Jewish prayer is the heartbeat of Judaism. In the very center of its elaborate liturgical experience lies one prayer that stands out among others – the Amida, literally, “the standing”. The main idea behind its name (“standing”) is the worshiper’s entrance into the presence of the “seated” Heavenly King. God has granted the ultimate audience to the humble worshipper. There is no one greater to meet.
Therefore, while other prayers are extremely important, it is Amida that deserves our closest attention. There is much that can be said about its current form and the history of its development. Together, we will consider those things slowly, step-by-step as we move through it, experiencing its beauty and admiring its depth of devotion.
Even though much preparation for this divine audience occurred in previous prayers, there is one more additional request that is uttered before God, right before the rest of the Amida can be prayed.
אֲדנָי שפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ
(Pronounced: Adonai sfatai tiftach upi yagid thilatecha)
“Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare Your praise.”
The worshiper states that his mouth will announce God’s praise, only if God Himself will grant His permission by opening the mouth of His otherwise silent and submissive servant. Many prayers and praises were uttered prior to this, but none in the actual presence of the King of Kings in His own throne room. The time has come to meet Him and final approval from God to speak in His own presence is requested.
It is presumed that God, in fact, grants this humble request and the Jewish worshiper begins his serenade of praise, petition, and thanks to his Heavenly King and Father.
Blessing #1A (FATHERS)
ָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ. אֱלהֵי אַבְרָהָם. אֱלהֵי יִצְחָק. וֵאלהֵי יַעֲקב
“Blessed are You, Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob.”
The standard blessing of “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe…”, found in most Jewish prayers, is dramatically and purposely exchanged in Amida for “Blessed are You, Lord our God and God of our fathers”. The worshiper establishes his familial right and (by extension) his justified privilege to address God in this special and intimate way. Although the God the Jewish worshiper stands before is, in fact, the God of all Nations of the earth, it is this personal family connection with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that establishes the right and the privilege of Amida. We will soon discover why.
Blessing #1B (FATHERS)
As we continue to journey through the Amida, we discover the foundation of this prayer, both in terms of why this God should be worshiped and adored as well as why the people of Israel (and all those who join them) receive a special clearance to enter into the throne room of God so frequently. (Amida is prayed 3 times per day, which in and of itself signifies the privilege of full and unconditional access to God).
הָאֵל הַגָּדול הַגִּבּור וְהַנּורָא אֵל עֶלְיון
(Pronounced: HaEl hagadol, hagibor vehanorah. El Elion.).
The great, mighty and awesome God, the Most High God…
This seemingly accidental, rapid-fire description of Israel’s God is, in fact, a well-considered foundational statement of this covenant relationship. He is האל הגדול (pronounced: haEl haGadol) – The Great God.
The key here is to remember that a Biblical worldview presupposes the existence of other powerful otherworldly beings (i.e. gods). The definite article (ה) points to this God not being alone, but being the most high God over all others. This specification of Him being not just another powerful heavenly being, but The Great God is reinforced with his description as אל עליון (pronounced: El Elyon) and translated as Most High God (or literally, “the High God” which reflects ancient Near Eastern cosmology). Notice that no definite article is used in this case, confirming the earlier observation. He is also described as האל הגבור (pronounced haEl haGibor), which means something analogous to, “The Hero God,” “The Warrior God,” or (as in our more sanitized translation), “The Mighty God”. On the top of all this, Israel’s deity is said to be האל הנורה (haEl haNora), which means, “The Awesome God,” or literally, “The Terrible (fear inspiring) God”.
ּגּומֵל חֲסָדִים טובִים. וְקונֵה הַכּל
(Pronounced: Gomel hasidim tovim. Vekone hakol.)
Who bestows loving kindness and goodness and is master of all.
The phraseגומל חסדים טובים is best translated as “He grants His kind faithfulness”. This important phrase establishes that Israel’s God must not be understood only as Israel’s King – He is also Israel’s heavenly Father. This theme of Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) is very important in Judaism. In many ways it defines the nature of Israel’s Covenant with her God. This loving, kind, and faithful bestowal of good things is confessed in the short phrase, וקונה הקול (vekone hakol), which basically means that God rightfully owns everything.
וְזוכֵר חַסְדֵּי אָבות. וּמֵבִיא גואֵל לִבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם לְמַעַן שְׁמו בְּאַהֲבָה:
(Pronounced: Vezocher hasidei avot. Umevi goal livnei bneihem leman shmo beahavah).
Who remembers the good deeds of the fathers, and brings a redeemer to their children, in love and for the sake of His name
One of the key concepts to consider here is the merits of the fathers. This blessing clearly states that the basis of Israel’s covenantal life is in rooted in God’s memory of the faithfulness displayed in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In other words, God’s own covenant faithfulness to future generations of the people of Israel was always based on the merits of their fathers.
