Many seem to believe that making a blessing, over an activity like eating or lighting candles, is a prayer. Perhaps this is because our prayers often contain blessings. The truth is that while they are similar, they are actually very different.
What’s in a Blessing?
We Jews have blessings for just about anything! We have blessings to say when we wake up in the morning, blessings to say after going to the bathroom, blessings before and after eating, blessings before doing a mitzvah like lighting candles, blessings to mark special moments, blessings before and after learning Torah – the list goes on and on. And for those who make blessings according to tradition, it doesn’t take long to notice there is a very particular formula. In fact, this formula has been around for two millennia or more. And for as long as this formula has existed there has been a discomfort with such a spontaneous, emotional act being confined into a formulaic box.
Take, for example, this 2nd century teaching:
Rabbi Meir says: Even if one sees bread and says, “Blessed is the Creator of this bread which is so good,” this is a blessing! Even if one sees figs and says, “Blessed is the Creator of this figs which are so good,” this is a blessing!
Rabbi Yosi says: Anyone who changes the formula formalized for blessings by the Sages has not fulfilled their obligation (to make a blessing before eating food).
Now we can get into the nitty-gritty of the pros and cons of the competing perspectives of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yosi, but let’s give Rabbi Yosi the benefit of the doubt that he is not simply being a stodgy curmudgeon. Maybe he’s teaching us something very valuable about the difference between blessings and prayer…
What’s in a Prayer?
The Sages said: What is Service of the Heart? Prayer. Neither the number of, form of, nor the fixed times for prayers are established by the Torah.
And while Rambam goes on to explain to origin of the rabbinic rulings which make up our obligatory, formalized prayers, he wants us to first understand that this narrow view of prayer comes from the Sages and not the Torah.
Prayer is referred to by ten expressions: ze’akah (calling), shav’ah (bellowing), ne’akah (hollering), tzarah (struggle), rinah (jubilation), pegi’ah (entreaty), nipul (fallenness), pilul (prayerfulness), a’tirah (beseeching), amidah (standing), hilul (initiation), and hinun (pleading)… From where do we learn hinun (pleading)? “And I pleaded to Hashem,” (Deut. 3:23)
In this midrash, the Sages recognize that prayer cannot be reduced to one expression or emotion. Nor, in my opinion, are they limiting prayer to literally ten expressions (ten and not nine, ten and not eleven). The symbol of ten teaches the incredible diversity in prayer. Ten is symbolic of the revelation of Torah at Sinai (The Ten Commandments) and the Creation of the universe (The Ten Statements).
Why a Blessing?
We looked briefly at what constitutes a blessing, but why do we make blessings at all? We learn in the Talmud (based on the Tosefta): It is forbidden for a person to benefit from this world without a blessing.
In other words, a blessing is an acknowledgment that we rely on God and the natural world for our sustenance. It’s like saying: I can’t make that on my own! The same source in the Talmud goes on to assert that one who eats without blessing misuses a sacred object. A blessing can is a way of turning a primal act into something divine.
Prayer, on the other hand, is not about transforming the primal. It is not a physical act like eating. It is a spiritual pursuit which drives to the heart of an innate human need: to feel connected. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi describes prayer as a journey. This is a perfect metaphor. Before we begin, a journey can seem overwhelming. While we experience the travel, a journey can feel arduous. When we look back on it, the journey becomes a lesson. A blessing is something you make before you act in order to frame the experience. Prayer is an exercise in preparing to experience the world with purpose. Perhaps this is why our Sages chose this week’s Torah portion to teach about the diversity of prayerful moments.
Moshe is reflecting back on the experiences between the 42 journeys through the wilderness over 40 years. He remembers one of his personal tragedies which compelled him to pray. When he lost his opportunity to enter the land he expressed his prayer as a plea, the last of the ten expressions mentioned above. But what was his emotion? Perhaps all of them and more.
How to Pray
In his opening legislation on prayer, Rambam says this regarding prayer: “one speaks according to their ability anytime which they so choose,” before he explains the set order and number of codified prayers and the rationale behind their establishment. This reminds us that prayer is not about obligation alone. It is a personal exploration of self and how we deepen our connection with God, community, and heritage. The journey may be intimidating before we begin, it may feel challenging while we are in the middle of it, but the promise of a sense of purpose and meaning is waiting on the other end.
To pray successfully one need not be fluent in Hebrew or be familiar with the prayer book. All one needs is an emotion and a desire to connect.