Religion Without a Prayer

Happy-New-Year

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.

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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.

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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.

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Source of spirituality – invisible winds

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So many things must have been mysterious to the ancients. The setting sun with its burst of majestic colors and the onset of night. The rising sun and the ability to see and interact with the world. The changing seasons, the constellations moving in perfect synchrony through the night sky. Yet one phenomenon apparently caught their imagination. The movement of invisible air.

Perhaps it’s because unlike all the other phenomenon above, it touches us, directly stimulating our senses – like a cool draft on a hot day. Like a leaf or feather brushing against our skin a draft catches out attention. “What could it be”, imagine the ancients pondering, “What is moving the clouds? Bringing rain or exposing the hot sun?”

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Breath

But more than wind, more than moving clouds, there certainly is something incredible about this invisible mysterious moving force. It is what gives us breath! Life! A live person has this invisible force moving in and out of his mouth, and a dead person indeed does not!

It is no surprise then when looking into the biblical writings that spirituality seems to be synonymous with the movement of this invisible movement of air.

נשמה- Neshama- Soul- is simply another word for breath. The part of a being which enables us to see life. As it’s known, for time immemorial, people would discern life and death by trying to discern breath. Hence when a person dies, he/she breathed their last breath…

רוח- Ruach. Spirit- Simply is another word for wind. What indeed is this movement which I feel across my skin? Perhaps it’s other souls who have departed their bodies. Thus we have the term ‘spirits’. It’s ironic even in today’s culture, when depicting a horror scene with ghosts and spirits, many movies depicts a howling windy old house with a spirit or ghost drifting in the winds…

Ironically the one common word for soul which doesn’t directly correlate with air movement, נפש – Nefesh- another word for soul, is derived as a result of having the ‘wind of life’, which enables us to live and talk. See Bereishis/Genesis 2:7. ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה. “And God blew into his nostrils the breath of life and behold Adam had a living soul. The Targum Unkelus translates “And Adam had a living soul” simply as “והות באדם לרוח ממללה” “Adam had a Ruach (spirit i.e. the ‘wind’) of speech.” (see the Targum Yonason Ben Uziel for similar rendition). In other words, the simple translation according to these two definitive works of the sages were “And God blew into his nostrils the breath of life and behold Adam had a ‘wind’ of speech (נפש).”

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What many modern Jews may not be aware of is the origin of the Tenufa rite performed in the Beis Hamikdash (Temple). The Tenufa, waving of sacrificial offerings, are sourced in countering the ‘evil winds’. Most of these practices are no longer relevant in today’s Judaism but two tenufos/wavings certainly are. Waving the 4 species on the holiday of Sukkos and the Hoshanas on Hoshana Rabba. So as where we may find the practice of the ancients trying to invoke spiritual energy to excise the evil winds from the world by shaking vegetation at them and chanting, those who participate in this ancient rite are in fact doing that themselves.

So simply speaking, the ancients, curious of the world around them, simply saw this mysterious wind which emanates from the mouth as the actual force of life. They revered it as much and thereby created the concept of a Neshama- soul.

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Postscript: What is a soul?

If we were to strip away all the layers of commentaries and notions plied upon the text from the later Sages and Rabbis, was the biblical ‘Neshama’, what we translate as soul, even considered spiritual in the way we would today? Or what it simply a way for them to perceive the mystery of life and all of our notions of spirituality was plied onto the meaning of these words in later generations?

Souls, Heaven and Hell

If one were to look at the actual text of the Torah, there is no mention of reward or punishment in the form of Heaven or Hell. The concepts of Heaven and Hell and a vast body of material dealing with afterlife was only incorporated into Judaism during the times of the Talmud when the Jews were under the dominance of the Babylonians and the Persians and were exposed to such notions which were a staple of those ancient cultures. Until then, for a good 1000 years, the Jews simply did not have an afterlife as part of their religious experience, as one can clearly see in the Torah all the rewards and punishments were physical and in this world- simply read the daily Shema recitation. But we should be wary. Even the Heaven and Hell of the Talmud was nothing like the Heaven and Hell we have today. Our Heaven and Hell were strongly influenced by the Zohar which according to many scholars, was in most if not all written in the 15th century (or a compilation of writings that have been amended to the work as years went on) where the work actually adapted many influences from Eastern religions like reincarnation etc…

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