Shiur #14: The Structure of the Shemoneh Esrei

  • Rav Ezra Bick

The Rambam, as is well known, rules that daily prayer is a Torah obligation:


There is a positive commandment to pray every day, as is written, “You shall serve Hashem your God”… The number of prayers does not have a Torah basis, and the text of the prayers does not have a Torah basis, and the time for prayer does not have a Torah basis.


It would appear from this that the Torah commands a person to pray, but leaves up to him what to say and when to say it. (The Rambam continues to explain that the Sages regulated and ordained these details.) Yet, in the next sentence, the Rambam does include some detailed guidance when formulating the Torah obligation:


The obligation of this commandment is thus: that a person should petition and pray every day, and speak the praise of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and afterwards present his needs that he needs in request and supplication, and afterwards give praise and thanks to God for all the good that He poured out on him, each person according to his ability. (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1-2)


Even though Torah prayer has no fixed time or content, it seems that it does have a fixed sequential form – praise, petition, and thanks. We will try and understand that form in today's shiur.


What is the source for the ruling of the Rambam? The gemara (Berakhot 34a) states that one is permitted to add personal requests in the Shemoneh Esrei, but only in the middle blessings. One may not add personal requests in the first three or the last three blessings:


R. Yehuda said: One should never make personal requests in the first three or in the last three, but only in the middle [blessings], for R. Chanina said: The first ones are comparable to a servant who arranges praise before his master; the middle ones are comparable to a servant who requests a portion from his master; the last ones are comparable to a servant who has received a portion from his master, and he takes leave [niftar – Rashi: "requests permission"] and departs.


The first category more or less makes sense, since the first three blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei do indeed consist of praise. The middle section similarly does indeed consist wholly of requests that one makes of God. But the definition of the third section is more unclear. The Rambam called it "praise and thanks," but only the second of the last three blessings is about thanksgiving. Both "Retzei" and "Sim Shalom" are actually phrased as requests! The term “praise,” which has already been used to define the first section, is accurate here, but not informative. What is the purpose of praise after the requests have been made? The language of the gemara is in fact different, but, at least for us, remains unclear. What does "taking leave and departing" mean, and how is it expressed in the language of the last three blessings?


The language used by the gemara to describe the third section is the key, I think. In order to understand it, we have to put our minds into a "medieval" state, for the concept is totally foreign to the modern mind, nurtured in a democratic, egalitarian ethos. "Taking leave" is something one does when departing from a superior, from whom one needs permission to depart. Having been "granted" an audience with the king, there is a ritual of departing; just as one needed a grant to enter into his presence, one needs a grant to depart from it. Of course, there is no one today who commands that sort of respect, as we are all basically equal. The social metaphor used by the gemara would be instantly understood by anyone in the ancient world, but is indeed foreign to ours. And I agree that it is foreign for good reason, since indeed we are all basically equal – with one exception. It is still appropriate, even morally mandated, in relation to God. Here we are participating in a totally and radically unequal relationship, where the metaphor repeated by this gemara – a servant before his master – is, if anything, insufficient to wholly express the inequality involved. This is the inner meaning, not only of the "taking leave and departing" of the final section, but of the previous two as well.


Why give praise to God before making requests? It is not to "soften Him up," God forbid! It is proper protocol. To make a request of one who has no obligation to you, but to whom you have infinite obligation and on whom you are totally dependent, is completely different than filling in a form to receive a benefit from some government office (which I suspect is how many of us in fact view prayer). Recognition of the asymmetrical relationship between the servant and the king is crucial to making the request; it is a different type of request when placed in that framework and that recognition. I imagine we look back with mixed amusement and derision at the florid and hyperbolic language used to address "his most august and serene majesty" in ancient times, but I think that it is important to realize that people were not simply crazy then. If you recognize that the members of the aristocracy are indeed better people, a class apart from the common man, then the language is appropriate. Being a democrat who knows that all men descend from a common father, I too find the language ridiculous when applied to flesh and blood no better than myself. But before God, King of kings, true majesty, absolutely apart and infinitely of a better class than myself – that is the way to speak and surely that is the way to make one's requests and demands.


Based on this, the three final blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei – the ones we did not understand – are three aspects of "taking leave" of the king. The first, Retzei, is expressing our hope that our experience with God, in which we basically asked for things for ourselves, also was pleasing for God, that our prayers "find favor in His eyes." The second, Modim, is more explicitly an expression of thanks. The third, Shalom, is what one always does when he "takes leave;" it is a blessing and request for shalom, for continued good relations between God and us, even when we are no longer in His presence. It is, simply, a request to "go in peace."


The three-part structure, in general, defines anew the meaning of prayer. Prayer is service, avoda, as we showed in last week's shiur. Service is based on the radically asymmetrical relationship between a master and a servant, between truly unequal partners, unequal in their basic status and not merely in their powers. Making our requests is a very different experience within that context than it would be if it were merely a pragmatic way to get what we want. The context, then, is crucial, and hence we understand why, even though the language of the prayer is not set by the Torah, this context is – for it is the heart and meaning of daily prayer.


As I pointed out in the past, there is a different type of prayer, tze'aka, pleading, which is the response to a crisis. It may very well be that tze'aka is free of this framework. When in pain, one can cry out – "And it shall be that when he cries out to Me, I shall hear, for I am merciful." But dailyprayer, obligatory prayer, is an expression of our obligations to the king, our master. It too includes petition and request – in fact, petition may well be the heart of daily prayer – but the context here is different. For that, it was important to understand the structure we examined. In fact, given the difficulty for modern man to understand that context, our lack of experience of any relationship similar to the servant-master relationship, it is even more important for us today to understand and pay attention to the three-part structure in order that our prayer should have the nature that the Sages thought it should.


One last point, somewhat unconnected. There is one other detail of daily prayer that the Rambam considers to be Torah mandated. The Rambam concludes his definition of Torah prayer, after reiterating that there is no fixed text, no fixed number, and no fixed time, with the statement, "and all should pray in the direction of the Temple, wherever he might be." Facing the Temple is a Torah requirement of even unstructured prayer, according to the Rambam. The Kesef Mishneh, searching for a source for this statement, derives it from the fact that prayer is described as avoda. Avoda, service, is properly speaking first and foremost the service in the Temple. Prayer is called, according to the Rambam, "service of the heart." If the Kesef Mishneh is correct, then this rule as well is based on placing prayer in a framework of service and not gratification. Praying, even as we make requests, is part of the service of the King, daily ministrations, sacrifices and ritual. It is not surprising that additional laws, which are of course rabbinic additions, strengthen this position – bowing, standing humbly, proper dress, etc.