One example of prime importance of such action is the everyday reading of the Akida (the binding of Isaac) chapter as part of morning prayers of Jews everywhere. Despite Abraham’s shortcomings, he was able to display full faith in his God when he drew the knife and raised it over the bound body of his beloved son (Isaac). Actions like this were understood in Judaism to be meritorious for all future generations in Israel. On the one hand, this Jewish idea seems to deny the main Christian contention that it was Christ’s death on a Roman cross that brought redemption to the entire world. However, upon closer examination the opposite conclusion may emerge. The idea that faithfulness of one (Christ Jesus) can merit salvation and forgiveness for the entire world is in fact the same Jewish idea of the fathers’ merits, now fully realized in the Messiah Jesus.
Blessing #1C (FATHERS)
The last refrain of the first section of Amida is also its short summary statement.
מֶלֶךְ עוזֵר וּמושִׁיעַ וּמָגֵן: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם
(Pronounced: Melech, Ozer, uMoshia, u Magen. Baruch ata Adonai Magen Avraam).
King, Helper, Savior and Shield. Blessed are You, Lord, Shield of Abraham.
The summary word “King” reflects every Jew’s primary relationship with God. He or she is God’s servant – not the other way around. God does not exist in order to serve the Jew. The Jew exists in order to serve God. It all begins here.
The word translated as “helper” in English does not fully capture the sense of ultimate commitment that Israel’s God has towards the Jewish worshiper. In the stories of the Torah, we witness not only the imperfect faithfulness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to their God, but also (and primarily) the perfect faithfulness of their God to each one of them. He is their helper, but in a very different sense that we normally conceive of helpers.
Ezer in Hebrew carries in itself the idea of an interventional agent who is willing to die (and even to kill) for another. Eve was called to be such a helper for Adam (Gen.2:18) as was Abraham when his risked everything to free his nephew Lot (Gen.14:12-16). Israel’s God, the God of Jewish prayer, is not only the King who reveals His will and expects to be obeyed. He is also fully committed to the well-being of the worshiper. Metaphorically speaking, He is willing to die and to kill to ensure the worshiper’s success and safety.
As a Jew confesses his or her God to be the Savior, the worshiper recalls all the occasions when God did not simply intervene on behalf of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but did so successfully. Each one of the patriarchs (along with their families) was literally rescued by God from the hands of evil men. The refrain of the Amida presupposes this collective memory of God’s faithful deeds on behalf of the founding fathers of the Jewish people. It is one thing to be willing to help, but it is quite another have the ability to help (this idea of God’s potency will be emphasized in the next blessing of the Amida).
The fourth word describing God’s relationship to the worshiper is Magen, most accurately translated as “shield”. Interestingly it is this word (Shield) and not the other preceding words (King, Helper, and Savior) that are repeated as the ultimate summary in this ancient Hebrew prayer “Blessed are You, Lord, Shield of Abraham”.
First, note that YHVH’s status as King, Helper, Savior, and Shield calls for the praise and blessing upon Him by the worshipping servant. The Jew must verbalize his or her theology. He or she may not remain silent in the face of God’s truth breaking into the world of his creation. Since the word Jew (Yehudi) basically means, “he who thanks God,” the entire life of a Jew consists of an ongoing practice of blessing, praising, magnifying, and thanking God for His deeds.
Second, consider that the Most High God is addressed in Hebrew simply as “You”. Hebrew, unlike other languages, does not differentiate between “You” as spoken to someone possessing great honor (such royalty or divinity) and “you” as spoken to a peer, a mere human. Israel’s God is addressed by the worshipper in very personal way characteristic of addressing another human being. This is very consistent with how Abraham spoke to God during times of disagreement and negotiation with Him (i.e. Gen.18:25).
This difference in theology can be seen in many elements of Judaism and Christianity. For example, if one was to compare the physical structures of Church and Synagogue, one would see this basic difference in the Christian and Jewish approach to God. Christian cathedrals, with their high sealings, were designed to project God’s transcendent magnificence. Jewish synagogues, with their low sealings, were designed to project God’s intimate presence among His people. This of course was not always the case, but can be observed as a general principle.
Third, reflect on the fact that it was after Abraham’s successful sortie to rescue his nephew Lot from local warlords (at great risk to himself and his family), that God spoke to him, calling Abraham to continue to display courage and not be afraid. God personally guaranteed protection and reward for Abraham in response to seeing his commitment, courage, and generosity towards Lot, and subsequently to Melchizedek.
Jewish worshipers, along with all those who have joined them through Christ Jesus, can approach God in a very special way – confident of the fact that He will protect them, save them, and help them as He rules over them with His love and His might as their Heavenly King. Yet this covenant relationship with God is contingent on the faith and faithfulness of worshiper as well. The more faith and courage they display, the more they can count on the Heavenly King to protect and reward them beyond their wildest imagination.