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בס"ד

The Institution of Prayer in its Historical Development.

(Concluded from page 239.)

By Isaac Leeser

The ninetieth psalm, which is headed—“A Prayer of Moses, the man of God,” is every way worthy of the great prophet. It exhibits the Creator as the Producer of the universe, and still as the Protector of every individual man on earth. Often as this idea comes before us in investigating any religious truth, its importance is such that we cannot recur to it too often. Whether therefore we wish to elucidate that God is the Providence, the Governor, the Judge, the Rewarder, the Avenger, or the Hearer of prayer, it is always to be considered that He is especially watchful over all from his very nature as the Omnipresent and Almighty, not as though He required any special effort of power or vigilance to execute his wish in general or in detail, on earth or in heaven. The prophet next sketches the eternity of God, and the perishableness of man. He says: “For a thousand years are in thy eyes as the yesterday, when it passeth, and as a watch of the night. Thou strewest them (men) out, they spring up in sleep; in the morning man sprouteth forth like grass; in the morning he bloometh and sprouteth, in the even<<278>>ing he is cut off and withereth.” He then prays for understanding to comprehend his existence and relation to God, asks for mercy and the avertance of evil, and closes with invoking protection and permanence of the work in which he was engaged, probably the sanctuary, which he was the means of erecting in the wilderness. You will find in the whole of this extremely beautiful psalm nothing mean, no idea unworthy of acceptance; so, on the other hand, there is no laboured attempt to glorify God;—nothing but the gushing forth of simple and natural lan­guage of the highest order, to express the emotions of his soul.

The Psalms of David, of Asaph, of the sons of Korah, and other sweet singers of Israel, are, as may well be expected, strictly made after the model of Moses. Though the Psalmists wrote on a great variety of occasions, and, if critics may be believed, at great intervals of time, they always kept before them the illustrious and holy men who first taught us by their examples how to pray. I would gladly analyze specimens of each; but the time to do so would be quite too long for a single lecture: But this much is certain, that in the Book of Psalms we have a collection of devotional exercises far exceeding in value, both as regards their influence on the spirit and their stylistic excellence, anything within the whole range of literature. Many have been the attempts to add by new compositions to the store in our possession; and though some have rare merit, they have not yet equalled the legacy of the ancients. With this I do not mean to assert that the psalms and prayers scattered through the Bible have exhausted the subject, or that there are not occasions for which they might be considered inappropriate; but we must not forget that we were never interdicted employing our own words to address our Maker; and I only wish to maintain the simple truth, that the Biblical prayers are the best in existence, and should alone serve as models by which we should frame our thoughts and combine our words so as to lay before God a prayer or thanksgiving worthy of his acceptance, which we are assured it will be, if duly offered with sincerity and devotion.

It is perhaps impossible at the present day to ascertain whe<<279>>ther, during the existence of the first temple, a set form of prayer was in use among us. The Psalms, or a portion at least, existed in a separate collection, and no doubt were used as devotional exercises; but we know nothing of this with any degree of certainty. According to 1 Chronicles xxv., it appears that David appointed certain musicians and their assistants to sing and play at the house of God during the service of sacrificing. In 2 Chronicles v. 13, we read that at the consecration of Solomon’s temple, the immense choir then established duly performed the task imposed upon them, “praising the Lord who is good, for his kindness endureth for ever.” And in the same book, chapter xxix. 30, we read that Hezekiah and the chiefs ordered the Levites to praise the Lord in the words of David and Asaph the seer, which they accordingly did. In the reign also of Josiah, xxxv. 15, we see that the singers were at their post, according to the ordinance of David, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, the king’s seer; all which proves the probability at least that, with the music thus traditionally brought down during the whole series of the Davidean kings, the prayers of his composing and those of his associates; the world-renowned Asaph and Heman, and their contemporaries, were also in practical use, not alone at the temple, but likewise among the people.

If, however, the idea of regular prayer was not developed so early as the first temple, we shall have no such difficulty of arriving at the fact immediately after its destruction. It is probable enough that no sooner were the daily sacrifices abolished by the violent irruption of the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar and his chief guardsman Nebuzaraddan, than the pious of Israel resorted to prayer as a suitable substitute, knowing as they did that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,” and that “obedience is better than the fat of rams.” They came to the conclusion that, with the abolition of the daily oblations on the altar at Jerusalem, the permanence of Israel sad the salvation of the pious were by no means forfeited. Hence they resorted to periodical prayer, at those hours, we may assume, when the priests formerly brought the offerings to the door of the temple. Hence therefore the morning and <<280>>afternoon service; add to which the obligation of speaking of the law “when we lie down,” whence accordingly the evening prayer. On referring to Daniel vi. 11, you will find, that “when Daniel learned that the decree against praying had been signal by the king Darius, or, as he is called in the Bible, Daryawesh the Median, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber which looked towards Jerusalem, and three times every day he fell on his knees, and prayed and praised before his God just as he had been doing before that time.”

