This article is one of a six-part series entitled “Rabbinic Parallels.”Revised: 15-Nov-2012
The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4) is viewed by Christians as a model prayer. It is even sometimes suggested that since the Lord’s Prayer can easily be prayed in about half a minute, prayers should be kept to that length. A little Jewish background provides an important perspective on the Lord’s Prayer and removes the notion that all prayers should be short.
The central prayer in Jewish life and liturgy is known by a number of names: שְׁמוֹנֶה עֶשְׂרֵה (shemōneh ‘esrēh, “eighteen”), since it originally consisted of eighteen benedictions; עֲמִידָה (‘amidāh, “standing”), because it is said standing; or simply תְּפִלָּה (tefilāh, “prayer”), the prayer par excellence. It is very ancient, its final version dating from around 90-100 A.D. when a nineteenth benediction was added. (For a new translation of the Amidah prayer, see my “The Amidah Prayer.”)
This prayer is the essential part of the morning, afternoon and evening weekday services in the synagogue. It is said first in a whisper by the worshipers and then recited aloud by the reader. The prayer is composed of three opening benedictions of praise, which include “We will hallow your name in the world as it is hallowed in the highest heavens”; thirteen petitions including petitions for wisdom, healing, forgiveness, deliverance from want and affliction, and for the sending of the Messiah, “the branch of David”; and three concluding benedictions, which include thanksgiving to the “rock of our lives and shield of our salvation” whose “miracles are daily with us,” whose “wonders and benefits occur evening, morning and noon,” and whose “mercies and kindnesses never cease.” A person who is fluent in Hebrew can pray this prayer in about five minutes.
Every Jew is religiously obligated to pray the Eighteen Benedictions daily. Rabban Gamaliel said: “One must say the Eighteen every day” (Mishnah, Berachot 4:3). In times of emergency, however, this obligation is fulfilled by praying a shortened form of the Eighteen:
Rabbi Yehoshua says: “If one is traveling in a dangerous place, he says a short prayer, namely, ‘O Lord, save your people the remnant of Israel; in every time of crisis may their needs not be lost sight of by you. Blessed are you, O Lord, who answers prayer.’” (Mishnah, Berachot 4:4)
The Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 29b explains that “a dangerous place” is “a place infested with wild animals or bands of robbers” and provides additional examples of abbreviated prayers:
Rabbi Eliezer [a younger contemporary of Jesus] says: “May your will be done in heaven above, grant peace of mind to those who fear you [on earth] below, and do what seems best to you. Blessed are you, O Lord, who answers prayer.”
Note the phrases “your will be done” and “in heaven above…[on earth] below” as in the Lord’s Prayer. Also note the parallel between “grant peace of mind” in the prayer Eliezer taught and “deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s Prayer.
Rabbi Yehoshua says: “Hear the supplication of your people Israel and quickly fulfill their request. Blessed are you, O Lord, who answers prayer.”
Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Zadok says: “Hear the cry of your people Israel and quickly fulfill their request. Blessed are you, O Lord, who answers prayer.”
Other sages say: “The needs of your people Israel are many but they do not know how to ask for their needs. May it be your will, O Lord our God, to sustain each and every one and to supply each person what is needed. Blessed are you, O Lord, who answers prayer.”
The petitions for God’s provision for livelihood and his supply of what is needed are strongly reminiscent of the request for “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer.
The sages taught their disciples abbreviated versions of the Eighteen Benedictions such as those above, and it seems likely that Jesus similarly gave his disciples a prayer for occasions when there was not time to say the full form of the prayer. Far from being proof that customarily one should pray very brief prayers, the Lord’s Prayer points us to the Eighteen. It can be assumed that in normal times Jesus and his disciples prayed daily the much longer “Eighteen.”
|The featured image for this article is a photograph of a woman praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photographed by לנה קונסטנטינובה. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.|