On the Spirituality of the Amidah
The editors of the Siddur Otzar Hatefillot (A Treasury of Prayers), published in Vilna 1914 prefaced their compendious work with an impassioned introduction. They described how, after the destruction of the Temple, Ezra, the Elders and Prophets were inspired to ‘set firm the foundations of the spiritual centre’ through the worship of God in prayer, the service of the heart. They therefore established blessings, with the Amidah at their centre, making their recital a duty incumbent upon all Israel through all the lands of their dispersion’¦so that they might all come to worship God with one heart, in one spirit and with one tongue; and that this service should be like a spinal cord of the spirit’¦uniting all the people in their longing and striving’¦
Their sense of history may not have been accurate, but their understanding of the place of the Siddur at the heart of Judaism certainly was.
The familiar prayers are indeed a spinal cord through the generations of the Jewish People, in each Jewish community, and in the lives of those innumerable Jews for whom the discipline of worship formed the structure of each and every day.
To many traditional thinkers, the words themselves are sacred and irreplaceable. In 1815, a bitter conflict broke out after the opening of the Reform Temple in Hamburg. A key issue was the recital of the Shema and the Amidah in the vernacular. Orthodox opponents, although they knew this was permitted according to core halakhic texts, argued that every syllable of the original Hebrew contained profound mysteries concealed there by their prophetic authors. While saying them in German might theoretically be allowed, capturing these secret meanings in translation was nowadays impossible and unthinkable.
While clearly a pious fiction, this argument strikes me as also conveying a profound truth. The words of the Amidah are indeed imbued with a profound and irreplaceable spiritual resonance. I would attribute this, though, less to the intention of those composed them than to the hearts and lives of the millions who have faithfully recited them through joy and pain, plenty and persecution. Their spirits are carried in the words of the Amidah as if by a great river, bearing in its currents the souls of our people through the landscapes of the millennia.
The Shulchan Aruch (the 16th-century code of Jewish law) advises focussing on the literal meaning of each word of the Amidah, while imagining that we are standing in the immediate presence of God. The goal, however, is self-transcendence: ‘The pious’¦would spend time in solitary contemplation and focus on their prayers to the extent that they divested themselves of physicality’¦’ (Orach Chaim 98:1)
Forgetting ourselves in prayer remains our goal too, if even only for a few seconds. Therefore it is helpful to know short passages, even a line or phrase, by heart; then we can close our eyes and lose ourselves. The music may transport us more than the words. The shared focus of a whole community together has the power to carry each one of us with it. We enter the flowing waters of spirit. When we emerge, we are aware that, somehow, the inside of our mind and heart have been cleansed. For a moment we were absorbed in the infinity of God.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism and rabbi of New North London Synagogue.