Basic Building Blocks of Jewish Prayer

EnglishJewish prayer is composed three most important building blocks Psalms and hymns, ברכות – Blessings -, and the Recitation of the Shma’.

These three basic building blocks are joined by four secondary building blocks:  Scriptural prayers by key Biblical personalities, פיוטים – liturgical poems -, תחינות – sundry petitionary prayers, and readings.

In this post, I want to briefly elaborate on the function of blessings, Psalms and the Shma’ Yisrael.

Blessings are ubuquitous, but they come in three basic varieties:

  • short one liners, such as שהחיינו, a blessing recited upon joyous occurrences, or the blessings recited prior to the consumption of foodstuff.
  • longer blessings, framed at the beginning and end by the formula ברוך אתה השם.
  • other longer blessings, which end with the formula ברוך אתה השם, but do not begin with it. These are in fact a subtype of the “long” blessings.
  • Psalms dominate the beginning of the morning prayers, particularly the section of פסוקי דזמרא, “Verses of Praise,” and also the festive hymn, the Hallel.

    Blessings dominate almost everything else that is most important. There are blessings to be recited upon arising (but it is customary to recite them in the synagogue, at the very beginning of the morning prayer service), they bracket the above mentioned Verses of Praise, they bracket the קריאת שמע and entirely constitute the עמידה, the Standing Devotion (often called Shemonei ‘Essrei).

    Wherein lies the crucial difference between the Psalms and the blessings? Psalms are mostly about God. We are talking to each other, with each other, about God’s greatness, His wonders in the world, and in song, we express praise about His wondrous deeds. Their primary purpose in the prayer service is to impress upon us a sense of awe, of standing in God’s Presence, before and, to a lesser extent, after engaging ourselves with the berachot…

    Berachot, on the other hand, are our expression, our speech, directly to God.

    True, there are scriptural passages, even from Psalms, that where the Psalmist or the petitioner addresses God directly. Many of these verses were incorporated into the prayer service, and these will be discussed in a later blog post. But those Psalms that were incorporated in the prayer service are speaking about God, and not directly to Him.

    One exceptional inclusion in the midst of the morning and evening prayers is the Reading of the Shma’, which, while flanked by blessings, while flanked by our statements to God, is itself not a prayer. Instead, through the words of Moshe Rabbenu, as he admonished the Israelites at the end of his life, we hear God speaking – through His Torah – to us.

    In a following post, I shall discuss the composition of berakhot in greater detail.

    –Arie Folger

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