Prayer Throughout the Ages – Part 1 – The Oral Prayers
Moshe continued his long, long, historical, inspirational, meaningful, motivating, and timely speech, “Remember the kindness and forgiveness that HaShem has shown you, and always serve HaShem B’chol Levavchem (with all your hearts).”
Hold it! In what way should you use your heart to serve HaShem? With a heart to heart talk? Heartly… I mean hardly.
Our Sages tell us that we serve HaShem by praying with the emotions that come from our hearts.
It’s a fact. All around the world – from Australia to Argentina, from Jerusalem to Johannesburg, from New York to New Zealand – Jews gather to Daven (pray) in the synagogue, or Shul, or Beis HaKnesses (which are all the same thing, BTW). We praise Him and thank Him for all of the wonderful things He gives us.
Yet, when Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael, prayer wasn’t anything like it is today, when we pray at least 3 times a day. At that time, each person prayed in his or her own words, whether on a daily basis or in times of trouble. Facing the direction of the Beis HaMikdash, they would pour their hearts out to HaShem. A classic example of this we find in the Book of Shmuel. It’s the story of the mother of the Prophet Shmuel, Chanah, who prayed silently for a child. (This became the model for the most important prayer we have today – the Shmoneh Esray, or Amidah – in which everyone stands and prays quietly.)
This, according to the Rambam, is how it lasted from the days of Moshe Rabbeinu all the way to the times of Ezra HaSofer, Ezra the Scribe, who lived at the start of the Second Beis HaMikdash.
So how did our daily prayers come about? Let’s turn to our master teacher, the Rambam, and see how he tells the story:
When Israel was exiled in the time of the wicked Nevuchadnetzar (after the destruction of the First Beis HaMikdash), they ended up in foreign countries like Persia and Greece, where they spoke foreign languages… so when someone would pray, he would have a very hard time speaking to HaShem in Hebrew.
When Ezra and his court saw this situation, they established a fixed prayer of eighteen blessings (Shemonah Esray). They also decreed that the number of prayers correspond to the number of sacrifices. Two prayers every day, corresponding to the two daily sacrifices… The prayer that matches the daily morning sacrifice is called Shacharis. The prayer that matches the afternoon daily sacrifice is called Minchah… They also instituted a prayer to be recited at night, since the daily afternoon offerings could be burnt the whole night…
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Chapter 1
Now where did Jews gather to say these prayers? Contrary to popular opinion, even before Ezra, there were special houses where Jews gathered to pray. Indeed, at the time of the first Beis HaMikdash, public places of prayer existed, which were called Beis Ha’am.
But there were no prayer books, a.k.a. Siddurim, in those days! That’s because, at that time, prayers were not allowed to be written. Indeed, they remained “the Oral Prayers” – to be spoken and not written – similar to the Oral Law of the Torah. Only a few of the brightest people in each community knew all of the words. That, by the way, is how the job of the Chazan (the cantor) came about – he was the expert who would repeat the words of the Shemonah Esray out loud. The congregation would listen carefully and answer Amein after each of the Chazan’s blessings.
“Congregation Anshei Yisrael is proud to present our new talented and gifted cantor. He knows every single word of Shemonah Esray, by heart! And to top it off, Chazan Moshe is a Levi, a direct descendant of the Levi’im who would sing in the Beis HaMidash! He has a lovely, mellifluous voice!”
But as time passed, without the prayers being written down, people were getting more and more confused, and entire communities did not know how to pray properly.
“Is there a Chazan in the house? Anyone?!”