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Notes from Limmud 2005

The Amidah, ancient and modern

Prof. Reuven Hammer

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transription is not guaranteed.]

[There's a lot of terms here, some of which I'm not explaining. I'm writing predominantly for a Jewish audience here, as I'm not sure this is of wider interest, though non-Jews are welcome to read and ask questions.]


The Amida prayer has the following names:

  • עמידה, the standing prayer, originally a Sephardi name. We stand out of respect when addressing G-d as king. (By contrast, says the Mishnah, we sit when reciting the Shema, as that is G-d speaking to us.)
  • שמונה עשרה, the Eighteen (though since Talmudic times there have been nineteen blessings).
  • התפילה, the Prayer; the name used almost always in rabbinic sources.


When did the Amida originate? The rabbis in the Talmud said the early prophets (נבאים ראשונים)—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—initiated the daily prayers. [This is based on "Abraham arose early in the morning", i.e. to pray, several times in Genesis; and "Isaac went out to meditate in the field at eventide"; and I forget what Jacob did.] Did they really seriously believe they wrote the Amidah as we have it today? Probably not. [Originally, as [livejournal.com profile] livredor pointed out to me, this belief arose as Pharisaic propaganda: "Look, we're not changing the religion; the three daily prayers were actually instituted by the Patriarchs nearly two thousand years ago!"]

The sages of the Talmud also suggested the prayer was instated by the Men of the Great Assembly.

Rabban Gamliel heard the Amidah recited and made the final decision as to its form. He also did something revolutionary to it after the destruction of the Temple. He decreed the תפילה was חובה (sp?), an obligation on every Jew to recite it. Until then prayer was רשות ["permission"]—voluntary. With the daily offerings having ceased, prayer took its place: it was to be כנגד התמידים: at the same time as the continual offerings in the Temple, which took place twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon.

This is why there is no repetition of the מעריב [Evening service] Amidah. [I.e. because it's not taking the place of a Temple sacrifice? I'm not sure I follow this; I must not have taken enough notes here.] The repetition of the Amidah exists in case people did not know the words—at that time it was forbidden to write texts down. Even the Mishnah when first compiled was not written down; it was Oral Law, memorised by תנאים. Only Scripture was allowed to be written down.

[תנאים means "repeaters" (it's cognate to the Hebrew הנשמ Mishna, "repetition". Originally תנאים were sages who had the whole Oral Law memorised, and people could go and ask them to repeat parts of it. This is similar, it strikes me, to the qurra "readers" of the first days of Islam, who had the whole of the Qur'ān memorised.]

What does the Amidah have to say?

The Amida is normally divided up into three parts, the first and last recited at all times, and the middle one recited on weekdays only. The first part is praise, the second requests or petitions (what תפילה, normally translated "prayer", literally means), and the last thanksgiving. (Yet of the thanksgiving blessings only 18 is really thanksgiving!)

  1. אבות Ancestors
  2. גבורות Wonders
  3. קדושה Holiness
  4. דעה Knowledge
  5. תשובות Repentance
  6. סליחה Pardon
  7. גאולה Redemption
  8. רפואה Healing
  9. ברכת השנים Blessing of the years
  10. קבוץ גליותנו Ingathering of the exile
  11. שופטים Judges
  12. ברכת המינים "Blessing" of the heretics
  13. גרים Converts
  14. בונה ירושלים Building Jerusalem
  15. צמח דוד Dynasty
  16. שומע תפילה Hearing prayer
  17. עבודה Worship
  18. מודים Acknowledgement
  19. שלום Peace

Is this the way the Amidah originally existed? Prof. Hammer contends the petitions were not appropriate for a prayer existing before the destruction of the Temple.

Early forms of the Amidah

סיפרי דורים is an ancient (tannaitic) midrash. (The ancient midrashim are the סיפרי Sifri, מכילתא Mechilta and the סיפרה Sifra). PisKa (section) 343 reads:

He said: The Lord came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them (Deut. 33:2): Scripture shows that Moses opened (the blessing) not with the needs of Israel but with the praise of the Omnipresent.

