Thoughts on Prayer and Liturgy

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By Edward Hamburg

Jews are taught to pray using the structured liturgy of our various prayer services, but for many of us these experiences are consistently unsatisfying. Whether self-conscious intoning Hebrew words we don’t understand, discomfited by the often stiff, anachronistic language offered in the translations, or intimidated by the prospects of “doing it wrong” while navigating the formal instructions and informal conventions that vary from service to service and synagogue to synagogue, we persevere in silence, get frustrated, or just give up. I’ve been there. I have silently persevered, gotten frustrated, and eventually gave up on traditional Jewish prayer. But I made my way back. Instrumental to my return was the distinction I learned to make between prayer and liturgy.


When my mother died, I traveled the path of mourning prescribed for Jewish children. This path has three stages: the seven days of intensive mourning that starts immediately after burial known as “shiva” (“seven”); an additional twenty-three days of integrating grief into the requirements of normal life that constitutes “shloshim” (“thirty”); and ten more months of daily mourning that concludes, according to some customs, with the unveiling of a gravestone. In all three stages, mourners participate in religious services in which they recite “Kaddish,” a venerable set of Aramaic statements affirming God’s sovereignty in the universe that invite eight supportive responses from a “minyan” of ten or more adult Jews.

My mother’s death occurred at a time when I was tenuously associated with organized Jewish life. The fond memories of going to synagogue with my father on Sabbath mornings and excitement of Jewish youth group activism were gone; what remained was only the draw of family and friends at the Passover seder and the inertia that compels Jews to show up in synagogues on the High Holy Days. But I resolved to honor my mother’s memory by attending services to say Kaddish at least once a day for the entire eleven month mourning period. That was twenty-five years ago; I remain a regular participant today.

I learned to appreciate three things along the path of Jewish mourning. The first was what it was like to live a complete Jewish year. Instead of just the episodes provided by the Sabbath and major holidays, I experienced for the first time the substantive connections between them – the recognition of each new Hebrew month, the rituals of the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkoth, the sounding of the shofar every day during the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and joining the community in “Yizkor” services to remember the dead on the three other prescribed times besides Yom Kippur. Daily prayer gatherings exposed me to the ongoing responsibilities of welcoming visitors and integrating new mourners into the minyan. Regular Sabbath experiences gave me the opportunities to enjoy the bar and bat mitzvahs, baby namings, and pre-nuptial celebrations that punctuated the comfortably consistent weekly flow of services. I was embedded in the rhythms of the Jewish year, and found myself steadily gaining an understanding of and respect for the reasons why these rhythms have been sustained for generations.

I also learned along the path of Jewish mourning to appreciate the value of a traditional liturgy primarily expressed in Hebrew. My mother’s death occurred at a time when I was traveling extensively throughout North America and internationally. Finding a daily minyan in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles was easy; locating one in Columbia, South Carolina or Salt Lake City was not. But I almost always did, and in each place I was welcomed by a community into services with essentially the same structure and content as the ones at my synagogue in Chicago. These traditional Hebrew services were especially important when I found myself in places where the communal language wasn’t English. Although unable to understand the greetings, teachings, and instructions spoken in Danish, Dutch, French, German, or Spanish, I was still an effective participant in familiar services expressed in the ancient language that all of us were taught. These opportunities to be a part of Jewish communities from Athens to Indianapolis to Tokyo not only heightened my awareness of the incredible diversity characteristic of the Jewish people, but also my understanding of and respect for the role played by common language and practice in linking all of us together.

Finally, my journey on the path of Jewish mourning led me to appreciate the difference between prayer and liturgy. This distinction was forged from the struggle between my commitment to the mourning process and my inability to connect with the framework and language of the services in which I participated every day. The latter, after all, are “prayer services,” guided by texts in “prayer books.” Tried as I might, most of the time this liturgy just didn’t work for me for praying.

