Vayechi, Jan 1, 2023
By Rachel Rubin Green
Today I want to talk about the Amida prayer and the notion of Shabbat as a taste of the Messianic era.
I want to thank my Hevruta, Bert Kleinman, for his inspiration in developing my ideas about the Amidah. Bert’s comments have helped me focus my thinking.
The Amidah is the core of every prayer service – recited three times on weekdays, four times on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and five times on Yom Kippur. In our practice of Rabbinic Judaism, the Amidah replaced the sacrifices that were once offered at the Temple. Even though the other term for the weekday Amidah is the Shmoneh Esraey, the 18, it actually contains 19 blessings – 3 introductory, 3 concluding, and 13 petitionary prayers in the middle. On Shabbat and Yom Tov, those middle prayers are replaced by the blessing of the day.
The 3 introductory blessings are blessings of praise. For those of us who daven mostly on Shabbat and Yom Tov, these are the most familiar parts of the Amidah because we sing them aloud together both at Shacharit and at Musaf. The 3 concluding blessings, blessings of gratitude, are sung together only when we have a full repetition, usually at Shacharit, but rarely at Musaf, so some of us don’t know them as well. These blessings include the Modim prayer of thanksgiving and a prayer for peace. While the words themselves vary slightly from one service to another, these two groups of blessings remain the same thematically and are found in the same sequence every time the Amidah is recited.
Lord Jonathan Sacks groups the middle blessings thematically. The first three are for individual spiritual needs – Knowledge, repentance, forgiveness. Furthermore, knowledge of what is righteous behavior will lead one to repent, which in turn leads one to ask for forgiveness. According to Rabbi Sacks, these are the first 3 needs of an individual soul.
The next 3 brachot address the physical needs of an individual – redemption, Geula, from personal crises, healing, and prosperity – the blessing of the years. At the time these blessings were codified, blessing God for the passage of the seasons was indeed a blessing for prosperity, since all lives at that time depended upon agricultural abundance. That is still more true than many of us would like to think. Nevertheless, I personally like the idea of blessing God for the simple passage of time.
With the next bracha, the ingathering of the exiles, the requests in the blessings shift from individual spiritual and physical needs to communal physical and then spiritual needs. Gathering in the exiles, restoring judges, destroying enemies and humbling the arrogant are all aspects of a communal desire for physical restoration of a Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. The third of these blessings, about destroying enemies, is a reference to the destruction brought about by factionalism in the Jewish community during Greek and Roman times. It is an uncomfortable sentence, and perhaps can serve as a warning.
The last group of three addresses our communal spiritual needs. The first is a blessing praising the righteous and the scholars in Israel, who provide spiritual resources for the community. Then are two blessings praising God for rebuilding Jerusalem and for the salvation of the line of David, a not very subtle reference to a Messiah. These 3 together make up the last cluster of petitionary blessings.
The last blessing that we say on weekdays but not on Shabbat is Shema Kolenu – hear our voices. We pray that God will continue to hear us, and hopefully, or maybe, respond to what we ask. Rabbi Sacks adds that this is where in the liturgy individual prayers should be added
The middle blessings that I summarized together give us a path towards a more redeemed world. Meeting personal spiritual needs first, then personal physical needs, then communal physical needs, and lastly communal spiritual needs gives direction to our actions. Even taking away the layer of national ideology that permeates so much of our liturgy, these blessings list elements of a redeemed, or at least an improved world. Everyone has access to health and to sustenance, there are systems of judges, implying that laws and justice are part of the society, and there is respect for scholars. Repentance and Forgiveness suggest that individuals take responsibility for their actions. All these would be steps towards an improved, although far from messianic, society.
The familiar explanation as to why these blessings are not said on Shabbat is that we don’t ask for things on Shabbat. By definition, these prayers are requests, and are therefore inappropriate for Shabbat.
Another possible explanation, one I have just started to consider, is that if Shabbat is a taste of the messianic time, an almost tangible preview of the world to come, we have no need to say those brachot on Shabbat. Those needs and desires have been met, so making those requests is no longer necessary.
Sadly, the real world intrudes. The unhoused people I saw walking to shul this morning are stark evidence that even on Shabbat we do not live in a messianic or redeemed world.
Prayer is to inspire the person saying the words, we, the Kahal, need to hear the words we say. The petitionary prayers in the middle section of the weekday Amidah are to list for us work that still needs to be done in the world. So enjoy Shabbat, and then tomorrow morning, get to work on however you can best contribute.