What does a Jew pray for?

Jewish Beliefs as Found in Jewish Prayers
Rick Garlikov (Copyright)

I have sat through a number of Presbyterian Sunday school classes where people have made comments beginning "The Jewish people of that period believed....", usually followed by some statement that seems to modern people to be naive, false, or not particularly perceptive. To me, these claims about Jewish beliefs always sound more suspicious than the beliefs that are ascribed, just as when one hears children talking about how naive, dispassionate, and dense their parents are about life and its most interesting experiences. Yet, if one looks at the literature of the Jews, or of many ancient peoples, one will often find a richness of understanding comparable to, or exceeding, that of the mass of people today whose wisdom is shaped not by reflection on a variety of rich experiences but by conventional, pre-digested platitudes from the media and a homogenized existence that abhors any variety which seems socially unfashionable. Statements about "The early Jews believed...." seem to me to be like statements that 'knowing' Sunday school students 2000 years from now may make to the effect that "Presbyterians of the late 20th century America believed that there was some magical power in Oriental rugs, Volvos, and having pastel light oil icons of their children mounted on the wall". Even people that do have those things, and who believe they are important, do not do so for reasons of either incantation or Presbyterian principle. 

First of all being a Jew is not exactly dependent upon having any particular belief though I suspect one could not believe in more than one God and be called a Jew without there being something contradictory sounding about that. But Jewish agnostics and Jewish atheists abound. Jewish identity, by birth at least, is like American citizenship by birth, in that the requirements for it are not based on particular beliefs(1). Further, currently and historically, Jews have always seemed to be of varied opinions about a great many things. The Talmud, which is a struggle to understand the laws and words of the Torah, is some forty or more times longer than the Old Testament, and contains varied discussions about what God must have meant by certain laws and words and phrases in it-- in order to interpret them consistently and to understand them in conformity with what sensitivity, rationality, and experience tell us is good and right. The insightful joke is that if you asked three Jews about a matter of religion or philosophy you will get four different opinions. There is no reason I know of to believe that any particular theological belief was ever uniformly believed by Jews of any period. In fact, much of The Bible itself records attempts of God and His prophets trying, generally unsuccessfully, to bring a strayed or recalcitrant people to the proper beliefs and attitudes.

So what I am going to do here is simply to share with you some of MY beliefs about what some Jewish religious views(2) are, as taken from the kinds of prayers that are common, standard, or at least typical, in Jewish religious services throughout America, and I suspect, the world. I do not know how far into the past some of these prayers go. Some of them come from the Bible; I do not know about all of them. But many psalms form part of the worship service, and so the context in which they are included may be of some interest to you in understanding present Judaism -- and Jewish life of the period in which they were written insofar as present Judaism may be a reflection or extension of that life. I have discussed some of my views with a Rabbi, and he did not think them out of the mainstream; but neither he nor I could certainly speak for all "The Jews of today" or of any other time period. The prayers I will quote in their English translations will be from the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book of the Rabbinical Assembly of America and the United Synagogue of America, and from High Holiday Prayer Book by the Prayer Book Press. These are prayer books used in the conservative synagogues in numerous American cities. The prayers are also common to other prayer books in other temples and synagogues. Some of them also occur as prayers, and not just as readings from the psalms or other parts of the Old Testament, in services at Christian churches. ("May the Lord bless thee and keep thee;/ May the Lord make His countenance to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee;/ May the Lord turn His countenance unto thee and give thee peace." Also, "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable unto Thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.")

First of all, a common Christian interpretation of the need for Christ's sacrifice is that without it, all of us are too imperfect to achieve salvation. None of us can obey all the laws of the Old Testament; and insofar as we fail, we are not good enough to deserve salvation based on the merit of our "works". Jews supposedly don't realize this and keep trying through works alone to achieve salvation.