Rabbinic teachers recognize the tension between prayer and liturgy, urging the need to balance “keva,” the fixed regularity of prayer, with “kavanah,” its spontaneous and mindful expression. Kavanah is the gold standard of prayer; it’s what separates, if you will, the Jedi Knights who become one with and effectively use the Force of the prayer service, from the Padwans, who, aspiring to the reach this level of discipline and connectedness but, distracted and wracked with doubt, ambivalence, insecurity, and anger, fail to do so. Maimonides sets the bar high in this regard, asserting that “prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all,” while further maintaining that “he whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure.”[1]

I have indeed experienced moments of kavanah, and can still sense the power of these moments. I readily recall reading Psalm 94, recited every Wednesday during regular daily services, on the morning of September 12, 2001, particularly the passages:

God of retribution, appear! Judge of the earth, punish the arrogant as they deserve. How long, God, will the wicked exalt? Swaggering, boasting, they exude arrogance.

Surely God who disciplines nations will chastise, teaching mortals to understand. God knows human schemes, how futile they are.

Who will stand up for me against the ungodly? Who will take my part against evildoers?

God will turn their own evil against them and destroy them with their own guile. God will destroy them.

During some difficult times in my life, I also found mindful intentionality in prayer when reciting the comforting words of Psalm 27, which becomes part of daily services in the weeks encompassing the High Holy Days. It begins:

God is my light and my help. Who will I fear?
God is the strength of my life. Who will I dread?

and concludes with:

Be strong, take courage, and hope in God.

Kavanah has visited me when the congregation ends Yom Kippur with song, the light of the Havdalah candle, and a plaintive shofar blast, as well as when I responded to the Kaddish recited by new mourners as they stand at the grave of a loved one. But in the end these remained just moments of kavanah, separated by prolonged periods during services of distractedly turning prayer book pages, wracked with doubt, ambivalence, insecurity, and occasionally anger. Even the elevated prose of Abraham Joshua Heschel and encouraging instructions in the prefaces of various prayer books couldn’t convince me to develop the disciplines of spontaneity and mindful intentionality required to escape the frustrations of being forever consigned as a Padwan of Prayer.

I did make a breakthrough after exploring the distinction between the word “prayer” as the term is usually defined in English and its translated Hebrew counterpart, “t’fillah.” The former is derived from the Latin precari, “to ask earnestly, beg, entreat;” the latter, in contrast, comes from the Hebrew root of the word to “judge, differentiate, clarify, or decide.” I found t’fillah a more comfortable concept than prayer. That more of the task was evaluative – of events, circumstances, the actions of others, and my own place in the world – and less was involved with entreaty, gave new focus and meaning to my daily participation in services. But the problem remained: I still found the liturgy as difficult to use for t’fillah purposes as it was for making prayerful requests. There was, however, an unmistakable exception: the liturgy proved indispensable to my work of mourning and remembrance. I couldn’t even contemplate how anyone could travel the path of Jewish mourning without the structure and disciplines it provided. How, in particular, could anyone effectively mourn and remember without the contexts established by the liturgy for saying Kaddish – in Aramaic, never in the vernacular – so consistently throughout the days, months, and eventually, years?


On his own year-long path of mourning, Gerald Postema wrote “Grief’s Liturgy” in an attempt to deal with the death of his young wife from cancer. The book is a remarkable collection of materials, of “sighs, shrieks, songs, and prayers” supplemented by poetry, prose, paintings, and personal reflections. I was mystified by the title – why Grief’s Liturgy? Why did he use this word, the one for prayer services formalized in antiquity or the Middle Ages and protected by legalisms and traditions? But in organizing his book according to the Christian Divine Office or “Liturgy of the Hours,” Postema explains that he relied on the original Greek meaning of the word – liturgy as “the work of the people,” particularly “the people’s work of worship.”[2]

Liturgy as the work of the people – this meaning led me to take another approach. Instead of despairingly attempting to pray, through either entreaty or assessment, with the language of the prayer books, I used these words to affirm the work of the Jewish people – my people – that had been developed over millennia and remain under construction today.