If even this practice was customary with Daniel only, which it would be absurd to suppose, it soon spread to others, as there is no doubt that the Shacharith, Minchah, and ‘Arbith, or morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, are institutions existing during the second temple, for which purpose the Synagogues were erected not alone in the country of Palestine, but Jerusalem, the seat of the temple, also, and were thus established that the people might assemble and pray in a body, having their Sheliach Zibbur, or messenger of the congregation,—now called Chazan, or superintendent of the worship,—to read aloud certain portions, to which the people responded, or listened in silence to be in readiness to answer Amen to the portions called Berachoth, or blessings, in case they could not recite the prayers themselves, from ignorance of the words they should use. The Chazan thus acted mediatorially for the uninformed; and the responses they made were considered equivalent to praying themselves; hence the custom of repeating the Shemonay ‘Esray, or eighteen benedictions, otherwise called the ‘Amidah, (from ‘Amad, to stand, they being recited in an upright posture,) aloud, after they have been read by all able to read, each one to himself, in a low tone of voice. Hence also the formula of Kedushah, Kaddish, Bahrechu, and similar pieces.

From Ezra 10, 11, and Nehemiah xii. 45, 46, it appears that the ancient institution of David, that is, the Psalms, was duly revived at the rebuilding of the temple, and also that the law was publicly read in the street from a wooden stand by Ezra, which was interpreted and expounded by his assistants, who are recorded in Nehemiah viii. 7. Having thus clear proof that the <<281>> temple was the place where the Psalms were chaunted, and that other localities were used to instruct the people, we have at once the twofold element of Jewish worship,—the temple for sacrifice and musical accompaniment, and the place of assembly, whether this was a stand temporarily erected in the street to have much room, or a separate building specially devoted to worship, for prayer, praise, and instruction; for we read in verses 5 and 6 of the chapter just now cited: “And Ezra opened the book before the eyes of the whole people, for he stood above all the people; and as he opened it, all the people stood up,” just as we do when the law book is borne to the desk where it is read. “And Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people cried out Amen, Amen, in lifting up their hands, and they bowed down their heads, and prostrated themselves before the Lord with their faces to the ground.”

The latter observance of prostration is not generally followed among us at the present day, except by the Israelites of the German Custom on the New Year’s festival and the Day of Atonement; but the genuflexions, and bowing of the head at particular passages, are yet practised, as you all know; so also the responding of Amen at a blessing, or Berachah, as was done when Ezra prayed before the reading of the law, is yet constantly observed among us. If therefore we freely acknowledge that the prayer book, as it exists at the present time, is the gradual accumulation of many additions to an original simple form, we at the same time claim for much of it the highest antiquity and a uniformity from the earliest return of the Israelites from the Babylonian captivity.           

It may be assumed as doubtful whether any one now living could determine with accuracy whether, in the early days of our history, any set form of prayer or liturgy was in use, except the reading of portions of the sixth and eleventh chapters of Deuteronomy, and of the sixteenth of Numbers, known collectively as the Shemang, so called from the initial words of the first of these sections, commencing with the words Shemang Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel.” It is more than probable that, though prayer was always a duty, the wording of it was left voluntary with each individual. When, however, at the return from Babylon, the <<282>> pure Hebrew had ceased to be the spoken language of the people, and when, we have every reason to judge from Nehemiah, no proper dialect was prevalent, but a sort of Lingua Franca, a compound of Hebrew, Persian, Aramaic, and Phoeniciao, and afterwards of Greek and Latin: it became evidently the business of the Sanhedrin, or Synedrion,—those who both superintended the affairs of the state and the interests of religion, to introduce a formulary of prayer written in the ancient Hebrew, so as to preserve the connexion with ancient Israel, and to maintain the purity of the law in its original, uncorrupted, traditional text, and to add also pieces in the popular speech of the people, chiefly Aramaic, that they might understand, without interpretation from the Meturgeman or translator, the words of praise which the Sheliach Zibbur uttered. We have several such fragments of prayers ; one the celebrated Kaddish, evidently of great antiquity, from all absence of allusion to Roman or gentile supremacy, and the other the Yekum Purkan Min Shemayah, a petition for the peace of the schools at Babylon and Palestine, as also for the welfare of the individual congregation where it is recited or used, among the German Jews. There are other Aramaic pieces scattered through the prayers, but it would take too long to quote them now.

