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Portrait of Jewish Prayer

cartoonish but not distasteful depiction of minyan
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Portrait of Jewish Prayer

Ten. An important number in Judaism, beginning with The Ten Commandments. Despite comedic actor and producer Mel Brooks' theological shtik and hilarious portrayal of Moses the Lawgiver (History of The World, part 1.) who originally, “according” to Brooks, brought down NOT ten but fifteen commandments divided among three luchot (Hebrew-the stone tablets) on which G-d had inscribed five commandments per tablet, Moses (aka Mel Brooks)-while descending the holy mountain-drops one of the three tablets leaving us with but ten commandments, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I48hr8HhDv0).

I have always marveled at any human being’s assertion that he or the group to which he belongs presumes to know what G-d prefers. Beyond what we accept from the prophet Micah (chapter 6, verse 8) as among the most poetically beautiful expressions of religious duty every man owes his maker: “It hath been told thee O Man what is good and what The Lord requireth of thee: only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy god” what more can any man assert about the superior quality of his personal relationship with G-d without sounding arrogant or impressing others as a self-righteous fool?

I have heard it said that prayer reaches The One Great Listener more efficaciously when uttered as part of a minyan rather than from a lone supplicant whose lips move while praying but whose voice is softer than that of a whisper.The reasoning, I think, goes something like this: a minyan, comprised of, at least, ten adult male individuals, can lay greater claim upon G-d’s attention due to its ability to merge ten individuals into one greater collective body.

On the other hand, Judaism has never been one to ignore the individual’s individuality. Consider, for example, the story of Hannah whose prayers, we are told, reached the “ears” of the “One who hears prayers” without much difficulty at all. Eli the Priest experienced some however when he mistook Hannah’s prayerful style for the mutterings of a drunkard.

“As Hanna was praying to the Lord, Eli watched her. Seeing her lips moving but hearing no sound, he thought she had been drinking. “Must you come here drunk?” he demanded. “Throw away your wine!”

“Oh no, sir!” she replied. “I haven’t been drinking wine or anything stronger. But I am very discouraged, and I was pouring out my heart to the Lord. Don’t think I am a wicked woman! For I have been praying out of great anguish and sorrow.” Eli believed her and prayed that the G-d of Israel hear her prayer and grant her request.

Siddur Kol Jacov (p.98, Artscroll Press), concerning the recitation of Shemoneh Esrei, instructs us: “Recite with quiet devotion and without interruption, verbal or otherwise. Although it should not be audible to others, one must pray loudly enough to hear himself.”

An individual whose sole wish was to bear a son, raise him as a nazir and thereby return him to G-d’s service, Hannah's selfless model became the archetype for all Jewish worshipers seeking blessings from The Master of The Universe.

Before beginning the first of the nineteen brachot (blessings) of Shemoneh Esrei, we say a verse: “Hashem, sfasai tiftach, ufe yagid tehelasecha” ("My Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise." (Sefer Tehilim, Book of Psalms, chapter 51, verse 17.)

Some worthy fellow (although I cannot remember his name) once commented that "you meet some of the nicest people in a minyan." The question of “attribution” aside, it remains one of the great truths next to "we do not appreciate the great value of something or someone until after we lose it" and "no matter how much you swear you're presently eating the indisputably best pizza in the world, there is always one better."

As the only setting within which Kaddish may be recited, it is the dual character of minyan as both a communal gathering for the purpose of prayer as well as a place of spiritual seclusion that has made it the central institution of Jewish daily life.