04 May 2007


One of the recurring faults of religious scholars is a focus on scripture rather than the living faith that the religious practice. Perhaps that is why, despite having an intensive religious education, I'd never heard until today of the Amidah described by Wikipedia as " the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy."

It is a prayer that every student of Christianity, Islam and of the larger monotheistic religious tradition should know, and know well. It is something of a missing link in the evolution of Christian doctrine, for it comes from the "mishnaic period." What and when is this?

The Mishnah (Hebrew משנה, "repetition"), redacted circa 200 CE by Yehudah Ha-Nasi (יהודה הנשׂיא / "Judah the Prince"), is the first written recording of the oral law of the Jewish people, as championed by the Pharisees, and as debated between 70-200 CE by the group of rabbinic sages known as the Tannaim. It is considered the first work of Rabbinic Judaism and is a major source of Rabbinic Judaism's religious texts: Rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah over the three centuries after its composition were then redacted as the Gemara (Aramaic: "Tradition"), and joined with the Mishnah to form the Talmud.

In other words, the Mishnah, which is the theological embodiment of the transformation of Judaism from the Temple based, sacrifice oriented religion of Jews in what Christians call the "Old Testament" was developed contemporaneously with the books of the Christian "New Testament", and like the "New Testament" had its roots in the Mediterranean Jewish community. Some have described the Amidah a prayer developed as a substitute for the sacrifices of Temple Judaism.

When was the New Testament written: "The original texts were written in Koine Greek by various authors after c. 45 AD and before c. 140 AD." Some scholars place the starting date for New Testament composition as late as 70 CE (a significant date as it marks the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and the transformation of Judaism from the Temple period to the Rabbic period). Apocryphal New Testament works have been dated through 170 CE. The contents of the New Testament canon were just starting to solidify in the period from 140 CE to 180 CE, and were not definitively settled even as late as 300 CE.

In short, the Amidah would have been in the consciousness of almost every active member of the Jewish community from which the early Christian church was emerging at the time the New Testament was written. How could it not have influenced the religious writing of these authors?

So what is in the Amidah? According to Wikipedia:

The nineteen blessings are as follows:

1. Known as Avot ("Ancestors") this prayer offers praise of God as the God of the Biblical patriarchs, "God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob."
2. Known as Gevurot ("powers"), this offers praise of God for His power and might. This prayer includes a mention of God's healing of the sick and resurrection of the dead. It is called also Tehiyyat ha-Metim = "the resurrection of the dead." . . .
3. Known as Kedushat ha-Shem ("the sanctification of the Name") this offers praise of God's holiness. . . .
4. Known as Binah ("understanding") this is a petition to God to grant wisdom and understanding.
5. Known as Teshuvah ("return", "repentance") this prayer asks God to help Jews to return to a life based on the Torah, and praises God as a God of repentance.
6. Known as Selichah, this asks for forgiveness for all sins, and praises God as being a God of forgiveness.
7. Known as Geulah ("redemption") this praises God as a rescuer of the people Israel.
8. Known as Refuah ("healing") this is a prayer to heal the sick.
9. Known as Birkat HaShanim ("blessing for years [of good]"), this prayer asks God to bless the produce of the earth.
10. Known as Galuyot ("diasporas"), this prayer asks God to allow the ingathering of the Jewish exiles back to the land of Israel.
11. Known as Birkat HaDin ("Justice") this asks God to restore righteous judges as in the days of old.
12. Known as Birkat HaMinim ("the sectarians, heretics") this asks God to destroy those in heretical sects who slander Jews, and who act as informers against Jews.
13. Known as Tzadikim ("righteous") this asks God to have mercy on all who trust in Him, and asks for support for the righteous.
14. Known as Bo'ne Yerushalayim ("Builder of Jerusalem") asks God to rebuild Jerusalem and to restore the Kingdom of David.
15. Known as Birkat David ("Blessing of David") Asks God to bring the descendant of King David, who will be the messiah.
16. Known as Tefillah ("prayer") this asks God to accept our prayers, to have mercy and be compassionate.
17. Known as Avodah ("service") this asks God to restore the Temple services and sacrificial services.
18. Known as Hoda'ah ("thanksgiving") this is a prayer of thanksgiving, thanking God for our lives, for our souls, and for God's miracles that are with us every day. The text can be found in the next section. . . .
19. Known as Shalom ("peace"); the last prayer is the one for peace, goodness, blessings, kindness and compassion. Ashkenazim generally say a shorter version of this blessing at Minchah and Maariv.

Final Benedictions
Prior to the final blessing for peace, the following is said:

We acknowledge to You, O Lord, that You are our God, as You were the God of our ancestors, forever and ever. Rock of our life, Shield of our help, You are immutable from age to age. We thank You and utter Your praise, for our lives that are delivered into Your hands, and for our souls that are entrusted to You; and for Your miracles that are with us every day and for your marvelously kind deeds that are of every time; evening and morning and noon-tide. Thou art good, for Thy mercies are endless: Thou art merciful, for Thy kindnesses never are complete: from everlasting we have hoped in You. And for all these things may Thy name be blessed and exalted always and forevermore. And all the living will give thanks unto Thee and praise Thy great name in truth, God, our salvation and help. Selah. Blessed be Thou, O Lord, Thy name is good, and to Thee it is meet to give thanks. . . .

Concluding Meditation
The custom has gradually developed of reciting, at the conclusion of the latter, the supplication with which Mar, the son of Rabina, used to conclude his prayer:

My God, keep my tongue and my lips from speaking deceit, and to them that curse me let my soul be silent, and like dust to all. Open my heart in Your Torah, and after [in] Thy commandments let me [my soul] pursue. As for those that think evil of [against] me speedily thwart their counsel and destroy their plots. Do [this] for Thy name's sake, do this for Thy right hand's sake, do this for the sake of Thy holiness, do this for the sake of Thy Torah. That Thy beloved ones may rejoice, let Thy right hand bring on help [salvation] and answer me... May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Eternal, my rock and my redeemer.

I won't belabor the point (or eat up any more of the morning) by exploring the links between the Amidah and the New Testament in detail. But, it isn't hard to see that many elements of the Amidah are found in the Christian New Testament, and in particular, are emphasized in portions of the Gospels found in later, but not earlier Gospels, like the reference to the House of David. Many references commonly notated in Christian scholarship as references to the Hebrew Bible are probably indirect and come to Christian scripture through the Amidah, rather than directly from their Biblical sources.

The tradition of praying the Amidah three times a day while facing Jerusalem is similarly probably behind the pillar of Islamic practice of praying five times daily towards Mecca. This prayer also probably closely linked to the Christian monastic schedule of daily prayers, and behind to similarly structured Catholic prayers like the Rosary.

As a concluding point, an acknowledgement of the historical religious importance of the Amidah to all three of the "People of the Book" faiths, also shines a spotlight on Ben Sira. This rather obscure extracannonical Jewish religious writer is not the direct author of the Amidah, but it strongly echos his earlier writings which were known at the time and are referrenced at points in the Talmud. Thus, Ben Sira's influence on the modern religious scene is much greater than had been previously understood.

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