Printer Friendly

My problem with the Amidah.

OUR CENTRAL PRAYER, THE AMIDAH, IN ITS WEEKDAY form, exemplifies at the highest level the combination of prayer as praise and as petition. In the first three benedictions we praise God, as if He were a King before whom we are presenting our petition, and in the last three, we thank Him and ask for peace. In the middle we have what are called the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Bakashot), the specific petitions in which we ask for knowledge, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, healing, prosperity, ingathering, restoration of the judges, punishment for the heretics, reward for the righteous, return to Jerusalem, return of the House of David and the acceptance of our prayers.

My problem with the Amidah and these 13 Benedictions of Petition are that they conflict with our theology. The impression created is one of total reliance on God, to whom we pray and send our petitions, after praising Him and before finally thanking Him. Yet our theology does not advocate this total reliance on God for the fulfillment of such Bakashot. Certainly, in the case of these specific petitions, we can demonstrate that, for each, what is involved is not help from heaven-or, at least, not from heaven alone--but obligations on our part. For every petition we address to the Almighty, He addresses a mitzvah, a duty, an obligation for us. Let us go through the Amidah benedictions, one by one.
 De'ah/Knowledge. You grace Man with knowledge and teach Man
 understanding. Grace us from You with knowledge, understanding and
 intelligence. Blessed are You, who graces with knowledge. (1)

Does God grace us with knowledge, meaning does He gratuitously implant knowledge within us, or are we commanded to study? The assumption of "And you shall teach them to your children" (2) (Deuteronomy 6:7) is that, in order to do so, the father must know Torah and must have acquired that knowledge through study.

We find that in discussion of the blessing "who teaches Torah to His people Israel," (3) the concept of God teaching Torah, rather than man studying Torah, is mingled with David's plea, "Teach me Your laws" (Psalms 119:64). According to the Sifrei (B'midbar, Piskah 119), this is not God teaching Torah in place of David studying, but rather David is pleading that his own studies be successful.

Certainly the phrasing in the De'ah blessing is misleading, in that it sounds as though we are asking God to place the knowledge in our minds, instead of our own laboring to learn the knowledge.
 T'shuvah/Repentance. Return us our Father to Your Torah, and bring us
 close, our King, to Your service, and bring us back in total
 repentance before You. Blessed are You who desires repentance.

Again, as with knowledge, repentance is an obligation of ours. Judaism does not teach that repentance is something that we receive, but something that we can achieve only through sincere effort on our part. It is true that Sages see a double direction in this process, citing the verse: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (shuvu eilai v'ashuva aleichem; turn back to Me and I will turn back to you), but even if we admit God into the initiative of repentance, it still remains man's duty, not God's obligation.

In Christian theology, there is the concept of man's helplessness in the process of salvation, and that only by the grace of God can man be moved to repent. In Jewish theology, however, there is much greater emphasis upon free will, which embraces the act of repentance, as well as all moral effort. If in the central operation of our free will His intercession is still necessary, how serious are we about that free will?

How, then, can we ask God for repentance if the obligation is ours?

We should pay attention to the conclusion of the blessing. While with the first petitionary blessing, De'ah, we say: "Who graces with knowledge," in the second blessing we say: "Who desires repentance." There is a difference between granting what we are asking for, and the statement that God desires the result we are asking for, but that He does not necessarily bring it about.
 S'lichah/Forgiveness. Forgive us our Father, for we have sinned.
 Overlook for us, our King, for we have rebelled. For You are a
 forgiver and an overlooker. Blessed are You, O Lord, Gracious One Who
 increases forgiveness.

When we approach the petition for forgiveness, we are definitely dealing with an area that is in God's hands, not ours. We cannot forgive our own sins, only He can. And so after praying for repentance, we hope God will forgive us.

Is it true, however, that forgiveness is only a function of God? And if we have repentance, should not forgiveness follow automatically? Why must we ask for it?

The answer to the first question is no, it is not. Forgiveness must also to be practiced by us. Indeed, "he who refuses to forgive is the sinner." (4)

As for the second question, why we must ask for forgiveness rather than it coming automatically, possibly it is meant to make us aware of our own obligation to forgive those who have sinned against us.

And perhaps it goes even deeper. It may be that in the process of forgiveness, after we have repented, we must be able to accept God's forgiveness by forgiving ourselves. It sounds self-centered and impious to forgive oneself, but it is necessary to the process of gaining God's forgiveness.
 G'ulah/Redemption. See our pain, and take up our argument, and redeem
 us speedily for the sake of Your Name, for You are a great redeemer.
 Blessed are You, Redeemer of Israel.

