OLD TESTAMENT THOUGHT: The Book of Exodus שְׁמוֹת – Whose Footsteps Do We follow When We Pray?

Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Psalm 141: 2     (Opening Sentence for the Evening Prayer Office in the Book of Common Prayer)                                         

Whose Footsteps Do We Follow When We Pray?

          One afternoon during my tenure as the coordinator for the Daily Offices at our Cathedral I received a telephone call from the Dean’s secretary informing me that there were people waiting in the chapel for Evening Prayer and the assigned officiant had not arrived.  She asked if I would come and lead the service which I did.  In discussing this with a priest friend I realized that in our parish and probably in the whole of the Episcopal Church services are not considered quite right or even valid unless they are led by an officiant either clerical or lay.

The above phrase is the title chosen by Rabbi Sacks[2] for the next topic in his discussion of the readings from the Parasha of Tetzaveh. He begins the discussion by saying that the different roles of priests and prophets represent two different ways of being, two distinct modes of consciousness.   

          A key question in studying Jewish spirituality is “what is the nature of worship in Judaism?”  Does the duty to pray derive from a Biblical command, or from a rabbinic tradition which replaced the ritual sacrifices of the Tabernacle and the Temple with prayers? And, is there an obligation to pray levied upon each individual or is the obligation a communal responsibility which may be fulfilled by a leader?

          During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries two of Judaism’s greatest sages, Maimonides and Nahmanidies debated these questions.  To them it was an important issue which had far reaching implications in understanding the nature of Jewish spirituality. 

Maimonides in his Sefer Ha Mitzvot[3], regarded prayer as a one of the 613 biblical commands[4] of positive duties citing passages in Exodus 23:25 (“And you shall serve the Lord your God”) and Deuteronomy 11:13 (And to serve him with all your heart) interpreting “service of the heart” to mean prayer. According to rabbi Maimonides “…every person should daily, according to his ability, offer up supplication and prayer.”

Nahmonides argues to the contrary that prayer is to be regarded as rabbinic, not biblical. And when people prayed during the biblical era they did not do so because they had a duty to do so but rather because they “knew that God, in his kindness, listens to prayer and that prayer was a privilege not an obligation.”  As for the command to serve him with all your heart, it simply means we should “be wholehearted in our service to God”.  And, the primary service to God during the biblical era was the offering of sacrifices at the altar. The institution of prayer as a “religious obligation” was post-biblical. 

The “middle case” in the debate is stated by one R. Yose son of R. Hanina who attributes the beginning of the prayers: morning, afternoon, and evening, as having been instituted by the patriarchs and “instituted to replace the daily sacrifices.”  Morning Prayer was established by Abraham who got up early and went to the place “where he had stood”.  Afternoon prayer was instituted by Isaac who “went out to the field towards evening”.  And, Evening Prayer was instituted by Jacob as he had received a vision at night of a ladder descending from earth to have angels ascending and descending”. [5]

These prayers correspond to the daily sacrifices: the morning and afternoon prayers represent the morning and afternoon offerings. The evening prayer mirrors the completion of the sacrificial process (the burning of the limbs) which was done at night.[6]

Priests and Prophets -Again

          The debate about the nature of prayer is, according to Rabbi Sacks, reminiscent of the different ways in which priests and prophets approached God. 

          The prophets prayed sua sponte that is on their own accord or spontaneously and used words.  They approached God directly and their prayer arose out of the situation of the moment. Examples would include Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah; Jacob’s prayer before his encounter with Esau; Moses prayer asking God to forgive the Israelites after the golden calf; and Hannah’s prayer for a child. No two such prayers are alike.

          Contrast this with the practice of the priests.  With them what was primary was the sacrifice, not the words.  Even though the Levites sang some songs in the Temple worship for the most part priestly worship took place in silence. Actions were precisely regulated and any deviation such as the spontaneous offering of incense by Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, was fraught with danger.[7] A priest was to do “the same thing, in the same place, at the same time, following a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly cycle”.[8]

          The rabbi sages do not disagree that the priest and the prophets approached prayer differently, but they ask:  which approach are we to follow today?  To which tradition does prayer rightfully belong? And, in Judaism the answer is that both traditions are followed in practice.  The individual congregants pray once silently, and then again out loud thereby blending the two traditions.  This bifurcated process is followed in the morning and afternoon prayers but not in the evening prayers as there were no sacrifices in the evening only the burning of the remains.

Fixed Prayer and Spontaneous Prayer

Another priest friend once told me a story about a Christian unity conference he attended which was also attended by clergy of the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions.  It was his turn to offer the prayer for the group and the Baptist minster, who was a good friend of his, joked “o.k. go ahead and give us one of those “canned prayers” you folks like so much” to which the padre responded with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  The idea of fixed prayers as in the Book of Common Prayer are viewed with suspicion by members of some other Christian traditions as they feel that the reading of a written or fixed prayer is somehow not a genuine prayer.

