We can have no doubt that prayer was a crucial part of the life of Yeshua. He prayed all night before choosing his twelve apostles (Luke 6:12-13). On many occasions we find Yeshua praying spontaneous prayers from his heart. He also gives thanks before and after eating, as prescribed in the Torah, and according to Jewish tradition (Mark 8:6). Prayer is indeed one of the pillars of Jewish life, and it certainly was so for Yeshua.
What we often miss is that he also prayed regularly in synagogues, where he certainly prayed the traditional prayers according to the established customs and laws. We know he read and expounded the scriptures in synagogues, customarily, as Luke reminds us (4:16). It would be odd if they had invited him to read or teach when he had not prayed with them according to the usual practice. So Yeshua’s prayer practices must have included both spontaneous prayers and prescribed formal prayers, namely the prayers that have been prayed by Jewish people for more than 2000 years, and until today.
When Yeshua taught his disciples about praying, he taught a prescribed text for us to pray—the text known as “The L‑rd’s Prayer”. This prayer has also become a staple for Christian prayer in churches from the first century until today.
The “L‑rd’s Prayer” is characteristically Jewish both in its form and in its content
In order to place it in context, let us first take a look at the development of Jewish prayer practices.
Maimonides’ Summary of the Laws of Prayer
The best place I know to look for a concise description of the laws of Jewish prayer is in the Mishneh Torah (Book of Love, Laws of Prayer) by the renowned Rabbi Moses Maimonides, written in the 12th century.
1:1 It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it is written: “You shall worship the L‑rd your G‑d” (Ex. 23:25). By tradition, they learned that this worship is prayer, as it says: “and to worship G‑d with all of your heart” (Deut. 11:13)—the sages said, “What is worship of the heart? This is prayer”. The number and form of prayers are not prescribed in the Torah, and prayer has no biblically fixed time …
3 … Everyone would pray facing the Temple. And this was the way of things from the time of Moses to Ezra.
4 When Israel was dispersed in the days of Nebudchadnezzar, they were in foreign lands and they had children and their children spoke babble … As it is said: “Half their children spoke in the language of Ashdod.” (Nehemiah 13:24) … When Ezra and his Beit Din saw this, they instituted the 18 blessings: first, three praises to HaShem, and the last, three thanksgivings, and in the middle there were requests on all the foundations of every person’s desires/needs, and the needs of the community …
5 They decreed that the number of prayers should be as the number of offerings, corresponding to the two continual offerings, Shacharit (morning) and Minchah (afternoon “gift” prayer). And for every day that has an additional offering, they decreed a third prayer, Musaf.
6 They decreed that a person pray one prayer at night, as the limbs of the afternoon continual offering would continue to be consumed all night, along the lines of what it says (Psalms 55:18): “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I complain, and moan; and He hath heard my voice.” The evening prayer is not obligatory like the morning and afternoon prayers. But even so, all of Israel are accustomed to pray the evening prayer, and they accepted it as an obligatory prayer. (English translation by www.sefaria.org)
The RaMBaM explains how we got from a general Torah command to pray, to a fully developed liturgy that corresponds to the sacrifices in the Temple. This liturgy was known and prayed by Yeshua.
Another common Jewish prayer that dates from the time of the Second Temple is called the Kaddish, from the word for ‘holy’, because its opening phrase calls on us to sanctify G‑d’s name. The Kaddish is in the Aramaic language—an indication of its ancient origin.
Orthodox Jews know the Kaddish because it is prayed frequently in the daily prayers. Less traditional Jews are familiar with the Kaddish because it is customary to pray it when a loved one dies. It has nothing to do with death; it is a declaration of G‑d’s kingship, holiness, greatness and goodness, and a prayer for his coming kingdom. We recite it as a way of affirming G‑d’s sovereignty in our times of trouble, despair and mourning. Here is the text:
May G‑d’s great name be glorified and sanctified in the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of all the House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and for all the ages.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, far above all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are spoken in this world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
May He who makes peace in His heights, make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
As you can see, the Kaddish, especially its first paragraph, has striking similarities to the L‑rd’s Prayer. It calls for G‑d’s name to be sanctified, or hallowed, for the soon coming of his kingdom, and that the world has been created according to his will (and should therefore also function by his will). The prayer for peace is not so different from the prayer for daily bread and deliverance from evil. The two prayers are quite close in language and content. Though I am not aware of any proof, it is likely that Yeshua would have been acquainted with the Kaddish from praying in the synagogues.
