The Shmoneh-Esrai Benedictions of the Silent Prayer


The Shmoneh-Esrai Benedictions of the Silent Prayer


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The Shemoneh Esreh in Jewish History

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

The silent prayer known as the Shemoneh Esreh (meaning the prayer of Eighteen Benedictions) is the core of the three weekday prayer services. Reflecting its antiquity and high status in the Jewish liturgy, Talmudic sources reverently referred to it as Ha-Tefillah (“The Prayer” par excellence). Yet, contrary to its name, Shemoneh Esreh (18) contains nineteen benedictions. According to the Talmud (Ber 28b), the twelfth benediction, which condemn the heretics, was added later. Liturgist Ismar Elbogen, however, insisted that the fifteenth benediction, regarding salvation, was the nineteenth benediction (Jewish Liturgy, p. 36). Nevertheless, the Talmud (Ber 28b) explains the importance of having “eighteen” benedictions linking them to the eighteen vertebrae of the spine. The weekday Shemoneh Esreh is divided into three sections: 1) Three introductory praises, 2) Thirteen petitions, and 3) Three concluding benedictions. Due to its largely invocative nature, the Shemoneh Esreh is considered a theological petition.

Rabbi Gamliel II stipulated the need for this fixed prayer, stating that, “Every single day a person must pray the eighteen blessings” (Ber 28b). During the course of Mishnah-era, (Gamliel II likely codified the prayer in 130), fixed prayer became a religious necessity. In the absence of the centralizing Temple, and with the preponderance of sectarian offshoots, the architects of Jewish liturgy required a unifying prayer. Later, however, various Talmudic sages questioned this need for keva (fixed structure), and debated the benefits and faults between the spontaneous-personal type prayer versus the fixed-communal prayers. With this, the very notion of “fixed prayer” was called into question: Could liturgy that developed in a specific time and place be relevant in all generations and contexts, or did it need to change?

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Judaism became a largely heterodox religion. Without the sacrifice-centered liturgy of the Temple system, various Jewish sects felt themselves free to interpret prayer (and Judaism) in myriad ways. Perturbed by this confused and diversified state of Jewish worship, Rabbi Gamliel II saw the need for fixed prayer, and advocated the Shemoneh Esreh.

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the prayers of the Shemoneh Esreh were probably in place by the end of the Second Temple period. However, their exact sequence and specific language was not yet established. In fact, though Gamliel II was instrumental in setting the order and content of the Shemoneh Esreh, a definitive version was not committed to writing until the geonic period (though the Babylonian and Palestinian forms differed in wording). Nevertheless, Gamliel II believed that all Jews should pray the same thing, and be indoctrinated by means of fixed prayer into a unified worldview.

In his essay, “The Daily Amidah and the Rhetoric of Redemption,” Reuven Kimelman describes the Shemoneh Esreh as a theological argument oriented toward redemption. Benedictions 4 through 9 explore themes of personal salvation, physical recovery, and agricultural revival, while 10 through 15 set out the order of communal redemption: a shofar blast, the ingathering of the exiles, and G-d’s return to Zion (Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 79, p. 165-197). And, as a repeated petition, the Shemoneh Esreh is essentially a “performative utterance.” Following J. L. Austin’s theory, the language of Shemoneh Esreh is not merely descriptive, but rather a sort of incantation (How to Do Things With Words, 1962). G-d is expected to fulfill these words of petitionary prayer.

In addition to the need to unify the increasingly diversified Jewish community, the sages also found within the Shemoneh Esreh a way to counter proselytizing by the then emerging Jewish Christians. According to Elbogen, “the synagogue was a convenient base for missionary activities” (p. 32). The synagogue setting fostered discussions of faith and religious opinion, and an opportunity for Sectarians to disseminate propaganda. For this reason, the Jewish Christians were among the most eager synagogue-goers. So, in an effort to discourage their presence among mainline Jews, the sages added benediction 12 to the Shemoneh Esreh, which reads in part, “And for slanderers let there be no hope; and may all wickedness perish in an instant; and may all Your enemies be cut down speedily.”

Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor at Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, and teaches religious studies at Whittier College.


from the December 2007 Chanukah Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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