The most learned can only hazard conjecture; but it is not reasonable to suppose that at any time great and violent changes could be introduced into Judaism. No one acquainted with the character and disposition of our people, and the pertinacity with which even small changes are opposed and little matters conserved, can for a moment imagine that prayer three times a day could ever have been introduced, unless the custom had always been more or less prevalent, as was the sacrificing twice or three times every day in the temple. The only difficulty in the case is the amount of pieces which are to be recited, and in them, even at the present moment, the greatest diversity of view prevails. If we, however, take up the prayer book and examine it by the internal evidence of style, we shall be able to determine pretty accurately the age of the various component parts. We need not expect the elevation of diction to be found in the <<283>> ancient portions of the Bible; for, as said, the Hebrew had ceased to be the vernacular tongue, and was therefore merely the language of the learned, or the priesthood and scholars. Still can we trace the gradual deterioration of the style, until it received a new impulse, first by the Asiatic school of neo-Hebraico poets, such as Kalir and Rabbi Nissim of Babylon, and afterwards by the writers of Spain and the Barbary coast; for instance Rabbi Jehudah Hallevi, Shelomah Ibn Gebirol, Abraham and Moses Ibn Ezra, the contributors to the Portuguese Siddur, and their imitators and followers in France, Italy, and Germany.

Examining now the form of prayers by this standard, and taking into account the hints regarding the blessings found in Mishnah and Talmud, we must characterize as most ancient Elohai Neshamah, together with the benedictions and petitions till Vayedabber of the German Minhag, which are also found, though in a somewhat different order, among the Sephardim and Portuguese. The subsequent portions till Yishtabbach, except Baruch Sheamar, are either selections from Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud, or entire psalms and passages from Scripture. But from Yishtabbach till end of the 'Amidah or Shemonay 'Esray, with the exception of some interpolated pieces, the whole is of high antiquity, and is regarded as a preface and conclusion to Shemang, and the 'Amidah is then joined to the last as the close of the prayers proper. The form for Nefilath Apayim, or falling on the face, which ceremony is not now in vogue, is only in a small portion original, as all the Minhagim employ a Psalm, and the variety of the phraseology of the various readings shows that modern additions and changes have taken place. The prayers proper were concluded with 'Alenu Leshabeach, both in style and substance beautiful and forcible in the extreme. The same process of investigation will show us the portions of the evening and night prayers which are from early ages ; and we may freely appeal to any one critically acquainted with the Hebrew, to confess whether this hypothesis has not every appearance of correctness. I only wish that time would permit to analyze the whole in your presence. But this being out of the question, I must hasten to complete what I meant to advance.

<<284>>
In going over the legacy of our fathers which our various Tefilloth, Siddurim, or prayer books (all these terms being synonymous) afford, the candid inquirer will be convinced that as little as our faith is wanting in containing all practical moral duties, so little are our prayers wanting in all that is spiritual and soul-elevating. It is true that, for those who have not leisure, the forms are somewhat long, at least as they now exist; but this does not say that to the pious and devout soul they are too long, or that a man properly alive to his position towards the Most High should not love to spend a considerable portion of his day in exercises of devotion, by which he will live more in (so to say) a friendly intercourse with his Maker rather than think it a burden when he has to pray, and which he cannot too quickly throw off from his shoulders. But those who were compelled to labour for their support, and who were in imminent danger, and therefore not able to fix their minds in devotion, were not expected to recite the usual, but a much shorter form. Permit me to give you the two forms which are already men­tioned in the Talmud, and thus accepted as authoritative. To premise, let me call your attention to the fact that the various 'Amidah forms, for all the year, differing as they do, all commence with the same three benedictions, and conclude with three others of the same tenor. The first refers to the covenant Kith the patriarch, the second to the universality of God’s power, and the third to his holiness. Of the last three, the first speaks of the service, which we pray may be acceptable, the second is the general form of thanksgiving, and the third is a petition for universal peace, as the crowning blessing which the Lord can bestow. Now the rule is, that when we are in a place of danger, we need not say the whole of the Amidah; not even the first and last three blessings; but, instead of this, as follows: “The wants of thy people are many, but their knowledge is weak and limited. O, may it please thee, O Lord our God, to give to each individual his maintenance, and to every creature whatever he may stand in need of; do, however, as seemeth best to thee in thy wisdom. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who hearest prayer.”

