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Personal, Individual and Communal Prayer

Author: Esther Ehrman, Tamuz 5767/June 2007

Shema koleinu

Shema koleinu, H’ elokeinu, chus ve rachem aleinu,, ve kabel be rachamim u ve ratzon et tefilateinu, ki el shome’a tefilot ve tachanunim ata. U mi lefaneicha reikam al teshiveinu, ki ata shome’a tefilat amecha Israel be rachamim. Baruch ata H’, shome’a tefila

Hear our voice, Lord our G-d, spare us and have compassion on us and accept our prayer in compassion and with favour, for You, Lord, hear prayers and supplications, and let us not return empty, our King, for You hear the prayer of Your people with compassion. Blessed are You, Lord, Who hears prayer.

This is the sixteenth beracha of the Amida, the last of the middle section of requests. Our sages suggest that this prayer, or some version of it, was said by the Israelites in Egypt, crying out to G-d. We know that their cry was ‘heard’. (Shibbolei HaLeket)

In the Middle section of the Amida, we have prayed for the needs of the people, for knowledge, the ability to repent, forgiveness, redemption, healing, the blessings of nature, ingathering of exiles, justice, the elimination of unbelievers, reward for the righteous, the return of the Divine Presence to Jerusalem and Divine salvation with the royal line of David.

We now, with shema koleinu, pray that all these supplications may be ‘heard’. Clearly, within a silent Amida, this hearing does not just mean that it be audible. We ask that our prayers be accepted – not yet that they be answered. We may insert into this prayer, our personal requests, either after the word, H’ elokeinu, (the address used by Moses in his personal request to enter the Land of Israel) or after the phrase ‘let us not return empty’. With our personal insertions, we stress the individual in a prayer where the plural form indicates a community. Indeed, the Amida requires the presence of the quorum of ten people. There is no tension here between the individual and the community. We do not, as individuals, ask for anything that is at the expense of the community.

What is it exactly that we ask G-d when we ask him to ‘hear and accept’ our prayers?

When we ask that our ‘prayer’, our tefilot be accepted, we ask that we may be accepted, individually, as a community and – here – also personally, with our concerns which are, we trust, also the concerns of G-d. Requests for the rule of justice, redemption, the ability to repent and the blessings of nature etc., are all things that the Torah has promised as possible.

Prayer, says Yehuda HaLevy in his ‘Kuzari’, is intended to bring us into the presence of G-d, so that we, like the prophets, may be privileged to ‘hear’. Prayer, says the ‘chaver’ in that work, is the meal of the soul. It is intended to fortify our control of our person and thus, presumably, to make us fit, acceptable to G-d in the same way that the sacrifices were intended to make us acceptable. We pray that our awareness of the need for justice etc makes us ‘fit’ to be heard

In the statutory part of the text, we pray that we may be heard by the Almighty with mercy and compassion, since we are aware that we have no claims, no rights; we pray that we may not be sent away empty.. In a sense, this is the same as asking to be ‘heard’. Rabbi Munk (The World of Prayer’, vol 1) suggests that this prayer can really apply only in the future, since ‘R. Eleazar said, the gates of prayer are closed’ (Ber.32b) until the rebuilding of the Temple. Most people would find that a difficult assumption, since R. Eleazar’s statement is followed by a statement by R. Hamma, son of R. Hanina ‘if a man saw that he prayed and was not answered, let him pray again’ .

The statutory part of the text, as distinct from our personal insertion, is nowadays fixed, although there are variations in different traditions. However, while the content of the berachot of the Amida was fixed, the wording was certainly not fixed originally. Prof. J. Heinemann (‘Prayer in Judaism’) suggests that it was a Jewish innovation to make prayer itself a cultic act; it had previously accompanied the cult of sacrifices. And prayer was meant to be spontaneous, R.Eliezer omer, ha osei tefilato keiva, R.Eliezer said, one who makes his prayer fixed – keiva -, errs. The Gemara discusses the word keiva and explains it as kol she eino yachol lechadesh ba davar (Ber.29b), someone who has nothing new to say on this. Professor Heinemann suggests that the texts of prayers came to be fixed because people were, on the whole, no longer capable of saying something new, largely because their knowledge of Hebrew became inadequate

We pray that we may be heard, we say, ‘because you, Lord, hear prayers and supplications’, then, again, ‘because You hear the prayer of Your people with compassion’ and we end with the blessing (it is called the chatima, the signature) ‘Blessed are You, Lord, Who hears prayer’. The repetition emphasises the fact that our request is made in the confident knowledge that the Almighty has shown us that He does hear prayer. Indeed, this is the most important statement of the beracha.

Our Sages teach us, in the Gemara, that a person who is in danger and thus unable to recite the whole Amida, should say one short prayer only, namely this, the sixteenth beracha. It quotes a few possibilities (Ber.29b):

"R. Eliezer said : Do Thy will in the heavens above and give a satisfied mind to those who fear You below. And do that which is good in Your eyes. Blessed are you, Lord, Who hearkens to prayer.

R.Joshua said: Hear the entreaty of Your people Israel and speedily answer their plea. Blessed are you, Lord, Who hearkens to prayer.

R.Eleazar, son of R.Zadok said: Hear the cry of Your people Israel and speedily answer their plea. Blessed are You, Lord, Who hearkens to prayer.

Others say: The needs of Your people are many and their mind is limited. May it be Your will, Lord our G-d, to give to each and every one enough for his sustenance and to each and every body sufficient for its want. Blessed are You, Lord, Who hearkens to prayer.

The above variant formulations reflect different attitudes to prayer. The last (‘others’) would seem to be a clearly individual prayer, while the first, R. Eliezer, indicates that prayer must indeed be determined by the concerns of the Almighty.