Well, sort of. Jews do realize they cannot and do not obey all God's commands perfectly. Jews understand human frailty, guilt, and failure; but they believe God does too. Jews don't believe that God requires a "100" on a test in order to give a passing grade. God's love is viewed probably not unlike normal, sensitive, reflective parental love. It teaches and requires good behavior, but it is understanding, tolerant; it makes certain allowances, though not allowances for everything. It sets rules and it desires adherence to them, but it does not mercilessly either punish or abandon the child for every infraction. And good intentions with real effort to bring about good are appreciated and cherished even in light of mistakes and failures. Arrogant, willful disobedience just to defy a benevolent authority is probably less appreciated than mistakes made out of benevolent intentions or transgressions made out of weakness and temptation.

Most of the prayers in the prayer books then have to do with seeking God's help to behave rightly, seeking God's forgiveness for mistakes, transgressions, and failures, and seeking God's blessings and bounty (1) out of his unconditional benevolence and (2) as a just reward for our being good when we are, and for at least wanting or trying to be good, and for not doing anything totally beyond redemption when we do transgress. Prayers of appreciation, gratitude, thankfulness, awe and wonder for God's past(3) or current blessings and bounty are also prevalent. Many of the psalms are such prayers. The previously given bountifulness, and the future rewards sought for being or trying to be a good person (even if one sometimes does wrong), are usually rewards "of this earth", either for one's forefathers, one's self and one's community, or for one's children or one's children's children and future descendants. Salvation is often in the context of deliverance from drought, slavery, famine, exile, imprisonment, conquest, or our own weaknesses and iniquities. The sense of community among all the past and future generations (or the binding of the generations one unto another) is a very strong theme or feeling in Judaism generally. The memories of those who came before are cherished, and four times a year, and on the anniversary of a close relative's or loved one's death every year, prayers are recited in commemoration of those who have come before and passed away. But the significant memorial prayer, the Kaddish, is not about death or dying. It is said in Hebrew, and means:
"Magnified and sanctified be the name of God throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during the days of your life and during the life of all of the house of Israel, speedily, yea soon; and say, ye, Amen.

"May His great name be blessed forever and ever.

"Exalted and honored be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, whose glory transcends, yea is beyond all praises, hymns and blessings that man can render unto Him; and say ye, Amen.

"May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us and for all Israel; and say ye, Amen.

"May He who establishes peace in the heavens, grant peace unto us and unto all Israel; and say ye, Amen."

Here is what the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book says in meditations and in prayers before Kaddish.

Meditation 1

"Because the Kaddish voices the spirit of the imperishable in man, because it refuses to acknowledge death as triumphant, because it permits the withered blossom, fallen from the tree of mankind to flower and develop again in the human heart, it possesses sanctifying power. To know that when you die there will remain those who, wherever they may be on this wide earth, whether they be poor or rich, will send this prayer after you, to know that they will cherish your memory as their dearest inheritance -- what more satisfying or sanctifying knowledge can you ever hope for? And such is the knowledge bequeathed to us by the Kaddish."

Meditation 2

"While the Kaddish is recited in memory of the departed, it contains no reference to death. Rather it is an avowal made in the midst of our sorrow, that God is just, though we do not always comprehend His ways. When death seems to overwhelm us, negating life, the Kaddish renews our faith in the worthwhileness of life. Through the Kaddish, we publicly manifest our desire and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which our parent had in their life-time. Continuing the chain of tradition that binds generation to generation, we express our undying faith in God's love and justice, and pray that He will speed the day when His kingdom shall finally be established and peace pervade the world."


"O Lord and King who art full of compassion, in whose hand is the soul of every living thing and the breath of all flesh, to Thine all-wise care do we commit the souls of our dear ones, who have departed from this earth. Teach all who mourn to accept the judgment of Thine inscrutable will and cause them to know the sweetness of Thy consolation. Quicken by Thy holy words those bowed in sorrow, that like all the faithful in Israel who have gone before, they too may be faithful to Thy Torah and thus advance the reign of Thy Kingdom upon earth.

"In solemn testimony to that unbroken faith which links the generations one to another, let those who mourn now rise to magnify and sanctify Thy holy name."


