The Jewish year is punctuated with many special days – Sabbath, Biblical holidays, national fast days, commemorative dates, etc. – but these collectively constitute less than one out of three days of the year. Those non-special days, however, aren’t spiritually bereft. Each day, there are three prayer services: ‘Shacharis’ (Morning), ‘Mincha’ (Afternoon) and ‘Maariv’ (Evening). These may be prayed privately or with a congregation.
Tradition holds that each of these services, respectively, was initiated by a Patriarch: Abraham (Gen. 19:27 -“rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before God”), Isaac (Gen. 24:63 – “went out to supplicate in the field towards evening”), and Jacob (Gen. 28:11 – “encountered the place [Mt. Moriah] and spent the night there”). Their individual lives, too, reflected those distinct times of day. Abraham, universally admired, arose like the ascending sun; a declining sun befits Isaac, who faced growing hostility; Jacob’s life was largely dark as night.
These services particularly correspond to the Temple sacrificial service: “the one lamb shall you make in the morning and the second lamb shall you make in the afternoon (Num. 28:4)”. While the Temple service was restricted to daylight hours, the day’s sacrificial remnants remained “on the flame, on the Altar all the night until the morning (Lev. 6:2 )”, thus providing the basis for an evening service.
The essence of each prayer service is the Silent Standing Prayer (‘Amidah’ or ‘Shemonah Esrei’), originally consisting of eighteen, but now nineteen, paragraphs of varying length, each concluding with a blessing: “Blessed art Thou, God. . .” . There are three introductory portions of praise to God, three concluding expressions of thanks, and thirteen intermediate sections of formulaic requests – for wisdom, forgiveness of sin, health, prosperity, restoration of the Davidic Dynasty, acceptance of prayer, etc. On the Sabbath and Biblical work-prohibited holidays, those intermediate requests are replaced by holiday specific blessing.
It is a general rule that prayer, i.e. the ‘Amidah’, requires prior preparation. The three services vary as to how they provide that, ‘Shacharis’, most extensively, ‘Mincha’, most succinctly. The morning and evening services also incorporate the required recital of the three Torah portions (Deut. 6:4-9, 11:13-21 and Num. 15:37-41), which combine in affirmation of the Sovereignty and the Oneness of God (the ‘Shema’- Hear O Israel). The ‘Shema’ is enveloped in paragraphs of blessing, two before and one after, in the morning, and two before and two after, in the evening. All services commonly conclude with ‘Aleinu’ (On us is incumbent …), a prayer incorporating both profession of faith and expectation of the ultimate redemption of humanity.
An unique feature of the ‘Shacharis’ service is the donning by male worshippers of ‘Tallis’ (Prayer Shawl) and ‘Tefillin’ (phylacteries). These are two cubical boxes, attached to straps, containing relevant Scriptural verses (Deut. 6:4-9, 13-21, and Ex. 13:1-10 11-16). One is bound, “as a sign”, on the weaker arm and hand, the other at the hairline “between the eyes”.
While rites differ somewhat, as to inclusion and order of prayers, they share the same basic format. In the Ashkenazic tradition, ‘Shacharis’ commences with fifteen blessings, these separately alluding to specific activities undertaken upon arising in the morning. The section of ‘Korbanos’ (Offerings) follows, with selected Torah and Talmudic passages concerning the daily Temple sacrificial service. It concludes with a classic formulation of principles of Torah exegesis.
‘Pesukei D’Zimra’ (Verses of Praises) follows. Introduced by Psalm 30 (“A song for the inauguration of the Temple”), it begins with the very ancient prayer, ‘Baruch ShehAmar’ (“Blessed is He Who spoke and the world came into being”). Immediately following are 29 verses (1 Chronicles 16:8-36), the first fifteen of which once were recited at the Temple morning sacrifice, the last fourteen at the afternoon offering. Then come two collections of Scriptural verses, principally from Psalms, the first , Verses of ‘Mercy’, the second, God’s Kingship, bracketing Ps. 100 (‘Thanksgiving’). ‘Ashrei’ (“Praiseworthy are those who dwell in Thy house”), combining 84:5, 144:15, 145, and 115:18, follows. Recital of the last five, ‘Hallelujah’, Psalms (146-150), completes the reading of the Book.
The second portion of ‘Pesukei D’Zimra’ begins with four short blessings, taken from Psalms, celebrating recognition of God arising from Zion to encompass all of humanity. Readings from I Chronicles 29:10-13, a laudatory prayer of David, and that of returning Levites from Babylonian exile, from Nehemiah 9:6-11, follow, injecting historical context, leading up to Ex. 14:30-15:19, the Song at the Sea. ‘Yishtabach’ (“May be praised”), with its fifteen expressions of praise, concludes this prayer section.
The core of ‘Shacharis’, comprising the ‘Shema’ , its surrounding blessings, and the ‘Amidah’, now commences, with the Reader calling on the congregation collectively to bless God (‘Borchu’). Introduced is the Angelic service, which worshippers, however imperfectly, will strive to emulate. The ‘Shema’s enveloping blessings: ‘Creation’, ‘Revelation’ and ‘Redemption’, proclaim God’s mastery over nature (” [Who] In His goodness, renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation”), God’s Love of Israel as manifested in His gift of the Torah (” You taught the decrees of Life”), and His ever present watchfulness over His people (“The Helper of our forefathers are You alone”). This section seamlessly elides from remembrance of Redemption at the Sea into the petitions of the ‘Amidah’.
