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What is Jewish prayer?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht


Library » Daily Life » Prayer | Subscribe | What is RSS?


A. The Hebrew word for prayer is Tefillah (pronounced teh-FEE-lah), which also means "connection." You connect to G-d by talking to Him--what is commonly known as prayer. Tefillah means to really speak to G-d like He's right there in front of you. Tell Him your problems, ask Him for help, thank Him for everything He gives you. Tefillah in its essential form is not restricted to the prayerbook so when you read from that prayerbook, identify with its words, make them your own--people who understood exactly what your life is like wrote them.

B. G-d is obviously not some despot who needs to hear little minions sing His praises daily. Tefillah is for us, not Him. Judaism addresses every little corner of life, and tefillah is Judaism's method of addressing the corner of self-improvement. When you rely on You, you self-destruct. But when you reach out to the Highest Power, you self-improve. Tefillah deepens your mind, enriches your soul, and enhances your spirituality. You can handle stress better, because you've got tefillah--a direct connection to the ultimate ISP (Infinite Service Provider). And although accessing G-d through that connection is only Halachah-mandated thrice daily, you can log in and say a few words to Him whenever you want.

C. Tefillah format is called "Nusach" in Hebrew, and there are several hundred nus'chaot (plural for formats) in circulation today, most with differences so microscopic that they're virtually undetectable. Four popular nus'chaot are Nusach Ashkenaz (traditionally used by European Jews), Nusach Sephard (traditionally used by many Chassidic groups), Nusach Eidot Hamizrach (traditionally used by native Middle Eastern Jews), and Nusach Ari (the Kabbalistic-Ari Format, developed by Rabbi Isaac Luria, a.k.a. the Arizal).

Tefillah is a direct connection to the ultimate ISP... you can log in and say a few words to Him whenever you want
How do I pray?

1. The nitty-gritty

According to the Torah you could/should "connect" whenever you feel the need/desire. However, our sages instituted (at least) three fixed daily times for connection: morning, afternoon and night. The morning connection is called Shacharit, the afternoon connection is called Minchah and the night connection is called Maariv. These connections are ideally made in the Hebrew language (but can be recited in any other language you understand), and revolve around the words of the Amidah, with smaller statements made before and after. Shacharit takes about 35 minutes, minchah seven to ten minutes, maariv around ten. You'll need a prayerbook. And although you can pray at home or in most sanitary places, try to make it to a local Shul to pray with a Minyan (certain sections of the prayers can only be said with a minyan).  Women are exempt from time-related Mitzvahs so they are not necessarily bound by these fixed times and fixed prayers. See Is a woman obligated to pray thrice daily? and Pray Like a Woman).

2. Speak the lingo

When you visit the Emperor of Brooklyn at his royal court, you'd better speak a good Brooklynese. But with G-d: when you connect with Him, you can speak any language you want--not just Hebrew. All prayer-books are in Hebrew, but most have an English translation included. Of course it's better to learn Hebrew and pray in the original because of all the mystical powers of the Hebrew letters.

3. Stick to the script

 "Say the same thing every day? I can't do that!" But, question: how do you think those Broadway performers put on the same play night after night, year after year? Answer: anyone can read the lines once or twice--it takes a professional thespian to bring them to life again and again. That's why the Men of the Great Assembly assembled tefillah the way they did--with structure, order and routine: to teach us discipline, and to allow tefillah to work its self-improvement magic. Repetition forces you to make it count each time, to really work on the words and inject them with vitality, just like on the stage.

Related questions:

Why is it necessary to pray three times a day?


Please email me when new comments are posted (you must be  logged in).



Posted by: Glenn, Vineland, N.J. on Feb 13, 2006

Why not have a link that shows the words/text of these prayers you're writing about? Not everyone knows them, or might not even have ever seen them. But their content is certainly germaine to the topic that you are writing about, and many reading about it at this very basic level might be curious to see what these prayers SAY! you know? And so, I thought that this article was not informative enough. Its like looking at a suit on a wire hanger, instead of on a model.

Editor's Comment

We don't know of a website that has online translated prayers, but see for selected prayer transliterations.

The website with free transliterated Siddur

Posted by: Anonymous on Apr 01, 2006

On the tefilah page, someone made a comment about the need for a website with the prayers the Rabbi was talking about. has a free transliterated prayers.


Mitzvot » Prayer » About

Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Jewish Law. All halachah which is applicable today is found in the Code of Jewish Law.
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Highlight of every prayer, recited silently while standing. Weekday Amidah consists of nineteen blessings, Sabbath and holiday Amidah contains seven blessings.
Men of the Great Assembly
An institution of 120 rabbis who led the Jewish people at the onset of the Second Temple Era. They canonized the 24 books of the Bible and composed most of the prayers we have today. This institution lasted approximately 200 years.
Morning prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
(Yiddish) Synagogue.
(adj.) Pertaining to Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism.
Evening prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
Prayer. The Jewish Sages instituted three daily prayers, and an additional prayer on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
Second of the three Jewish Patriarchs, son of Abraham and Sarah. Lived in Canaan (Israel); b. 1712 BCE, d. 1532 BCE.
Afternoon prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 15th Century founder of Modern Kabbalah.
A quorum consisting of ten adult male Jews. A minyan is necessary to recite the kaddish or to publicly read from the Torah scroll.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.
The format of the prayers.