This may be compared (המשל) to an advocate (rhetor) hired by a certain individual to plead his cause. The advocate, standing on the podium, opens not with the needs of his client but with the praise of the king. Happy is the world because he is its king. Happy is the world because he is its judge. The sun shines upon us (for his sake). The moon shines upon us (for his sake). The audience joins him in praising (the king). Only then does he turn to the needs of his client, and finally concludes with (repeated) praise of the king.*

So too Moses our Teacher opened not with the needs of Israel but with the praise of the Omnipresent, as it is said, And he said: The Lord came from Sinai. Only thereafter did he begin to speak of the needs of Israel (as it is said), And there was a king in Yeshurun (33:5). finally he concluded with the praise of the Omnipresent: There is not like unto G-d, O Yeshurun (33:26).

King David also spoke first in praise of the Omnipresent, as it is said, Halleluyah. Sung unto the Lord a new song (Psalms 149:1), and only afterwards spoke in praise of Israel: For the Lord taketh pleasure in his people (Psalms 149:4); finally he concluded with the praise of G-d: Praise G-d in His Sanctuary (Psalms 150:1).

His son Solomon likewise spoke first in praise of G-d: There is no god like Thee, in the heaven, or in the earth, who keepeth the covenant and mercy (2 Chron. 6:14); then he spoke of the needs of Israel: If there be in the land famine, and he concluded [...]

So too the Eighteen Blessings that the Early Prophets decreed that Israel should recite daily. They did not recite the needs of Israel until they had opened with the praise of the Omnipresent, "The great, mighty, awesome G-d. Holy are You and awesome is Your Name", after that "You free the prisoners" and after that "You heal those who are ill" and after that "We acknowledge You".

(Transcribed whilst listening to hold music on the 'phone. Caveat lector: not proofread!)

ויאמר ה׳ מסיני בא וזרח משעיר, מגיד הכתוב שכשפתח משה לא פתח בצרכם של ישראל תחילה עד שפתח בשבחו של מקום

משל ללוטייר שהיה עומד על הבמה ונשכר לאחד לדבר על ידיו כלא פתח בצרכי אותו האיש וחילה עד שפתח בשבחו של מלך אשרי עולם ממלכו אשרי עולם מדיינו עלינו זרחה חמה עלינו זרחה לבנה והיו אחרים מקלסים עמו ואחר כן פתח בצרכו של אותו האיש וחזר וחתם בשבחו של מלך

אף משה רבינו לא פתח בצרכו ישראל עד שפתח בשבחו של מקום שנאמר ויאמר ה׳ מסיני בא ואחר כך פתח בצרכם של ישראל ויהי בישורון מלך חזר וחתם בשבחו של מקום אין כאל ישורון,

ואף דוד המלך פתח בשבחו של מקום תחילה שנאמר הללויה שירו לה׳ שיר חדש ואחר כך פתח בשבחם של ישראל כי רוצה ה׳ בעמו וחזר וחתם בשבחו של מקום הללו אל בקדשו

ואף שלמה בנו פתח בשבחו של מקום תחילה אין כמוך אלהים בשמים ובארץ שומר הברית והחסד ואחר כך פתח בצרכם של ישראל רעב כי יהיה בארץ וכזר וחתם בשבחו של מקום קומה ה׳ אלהים לנוחך

ואף שמנה עשרה ברכות שתיקנו נביאים הראשיונים שיהו ישראל מתפללים בכל יום לא פתחו בצרכם של ישראל עד שפתחו בשבחו של מקום האל הגדול הגבור והנורא קדוש אתה ונורא שמך ואחר כך מתיר אסורים ואחר כך רופא חולים ואחר כך מודים אנחנו לך׃

* Documents have been found in Latin and Greek bearing this out.

† Possibly this is a later editing into the text, and originally it said התפילה.

That's a pretty short Amidah!

