Richness of Jewish Prayer
by Lois Tverberg
thing that we feel strongly about is that when we teach about Jesus' Jewish culture, we are trying to help people understand Jesus in order
to be better disciples. It is good to have a taste of Jesus' customs and
culture, but our goal is not to become more Jewish, it is rather to become more
like Jesus. It is easy to miss that point and become enveloped in these
customs simply for their own sake.
There is, however, one Jewish practice that all Christians would
benefit from, and that is adopting a style of prayer similar to what Orthodox Jews have used for thousands of years. These prayers that
Jesus and Paul used are a powerful experience in prayer which can transform
a person's spiritual life.
What was this wonderful style of prayer? It is the habit of blessing the
Lord. It is an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God that expresses
itself through brief prayers that acknowledge him as the source of every
good thing. It ultimately comes from the Scriptures, when Moses admonished
the Israelites not to forget the Lord:
When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deut. 8:10-14)
It was easy for the Israelites to cling to
God in the desert, but very easy to forget God when times got better and
they prospered in the Promised Land. The cure, according to the rabbis, was to continually remind themselves of God's
care by uttering a short prayer of thanks, to "bless the Lord." This pervasive act of prayer kept God's presence and love continually
on their minds. Jesus and Paul both would have practiced it, and Paul
may have had it in mind when he told Christians to "Be joyful always;
pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances" (1Thes. 5:16
A practice from before
Before the time of Christ, the Jews developed a number of short blessings
to be said whenever the occasion arises, in addition to saying longer
prayers in the morning and evening. Modern custom begins all of them by
obeying Deuteronomy 8 ("You shall bless the Lord") by saying,
"Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, King of the Universe." The
idea is not to bless objects and people, in our usual Christian sense
of the word, but to bless God, with the understanding that we are focusing
on him as the source of all blessing. The word for bless, "barak"
also means to kneel, suggesting that when we bless God, we mentally bow
on our knees to worship him. In Jesus' day the first line was probably
just "Blessed is he," but the rabbis felt it was important to
be reminded that God is King over us in order to "receive on ourselves
the Kingdom of God," so they added the rest of the line later. So
in these prayers we mentally kneel toward God, remind ourselves of his
goodness, and that he is our King.
the gospels it says that Jesus "took the bread and blessed."
(The NIV says "gave thanks" but more literal translations use
the word "blessed.") We know what words he said - most likely,
"Blessed is he who brings forth bread from the earth." We read
that when Jesus did miracles, the people "glorified God" - probably
exclaiming, "Blessed is he who has performed a miracle in this place!" It was customary to pray the blessing before leaving the site where the
miracle occurred, or to return to the place to say it. So when Jesus healed
ten lepers and only one, a Samaritan, came back and loudly blessed God,
Jesus wonders why the other nine hadn't returned to do the same thing
(Lk 17:12 -19).
For Everything a
In Psalm 24:1 it says that "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness
thereof" and the rabbis of Jesus' day and earlier decided that everything
that we enjoy in life should cause us to bless God. In the Mishnah, the
record of rabbinic thought from before Jesus' time until about 200 AD,
the first book is devoted entirely to blessings. In the most ordinary things
they found ways of praising God, and these blessings have God at their
center. They are without any personal pronouns - focusing utterly on him, and not
on the person praying. They are simply statements that praise God for
A person was supposed to devote his first thoughts upon waking to praising
God once again for each part of his body that was functioning. The very
first thing that would have woken them up was probably a rooster's crow.
So in the first century they would have said, "Blessed is he who
has given to the cock understanding to distinguish between day and night!" When they opened their eyes they said, "Blessed is he who opens
the eyes of the blind!" When they dressed they said, "Blessed
is he who clothes the naked!" They also said this when they put
on a new piece of clothing.
In their experience of nature they also blessed God. When the first flowers
were seen on the trees in the spring, they said, "Blessed is he
who did not omit anything from the world, and created within it good creations
and good trees for people to enjoy!" After a long, cold winter,
who isn't happy to see these little signs of new life?
When they heard thunder or an earthquake
that inspired fear, they also blessed God by saying, "Blessed
is he whose strength and power fill the world!" Next time there
is a windstorm, step outside and remind yourself of God's amazing power.
When it rained, they said, "Blessed is he who is good, and gives
good things!" I thought this was very odd at first, since rainy
days are usually considered bad days to us. But in Israel where water is greatly needed,
rain is source of joy. When you think about it, our abundant food here
also is dependent on the rain that we always complain about. I have since
realized that every time I complain about the weather, it is a way of
that yet another day has come when God wasn't faithful and that he decided
not to care about me. It's a very minor habit to change, but my outlook
on life improved when I stopped finding something to grumble at God for
every time I stepped outside.
They had blessings for the highs and lows in life as well. When they
went through a long, difficult time and finally had relief, or celebrated
some happy event for which they waited, they said, "Blessed is
he who has allowed us to live, and sustained us and enabled us to reach
this day." When a son returned home from war, or when a baby
was born, or some other wonderful thing, they stopped to praise God for
bringing them to that point in their lives. Even in times of grief, when
someone died or they heard tragic news, they blessed God. They said, "Blessed
is he who is the true judge." It was a reminder that God was
still good, even when they heard about tragic events, and that he will
ultimately bring justice where justice doesn't seem to be present.
A question we might ask is whether by the
sheer number and repetition these become just incantations. But there
is another important concept in Jewish prayer that applies, and that is "kavanah." Kavanah means to pray with intention and concentration
on God's presence, to "know before whom you stand." They would
say that a prayer without kavanah is worse than not praying at all, because
it insults God by not showing him the reverence he deserves.
Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.
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