Yeshua’s Instructions on Prayer
Yeshua had many things to say about prayer. In this article I will focus on the aspect of instructions as to how to pray, the halakhot of formal or liturgical prayer. Yeshua’s main teachings of this type come alongside his introduction of the “L‑rd’s Prayer”. The more complete version of this teaching is in the Sermon on the Mount.
NRSV Matthew 6:5 “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Prayer is not for show. While Yeshua cannot have objected to congregational prayer in synagogue, he does object to people who pray so as to be seen and heard by others, to demonstrate their piety. I believe his instruction to pray in a private room with the door locked is an intentional exaggeration—in other words, that one should do this rather than to make a pious show in public. He would not object to quiet participation in public prayers.
It is not necessary to flood the heavens with one’s words or repetitive phrases in order to be heard. Note that he says it is the Gentiles who do this; he is not referring to liturgical prayer in synagogues. Prayers can be concise, prayed with sincerity and focused intentions.
Perhaps most important, the purpose of prayer is not to inform G‑d of our needs. He already knows what we need before we ask. Rather, as we have seen, the prayers correspond to sacrifices in the Temple. Praying for a personal or community need means we are placing that need on the altar and trusting that G‑d will answer it according to his will. We offer our requests along with praises and thanksgiving, trusting in G‑d’s goodness and faithfulness. A similar instruction is found in the Mishnah:
Pirkei Avot 2:13 When you pray, do not make your prayer a rote thing, but one’s prayer should be (the imploration of) mercy, and supplication before the L‑rd.
In Luke’s version, Yeshua’s disciples observe Yeshua praying, and they ask him to teach them, as John also taught his disciples.
Luke 11:1 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
It was not uncommon for a Rabbi to teach his students a prayer. One such example is found in the Mishnah:
Berakhot 4:2 Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah would offer a brief prayer when he entered the study hall and when he left. They said to him: What is the nature of this prayer? He told them: Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me; and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion.
In response to his disciples’ request, as also in the Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua taught what is known as “The L‑rd’s Prayer”.
The L-rd’s Prayer
The Gospels contain two versions of the L‑rd’s Prayer. I present them in parallel columns for easy comparison. Luke’s version is more brief, and Matthew’s is more full and symmetrical. Biblical scholars try to draw many conclusions from the differences, and there is value to that when studying the history of the biblical text. My custom, however, is to look at the stories in their original settings and to ask what they meant to the original participants. It makes sense to me to propose that Luke’s version, taught to the disciples as an answer to their request, ought to be more concise. Matthew’s version, presented to the disciples and listening crowds in the larger context of Yeshua’s message about the kingdom of heaven, might naturally be more poetic and full. The contents of the two versions are practically the same.
|Matthew 6:9—Pray then in this way:||Luke 11:2—When you pray, say:|
|Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.||Father, hallowed be your name.|
|10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
|Your kingdom come.|
|11 Give us this day our daily bread.||3 Give us each day our daily bread.|
|12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.||4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.|
|13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
|And do not bring us to the time of trial.
|(For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.)|
Both address G‑d as Father. Matthew has the more traditional form of addressing G‑d in prayer: “Our Father in heaven (אבינו שבשמים)”. Jewish prayer is usually community prayer, and as such we pray “we”, “our”, and “us”, and rarely “I” or “me”.
Luke has the simpler “Father (Abba, אבא)”, which is how Yeshua himself addressed G‑d (Mark 14:36). Paul tells the Romans (8:15) and the Galatians (4:6) that we call G‑d “Abba” in prayer, and this is quite possibly the form used in the early churches.
The first petition is for the sanctification of G‑d’s name, which is the same in the Kaddish. Hallowing of the name of G‑d happens when his people obey his laws, even unto death. It is a solemn request.
Next we ask for the coming of his kingdom, or rule. This is not only a request for the hastening of the end-times. G‑d’s kingdom is wherever he rules and his people serve and revere him as king. This is the meaning of the additional phrase in Matthew, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
The request for daily bread is of course a general request for sustenance, for the things we need to live every day. Matthew reads, “give us today”, while Luke reads, “give us each day”—a small difference, but perhaps some meaning can be gleaned from it. More significant is the unusual Greek word epiousion in both texts, which could mean “daily”, “for the next day”, or “for the future”. So we could be asking for today’s food, or tomorrow’s, or a foretaste of the bread of the world to come. I suspect we need to feel a bit of each when we pray.