As with forgiveness, so with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (g'ulah; redemption). This petition could be read as referring to the messianic redemption. If so, is it possible that even as man prays to God for it, he should remember his own duties to act as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (go'el), literally a savior and redeemer? [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. after all, is used for man, as well. In Leviticus 25:25, we have the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] who must redeem the property of an impoverished kinsman. We have the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (go 'el ha-dam), the blood redeemer (Numbers 35:19), who avenges the murder of his relative.

We are also taught that messianic redemption is something we must strive for, not something that will come automatically (although there is that opinion, as well). In such case, it would seem inappropriate to ask God to do what He has tasked us to do.

On the other hand, the redemption sought for in the Amidah may not refer to messianic redemption, at all, but salvation from life's troubles. Thus, the Encyclopedia Talmudit, V, G'ulah, column 43, states:
 There are early poskim who wrote that this redemption in the Amidah
 is not from Exile, for the Ingathering of Exiles and the building of
 Jerusalem and the House of David have their own blessings [of
 petition]. But this refers to redemption from troubles that always
 come upon us. But since the word g'ulah is used with reference to
 this, they set it in the seventh blessing [of petition]. And so did
 the Rishonim [the early sages] write that the first six of the middle
 blessings [the petitions], including G'ulah, refer to man himself and
 the needs of the individual.

If this is so, we are reminded of what God said to Moses at the Red Sea: "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward" (Exodus 14:15), the point being that if we want God's help, we have to first take matters into our own hands. That, however, does not seem to be reflected in this petition. Nothing here suggests that we have even tried remedial action, much less that we have exhausted the possibilities.
 R'fuah/Healing. Heal us O Lord and we shall be healed. Help us and we
 shall be helped, for You are our praise. Bring a total healing to all
 our sicknesses, for You are a king, faithful healer and merciful.
 Blessed are You, Healer of the sick of His people Israel.

While the Torah attributes healing to God--"for I am Your Healer" (Exodus 15:26)--it also places the obligation of healing on human beings. Commenting on "He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed" (Exodus 21:19), the Sages declare: "From here we learn that permission was granted to doctors to heal" (Babylonian Talmud tractate B'rachot 60a).

The commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, for one, has an interesting distinction between external and internal injuries and sees Exodus 21.19 as referring to external injuries only, whereas "all internal illnesses in the body are in the hands of God to heal."

Nachmanides, too, offers a distinction, claiming that while the Sages said that permission is indeed given to heal, "they did not say that the ill person has permission to be healed" (Nachmanides, Leviticus 26:11).

Whatever the problematics of relying on earthly physicians rather than on the Divine Healer, the net result is that healing has been entrusted to us and our doctors. In fact, according to BT Bava Kama 81b, healing is seen not as something permitted, but as something humans are obligated to do. The Sages base this on a seemingly extraneous word in Deuteronomy 22:2. It would seem obvious, then, that we cannot rely totally on prayer to achieve healing of illness, if we can rely on it at all if healing is indeed a commandment.
 Birchat Ha-shanim/Prosperity. (5) Bless for us Lord our God this year
 for good and blessing, and grant a blessing [or dew and rain] upon the
 face of the earth. Make us satisfied with Your goodness, and bless our
 year as one of the good years. Blessed are You, who blesses the years.

As with health and redemption, God does not do it all. Does the virtue of Bitachon, trust in God, mean that we can rely upon Him to feed us, regardless of what we do in the area of work, provision, planning and so forth? On the contrary, we are told that one of the duties of a father is to teach his son a trade, provide him with the means of earning a living (Mishna Kiddushin, 4.14).

Again, we have a combination of God's providence and man's work. Reliance upon himself alone, and reliance on God alone, are both insufficient. These elements must be combined in earning a living.
 Kibbutz Galu'yot/Ingathering of the Exiles. Blow a great shofar for
 our freedom, and raise a flag to gather in our exiles, and gather us
 together from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are You O Lord,
 who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel.