"Eternal God, who sendest consolation unto all sorrowing hearts, we turn to Thee for solace in this, our trying hour. Though bowed in grief at the passing of our loved ones, we affirm our faith in Thee, our Father, who art just and merciful, who healest broken hearts and art ever near to those who are afflicted. May the Kaddish prayer, proclaiming Israel's hope for Thy true kingdom here on earth, impel us to help speed that day when peace shall be established through justice, and all men recognize their brotherhood in Thee. With trust in Thy great goodness, we who mourn, rise to sanctify Thy name."


"As we recite the Kaddish, Israel's hallowed prayer, we aver, despite our woe and anguish, that life is good and life's tasks must be performed. Help us, O Lord, to rise above our sorrow and face the trials of life with courage in our hearts. Give us insight in this hour of grief, that from the depth of suffering may come a deepened sympathy for all who are bereaved, that we may feel the heartbreak of our fellowmen and find our strength in helping them. Heartened by this hymn of praise to Thee, we bear our sorrow with trustful hearts, and knowing Thou art near, shall not despair. With faith in Thine eternal wisdom, we who mourn, rise to sanctify Thy name."


"Almighty and eternal Father, in adversity as in joy, Thou, our source of life, art ever with us. As we recall with affection those whom Thou hast summoned unto Thee, we thank Thee for the example of their lives, for our sweet companionship with them, for the cherished memories and the undying inspiration they leave behind. In tribute to our departed who are bound with Thee in the bond of everlasting life, may our lives be consecrated to Thy service. Comfort, we pray Thee, all who mourn. Though they may not comprehend Thy purpose, keep steadfast their trust in Thy wisdom. Do Thou, O God, give them strength in their sorrow, and sustain their faith in Thee as they rise to sanctify Thy name."

Although this last prayer speaks of eternal life, as do a few other passages in the worship services, and though eternal life is not an insignificant concept or theme in Judaism, most of the Jewish worship service and Jewish prayer, and I would daresay Jewish life, is concerned with this life and this world here on earth, rather than life after death. I would suspect that the idea is that if we live as we should here --and again, that does not mean being perfect-- the life after death will take care of itself. Perhaps even if we do not live as we should here on earth. 

Much prayer is directed at asking God to help us act appropriately (and 'reminding' Him to reward us appropriately for so acting or wanting to act, and/or asking him to give us the continued opportunity to act rightly), for Jews realize that nothing we seek in this world -- nothing physical, nothing moral, not even our own behavior -- is totally within our power or control without God's help: "O Lord/ Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile,/ And to those who slander me, let me give no heed./ May my soul be humble and forgiving unto all./ Open Thou my heart, O Lord, unto Thy sacred Law,/ That Thy statutes I may know and all Thy truths pursue./ Bring to naught designs of those who seek to do me ill;/Speedily defeat their aims and thwart their purposes/ For Thine own sake, for Thine own power,/ For Thy holiness and Law,/ That Thy loved ones be delivered,/ Answer us, O Lord, and save with Thy redeeming power."

Deuteronomy compels and reinforces this. (6:1-3) "Now this is the commandment-- the statutes and the ordinances-- that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children's children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you." 

(6:5-9) "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, with all they soul, and with all thy might. And these words which I command these this day shall be in thy heart. Thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thy house, when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes(4) . And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thy house and upon thy gates(5) ."

(11: 13-15) "It shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently [notice, not perfectly] unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart, and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will give grass in thy fields for thy cattle, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied." 

Or consider these harvest prayers which bring together elements of observing the law, receiving bounty, and the continuity of the generations and their relationship with God: "At this season of joyous thanksgiving, we are grateful unto Thee, O Keeper of Israel, for Thy many bounties with which Thou does bless us and for the protecting care with which Thy love doth watch over us. As Thou didst cause our fathers to dwell in the Sukkah [temporary shelter constructed in the fields during the harvest] of Thy glory amid the perils of the wilderness, so spread Thou over us and over all Israel, the Sukkah of Thy love and peace. Amen."

