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Pirke Avot chapter two, verse eighteen: Tefilah

Using Jacob Neusner’s translation, because his is on top of the pile:

R. Simeon says, “(1) Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer.
And (2) when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine.
But let it be a [plea for] mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be he.
As it is said, For he is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of mercy, and repents of the evil (Joel 2:13).
(3) And never be evil in your own eyes.

This is, I think, the first reference to liturgical prayer we’ve come across. By capitalizing Prayer, Mr. Neusner interprets R. Simeon ben Nathaniel to be referring to a specific prayer, sometimes called T’filah (Prayer), sometimes called the Sh’mona Esray (Eighteen, referring to the eighteen blessings contained in it), and most often in contemporary Judaism called the Amidah (Standing, because the congregation stands whilst reading it). The Shabbat Amidah is usually said silently by the congregation, and then repeated by the cantor or rabbi; the repetition can include the entire prayer or only large chunks of it. Sometimes the cantor will chant with the congregation for parts of it. I’ve been in places where the cantor begins the Amidah with the congregation, and then the congregation finishes it silently, and then the cantor finishes it aloud. In my (Reform) synagogue, it is begun together and then finished silently without cantorial repetition, at least on Shabbat Shacharit (I have only attended Friday night services a couple of times, and don’t really remember how they handled it for those). Also, the Reform siddur’s Amidah is (of course) substantially shorter than the Conservative one (and I assume the Orthodox one is longer still).

Now, for y’all Gentle Readers who don’t attend synagogue, I’m going to attempt to describe the Amidah in a Conservative Synagogue. It’s probably going to be difficult; I’m curious if it is totally alien to those of y’all who are in different churching traditions… Anyway, to understand it, you have to go back a couple of generations. Before the state of Israel and modern Hebrew, Jews in America were taught Hebrew specifically for the purpose of davening, of reciting the liturgy. And they were taught with stopwatches. Speed was critical. Comprehension, not. The difference between a learned Jew and an am ha-aretz was how fast they could daven.

As a result, the time allotted for the congregation to silently read the Amidah was very very short. Nor would it be likely that one would complain that it was too short; the admission that one couldn’t finish the reading in time was tantamount to admitting ignorance. So the congregation learned to, well, be less than meticulous in its silent recitation.

I have never managed to read the entire Amidah in Hebrew in the time allotted by a large or even medium-sized congregation. Or even a minyan, I think. I believe I have had the experience of finishing in a very small group, where people were taking the opportunity for silent meditation, and had near-Quakerly tolerance for it. Many congregations encourage silent meditation rather than (or in addition to) reading the text of the Prayer, but then, silent meditation also doesn’t last long enough for me to read the Hebrew all the way through.

In part, this is because I never managed to memorize the Prayer all the way through. On the other hand, I never managed to memorize it because I never really managed to read it all the way through. If I prayed by myself, daily or even weekly, which I would like to do if I had the discipline and the time, I probably would eventually memorize it, pick up speed, and then (perhaps) be able to finish the whole thing in such a short time, although the weekday version is different from the Shabbat one, so there it is.

What I’m saying, the advice here is good advice, peculiarly suited to my own situation (and that, I think, of a lot of us early-21st Century Jews), all assuming that you believe in liturgy. Which I suppose is the next note.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Also, the Reform siddur’s Amidah is (of course) substantially shorter than the Conservative one (and I assume the Orthodox one is longer still).

A minor point: I'm pretty sure the Orthodox Amidah is the same as the Conservative one (except for the Conservative inclusion of the "with matriarchs" alternative).

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