The contention in this (after Louis Finkelstein) is that this must be a very early midrash giving the first recension of what the Amidah must have been like. It's probably shorthand for something longer than this, but is probably the outline of the central prayer as it existed before the destruction of the Temple.

The first phrase exists in today's first blessing of the Amidah, and comes from the Book of Deuteronomy.

Then it skips to the theme of the third blessing of the Amidah; this text is only used by Ashkenazim on the High Holydays (though the Sephardim use it all the time).

This paragraph is connected to the Patriarch Jacob, because it echoes what he said when he woke up from his dream.

נורא, awesomeness, and קדוש, holiness, are related.

So where then is the petition in this? מטיר אסורים "He frees the bound", and רופה חולים, "He heals the sick", both quotations from Psalms, found today in the second blessing.

Today, though, these are not considered part of the petitionary part of the Amidah!

Following this is מודים, acknowledgement, today's blessing 18. Finkelstein thinks מודים אנחנו לך may be an injunction to get down on one's knees at this point. (In ancient times there was a lot more kneeling than today.)

And that is the end.

So if מודים was the end then, what is 19, שלום, doing there nowadays? It is a rephrasing of the Priestly Blessing. (Similar things exist in the Dead Sea Scrolls, taking the Priestly Blessing and making it into a prayer.) In today's prayer we have the Priestly Blessing immediately before שלום, carried out by the Priests (according to the Sephardi, and original, halacha) in every place at every daytime Amidah.

So possibly originally the Priests would get up and bless the people after the conclusion of the Amidah. At that time, the Amidah was the whole service. Not until 300 or after were the Shema and Amidah connected. In the earliest times, there were five separate times for prayer:

  • The evening Amidah (voluntary)
  • Shema in the evening (Biblical injunction)
  • Shema in the morning (Biblical injunction)
  • Morning Amidah (required, as taking the place of an offering)
  • Afternoon Amidah (required, as taking the place of an offering)

With the destruction of the Temple, and the prayer becoming obligatory, there is a change in the text of the prayer. Our need now is for the restoration of the Temple, a restoration of Jewish sovereignty. And whilst we're praying for this, let's pray for a restoration of the ideal way things were, at the time of King David.


The Amidah we recite today is a prayer for redemption. People nowadays regard the Amidah as a series of separate ברכות, but there is a theme running throughout, and that is a prayer for redemption and return. This whole theme arose only with the destruction of the Temple.

Let's look at it blessing by blessing. I'm including here for each blessing its text in an old MS (Schechter JQR 10) of the Amida found in the Cairo Geniza. This follows the ancient נוסח of ארץ ישראל of prayer. Today, of course, we use the Babylonian version of the prayers, not the Palestinian; but in Egypt in the first millennium they used the Palestinian version.

[There is a point to including the Schechter text, which will become apparent further down; I'm including it for every ברכה, though, because it's interesting to see how it diverges from the modern text.]

(If your Hebrew isn't good enough to translate this, I suggest you read through this with a siddur open before you.)

Praise section

Blessing 1: The Patriarchs, connected with Abraham

ה׳ שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך׃
ברוך אתה ה׳ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו אלהי אברהם אלהי יצחק ואלהי יעקב האל הגדול הגבור והנורא אל עליון קונה שמים וארץ מגנינו ומגן אבותינו מבטחיבו בכל דור ודור׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ מגן אברהם׃

Introduces historically: G-d as revealed to the Patriarchs and Moses.

Blessing 2: גבורות Wonderful powers, connected with Isaac

אתה גבור משפיל נאים חצק ומדין עריצים חי עולמים מקים מתים משיב הרוח ומוריד הטל מכלכל חיים מחיה המתים בהרף עין ישועה לנו הצמיח׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ מחיה המתים׃

Praises G-d for what G-d does in Nature, especially rain. He sustains life; He quickens the dead. (Conects with the midrash that Isaac was indeed slaughtered in the Akedah.) This is the גבורה par excellence, which is why it is represented in the חתימה (conclusion of the blessing).