During the Readers’ repetition of the ‘Amidah’, the congregation responsively recites the ‘Kedushah’, echoing the above-noted Angelic service: “Holy, holy, holy is God, Master of Legions, the whole world is filled with His glory (Isaiah 6:3)” and “Blessed is the glory of God from His place (Ezekiel 3:12)”. ‘Kedushah’ concludes with the words of the Psalmist: “God shall reign forever – your God, O Zion- from generation to generation, Hallelujah (Ps. 146)”. As the Reader recites ‘Modim’, in the section of thanksgiving, the congregation recites its own ‘Modim’. Also included in the Readers repetition are the Priestly Blessings (Num. 6:24-26).
On most weekdays, the Reader’s repetition of the Amidah is followed, without interruption, by ‘Tachanun’ (penitential prayers). On Mondays and Thursdays, it begins with a long introduction (“He, the Merciful One …”), recited while standing. On all days, when in the presence of a Holy Ark, worshippers then sit, with their head resting on their stronger arm, for recital of Ps. 6:2-11 (“God, do not rebuke me in Your anger”). ‘Tachanun’ then continues, first seated, then concluded, while standing. On Mondays and Thursdays, a Torah scroll is taken from the Ark and the initial section of the following Sabbath morning reading is chanted.
The concluding section of Shacharis commences with a second reading of ‘Ashrei’, followed by Psalm 20 (“May God answer you on the day of distress”), and ‘Uva L’tzion’ (“A redeemer shall come to Zion”). It incorporates ‘Kedushah’, in Hebrew and Aramaic interpretive translation, as well as numerous other Scriptural verses, thus ending on a note of Torah study.
Following ‘Aleinu’, the Psalm for the day, as formerly at the Temple service, is recited. They are:
Sunday – Ps. 24: ” The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”.
Monday – Ps. 48: “Great is God and much to be praised”
Tuesday – Ps. 82: “God stands in the Divine assembly, in their midst, shall He judge”
Wednesday – Ps. 94:1-95:3 “O God of vengeance … appear”
Thursday – Ps. 81: “Sing joyously to the God of our might”
Friday – Ps. 93: “God will have reigned, God will have donned grandeur”.
The Reader’s recital of Kaddish serves to separate the sections of ‘Shacharis’: Half-Kaddish after ‘Psukei D’Zimra’, Amidah/Tachanun and the Torah reading, if any, and Full Kaddish, following ‘Uva L’tzion’. Mourners recite Rabbis’ Kaddish after ‘Korbanos’ and Mourners’ Kaddish after Psalm 30, ‘Aleinu’ and the Psalm for the Day.
‘Mincha’ can be recited anytime post an half-hour past midday, preferably within two and one-half hours till sunset. ‘Maariv’ can be prayed during the entire period from sunset to dawn, preferably after nightfall. Typically, congregations schedule ‘Mincha’ at a few minutes before sunset and then proceed, thereafter, with ‘Maariv’.
Though minimal in content, due to the need often to interrupt the workday, the time of ‘Mincha’ is held to be one particularly conducive to Mercy. It is comprised of ‘Ashrei’, the ‘Amidah’, ‘Tachanun’ and ‘Aleinu’. There are very slight differences from ‘Shacharis’. Other than on fast days, the Priestly Blessing is not included in the Reader’s repetition of the ‘Amidah’. Only the short form of ‘Tachanun’ is said. Reader’s Half-Kaddish is recited after ‘Ashrei’ and Full Kaddish after ‘Amidah’/’Tachanun’. Mourners recite Kaddish after ‘Aleinu’.
‘Maariv’ essentially replicates the core portion of ‘Shacharis’: the ‘Shema’, with its pre- and post blessings, leading into the ‘Amidah’. The orientations of these two services, however, are quite different: “to relate Your kindness in the morning and Your faithfulness in the night (Ps. 92:2)”. The morning blessings look backward on past kindnesses; the evening blessings look forward to future deliverances.
Consonant with night’s association with darkness and judgment, ‘Maariv’ begins with a preparatory plea: “He, the Merciful, is forgiving of iniquity and does not destroy… (Ps. 78:38,20:10)”. Then follows the Reader’s ‘Borchu’ call. The pre-blessings now read “He causes day to pass and brings night” and “Upon our retiring and arising, we will discuss Your decrees”. The first post-blessing treats ‘Redemption’ as ongoing: “He redeems us … and delivers us”. The extra second post-blessing begins “Lay us down to sleep, … in peace”.
A following additional prayer, “Blessed is God forever”, was introduced, over a millennium ago, for the safety of farmers, who used to gather in fields outside of town for the evening prayer. Consisting of Scriptural verses, containing nineteen mentions of God’s Name, it was intended as a short substitute for the ‘Amidah’. Worshippers could then safely arrive home before dark and subsequently recite the ‘Amidah’. Though the circumstances that led to that practice no longer apply, most congregations continue to include this prayer in their weekday ‘Maariv’ service. After the ‘Amidah’, there is no Reader’s repetition. Reader’s Half-Kaddish is recited before the ‘Amidah’ and Full Kaddish after it. Mourner’s Kaddish is recited after ‘Aleinu’.
Whatever the clime, whatever the season, whatever the day, the tripartite service structure described above ever is followed. “I shall bless God at all times, always shall His praise be in my mouth (Ps. 92:1)”.