Jewish Prayer: "I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means"

In many of my run-ins with people of more modern religious denominations, prayer is spoken about like writing Santa Claus a letter a month before xmas. Growing up as a Lutheran Christian, I remember being taught in my confirmation class that a prayer actually had a certain order. I don’t remember the order specifically now, but I remember it resembling the old Mary Poppins song of “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps The Medicine Go Down” in that it seemed to start with complimenting God, thanking God for things, and then bringing your requests – almost as though you had to say the magic word in order to get the Most High’s attention. Even though you’ve successful stroked the ego of the Creator of the Universe, prayer in that manner always seemed oddly selfish to me from that context. 

In Judaism, prayer takes on a much different role and even takes on a different term. “Tefillah”, as it is referred, doesn’t even technically mean “prayer” in the way most people understand it. “Tefillah” is more accurately translated as “praise.” Most of traditional Jewish prayers these days are built with the purpose of trying to (though it is impossible) somewhat replace the sacrificial system of the Temple. In the Temple, different sacrifices were carried out several times a day as offerings to God. Did Jews ever believe that God came down and partook of these sacrifices? Of course not. Did He necessarily even need these sacrifices? Not at all – He’s not a human and doesn’t need food to survive. So, why the heck were we bringing our very best crops and animals to be killed and/or burned for a Being who didn’t technically need them? Because our obedience was a sacrifice of our material goods that brought about the effort of praise. 

I know it sounds really weird, twisted and slightly immature, but God has emotions like we do. When we spend time with other things and dedicate more of our lives to making money and serving our own flesh than serving Him, He gets jealous. Just like when we see our significant other appear to flirt with someone else and our face gets red and hot with jealousy, God feels the same way when another obsession seems to take His place. Also, just like we enjoy an unprompted “I love you” from our significant other, so God enjoys that from us. That is (and this is just my theory) why we have freewill. How good would it feel to have a robot tell you “I love you” when you programmed it to say that to you? Do you get a warm-and-tingly feeling when a parrot says “I love you” a moment after you said this? Probably not so much. So with God, we have the choice of whether not to tell Him that we love Him. We do this with our sacrifice of time and energy in the form of tefillah. 

Just like a significant other will bring the other breakfast in bed or give them a gentle rub of the shoulders after a long day’s work, so are our prayers/tefillah/praise to God. While there are times when we can share our concerns with God, far too often we only pray when we want something. When prayer takes on the role of praise, it becomes our way of telling the Most High that we love Him and want to express to Him how amazing it is to just be able to live lives for Him. 

Because the Temple no longer exists and we’re unable to bring sacrifices to the Most High, we bring our prayers – morning, noon, and night. When your prayers feel like they’re too long and you find yourself detaching from them, remember that this isn’t about you – this is your opportunity to bring your sacrifice of praise to the Creator of the Universe. 

Shalom.