Religion Without a Prayer


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.



7 thoughts on “Religion Without a Prayer

  1. Nice essay. Here’s what Wiki says about the origin of Jewish prayer.

    Maimonides (1135–1204 CE) relates that until the Babylonian exile (586 BCE), all Jews composed their own prayers, but thereafter the sages of the Great Assembly composed the main portions of the siddur. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 1:4)

    Biblical Origin and history of Jewish prayer

    According to the Oral Torah, (Talmud tractate Taanit 2a), prayer is a Biblical command: “‘You shall serve God with your whole heart.’ (Deuteronomy 11:13) What service is performed with the heart? This is prayer.” The prayers are therefore referred to as Avodah sheba-Lev (“service that is in the heart”). The noted rabbi Maimonides likewise categorizes prayer as a Biblical command of Written law,[7] but believed that the number of prayers and their times are not.

    The Oral law (Talmud tractate Berachoth 26b) gives two reasons why there are three basic prayers:

    1. Each service was instituted parallel to a sacrificial act in the Temple in Jerusalem: the morning Tamid offering, the afternoon Tamid, and the overnight burning of this last offering.

    2. According to Rabbi Jose b. Hanina, each of the Patriarchs instituted one prayer: Abraham the morning, Isaac the afternoon and Jacob the evening prayers. This view is supported with Biblical quotes indicating that the Patriarchs prayed at the times mentioned. However, even according to this view, the exact times of when the services are held, and moreover the entire concept of a mussaf service, are still based on the sacrifices.

    Additional Biblical references suggest that King David and the prophet Daniel prayed three times a day. In Psalms, David states:
    Evening, morning, and noontime, I speak and moan, and He hearkened to my voice. — Psalm 55:18

    (The source from Daniel says that he kneeled while praying – interesting that the Muslims kept that custom instead of us. See Wiki there).

    • The source for the first statement in the Wiki article is the Rabbeinu B’Chaya (who I also brought down) which is quoted in many contemporary works when trying to come to terms with what people did prior to the period of the sages. I do find it interesting that we need to rely on a commentator who lived well over a millennium after the times of the Sages, to tell us what people did before the Sages instituted prayer…
      As for the rest of the article, it relies off of the Midrash and Aggadatos which were complied during the times of the Gemarah. As it is well known, the Midrash (and by extension the Aggadatos), whose very meaning means to extrapolate and interpret – often loosely – from the original text. The Midrashim and Aggadatos add all sorts of fanciful ‘facts’ to the Torah. For example the ‘fact’ that King Og’s shin was 30 cubits tall (According to a rough calculation that would make him well over 700 feet tall), Moses was 10 cubits tall (apprx. 20 feet tall), Pharoh was one cubit tall (approx 2 feet), forgive my pun, but in English we have an expression for these kinds of historical documentations- tall tales… Anyone familiar with the Midrash and Aggadatos is aware of the countless extensive distortions these texts pry into the simple meaning of the textual verses of the Torah. So when the Sages saw the dearth of any mention of prayer in the actual verses they attempted to inject as many references to prayer as possible in the story of the forefathers, hence Abraham initiated the morning services, Yitzchok the afternoon services and Yaakov the evening services using vague references in the narrative to support their contentions.

      • If we just view ALL drash as “asmachta”, and an attempt to give over a teaching, rather than perpetuate the myth of “built-in” teachings as distinct from asmachta, then we can appreciate drashot from Chazal for what they are instead of either believing them as literal or dismissing them as crazy.

        Small note – I assume you mean 70 feet for Og. (700? That’s nuts. 70? Totally reasonable! 😉

      • True. As for Og. Chazal state Moshe was 10 cubits tall, he jumped 10 cubits holding a spear 10 cubits long and he only reached Og’s shin. If you make the anatomical calculations that makes Og a conservative 700 feet tall (a cubit is approx 2 feet). This chazal is taught as historical fact in all Ultra Orthodox Jewish schools. The same way many other outrageous claims in the Midrash are passed down to the children as facts.

  2. From the Artscroll Gemara 26b2: The famous gemara about the patriarchial source for the three daily tefilot. Avraham stood (עמד) (‘amad) in the morning, Yitzchak spoke (לשוח) (lasuach) in the afternoon, and Ya’akov entreated (ויפגע) (vayifga’) at night. Amidah, Sichah and Pegiah – Shacharit, Minchah and Ma’ariv – morning, afternoon and evening.

    Interesting question there in the comments: if Yitzchak instituted Minchah, does that mean that Avraham didn’t daven Minchah!? Yoma 28b says that he did. Tosafos say that Avraham did indeed start after Yitzchak did (!); Maharsha says that Avr. did it voluntarily, then Yitzchak made it obligatory.

    Later, the Gemara asks whether the later beraita sourcing to the temple sacrifices cancels the earlier one sourcing to the Patriarchs. The answer, according to Artscroll (note 31) is that “while it was the Patriarchs who initiated the system of praying thrice daily, their conduct does not impose an obligation on us to do likewise” (!). The Rabbis obligated us using the sacrifices as a precedent.

    Of course, you could also ask the following on the Patriarchal source: maybe each biblical episode talks about that particular patriarch’s prayer for that particular incident – i.e., Avraham by the Akeidah, and both Yitzchak and Ya’akov praying for wives (Genesis 19:27, 24:63 and 28:11). Why does that mean that they prayed then every day, let alone that we should also?

    • Please see my note on your other comment. The Midrashim and Aggadatos went to great lengths interpolating all sorts of additional information into the textual accounts of the Torah. Often these are fantastical accounts which confound one intellect, often it was earnest attempts to depict accounts of the forefathers in ways which better suited the Sages.

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