When the danger, however, is not imminent, <<285>>another formula is required; for then the first three blessings are to be recited, after which, “Give us understanding, O Lord, our God, to know thy ways, and subject our heart to thy fear, and forgive us our trespasses, send us the redeemer, and remove all diseases from us; satisfy us also with the pleasant products of thy earth, and vouchsafe to gather our scattered captives from the four corners of the world. Do thou also judge those who go astray from thy law, and raise thy hand over the wicked. Cause the righteous to rejoice at the rebuilding of thy city, and the restoration of thy temple, and the growing of the horn of David thy servant, and the lighting up of the lamp of the son of Jesse, thy anointed. Before we call, answer thou us; while we speak, do thou hear; for thou, O Lord, redeemest and savest in all times of trouble and affliction. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who hearest prayer.”

After which the concluding benedictions are to be said. Those of you, my hearers, who are familiar with our daily service, will readily recognise in the above an epitome of the full eighteen, or rather nineteen, benedictions, or, more correctly speaking, the thirteen between the third and seven­teenth of our series. You will readily understand that, like the larger 'Amidah, the prayer Habinenu, as it is technically called from the initial word, contains all that man can ask of God in his individual and social capacity, to satisfy his daily wants, and to bestow on him wisdom, as likewise the spiritual benefits to be expected in the building up of the kingdom of the Messiah, and the restoration of the worship of the Lord at Moriah. Let me here remark that it is probable that whilst the temple stood, the clauses relating to worship, and that referring to the restoration of Jerusalem, may have been differently worded, to answer the then state of things, both in the large and condensed forms. But, either during the existence of the Jewish commonwealth or now, there is no question that the essence of prayer was known and appreciated among us, and that this proceeded, of from opponents or reformers of Judaism, but from its teachers and supporters.

We may, to prove this, freely offer our liturgy,—I speak mainly of the most ancient portions,—and we need not fear the verdict of the world. It is therefore erroneous to <<286>> assume that true spiritual prayer was invented or revealed by a man who, descended from Israelites, has in the process of time become the object of adoration to a large portion of mankind.

I would deem my lecture incomplete, were I to omit noticing the assumption of Christians, which, suicide-like, some spiritualizing Jews acquiesce in, that the prayers of our neighbours are more spiritual than ours; and as an evidence we are referred to the formula called the Lord’s prayer, which is said to have been composed by the founder of the Nazarene creed himself. It is found in Matthew vi., and is in these words:—“Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.”

No one will gainsay that this prayer contains correct ideas of devotion, and conveys them in concise and proper terms. But, from what has been said already this evening, it would be the work of supererogation to prove its simple Jewish origin and its conformity with materials in our own possession, and which were in vogue when the man of Nazareth is said to have lived on earth. The phrase Abinu Shebashamayin is so entirely Hebrew that no one can mistake it for a moment for one of foreign origin. The Talmudists loved to regard God as their Father, in conformity to the Scripture phraseology in a great variety of passages. “Hallowed be thy name” are the identical words with which the Kaddish commences,—Yithgaddal, Veyitkaddash Shemay Rabbah &c., “May his great name be extolled and hallowed in the world which he hath created according to his will.” “Thy kingdom come” are the words which follow “May he establish his kingdom.” “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is almost identical with the form of the usual weekday Kedushah, of the German form, or of the Portuguese, for the ninth of Ab, which commences, “We will sanctify thy name in thy world, as they sanctify it in the highest heaven.” “Give us this day our  daily bread,” is the prayer of the sage,—“Give me my daily <<287>> bread,”—which is interwoven in many portions of our devotional exercises. “And forgive us our debts” is “Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned,” of the 'Amidah “as we forgive our debtors” is almost the same with the formula שדי ליה מרא למאן דמצער לי “forgive, O Lord, the one who aggrieveth me.” “And lead us not into temptation” is the same as in the Shacharith, “And lead us not into the power of sin, transgression, temptation, nor contempt.” “But deliver us from evil” is identical with “Deliver us from a bad man,—evil occurrences,” &c. And lastly, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever,” is only a paraphrase of the words of David in 1 Chron. xxix. 11: “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, power, glory, victory, and majesty; for all that is in the heaven or on the earth is thine.”

There is, according to this exposition, nothing original in this celebrated Christian prayer; all it can claim is that it is a compilation not possessed by us. But we really doubt whether the views which it embodies are properly comprehended by those who make use of it; since the petition that God’s kingdom should come precludes the assumption that the author of it could have been the Messiah who is destined to advance that very kingdom which is here asked for.

But it is time that I should conclude. Gladly would I have given you a more carefully prepared lecture, more worthy every way of your acceptance; but since your kind invitation to address you this evening has been received, I have been absent for near a week, and my time since my return has been so much occupied, that I have barely been enabled to sketch hurriedly what I have done. You will easily see that I have touched upon a great variety of topics connected with our subject hut let me trust that your good sense and personal inquiry will supply any defect which you may discover. I have done.

Iyar 20th, May 22d, 5611.