In Judaism a rabbi named Eliezer made the statement that “if a person makes his prayer fixed (Hebrew, keva) then it is not a genuine prayer.”[9]  Later interpreters of this statement say that he was not speaking of the words we say but the way we say them, and we should not “regard prayer as a burden or read it like one reads a letter.” Others interpret his statement as meaning that we should say a new prayer every day or introduce something new into the eighteen blessings. [10]

There is also a disagreement concerning the obligation of each individual as opposed to the community with regard to prayer.  One side of the argument from an anonymous source holds that as the leader of the prayer is obligated to recite the prayer so each individual is obligated.  However, Rabbi Gamliel holds that: “The leader of prayer exempts the individual members of the congregation.”

The common thread in all these disagreements is “a profound difference of opinion as to which tradition of prayer is primary:  priestly or prophetic. The priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the whole community whereas the “patriarchs and the prophets spoke as individuals, spontaneously as the circumstances required.”

Maimonides and Nahmanidies disagree concerning the nature of the obligation to pray.  And, not only do they disagree about the obligation but about the nature of prayer itself

For Maimonides prayer is a biblical obligation as the patriarchs and the prophets spoke directly to God each in their own way and spontaneously.[11]  For him the heart of prayer is the prophetic experience of the individual in conversation with God.

Nahmanides argues that the patriarchs did not set a binding precedent.[12]  They spoke to God as they were moved to do so and not because there was an obligation to pray. He argues that the primary form of worship during the biblical era was the sacrifices offered by the priests, first in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple.  Prayer replaced the sacrifices only after the destruction of the Temple and there was no longer a functioning priesthood.  It was therefore a rabbinic and not a biblical obligation. He further argues that prayer is the collective worship of the Jewish people “a continuation of the pattern set by the Temple service.

In the whole of Jewish history there have been two forms of avoda (service to God):  the priestly and the prophetic.[13] During the biblical era they existed side by side but after the Hebrew Bible reached closure and the Temple was destroyed prayer became the “single form” of communication between heaven and earth. The rabbis were then divided on the genealogy of prayer.  Is it like a sacrifice or the heartfelt pleas of the prophets? The conflict was resolved by combining the two forms as was mentioned earlier. Thus, the worshippers say the prayer silently and then out loud in response to a leader.  Thereby giving deference to both prayer methods handed down through the ages.

Returning to the story about the parishioners “waiting” for an officiant to arrive perhaps we can see in that traces of the priestly tradition of prayer and the argument of Rabbi Gamliel who insisted on a fixed text and promoted the idea that the leader of prayer is “like a priest” whose leadership exempts the individual members of the congregation from their duty to pray.[14] While the Book of Common Prayer seeks to balance the two historical approaches to prayer, as in Judaism, the notion that there must be an “officiant” leading the community in order for the prayer to be valid seemingly remains with us.


[1] This blog entry represents the second in a series which are meant to chronicle a study of the Old Testament books through a Judaic lens so as to more fully understand the interrelation of Judaic customs and practices on New Testament writings. The ideas expressed here originate with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Exodus: The Book of Redemption. 

[2] All quoted material is from Sacks, Exodus: The Book of Redemption, pages 225-231.  All credits belong to Rabbi Sacks. 

[3] Book of Commandments ספר המצוות.

[4] Rabbinic tradition has it that 613 commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai, but it does not specify those included in the enumeration. Maimonidesmethodically and artfully crafts a list of 613 commandments in a work that serves as a prolegemenon to the Mishneh Torah, his monumental code of law. (Prolegemenon from the ancient Greek neuter noun: προλεγόμενον (prolegómenon, “that which is said beforehand,”)

[5] Sacks, page 227.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Making of a Strange Fire.  On the eighth day of the opening of the Tabernacle Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu took their thuribles and offered incense even though it had not been requested or commanded by God.  As a result, they were consumed by flame.  The meaning of the story has been debated for centuries.  But the moral is summed up in a sermon by Bishop Edward Salmon in a sermon to a Nashotah House graduating class:  “Be careful when handling holy things”.

[8] Sacks, page 228.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Eighteen Blessings: The Amidah (Hebrew: תפילת העמידה, Tefilat HaAmidah, “The Standing Prayer”), also called the Shemoneh Esreh (שמנה עשרה), is the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Observant Jews recite the Amidah at each of three prayer services in a typical weekday: morning, afternoon, and evening. The typical weekday Amidah actually consists of nineteen blessings, though it originally had eighteen (hence the alternative name Shemoneh Esreh, meaning “Eighteen”). The prayer is recited standing with feet firmly together, and preferably while facing Jerusalem. 

[11] Sacks, p. 229.

[12] Ibid.  

[13] Sacks, p. 230.

[14] Sacks, p. 229.

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