Is it too far-fetched to say that even this patently divine action of the Ingathering is also our obligation as Jews? In fact, the mitzvah to settle the Land is considered to be Torah-based and of such importance that it trumps the rabbinic prohibition against asking a non Jew to do work on the Sabbath that a Jew may not do; in this case, writing a deed on the Sabbath for the purchase of land in Eretz Yisrael from a non-Jew (BT Bava Kama 80b and BT Gittin 8b). The Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Joseph Karo goes even further, granting permission for the Jew himself to write such a deed on Shabbat and, in this, he is supported by the gloss supplied by Rabbi Moses Isserles (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, 306:11), although later authorities argue that this was a misprint. (6) This, thus, would seem to be another instance of "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward." This is certainly true in our day, when the Law of Return makes settling in Israel a much easier proposition than in the past.
 Din/Restoration of Justice. Return our judges as of old, and our
 advisers as at the beginning, and remove from us worry and groan, and
 rule over us, Lord Our God, alone, in grace and mercy, and justify us
 in justice. Blessed are You, Lord, King who loves righteousness and

Here we have a combination of general yearning for God's help, which is similar to the redemption petition earlier-and a specific request for the restoration of our system of jurisprudence, our judges. The question arises: Are we not commanded to appoint judges? "You shall appoint magistrates and officials in all your gates" (Deuteronomy 16:18). (7)

Is this a mitzvah that depends on residence in the Land? That is certainly the implication of the phrase that follows it, "in all the settlements the Lord your God is giving you." However, if we look in the sources, we see that the obligation to appoint judges may apply to us even in exile.
 ...[E]ach congregation in all places should appoint among themselves
 of the good (judges) who will have the authority over all of them, to
 compel them with all forms of compulsion, according to what they deem
 correct, in matters of money, and even in body, to compel observance
 of the mitzvot of the Torah and to avoid all matters of disgrace and
 similar things (Sefer Ha-chinuch, Mitzvah 491).

So it would seem that when we ask God to restore justice, we are not free from our obligations in this area.
 Birchat Ha-minim/Against the Sectarians. For the betrayers there
 should be no hope, and all wickedness (8) should be lost in a moment,
 and all the enemies of Your people should quickly be cut off, and the
 sinners You should promptly uproot and break and disintegrate and
 humble, quickly in our day. Blessed are You, Lord, who shatters the
 enemies and humbles the sinners.

This is really the "19th benediction" (9) and is actually an ill-disguised curse, instituted as a reaction to the minim, the heretics, the exact identity of whom remains a subject of discussion. The wording itself has undergone numerous revisions since its introduction, but a discussion of these is beyond the scope of this article.

For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that the destruction of the sectarians--or heretics, as the Hebrew minim is commonly translated today-and the sinners is not left to God, so that we have to pray to Him to achieve their destruction. The burden again falls on us and involves such methods as compulsion, excommunication and persecution.
 Tzadikim/The Righteous. May your compassion be warmed toward the
 righteous and the pious and the elders of Your people, the House of
 Israel. And upon the remnants of their scribes and the righteous
 proselytes, and upon us. Grant good reward to all those who trust in
 Your Name in truth. Grant our portion with them, and let us not be
 shamed, for we trust in Your Holy and Great Name. Let us rejoice in
 Your Salvation. Blessed are You Lord, who supports and assures the

This is different from the other benedictions in the Amidah in that it ranges along a wide panorama of request for support for the righteous. The scribes and the proselytes are mentioned specifically.

That we have obligations toward the righteous is obvious and beyond the need for explication. Certainly when we pray that God protect the righteous, it does not relieve us of our obligations to them.
 Binyan Yerushalayim/Rebuilding of Jerusalem. To Jerusalem Your city
 return in mercy, and dwell in it as You have spoken. Build it soon in
 our day as a permanent building, and the throne of David Your servant
 establish quickly within it. Blessed are You, Lord, who builds

In this benediction, the conclusion includes more than the main part of the blessing. First we speak of return, then of building. The question is: Does God build Jerusalem and return to dwell in it, without our participation in the process? Indeed, did God dwell in Jerusalem before Israel came there?

Kabbalistic and eschatological references aside, the fact is that the mitzvah of building the mikdash, the Tabernacle/Temple, falls upon Israel, in the verse "and let them make Me a sanctuary" (Exodus 25:8). The Temple cannot be rebuilt without Jerusalem being rebuilt. From the standpoint of halachah, Jewish law, the obligation of rebuilding Jerusalem is on our shoulders.
 Malchut Beit David/Davidic Reign. The root of David Your servant cause
 quickly to grow, and his prestige raise with Your salvation, for we
 wait for Your salvation all the day. Blessed are You Lord, who causes
 the prestige of salvation to grow.