"O beneficent Father, as we recall this day the gratitude of the children of Israel for the harvest of their fields in Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel], we, too, acknowledge Thee, the source of all our bounties. For all our blessings we give Thee thanks. May the portion of the Torah we read today teach us to share Thy gifts with those in need. Hasten that day when the children of Israel, in the land of their fathers, shall bring in their sheaves with rejoicing. We pray that Thou, who didst protect our forefathers when they dwelt in tabernacles in the wilderness, wilt extend Thy tabernacle of peace over Israel and over all the peoples of the earth. Amen."

Since Jews realize they transgress both the letter and spirit of God's laws and God's intentions about how they should behave toward Him and toward other people, repentance is an important element of Judaism. Particularly, but not only, at the beginning of each new year Jews repent and pray to God for forgiveness for the sins they have committed against Him. And they are to repent and ask others for forgiveness for the sins they have committed against them, since God cannot grant forgiveness on behalf of others, only on behalf of Himself. ("For transgressions between man and God, repentance on Yom Kippur brings atonement. For transgressions between man and man, Yom Kippur brings no atonement, until the injured party is appeased." -- Mishna Yoma, chapter 8.) The repentance must, of course, be sincere. From the High Holiday Prayer Book:
"May our prayer come before Thee. Hide not Thyself from our supplication, for we are neither so arrogant nor so hardened, as to say before Thee, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, 'we are righteous and have not sinned'; verily, we have sinned.

"We have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander, we have acted perversely, and we have wrought wickedness; we have been presumptuous, we have done violence, we have framed lies, we have counselled evil, and we have spoken falsely; we have scoffed, we have revolted, we have provoked, we have rebelled, we have committed iniquity, and we have transgressed; we have oppressed, we have been stiff-necked, we have done wickedly, we have corrupted, we have committed abomination, we have gone astray, we have led others astray.

"We have turned away from Thy commandments and Thy judgments that are good, and it has profited us naught. But Thou art righteous in all that has come upon us for Thou has acted truthfully, but we have wrought unrighteousness.

"What shall we say before Thee, O Thou who dwellest on high and what shall we declare before Thee, Thou who abidest in the heavens? Dost Thou not know all things, both the hidden and the revealed?

"Thou knowest the mysteries of the universe and the hidden secrets of all living. Thou searchest out the heart of man, and probest all our thoughts and aspiration. Naught escapeth Thee, neither is anything concealed from Thy sight.

"May it therefore be Thy will, O Lord, our God and God of our fathers, to forgive us all our sins, to pardon all our iniquities, and to grant us atonement for our transgressions.

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee under compulsion or of our own will. 

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by hardening our hearts;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee unknowingly,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee with utterance of the lips;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by unchastity,

"And for the sin which we have committed against Thee openly or secretly;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee knowingly and deceitfully,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee in speech;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by wronging our neighbor,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by sinful meditation of the heart;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by association with impurity,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by confession of the lips;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by spurning parents and teachers,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee in presumption or in error;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by violence,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by the profanation of Thy name;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by unclean lips,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by impure speech;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by the evil inclination, 

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee wittingly or unwittingly: 

For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by denying and lying,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by bribery;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by scoffing,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by slander;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee in commerce,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee in eating and drinking;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by demanding usurous interest,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by stretching forth the neck in pride;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by idle gossip,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by wanton looks;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee with haughty eyes,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by effrontery;

For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by casting off the yoke of Thy commandments,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by contentiousness;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by ensnaring our neighbor, 

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by envy;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by levity;

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by being stiff-necked;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by running to do evil,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by tale-bearing;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by vain oaths,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee by causeless hatred;

"For the sin which we have committed before Thee by breach of trust,

"And for the sin which we have committed before Thee with confusion of mind;

For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement."

