Built into our tradition is the opportunity to have a one to one “Face Time” conversation with the Almighty every day. The Amidah, a prayer that is a compilation of 7 – 19 blessings, which forms the core of every single prayer service – both individual and communal, facilitates this. Abraham Milgram, the great authority on liturgy in his book Jewish Worship traces the origin of the Amidah to the time of the return of Babylonian exiles to the Holy land; about 533 BCE. A committee of up to 100 great sages, according to tradition, was responsible for the formulation of some of the blessings that would later constitute the Amidah.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., the leaders of the Jewish community faced an existential paradox. The Torah clearly states that the only way to communicate and connect with God is through the prescribed sacrificial service – impossible without a functioning Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Milgram explains how prayer is the solution our sages devised to this fundamental crisis:
“[By] Reciting the [Amidah] mornings and afternoons at the time when the sacrificial ritual was performed in the Temple, the Jew fulfills his duty to ‘serve the Lord.’ He replaced the ‘service of the altar’ with the ‘service of the heart’.”
The Talmud recalls how in the 1stCentury CE the blessings of the Amidah under the leadership of the great sage, Rabban Gamliel were first mandated as simply a prescribed list of prayer topics to be expounded upon by the worshiper. Over the course of many generations, paragraphs of liturgical poetry were composed to expand and elucidate the basic blessings on the list, resulting in the formally codified Amidah that we find in our Prayer Books today.
We begin the Amidah with a most extraordinary process. It is customary to take three steps backwards and then three steps forward while reciting the phrase, “Adonai S’fatai Tiftach U’fi Yagid Tihilatecha…Lord open my lips so that my mouth can find the proper words to address You.”(Ps 51:17) According to the great liturgical scholar Ismar Elbogin, this phrase was introduced by the sage Rabbi Yochannan in the 3rd century. The purpose of this ritual is to enable us to symbolically separate ourselves from the rest of the congregation, stepping out of the worldly space in order to enter into a shared private space with our Creator. Thus, in essence, at least three times a day we have the opportunity to have individual “face time” with God. Brilliantly, our sages recognized that, when faced with the overwhelming experience of approaching the Blessed Holy One for a face to face conversation, it may be difficult to find our words, so we ask God for help in beginning the dialogue through the words of the psalmist.
Similarly, it is worth noting the personal meditation,Elohai N’tzor, (God guard my tongue…) which was appended to the end of the Amidah by Talmudic sage Mar Ben Ravina (Berachot 16b-17a.) This prayer expresses the desire that our tongues, which have, in our sacred conversation, uttered only sincere words of prayer, praise and supplication, be guarded from being used for negative speech going forward.
Taking the opportunity to pause, catch your breath and connect with your Creator, whether in a communal or individual context, is an extraordinary gift to yourself. Using the full text of the Amidah or going back to its roots and just using the list of Amidah blessing topics as jumping off points for our celestial conversation is the tool our tradition gives us to accomplish this task. Knowing that we don’t have to face the world alone and that no matter what the circumstance, God is always available to listen to us personally is eternally empowering. Give it a try and let me know how it goes…
Here is a setting of Adonai S’fatai by the American singer and songwriter Craig Taubman