Judaism and prayer. They are synonymous, concerted as the everlasting liturgical melodies that carry the very essence of Judaism throughout the centuries.
Jews commemorate each and every occasion in the Jewish year, and indeed almost every single milestone in Jewish life, with special prayers of its own. The long services Shabbos morning connote the significance of the day, the even longer services on the holidays, each heralded with its own unique prayers, flavor that special time of year. Prayers stretching well into the day on Rosh Hashana denote the majestic nature of the day and of course day long prayer services are the backbone of Yom Kippur, the national day of repentance.
The three daily prayer services which devout Jewish males collect to pray in communal settings, and plethora of blessings Jews make daily, set the very tone and structure for the lives of every devout Jew.
Yet the most jarring paradox is that there is no mention, trace or semblance of prayer anywhere in the Torah. The sages, who instituted the prayer as we know it today, scramble to fill that void by attributing every conceivable expression of communication to God as a proof, indeed source, of Biblical prayer.
Once one peers into the Torah to ascertain these supposedly initial expressions of prayer, one finds themselves even more vexed by this glaring void and unsettling conclusions one can derive from them.
When indeed do we find ‘prayer’ in the Torah according to the sages? Some of the main sources are derived from the verses depicting the exodus from Egypt. The Torah illuminates at length the depth of pain and anguish the Jewish nation experienced during the servitude. שועתם, נאקתם, ויזעקו…, expressions of crying out in pain and bitter agony, and the Torah subsequently shows God’s compassion by indicating that God notices these expressions of affliction, remembers his promise to Avraham, and sets forth to redeem his descendants.
Why indeed did God ‘remember’ them, as the Torah describes this dynamic of salvation? Because of His promise to Abraham “I shall bring your descendants down to Egypt… and return them…” Is this the paradigm for prayer? Or is this, simply as it states itself, showing that God kept his promise to Abraham. He set forth to afflict Abraham’s children and redeem them and indeed only when God perceived the extreme level of affliction that the descendants of Abraham were undergoing did he then ‘remember’ them and set forth to redeem them.
Another example of this is יעתר, which connotes bringing a plea forth to a judge. Rivka did not conceive and the Torah describes Yitzchok as litigating his plea to God to give him children. Indeed he inherited the rite of Avraham’s blessing to have his offspring receive the Blessings of God, so his plea was again justified and indeed after the plea was brought forth, delivered.
The upshot of this is confounding. The Jewish nation in its ‘pristine’ original state had no semblance of prayer whatsoever as part of their daily Jewish life.
When did established prayer itself make its way into Jewish life? We know the Sages of the Great Assembly who started overseeing Jewish life and law in 520BC, instituted the 19 blessings of the Amida- daily prayer, which is the backbone of Jewish services today. There are indications that bits and traces of prayers had been carried down before that, particularly the parts of Psalms. Likewise we know the Torah tells us to “Eat, fill yourself and bless God”. To bless God after one eats his fill. The Sages contend that part of the Grace after Meals we have today was instituted by Moshe and Yehoshua, but empirically we have no indication when these prayers were integrated into the Jewish rites. Furthermore, the very blessings we make before food and to signify other events and the blessings from other parts of the services which were detailed (and sometimes disputed) in the Talmud, also are a product of a much later period of Jewish national existence.
The Rabbeinu B’Chaya (on his commentary of the second paragraph of ‘Shema’) submits that before the Sages instituted prayer people prayed according to their ability.
As for the actual daily recital of the verses of Shema, it’s also unclear at which point those verses were isolated from the myriad of very similar themes in Devarim (Deuteronomy) and instituted into a daily rite.
So it begs introspection into how the Israelite nation originally viewed their personal interface with God. Beyond the sacrificial rites adopted from the pagan societies around them, it seems as if there were little to no other ritual service* (Avoda) present in the Judaism of our forefathers.
As for why the sages instituted the prayer in the stead of the Avoda of sacrificial rites in the first place, and what goals they had in mind, I would like to also elaborate on that in a future essay.
*As opposed to Mitzvos, which time permitting I would like to discuss the nature of, and how the Sages have come to reframe them, in a different essay.