This conclusion is also a refutation of the Sadducees' disbelief in the resurrection of the dead: it's a polemic. It's also, possibly, addressed to the Christians: we don't need Jesus to achieve resurrection of the Dead; G-d does it on His own. (This blessing may antedate Christianity, but took on added meaning afterwards.)

Blessing 3: Holiness of G-d, connected with Jacob. A mystic blessing.

קדוש אתה ונורא שמך ואין אלוה מבלעדיך׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ האל הקדוש׃

G-d's holiness cannot be described. Isaiah, when in the presence of G-d, could only repeat the word three times: קדוש קדוש קדוש.

Petitionary section, prayer for redemption.

Blessing 4: Knowledge.

חנינו אבינו דיעה מאתך ובינה והשכל מתורתך׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ חונן הדעת׃

What kind of knowledge are we talking about? How do we begin to overcome our sin? What caused the calamity of the destruction of the Temple and the exile? Sin. מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצינו "We were exiled from our land because of our sin." So we have to go back to G-d, and the beginning of this is knowledge of G-d, and of sin.

Blessing 5: Repentance

השיבנו ה׳ אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ הרוצה בתשובה׃

Now we have knowledge of G-d, we—the whole people of Israel—acknowledge we have sinned.

The next step then in the process of תשובה is Divine forgiveness, blessing 6:

סלח לנו כי חטאנו לך מחה והעבר פשעינו מנגד עיניך כי רבים רחמיך׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ המרבה לסלוח׃

The seventh blessing says we are asking for forgiveness because we want You to redeem us.

ראה בענינו וריבה ריבנו וגאלנו למען שמך׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ גואל ישראל׃

Blessing 8: Heal us.

רפאינו ה׳ אלהינו ממכאוב לבנו ויגון ואנחה העבר ממנו והעלה רפואה למכותינו׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ רופה חולי עמו ישראל׃

The phrase used here comes from Jeremiah (but pluralised). Jeremiah is not talking about physical illness, but healing from sin and alienation from G-d. The healing of the social malaise, so we are worthy of G-d again.

Blessing 9: Bless this coming year: i.e. make it the year of redemption. This is not apparent from today's text, but can be seen in the Schechter text:

Bless us, O Lord our G-d, this year, for good, in all species of its produce, and bring speedily close the year of the end of our Exile. And give dew and rain upon the face of the earth and be eternally satisfied [?] from the lands of your goodness, and give a blessing upon the work of our hands. Blessed are You, Lord, Who blesses the years. ברך עלינו ה׳ אלהינו את השנה הזאת לטובה בכל מיני תבואתה וקרב מהרה שנת קץ גאלתינו ותן טל ומטר על פני האדמה ושבע עולם מארצות טובך ותן ברכה במעשה ידינו׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ מברך השנים׃

Blessing 10: The Redemption now brings in the Ingathering of the Exiles.

תקע ושופר גדול לחירותינו ושא נס לקיבוץ גאליותינו׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ מקבץ נדחי עמו ישראל׃

Which leads to Blessing 11: The Judges will be reestablished: the Sanhedrin, the whole self-governmental system.

השיבה שופטנו כבראשונה ויוצינו כבתחלה ומלוך עליון אתה לבדך׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ אוהב המשפט׃

Blessing 12: The "blessing" of the heretics. Again in the Schechter MS this is not the watered-down version we have nowadays, but a full-blooded curse on those who have left Judaism.

Let there be no hope for the apostates, and uproot the kingdom of arrogance in our days. And the Christians, and the sectarians let them perish immediately. Let them be wiped out of the book of life, and let them not be written together with the righteous. Blessed are You, Lord, the humbler of the arrogant. למשומדים אל תהי תקוה ומלכות זדון מהרה תעקר בימינו והנצרים והמינים כרגע יאבדו׃ ימחו מספר החיים ועם צדיקים אל יכתבו׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ מכניע זדים׃

This was not so much toned down as different in the Babylonian version: in Babylonia Christianity was never the threat it was in Palestine.

