Amidah: The Silent Prayer

Amidah: The Silent Prayer

The origins of the Amidah prayer date back to the times of our forefathers—Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. In fact, one of the reasons that this prayer is known as the Shmonei Esrei or “Eighteen Blessings”—all of which we recite during the weekdays but not on Shabbat or on the holidays—is to draw a parallel to the eighteen times our forefathers are mentioned together in the Torah. This prayer was composed in its final form more than two thousand years ago, in the time of Ezra, the Scribe, and the Men of the Great Assembly, although another blessing—the nineteenth—was added by Rabbi Gamliel the Second, some time after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans circa 70 CE.

While reciting this lofty prayer, we stand with our feet together as explained in the Talmud (in Tractate Berachos 10b). This suggests that we are like angels, whose feet are always together. (Yerushalmi Berachos 1:1) There is no more room for movement, as we are within the innermost chamber before God. We have arrived. Our feet are as if together, also signifying that we have completely surrendered our sense of separate self, and we are bonded with the Eternal. (Rashba ibid.) This transformation encompasses our entire being, and a total metamorphosis takes place, of our orientation to the right (to God) as well as of our orientation to the left (to the ego), both of which are now joined together, connecting with God in unison. (Mabit)

As our separate self is no longer expressed, this prayer is chanted quietly or whispered to oneself. In fact, this prayer is often called “the silent prayer.”

The needs and wants expressed in this most elevated of prayers are not meant to be selfish, though they may be depending on the consciousness and spiritual development of the person praying, They are meant to arise from a deep understanding that Godliness can be fully expressed in the elevation of the material world. This is not an end in itself, but rather a medium allowing for our maximum Divine mission to be fulfilled. (For example, we pray for health, because when we are healthy, we have a more fitting state of mind to facilitate our physical transformation, and the more strength we have, the better we can serve this end.)

Three steps backward

The early Kabbalists advised that before we begin the Amidah, we take three steps backward, and then three steps forward. And so, we do today.

This is done to enhance our concentration and stimulate greater focus. The movement forward indicates and symbolizes our entry into the Creator’s innermost chamber. Thus we symbolically enter a sacred space in which we can, if we truly desire, encounter God’s presence.

The number of steps is highly significant, as the three steps mimic the three steps Moshe took when he entered prayer, as he traveled past the three partitions—the darkness (choshech), the first cloud (anan) loud and the second cloud (arafel)—before he encountered the Divine.

Mentally, we should visualize ourselves moving into the Holy Land,with the first step, then into Yerushalayim/Jerusalem with the second step, and into the Temple with the third step, thus standing on the threshold of the Holy of Holies.


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