My daily participation in religious services became statements of identity and purpose.

By regularly joining with Jewish communities to express our liturgy, I was expressing, to myself and to others, who I was in the world. And through this liturgy, I was fulfilling responsibilities: to my mother in honoring her memory, to others honoring the memories of loved ones, and to a people preserving their institutions, traditions, and practices as they tell their stories, learn their history, and celebrate their lives. This was truly good work; it was work to which I became increasingly dedicated and in which I strived to become more proficient.

The distinction between prayer and liturgy also made me aware of other opportunities in which the latter enabled me to express identity and purpose. There are, for example, liturgies of citizenship carefully developed and transmitted by different polities. As a citizen of the United States, I join in singing the Star Spangled Banner without much regard to its language; it is, after all, an expression of national identity and a commitment to national principles, not a particular appreciation of any “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” Moreover, that my hat is reverentially removed and placed over my heart during its singing should not confuse me or others that it is an act of prayer. The anthem, along with the pledge of allegiance said by new citizens and oaths of office pledged by elected officials, are instead essential expressions of the work of the people in their profoundly important integrating task of, in this case, secular worship.

But for many of us, making such powerful statements of identity and purpose is not enough. There is still praying that needs to be done. And distinguishing prayer from liturgy upped my game with regard to praying.

In appreciating liturgy as “the work of the people,” I better understood prayer as the “work of the person.” Liturgy enables me to join with others to express our collective hopes and fears. Prayer is how I bring to consciousness my own hopes and fears. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet elaborates this framework in his poem, “Liturgy-Prayer,” which begins:

Liturgy defines the Community that prays
Prayer is the offering of each individual

Liturgy affirms the values of the Community
Prayer sets those values on our lips and in our hearts

Liturgy unites those who share a tradition
Prayer connects us to all who pray

Liturgy describes the boundaries of a community
Prayer locates us within creation as a whole

and ends with:

Liturgy is the vehicle.
Prayer is the journey.

Liturgy is the companion.
Prayer is the destination.[3]

The psalmists originally crafted their prose to communicate their own thoughts to God. That this work was later canonized into liturgy should not make us forget that these soaring and searing statements were once very personal expressions of awe, love, fear, doubt, and appreciation. Could I, also, give myself license and accept the responsibility to craft my own language when imparting my personal requests of God and making my own personal assessments?

Surprisingly, I found myself up to the task, and even more surprisingly, I found myself combining the structure and words of the traditional Jewish liturgy with thoughts shared by others and those developed in my head. I came to own these self-made prayerful combinations. And this sense of ownership not only made my entreaties and judgements more powerful and authentic; it also encouraged me to continually evaluate, expand, and extend my prayer language over time.


Learning to separate the usually conflated and often interchangeable terms of prayer and liturgy enabled me to move from a struggling player in an eleven-month mourning process to a dutiful participant in daily Jewish life for another twenty-four years and beyond. Some days I engage in prayer. On most, however, I am comfortable just leading or participating in the liturgy, making no requests of God or enlisting any divine assistance in assessing, weighing, judging, or attempts to understand. For praying is holy work, but so is the work that liturgy provides of regularly expressing identity, demonstrating commitment to community, connecting with Jews around the world, and speaking the language of past and future generations.

[1] Mishneh Torah, “Tefillah,” 4, 15.
[2] Gerald J. Postema, Grief’s Liturgy: A Lament (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock), 2012.
[3] Jonathan Magonet, Seder Hatefillot: Forms of Prayer (London: Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, 8th Edition, 2008).

Besides serving as a corporate director of various high technology companies, Edward Hamburg sits on the boards of Sicha/The Conversation, the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and Congregation Rodfei Zedek on the south side of Chicago. His essay, “Thoughts on Saying Amen,” appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy on 12 December 2014.