(Note to non-Jewish readers: In case it wasn't obvious, there is no such wish expressed in any modern Jewish prayer. This prayer dates from the first days of Christianity, when Christianity was a schismatic Jewish sect, and was viewed by the authorities in Judaism as a threat that had to be suppressed in the strongest of terms.)

Why pick this moment to curse them? Because they are the ones who will not be returning, and will not be part of the redemption.

Blessing 13: Blessing for converts: those who will be returning.

For the righteous converts, may you be merciful towards them; and give us all a good reward along with those who carry out Your will. Blessed are You, Lord, the trust of the righteous. על גירי הצדק יהמו רחמיך ותן לנו שכר טוב עם עושי רצונך׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ מבטח לצדיקים׃

The Ingathering of the Exiles then leads to the rebuilding of Jerusalem (14) and (15) the restoration of the Davidic dynasty (which they had not had even before the destruction of the Temple. In the Schechter text these two blessings are only one. Thus the curse against the heretics is not, as commonly thought, the nineteenth blessing; this, rather, is where it comes from.

רחם ה׳ אלהינו ברחמיך הרבים על ישראל עמך ועל ירושלם עירך ועל ציון משכן כבודך ועל ההכלך ועל מוינך ועל מלכות בית דויד משיח צדקך׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ עלטי דויד בונה ירושלם׃

Possibly the reason this blessing was split in two was because the Exilarch in Babylonia considered themselves descended from the House of David.

[Off-topic musing by Your Humble Narrator: Mmm, interesting; the Schechter text uses the Biblical spelling of ירושלים, without the second י. (Which suggests to me that the original Hebrew name was Yerushalem, according with the Latin, Greek and Akkadian forms. One day I'm going to get around to checking this in the Encyclopaedia Judaica.) It also uses the plene spelling דויד as found in Chronicles.]

Blessing 16: That G-d should hear our prayer.

שמע ה׳ אלהינו בקול תפלתינו ורחם עלינו כי אל חנון ורחום אתה׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ שומע תפלה׃

17, Temple Service, is really part of the petitionary section, not the thanksgiving: that G-d returns His Divine Presence to Zion. This is the peak of redemption: when Israel was Exiled, the Shechinah left with them; so the culmination of redemption is for it to be restored to Jerusalem.

רצה ה׳ אלהינו ושכון בציון ויעבדוך עבדיך בירושלם׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ שאותך ביראה נעבוד׃

[More musing by Your Humble Narrator: Again, the ending here is only used by us today on High Holydays. I wonder why this is so.]

Thanksgiving section (included for completeness' sake):

מודים אנחנו לך אתה הוא ה׳ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו על כל הטובות החסד והרחמים שגמלתנו ושעשיתה עמנו ועם אבותינו מלפנינו ואם אמרנו מטה רגלינו חסדיך ה׳ יסעדינו׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ הטוב לך להודות׃

שים שלומך על ישראל עמך ועל עירך ועל נחלתך וברכנו כולנו כאחד׃ ברוך אתה ה׳ עושה השלום׃

יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי ה׳ צורי וגואלי׃

[Off-topic musing by Your Humble Narrator: It's interesting to consider how how we think of Judaism today as descended in a lineal form from that of Mishnaic times is a simplifiation caused by the almost happenstance extinction of other forms of Judaism. Two thousand years ago an outside observer would probably not have been able to say whether Pharisaism, Saduceeism or Essenism was the normative form of Judaism; yet once the Temple was destroyed and the Jews exiled, only Pharisaism "escaped alone to tell thee".

The same goes for the different directions Babylonian and Palestinian Judaism were going in in post-Talmudic times. Today we know of the Palestinian Talmud (even though we don't follow it), but this was almost the first I learned that there were major differences in liturgy from the Babylonian form. I wonder just what else was different that isn't generally known about.]

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