Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 22 January 2022 / 20 Shvat 5782

The Amidah (Part 1) - Birkat Ha'avot

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

“Prayer is not a miracle. It is a tool, man’s paintbrush in the art of life. Prayer is man’s weapon to defend himself in the struggle of life. It is a reality. A fact of life.”
(Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer)

The Amidah was composed in a manner that preserved the consistency of the opening blessings, regardless of which Amidah is being recited. Therefore, for example, the introductory blessings of the weekday Amidah and the introductory blessings of the Shabbat Amidah are identical. If, however, the middle part of each Amidah differstoreflect the day on which it is said, why are these day-dependant differences not established at the very onset of the Amidah? Why did the Men of the Great Assembly choose to begin every Amidah with the same three blessings and only then proceed to the blessings reflecting the nature of the day on which it is being said?

The Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Simlai (Brachot 32a) that one should never begin to ask G-d for personal requests before first recounting G-d’s praises. Later (on 34a), Rabbi Yehudah says in the name of Rabbi Chanina that during the first three blessings of praying the Amidah, a person is analogous to a servant who should not ask for his own requests whilst standing in front of his master. Rather than focus on his own needs, he should only praise his master. Therefore, we, too, begin our recitation of the Amidah by first defining and praising G-d, and only after the three introductory blessings have been recited do we begin the process of framing our requests and/or describing the nature of the current day of prayer.

If so, it is curious that the three opening blessings are not referred to as “the bessings of praise.” Rather, they are called Birkat HaAvot — “the blessings of the forefathers.” The Talmud teaches (ibid. 26b) in the name of Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Chanina that each of the three Patriarchs introduced the concept of prayer at a different time of the day. Although they did not actually compose the formalized text we have today, they nevertheless established the obligation to pray three times a day (see Maharsha).

Shacharit, recited in the morning, was introduced by Avraham. The Talmud cites the verse (Ber. 19:27): “And Avraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood.” Our Sages explain that the word “stood” is a reference to prayer. The obligation to pray in the afternoon originated with Yitzchak. The verse states (ibid. 24:63), “And Yitzchak went out to speak in the field toward evening.” Our Sages teach that the word “speak” refers to prayer. Finally, Yaakov initiated the nighttime prayers, as the verse states (ibid. 28:11), “And he (Yaakov) encountered the place and spent the night there.” Once again, our Sages teach that the word in the Torah for “encounter” denotes prayer.

Consequently, the commentaries connect the first three blessings of the Amidah to the three Patriarchs. The first blessing, Magen Avraham — the Shield of Avraham — is self-apparent. The shield is a reference to G-d, Who shielded Avraham after he was thrown into the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim and Who later protected him from the kings who tried to kill him. The second blessing, Mechayeh Hameitim — Who resurrects the dead — corresponds to Yitzchak. Our Sages teach that during the Akeida, as Yitzchak was bound on the Altar, the spiritual encounter was so intense that his soul broke free from the physical confines of his body, returning to the spiritual realms before G-d restored it to Yitzchak’s body. The third blessing, HaKel Hakadosh — the Holy G-d — corresponds to Yaakov, as the verse in Isaiah (29:23) states, “They will sanctify the Holy One of Yaakov.”

The blessings of the Amidah are so fundamental that our Sages state (Brachot 34b) that a person who prays the Amidah should do so with concentration and intent for each blessing in the Amidah. However, if it is not possible to concentrate on each and every blessing, one should at the least do so for Birkat HaAvot. In his foundational work Arbah Turim (more popularly known simply as the Tur), Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1269-1343), one of the most decisive authorities in Jewish Law, defines the concentration required as being both an understanding of the words being recited, and also an awareness that the one reciting the Amidah is standing in front of G-d.(Orach Chaim 101:1)

The importance of praying the Amidah with concentration and intent is very great. When Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter (1926-1996), the seventh Rebbe of Ger, universally known as the Pnei Menachem, passed away, approximately two hundred siddurim (prayer books) were found in his possession! The Rebbe would change siddurim frequently, using different commentaries, to bring an additional quality of freshness to his prayers and supplications, and to help him concentrate on the beauty and the depth of the words that he was saying. While the esoteric practices of the Pnei Menachem are certainly beyond our comprehension, he, with his many siddurim, teaches us the enduring lesson that we should always seek additional ways to help us retain our connection to G-d.

To be continued…

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