Prayer is fundamental to Jewish spirituality. Thousands of years ago, many Jews sought to organize their prayers to include the essential areas of life and highlight the human relationship with the Most High. This desire led to “model prayers” that were meant to guide worshipers through fundamental topics. An ancient model prayer that continues to be said today is the Shmoneh Esrei (Prayer of Eighteen Benedictions) recited daily in Jewish worship. It is better known as the Amidah (עמידה) or “Standing Prayer.” On a weekday, the prayer covers 18 topics in a specific order, but on the Sabbath the petitions are deliberately replaced with verses of praise. Today, the prayer’s text is fixed and can be found in any Jewish prayer book, but in ancient times the text was more fluid.
In the selection quoted below, the rabbis are discussing the early version of the Shmoneh Esrei before its wording was officially fixed. The rabbis simply call it “the prayer” (תפלה; tefillah) but everyone knows which prayer is meant. The rabbis wonder if it is proper to pray a shortened version of the prayer in unideal circumstances. The discussion comes from the Tosefta, a late 3rd century CE Jewish document. It is very similar to the Mishnah (c. 220 CE), but the Tosefta contains rabbinic additions that did not make it into the final compilation of the Mishnah. Whatever may have been the thinking of those who compiled and edited the Mishnah, the Tosefta (Aramaic for “supplement”) informs us about the rabbinic past and helps us to understand ancient Jewish thought. In the current case, the text helps us to think about model prayers and the ways in which the rabbis used them.
Some Jewish prayers are meant to be spoken in specific windows of time (you can see this in the quote). Just as space is sacred in many religious traditions, in Judaism, time is sacred, so praying at the right time carries particular significance. Hence the questions, “What if it is time to pray, but the circumstances or where you are is not ideal? Will a shortened prayer be appropriate? And what should it include?” By the way, the famous Our Father is Jesus’ version of a short Jewish model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4). It was meant to be used as an outline of the most important things to mention. Compare the words preserved in the Gospels a couple of hundred years before these rabbis offered their short prayers — you might be surprised by how similar they are!
“Just like the Torah established a set time to read the Shema, so too the Sages established a set time for [the] prayer [of Shemoneh Esreh]. Why did they say [that] the morning prayer [of Shmoneh Esreh can be prayed only] until noon? Because the morning Tamid (daily offering) [sacrifice] could be brought [only] until noon. Rebbi Yehudah says, “[The morning prayer of Shmoneh Esreh can be prayed only] until [the end of the first] four hours [of the day].” And why did they say that the Mincha (afternoon) prayer [of Shemoneh Esreh can only be prayed] until the evening? Because the afternoon Tamid [sacrifice] could be brought [only] until the evening….
I would have thought that [a person] should pray [Shmoneh Esreh] in a loud voice. [However] it explains by Hannah, “and Hannah was talking in her heart…” (1 Samuel 1:13) I would have thought [a person] may pray all [three Shmoneh Esreh] in one shot. [However] it explains by David, “Evening, and morning, and afternoon…” (Psalms 55:18). Evening that is the Maariv prayer, morning that is the Shacharit prayer, and afternoon that is the Mincha prayer. I would have thought that [first a person] should ask for his [personal] needs and then he [should] pray [the established text of Shmoneh Esreh] and go away [from standing in front of God]. [However] it explains by Shlomo, “… to hear the song and the prayer …” (1 Kings 8:28). Song that is the song, prayer that is the request. And so it says, “Sing before the Lord…” (Psalms 33:1).
[If a person] was walking in a dangerous place or [where there are] robbers [present and it came the time to pray Shmoneh Esreh] he [should] pray a short prayer [of Shmoneh Esreh instead of the regular Shmoneh Esreh]. What is a short prayer [of Shmoneh Esreh]?
Rabbi Elazar says, “Do Your will in heaven above, and give pleasure to those that fear you on earth, and do what is good in your eyes. Blessed the One that hears prayer.”
Rabbi Yossi says, “Hear the voice of the prayer of your nation Israel and fulfill their requests quickly. Blessed the One that hears prayer.”
Rabbi Elazar Bar Tzadok says, “Hear the voice of the cry of your nation Israel and fulfill their requests quickly. Blessed the One that hears prayer.”
Others say, “Your nation Israel has many needs, but they are short-minded. May it be your will the Lord our God that You may give to each one all of his needs and to each creature so that they should not lack. Blessed the One that hears prayer.”
Rebbi Elazar Bar Tzadok says, “My father used to pray a short prayer [of Shmoneh Esreh] on Shabbat nights: ‘And from your love the Lord our God that you love Your nation Israel, and from Your compassion, our King, that you had on the children of Your covenant, you have given us, the Lord our God, this great and holy Seventh day, with love.’” And over the cup [of Kiddush (sanctification)] he says, “Who has sanctified the day of Shabbat” and he does not seal off [the Beracha (blessing)].” (Tosefta, Berachot 3, quoted from Sefaria.org, slightly altered)