The Meaning and Mode of Prayer

imagePrayer, tefillah, is an essential component of our religion and the centerpiece of the spiritual experience of every practicing Jew. And yet it is a difficult concept to define. Prayer is not one-dimensional, but rather has a different meaning depending upon the particular circumstance and the particular individual.

The archetypal set of prayers is the Amidah, or Shemoneh Esrei. Composed of three different types of prayer, the Amidah’s different sections each express a particular relationship between the person and the Deity, between the speaker and He Whom he is addressing.

In the opening phase of the Amidah, prayer consists of praising and exalting the Almighty. At this point, the lowly human being dares not speak to God about his or her personal needs. He stands in awe of a Being of infinite might and power—feeling puny and impotent, and perhaps even embarrassed about “troubling” the Lord.

At the core of the Amidah, however, are the petitionary prayers, which convey the neediness of every human being but also reflect the belief that one can confidently ask things of God and expect Him to respond. The center of the Amidah therefore reveals a different prayer mode than the awe-ridden and fear-filled opening section.

At the conclusion of the Amidah, one is brought to another psychological mindset entirely; one is no longer meant to feel fear and trepidation, one is no longer engaged in desperate beseeching, but rather one experiences a profound sense of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Thus, three types of prayer are evidenced in the Amidah: exaltation, petition and gratefulness. Three types of prayer, and three completely different spiritual attitudes.

On Shabbat and yom tov (festivals), yet another prayer mode is inserted into the center of the Amidah, a new sort of prayer entirely—the “thematic prayer,” which addresses God in terms of the themes of Shabbat and the central message of each yom tov.

On Rosh Hashanah, three additional and unusual prayer modes are included in the Mussaf of Shemoneh Esrei: Malchiyot, Zichronot and Shofarot, each of which signifies a different motif that relates to the essence of this special holiday. What are these motifs?

1. Recognizing God’s majesty, His omnipotence and His role as Judge.

2. Acknowledging God’s remembrance of mankind, His concern with each and every human being and His involvement in the broadly diverse processes of world history as well as in each individual’s private life.

3. Reaffirming our belief in the Divine Revelation, symbolized by the dramatic sounds of the shofar. Renewing within ourselves the sense that God communicated His will to the human race and to the Jewish people—particularly through the Torah. And asserting our conviction that the same shofar that accompanied the Revelation at Sinai will ultimately herald the Messiah.

Judaism understands that people need different kinds of prayer, expressive of the moods that they experience at any given moment. Judaism realizes, too, that each of us is distinct, and so we each require prayer styles that reflect who we are.


These motifs are not necessarily unique to the High Holidays. Prayers that express our sense of God as King, or that give a voice to a profound feeling of being “remembered” by God, or that incorporate into one’s spiritual awareness a sense of God’s will, are all types of prayer, none of which are any less qualified to be termed “prayer” than those that call upon God to help us achieve our wishes and desires.

Because prayer comes in so many different forms, only a few of which concern God assisting us in one way or another, the question “Does God answer our prayers?” is thus relevant to only one narrow category of prayer. The thousands of tomes addressing that question apply to but a small subgroup within the great panoply of human expressions that comprise the range of the experience of prayer.

The diversity of the prayers does not merely represent the various religious needs and occasions that call for prayer. Rather, it also suggests that human beings, complicated as we are, differ in terms of the prayer modes that suit us best. Just as there are individual differences in all other areas of human life, so too are there individual differences in what might be called our “styles of prayer.”

Our Sages state that there are no less than ten “languages of prayer,” that is, words that connote different forms of prayer, such as rinah, bakashah, techinah, et cetera. (Rashi also quotes this Chazal at the beginning of Parashat Va’etchanan). In the version of the Chazal found in the collection of midrash known as the Yalkut, it is suggested that there are thirteen “languages of prayer.”

The early Chassidic sage and author of Be’er Mayim Chaim, Rabbi Chaim of Tchernovitz, devoted an entire volume to an explication of each of these thirteen prayer modes. In our time, the late lamented Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, whose works have deservedly become so popular since his tragic death, has written a precious little volume called She’arim Batefillah (Gates of Prayer), which attempts a similar explication of the prayer modes in a highly original and spiritually powerful fashion.

Each one of us is unique temperamentally and emotionally; our personalities, our inner selves, differ from one another. It is no wonder, then, that some of us can relate to only one or two of the thirteen modes of prayer, and are unmoved by the others.

The multiplicity of prayer modes is deliberate, and is designed to contend with a basic truth, which our Sages knew well—that just as our faces differ one from another, so too do our individual psychic natures.

It is also indicative of our Sages’ recognition of the fact that each of us, at different times and at different stages of life, needs a distinct prayer mode, one that resonates with our emotional state of being at a particular time. Certain moments call for a contemplative prayer, other moments call for an exuberant prayer and still other moments call for prayers of outcry and outrage.

Judaism understands that people need different kinds of prayer, expressive of the moods that they experience at any given moment. Judaism realizes, too, that each of us is distinct, and so we each require prayer styles that reflect who we are.

But at the same time, Judaism acknowledges something far deeper: there are times of the day, times of the week and times of the year when a uniform prayer is required. There are times when we must transcend our particular needs and concerns, no matter how stressful they may be, and join the rest of our People in articulating a common set of prayers.

Our tradition understands well that in spite of our many differences, some of which are God-made and quite necessary, some of which are of our own doing and quite petty, we can unite in prayer. We can join in a common kehillah, community, in theory if not in reality, and devote ourselves to extracting the message and the essence of the particular prayer mode that dominates these special occasions.

One such occasion—perhaps the most powerful and far-reaching of all—is Rosh Hashanah, and one such prayer is the Mussaf of the Shemoneh Esrei on Rosh Hashanah. On this holiday, the three themes outlined above become the themes that must resonate with and speak to every one of us. All of our conflicting passions and urgent needs should subside as we allow the eternal messages encapsulated in Malchiyot, Zichronot and Shofarot to take center stage. To fully experience these sublime prayers, we must suppress our otherwise distinct selves and merge into a unified whole with the rest of Klal Yisrael.

If there is ever a time when Jewish unity is achieved, if only in the realm of the soul and if only for a few fleeting moments, it is when we are “all welded into a single band,” when we recognize our duty to “perfect the world through the Almighty’s Sovereignty,” become at least dimly aware that “there is not a thing hidden from Your eyes” and witness together the revelation of the Divine Spirit.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the OU.

This article was featured in the Fall 2009 issue of Jewish Action.
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