The petition for forgiveness is for sins. In English the word “debts” is used to translate the Hebrew and Greek words that also mean that. But this does not mean financial debts. Rather, “debts” is a common metaphor for “sins” in Jewish literature. Yeshua’s wording of the prayer makes our requests for forgiveness conditional on our forgiving others who have sinned against us. In Matthew’s version, we ask forgiveness because, or just as we have (already) forgiven others. Luke’s wording keeps it in the present—because, or as we are forgiving others. I would not make too much of this difference. Matthew’s version is somewhat more formal and liturgical, while Luke’s feels more personal and immediate.
The last request can be understood as asking for G‑d’s help to avoid troubles, community as well as personal, and perhaps also to keep us out of the great troubles of the last days. The entire prayer does seem to have both a present and an eschatological meaning.
The last line of Matthew’s version is a closing declaration of praise and trust in G‑d. This was probably used in community prayer of the early followers of Yeshua, and perhaps not so much in the shorter, more personal version represented in Luke.
It is my belief that Yeshua gave his disciples, and us, the text of a prayer that he wanted us to pray together, as Jews pray. The petitions are for “us”, and not “me”. If he had meant to teach the spirit of prayer, well, we have examples of how he does that, and those examples do not include text of the prayers. Of course, this is not the only prayer he wants us to pray. But in honor of our Rabbi, it is fitting that we, his disciples, pray this prayer along with our other community and personal prayers.
Prayers of the Pharisees
Some people might ask whether we ought to pray the prayers of the synagogues and of the Pharisees, in view of the following parable:
Luke 18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘G‑d, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘G‑d, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Yeshua did not tell this story in order to teach that Pharisees do not know how to pray. Luke told us the purpose of the parable—to warn anyone who trusts in his own righteousness and looks down on others. This particular Pharisee is merely an example. He is not meant to characterize all Pharisees or their prayers. Note how this Pharisee makes himself the subject of his prayer, how many times he says “I”. Prayer is meant to be addressed to G‑d. This Pharisee does not pray prayers of praise, petitions and thanksgivings; he praises himself! This is why his prayer is not accepted.
The tax collector, on the other hand, confesses his sins and asks G‑d for mercy. He does not come to G‑d to claim anything based on his own merit. He might well have known the synagogue prayers. Tax collectors were wealthy, probably educated, and liked to see themselves as important people. He might have attended synagogue like many of the mafia bosses attend church, to project an image of an upstanding citizen. But this one knew he was not, so he bowed before G‑d and pleaded for mercy.
If anyone of us prays with an attitude of “I thank you that I am not like the Pharisees … I pray from my heart, and not out of a book …” or any such presumptuous prayer, then I tell you, he has completely missed the point of this parable. Yeshua did not warn us against praying in a synagogue, or praying a liturgical prayer.
The Torah commands us to pray as a form of worship, and to pray from the heart. It does not prescribe any special form or text or times or bodily positions or dress. All of these were left to the worshipper. In all the Torah, we have only one example of a prescribed text to pray (Deut. 26:5-10), and that is when we used to bring our firstfruits to the Temple on Shavuot. There are examples in the Prophets and Writings of how certain people prayed, and we have the Psalms, which are sometimes called the prayer book or hymn book of ancient Israel.
After the Babylonian exile, Ezra and the elders addressed the problem of Israelites who forgot the Hebrew language, and did not know how or what to pray. They wrote the prayers that became the core of Jewish liturgy, namely, the 18 Benedictions, and they prescribed the reciting of “the Sh’ma” (Deut. 6:4-9) with blessings before and after it. This is the foundation of Jewish prayer. Over the centuries, other poets and scholars have added to the liturgy, forming our Siddur, or Prayer Book, that is currently used by Jews around the world.
Yeshua prayed his own personal prayers, and the synagogue prayers as well. As was the custom of Rabbis in his time, he taught “The L‑rd’s Prayer” to his disciples as his own addition to our repertoire. It is fitting that we who follow him learn to pray as he did with personal prayers, formal community prayers, and the prayer he taught us to pray.