Finally, let me end with a poem I found once that is not part of the service, but which, I think, sums up Jewish feeling or idealism about the tradition and about the Sabbath [Shabbat in Hebrew]. As you can tell from some of these prayers, salvation on this earth is often in terms of the simple, basic, but most important pleasures -- peace, family, communion with God, food, shelter, and sharing of life with loved ones. The Sabbath each week was meant to be a day of rest and of enjoyment and appreciation of these most important goods.

by E. Grindell


This it
To come from the blazing sunlight
Into the dim quiet of the synagogue
To sit with my grandfather, his thin shoulders
Sharp against his white silk tallith(6).
To hear the murmur of the old men
And the rising, melancholy song of the cantor;
The crying song of God and of prayer.

This is the great warmth, the great at-homeness:
This is he knowledge of belonging;
The loneness merging into a strong oneness.
One lost drop of water finding its way into the sea.
The Torah gleams white and silver, and we stand
Singing and praying,
Our hearts warm with peace,
Our spirits quiet in the quietness of Shabbat.

This is the end of the week and its beginning.
This is the moment of pause
The refilling of the empty vessel,
This is the remembering;
The shared memory of two thousand years
And the shared embarking upon two thousand more.
This is the hearth, the gathering together;
The pain and the joy,
The tears and the gentle laughter.
This is the benign wisdom in an old man's eyes
And the hope in a boy's fresh voice,
The roots into the past 
And the arms stretched forward into the future.......

We shall live forever and ever.
We shall wander from land to land,
From nation to nation,
Sometimes driven, sometimes tormented;
We shall suffer sharp blows and many deep-hurting wounds.
But this place will be with us
And this warmth
And this rejoicing.......

For this is the great, the many-faceted, the bottomless Shalom(7)

Note 1 . Current fashion has it that Christianity is different from Judaism in this regard, in that to be a Christian, one supposedly has to believe in the divinity of Jesus and that His sacrifice cleansed one of sins and makes possible eternal salvation. But (1) people who are raised as Christians but who are not yet true believers still seem to be Christians in some sense. It is not any more oxymoronic to speak of Christian agnostics or atheists than Jewish ones, it seems to me. And (2), any of you who have sat through the videos Alan and Dale discuss in Sunday school classes, or who have compared Scott McClure, William Sloan Coffin, Desmond Tutu, Jonathan Edwards, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, and Ernest Angeley can easily see there may be very little, or little else, in common in the religious views or interpretations of many Christians. In fact, for many of you, Rabbi Kushner's views on the videos often strike more of a sympathetic response than that of some Christian preachers you have all heard. I suspect that what it is to be a Christian may be as complex, vague, and independent of particular specific beliefs as what it is to be a Jew.  (Return to text.)

Note 2. I am trying to articulate an "ideal" here from the perspective of typical prayers in worship services. Many worship services are quite long; Sabbath services in many synagogues are around three hours. The Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service is over an hour on the evening of Yom Kippur (Jewish "days" begin and end at sunset, not at midnight the way western days do) and continues from dawn the following morning until sunset, with no breaks, since the 24 hours of Yom Kippur is a total fast day with no food or drink of any sort. So I have chosen only a few prayers which I think are typical and significant. The perspective I am giving is not necessarily one the average Jew would have, though it might be something like this if he were to articulate his position. The average Jew would probably be at least familiar with much of what I am saying here, though he may not have thought about it the way I am saying it, and may have some disagreement with some of what I say. And, of course, many of us not only fail to live up to the prayers, but may even not accept them as perfect expressions of our own personal beliefs.  (Return to text.)
  Note 3. Past blessings may be those we have received or that our ancestors received. We are equally thankful for both, just as we may hope equally for rewards for ourselves personally or for our children or for our "children's children". (Return to text.)
  Note 4. There are objects made for this that observant male Jews put on during prayer every morning. They contain scripture inside.  (Return to text.)
  Note 5. The mezuzah, containing scripture, one sees on the door posts of Jewish homes. (Return to text.)
Note 6. prayer shawl (Return to text.)

Note 7. peace (Return to text.)  

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