Does the Prayer Book teach the Truth?


From time to time, I receive excellent questions. I added explanations of Hebrew words in parenthesis. Here is one of them and my reply:


In a recent blog you wrote: “The central part of Israelite life after the redemption from Egyptian slavery was sacrifices, an activity that Maimonides wrote was wrong, for God does not need or want sacrifices; they were allowed because of the need of the Israelites to make the offerings. Sacrifices continued in Judaism until the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. At that time, although a group of Jews wanted to continue sacrifices outside the temple, the rabbis saw the destruction of the temple as an excellent opportunity to stop the practice. They substituted in its place synagogue worship and study.”

Why then do we say in the prayers “return the worship to your holy house, and the fire offerings of Israel etc.” as well as in mussaf (the additional prayer recited on Shabbat and holidays immediately after the morning service) – “let us bring the karban tamid and karban mussaf” (the morning and additional sacrifices); were the authors of the prayers less sophisticated or were these words intended for the masses?

I am equally bothered by the daily mention of resurrection in the second bracha (blessing) of shmone esrei (the standing prayer in all services). It seems Rambam (Maimonides) didn’t believe in techias hameisim (resurrection of the dead). His epistle on resurrection perhaps was bluff. Why should we keep talking about resurrection if we don’t really believe in it?

These are excellent questions.

I do not agree with the general conception that praying is a communication between humans and God. I think it is a period for self-reflection. The Hebrew verb l’hitpalel, “to pray,” is the Hebrew reflective form, indicating doing something to one’s self. The root of the word p-l-l, means “judge.” Thus l’hitpalel literally means “to judge one’s self.” It is a time to read various writings composed by people with widely different views, consider what is being said, and judging one’s self against the views.

The siddur, the Hebrew word for the prayer book, actually means arrangement, as in the sentence “to arrange a table setting,” which implies the taking of various utensils and putting them in their proper place. The siddur is not a catechism, a book that teaches the basics of Judaism. It is a collection/compendium of writings from people in different lands and different times, with widely different concepts about Judaism, God, what is important to know, and what significant human acts are. The writings include some discriminatory words, such as “thank God I was not created a woman” (although this is explained to imply “thank God I was given more obligations than those given to women”), mystical ideas, such as God wearing tephilin (phylacteries), ideas that many Jews and Maimonides reject, such as the reestablishment of sacrifices and resurrection of the body after death and God having human attributes and emotions. Besides causing us to think about these subjects, the insertion of them in the siddur also reminds readers of the history of Judaism, the time when concepts such as sacrifices were important and when most people thought that God has human emotions, including becoming angry when we act improperly.

Many of the writings can be recognized as being thought-provoking but anachronistic when one reads them with an open mind, but others are not so. Both types should not be rejected out of hand. They should cause readers to think. This is much like Maimonides’ warning not to reject Midrashim which are obviously untrue, such as those about speaking animals, because they can be read as parables with important even helpful lessons.

A good example of a “prayer” – a very popular one – that is misunderstood is the Friday night chant Lecha Dodi: “Come my beloved toward the bride to accept the Sabbath.” It was composed in the mid-sixteenth century by a mystic in the Israeli city Safed. People think it is extolling the Sabbath and that the refrain is saying “Come fellow Jews toward enjoying the Sabbath which is like a bride.”

This is not true. Solomon Alkabetz wrote his poem as a prayer/hope for the mystical reunion of God. He was one of the mystics who felt that God is composed of ten parts that became disjointed and people need to aid God to come back together again. When all ten parts are rejoined, the messianic age will occur. The poet is saying: “Come my beloved,” the tenth part of God known as “Tipheret” (each part has a name),and join together with “the bride,” the tenth part known as “Malka,” the queen, for once this joining occurs, we will have the ultimate Sabbath, the messianic age.

(I will not explain all the parts of the poem here. Suffice it to say, that if one doubts the explanation I gave, which many people besides me recognize, try to read the poem as a praise of the Sabbath. It is impossible.)