Again, as with Jerusalem, if we are speaking of the supernatural era of the future, the House of David will have to be replanted by God. But if we are talking of this worldly fulfillment of Torah law, the obligation to appoint a king belongs to us.
 Kabbalat T'filah/Acceptance of Prayer. Hear our voices, Lord our God,
 pity us and be merciful to us, and accept our prayers readily and
 compassionately, for You are God who hears prayers and petitions.
 Blessed are You, Lord, who hears prayer.

Known as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Sh'ma Koleinu), (10) which literally means "hear our voices," this is the last of the petitions. It asks that the other Bakashot be fulfilled, that the prayers of the Amidah be answered positively.

Here too, although on the surface it sounds as if the answering of prayer depends solely on God, the truth is that His responses to our prayer are influenced by the way we pray. "Though you pray at length, I will not listen," Isaiah says in God's name (Isaiah 1:15). When the prayers of Israel are not proper, God does not respond properly, positively.

And so my problem with the Amidah is this: We ask, we petition, we beg, for 12 blessings, and add a 13th seeking a positive answer to our prayers. In reality, however, these blessings are determined, at least in part, by our fulfilling the obligations that belong to us. Do we have the right to ask for that which God asks of us?

Finally, I wish to raise another question. Why do we not pray for the restoration of prophecy? We cannot reply that prophecy ceased forever in Israel with Malachi, the last prophet in the sacred writings of the Prophets. Sacrifices also ceased, but the halachah of sacrifice remains, anticipating as it does a future restoration. Indeed, we even pray for its restoration in the Avodah/Service prayer that follows the 13th petition.

We must assume, therefore, that prophecy also will be resumed in the future. Otherwise why does Maimonides, in his Code, deal with Hilchot Nevuah, the Laws of Prophecy? In fact, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a famous essay in which he claimed that Maimonides thought of himself as a prophet. (11)

When we consider the question, the difficulty is this: What is the halachic basis for the cessation of prophecy? Is it a matter of prophecy applying only in the Land? If so, then how do we explain that precisely when the people are restored to the Land in the days of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, it is then that the tradition speaks of the cessation of prophecy?

In any event, considering that Israel had a three-headed system of governance-king, priest, prophet-and we pray for the restoration of the first two, leaving out the third requires some explanation.


(1) The translations appearing here of the Amidah's petitions are the author's own and are based on the text as it appears in traditional prayer books of the Ashkenzaic rite ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--Nusach Ashkenaz). While the wording of each petition may vary in other rites, the substance of each remains the same, so that what is presented here is valid for all traditional rites.

(2) The JPS translation of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ve-shinantam I'vanecha) is "Impress them upon your children." The literal meaning is "repeat them to your children." However, the corresponding verse in Deuteronomy 11:9--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (v'limad'tem otam et b'neichem; and teach them to your children)--makes clear the intent.

(3) This blessing is part of a collection of preliminary blessings and readings to be recited daily before the morning service.

(4) Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T'shuvah, 2:9.

(5) The Hebrew literally means "the blessing of the years."

(6) Rabbi Yechiel Epstein, Aruch ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim, 306:22.

(7) The JPS translation reads "for your tribes." The translation "in all your gates," which appears here, is the literal Hebrew translation, as well as being a more appropriate rendering in this context.

(8) In [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Nusach S'fard) and Sephardic rites, "all wickedness" is replaced with "all sectarians (heretics)." The petition retained its name, Birchat Ha-minim, even in those versions in which minim was replaced.

(9) Among the various names for the Amidah is "the Shemoneh Esrei" literally, "the 18." That is because there were only 18 blessings in the original version. The "heretics" petition was added later, but by then the sobriquet "Shemoneh Esrei" had become so ingrained that people even used it for all of the non-weekday amidot, none of which even come close to 18 benedictions.

(10) Not to be confused with the similarly named penitential prayer recited antiphonally in the s'lichot and High Holy Days rituals.

(11) The essay was published by Ktav in 1996 as part of a collection of Heschel writings entitled Prophetic Inspiration after the Prophets: Maimonides and Others.

JACOB CHINITZ, a former pulpit rabbi, is an author and lecturer. He lives in Jerusalem.
COPYRIGHT 2006 American Jewish Congress
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Chinitz, Jacob
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Previous Article:Touching the infinite through liturgy.
Next Article:When conversion is not on the agenda: developing direct support strategies for mixed couples.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters