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SIDIC Periodical VIII - 1975/1
Aspects of Jewish and Christian Prayer (Pages 26 - 29)

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Prayer expressed in life
Mikael Tagliacozzo


There are striking analogies between the life of the Jewish religious collective settlements in the Land of Israel and that of the first Christian communities of Palestine. The common principle is that each member should contribute according to his means and receive according to his needs (see Acts 4:32-37). This rule is observed by everybody in all the concrete circumstances of existence. It aims at creating a cell that is a model of community, and this life is regulated by a religious commitment based on rigorous observance of the moral code. The existence of such a community is therefore strictly ordered according to the morality and precepts of the Law (Torah). The Law and the precepts are seen as the foundation of Jewish humanism and the expression of that tendency to goodness and holiness which will restore the kingdom of heaven. All this is envisaged as a means of laying the permanent foundation of man's life and of determining the image of his world and of his horizon, an image that is inspired by faith in God, placed at his service, and that recognizes in him the Providence upholding and nourishing creation (Ps. 145:15-16).

Man, this being so privileged in the plan of creation, has been sanctified by grace, which is the sublime witness of divine wisdom and source of the gifts of free will and the power of overcoming evil by good. He can thus benefit the human family and raise the world to the highest moral standards.

Prayer as all-embracing

It has often been remarked that the Jewish religious settlement is strongly reminiscent of the « school of the Lord's service » which St. Benedict's Rule expresses in the maxim « Ora et labora » and the Jewish religious community settlement as « Torah va-'avodah » (Law and labor). A society faithful to tradition cannot confine itself to individual manifestations of religious life. It must instead transform spiritual values to factors that are decisive in all aspects of life, be they economic, political, educational, etc. Closely linked to the Law and the precepts are prayer and study, in as far as prayer and study of the Word of God are considered to be one whole, the sacramental activity par excellence, or better still, the highest and purest form of God's service. The word prayer in the Jewish religious collective settlement embraces all aspects of life both individual and collective. It is expressed day by day, hour by hour in every manifestation of this life, and reaches its highest intensity in the sanctification of the Sabbath and of the other prescribed feasts.

Unlike the communities whose discipline is inspired by the traditional rules of orthodox rabbinism, those who belong to the hasidic tradition 1 exhibit by their manifestations during divine service a fervor so intense that to the unprepared observer it could seem to be a kind of paroxysm. However, this very enthusiasm (hitlahavut, fervor) contains « the ardour of ecstasy », the cup of grace and the eternal key, while in devotion (havvanah) « is the mystery of a soul directed to a goal ».2

For the hasid prayer is not limited by time, manner or space. Be it spontaneous or obligatory, he participates in it not only with his heart and mind but also with his whole body. « All my bones shall say: 'Lord, who is like you?' » (Ps. 35: 10). Hence there is no prayer more pleasing to God than that of the simple man who does not know how to express himself and who has nothing to offer the Lord but the wordless need of his heart. Hasidic legend tells of a peasant with a son so intellectually retarded that he could not distinguish the shapes of the letters and for this reason his father avoided taking him to the synagogue. However, when the boy came of age according to the Law of God his father took him to the synagogue on the Day of Atonement to prevent him, from want of intelligence and knowledge, from eating on the holy day of fasting. The child had a flute which he used to play when he was looking after the animals in the fields. Unnoticed by his father he took this instrument with him to the synagogue. He remained seated during the service not knowing how to join in. At the beginning of the additional prayer he turned to his father: « Father, I've brought my flute and I want to play it. »

His father was worried and warned him: « Be careful, my son, and keep your soul from doing so. » At the offertory prayer he again turned to his father: « Father, let me play my flute. » At sunset the solemn closing prayers begin and the synagogue resounds, now wearily, with the prayer of the Eighteen Benedictions. Once again before night falls the « great confession » is heard and God pronounces the great pardon. The boy could no longer restrain his fervor, and taking the flute from his pocket blew it loudly. The congregation was perplexed and struck with fear. The holy Ba'al Shem Tov then rose, and standing above the crowd shouted: « The decree is shattered, the Holy One, blessed be he, has granted pardon and his anger has been dispelled from the face of the earth.»

However, man is not alone when he prays. All creation and the angels unite with him. « The heavens weave a crown of praise for you, Lord, in union with your children here below who together praise your holiness.»4 Communion with the angels and the whole of creation makes it possible for the individual to sink his personality in the one soul of all that has been made, and thus unified to become one with the divine presence, the Shekhinah. «The heavens show forth the glory of God and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands » (Ps. 19:1) because all is born of the Shekhinah, lives in the Shekhinah and pulsates with its life.

The Sabbath

For the hasidim the opening of the Sabbath marks the highest point of joy in the service of God, particularly because of the preponderance of family worship. It starts on Friday evening with the preparation of the collective, or rather, family agape. The table with its white cloth is the altar. On it are the two loaves of fine flour, the wine and the salt for the sanctification of the feast (Kiddush). After the Sabbath lamps have been lit (according to the number of members of the immediate family), the wife blesses the Lord for having granted her the privilege of kindling the lamps, symbol of the divine light. The women remain at home in prayer while the men go to the synagogue to receive, when the moment arrives, « Queen Sabbath » who is on the way. The rabbi enters the synagogue; with long quick strides he goes straight to the podium and the hasidic ceremony begins. « Praise the Eternal because he is good, because his mercy endures forever. » Every Friday evening the hasidim greet the arrival of the Sabbath with these words from Psalm 107. The custom was established by the holy Ba'al Shem, that wonderful master, when he was delivered from the pirates' prison during his unfortunate pilgrimage to the Holy Land. « Praise the Eternal because he is good, because his mercy endures for ever. » « It is as though an electric spark has suddenly entered those present. The crowd which till now has been completely quiet, almost cowed, suddenly bursts forth in a wild shout. » The crowd sways and presses . . . « Enter, Beloved, to meet your Spouse.» 5It is at this moment that the Shekhinah comes down from the heavens to be united with mankind and with its mystic Spouse. This union is consecrated by the mysterious words of a prayer from the Zohar, the « Book of Splendor »:

Thus, as they (the angels) above in the highest heavens are made one with the absolute Oneness, so here below the Shekhinah flows into the mystery of the One to form with the angels in heaven a perfect unity. The One, Holy and Blessed, will not take his seat on the throne of his mercy until the Shekhinah is reunited with the absolute Unity. The mystery of the Sabbath is that of its reunion in the secret of the absolute Oneness, so that its mystical union with the Shekhinah and with Israel may be achieved. Then Israel is invested with a new soul, and the prince of darkness (sitrah ahra) flees in rage from the world. With him flee the forces of evil (shultan roghzin), to reappear when the Sabbath is ended.6

After the evening prayer the hasid hurries home. He cannot linger on the way because the angels of peace and divine service accompany him from the synagogue to his home. The family worship begins with the blessing of the sons and the farewell to the angels. « Peace to you angels of the service of God, angels of the highest King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be he. May you come in peace, bless us with peace and return in peace.» « For he shall command his angels to guard you in all your ways » (Ps. 91:11) and « the Eternal shall guard your going out and your coming in » (Ps. 121:8).

There follows the blessing for the mother of the family, « the valiant woman » (Prov. 31: 10), the sanctification of the Sabbath by the blessing of the wine and the passing of the cup, the washing of hands, the blessing and the breaking of bread. The meal is always interlaced with liturgical compositions and prayers of gratitude for the gift of food, and, at the end, thanksgiving preceded by a second washing of hands.

Thus the passing guest, whoever he may be, and still more the poor man, has a right to the hospitality of the house. This is a constant rule which the hasidim observe with sincere joy and which recalls the exhortation of the epistle to the Hebrews 13: 1-2.

A third of the Sabbath day is dedicated to prayer and study and reaches its climax with the third meal (se'udah shelishit) eaten with the members of the community. In this meal, more than in the two other family meals, it is possible to trace the analogy with the agape of the first Christian communities. Here is manifested the joy that unites in prayer and praise God, the Sabbath and the kahal Israel (the whole of Israel). This joy is expressed by the singing of poems attributed to the holy kabbalist Isaac Luria (sixteenth century) and by the recital of ancient midrashim, basically moral and didactic, which present numerous similarities with the Gospel parables.

Hasidism, more than any other movement in Judaism, gives much time to spontaneous individual prayer, very unlike patterns of codified liturgy. Sometimes this prayer takes the form of pressing petitions seemingly irreverent and incomprehensible to those who have no experience of joyful hasidic manifestations. The history of Hasidism has transmitted some of these spontaneous prayers.

O Lord our God and God of our fathers, put an end to all wars and all shedding of blood in your world. Give us your own great and wonderful peace so that men may no longer raise the sword against other men and no longer learn to make war. Lord, make your children always follow the truth because you did not create them for struggle and violence. You fashioned them not for hatred, envy, quarreling and blood-shed, but to know your majesty and your ways, Lord, blessed for ever.8

Light of lights, Holy of holies, Truth of all truth, great and holy Father of all men! Great and holy Father of all Israel! Show us that path of light and uprightness on which our fathers and the prophets walked. Grant, our great and holy Father, that enlightened by the light of Moses we may live in the immense truth of your holiness with the simplicity and integrity of Jacob.

Take us far away from all empty desires, all pride and temptation, so that we may be at peace with you and with all that you have created. Holy, holy, holy! Make us holy with your holiness. Implant in us your Shekhinah, exalted and holy Father of the universe. Implant pure love in our hearts so that we may love all that you have made, all men created in your image and likeness. Flood our souls with your light. Illumine our minds, purify our hearts, so that the days of your kingdom may come for love of Jerusalem your city and for the peace of all men.9

Good morning, Almighty God, Master of the world!
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah, of Berditchev, Come before you to plead the cause of the people of Israel.
What do you want of your people, what do you want of Israel?
Why do you afflict your people Israel?
You are always saying: « Speak to the children of Israel. »
On every occasion you turn towards the children of Israel.
Our Father, there are so many peoples on the earth:
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.
The Russians — what do they say?
That their emperor is the real emperor. The Germans — what do they say?
That their empire is the real empire.
And the English? That their empire is the real empire.
But I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah, of Berditchev,
I say:
Yitgaddal ve-yitkaddash shemeh rabba!
May the glorious Name be exalted and sanctified! 10

In this prayer Hasidism expresses one of the highest points of the spirituality of Israel whose mysticism, individualistic as it is, is unmistakably its own. It is one of the purest manifestations of the universal longing of humanity for the absolute, beyond all ethnic and national distinctions.

Mr. Tagliacozzo lives in Israel on a religious moshav (cooperative agricultural village). In this article he speaks as a modern religious hasid.

1. A spiritual movement which sprang up about the middle of the eighteenth century among the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe. The inspiration of the movement was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, called the Ba'al Shem Tov, that is: Master of the Good Name (of God).
2. Martin Buber, The Legend of the Baal-Shem, London 1956, pp. 17 and 33.
3. Shivhe ha-Besht, Gerusalemme 1957, p. 38.
4. Musaph prayer according to the liturgy of the Sephardic rite.
5. Jiri Langer, Nine Gates, London 1961 (p. 7 in Italian edition).
6. Sefer ha-Zohar, parashath terumah.
7. From the liturgy according to the rites following the kabbalistic interpretation.
8. Prayer of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlay.
9 Prayer of the martyr Rabbi Hillel Zeitlin.
10 Prayer of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.


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