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02: Getting Started

  • Rav Ezra Bick


This shiur is dedicated in memory of Louis and Margaret Klein, z”l
by Mr. and Mrs. William Klein



            The framework of the Shemona Esrei is the unit we call a "berakha."  The eighteen sections of the Shemona Esrei are eighteen berakhot (blessings).  The first begins with the words "Barukh ata HaShem...."  The subsequent berakhot do not begin with "barukh" but each one ends with "barukh...."  As we shall see, this structure will be the basis for our analysis of each section.  But first we have to examine the one exception to this structure.


A.  HaShem Sefatai Tiftach


            Before we begin the Shemona Esrei (by which I mean that we begin the first berakha), we recite a single verse - "HaShem sefatai tiftach u-fi yagid tehilatekha" (God, open my lips and my mouth shall utter your praises).  Now you might assume that this is not necessarily significant.  It is a nice verse, so perhaps someone decided to add it as an introduction.  But if you recall, last week we learnt that it is necessary to connect "ge'ula" to "tefilla."  We must avoid any interruption between the last berakha after the shma - ga'al yisrael - and the beginning of the Shemona Esrei.  As I pointed out, many authorities do not even permit the answering of "amen" to the chazan's berakha at this point.  If we nonetheless recite this verse, it must be that there is a very good reason to do so.


            The Talmud asks why this verse does not constitute an interruption:


How does one connect ge'ula to tefilla in the morning?  Did not R. Yochanan say: Before (Shemona Esrei) one says, "HaShem sefatai tiftach" and afterwards he should say, "Yihiyu le-ratzon imrei fi" ("May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be accepted before You, God my rock and redeemer")?  The answer is that since the Sages required one to say "HaShem sefatai tiftach," (the verse) is part of one long tefilla (i.e., ge'ula is connected to tefilla, which begins from HaShem sefatai tiftach) (Berakhot 4b).


            In other words, "Hashem Sefatai," despite being outside the textual framework of the berakhot, is not merely an introduction to prayer, but an integral part of prayer itself.  The Shemona Esrei BEGINS with "Hashem sefatai."  [Note: Based on this gemara, the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l, recommended that the chazan begin his repetition of Shemona Esrei with the verse "Hashem sefatai," even though he has already recited it before his silent Shemona Esrei.  Since it is not an introduction to, but an integral part of Shemona Esrei, it should be repeated together with the repetition of the rest of Shemona Esrei.]


            We now have to try and understand why - why is this verse necessary?


1.  Who can pray


            "God, open my lips and my mouth shall utter your praises."  This is not, I think, a request of God to aid us to pray.  Not that one does not need the assistance of God to speak, but one needs help in moving one's lips no more than in moving one's legs, in breathing, or in anything else.  Everything needs God, who is the creator of all.  But that would not justify prefacing prayer with this request.  I think that this is not a request for assistance, but rather a request for permission.  Man, facing God, recognizes that he is unworthy to utter the praises of God, that the very thought of God's praise, God's majesty, God's kingship, on his lips is inappropriate.  If we rephrase this idea within the context of the previous shiur, where I explained that the "avoda," the service of God inherent in tefilla is in recognizing and declaring that all comes from Him and depends on Him, then we understand this opening verse of the Shemona Esrei as saying: Even my ability to serve You, to be counted as one of Your servants, is dependent on You.  Only if you accept me and accept the words of my mouth can I enter into the service of God.  To serve God is also a privilege, and it too must be granted by God.


            This verse reflects the paradox I described last time.  To serve God is to receive from Him the contents of the tzelem Elokim, the "image of God."  By serving Him, we do not fade away, lose dignity and a sense of self, but on the contrary, we become truly human, in the sense that to be human is to be in the image of God.  Here too, to serve God through prayer is a status that can only be achieved through God's grace.  But there is more here - how shall I praise God, pray before Him?  Not only by His permission, by His accepting me and allowing me to come before Him, but by His "opening my lips."  What does this metaphor indicate?  I think we have here the basic meaning of the "image of God."


            By saying "open my lips and my mouth shall utter your praises," we seem to imply that the praises are waiting inside us, bottled up, unable to pass the sealed portals of our lips.  The words are bursting to come out, but cannot.  There is a tremendous difference between my inner depths and my outer expression, and only God can help me bridge the gap.  What does this mean?  The concept of the "image of God" means that man's potential is unlimited by anything other than the image of God - in other words, infinitely unlimited.  In actuality, in external expression, any given person has reached no more than the finite state in which a camera would freeze him.  But Man was not created in the image of man, according to a plan of what a man should be, but in the image of God.  Man exists, by the word of creation, and that word was that he should be THUS! - an image of God, a being who is potentially more than he is, whose meaning is expressed in his striving to transcend himself.  Hence, the praises of God, my infinite worth as His servant, is my potential, bottled up "inside" me, hidden, not objectively real.  What do I want, but that He should open my lips, let my potential flower and become objectively externalized.  If I pray not, or pray to myself, I can at most be equal to myself, flesh and blood, dust and ashes.  If I pray, if I enter the service of God by recognizing Him as the source and font of all value for myself, I can become something of infinite value, growing closer to objective worth and expressing my true personality as a reflection of that objective truth, as a tzelem Elokim.


2.  How Does One Pray


            The other point I would like to make about the meaning of this verse relates not to my right to pray, but to my ability.  There are two kinds of prayer.  One is spontaneous, bursting from the heart, elementary, unsophisticated.  When we are in trouble or in danger, our prayer does not reflect our service of God, but our immediate needs.  It is not a recital but a cry.  This is called "ze'aka" rather than tefilla.  One goes to tefilla in the house of the king; one runs to ze'aka as to a refuge:


Maskil to David, when he was in the cave, a prayer:

My voice to God I cry (ez'ak), my voice to God I beg;

I shall spill before Him my words,

My trouble before Him I shall tell....

I cried (za'akti) to You, O God;

I said: You are my refuge,

my portion in the land of the living. (Psalms 142,1-6)


On the battlefield, "in the cave," in the depths of despair, from the midnight of the soul, man can cry out to God to save him.  This requires no preparation, no formalities, no keeping to protocol.  One does not need to be a great scholar to formulate such a prayer - in fact, one should not "formulate" such a prayer at all.  You do not need a siddur, nor a minyan of ten; there are no set times, special locations, introductions, conclusions, or formulas.  The legitimacy of ze'aka is in the heart of the individual.


            But daily prayer is not like that.  Tefilla is, as we have seen, avoda, service.  The reason why the Sages composed the Shemona Esrei, according to the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:3), is that the common man could not express himself properly.  Here there are rules of procedure - what comes first, what last, how to stand, how to bow from the waist, how to bend the knees.  The legitimacy of tefilla is the service of God, and this must be done in the right way, "by the rules" of the King's house.  Here the Sage mightily over every word, searching for the biblical sanction and support, in order to produce the perfect tefilla.  It is not easy to pray in this manner.  I am not sure I know what to say.  Shall I address God as "Merciful" or as "Mighty," Judge or Father?  Which of my needs are important enough to come first and which should not be mentioned explicitly at all?


            One of the methods we shall utilize in this course is to search for the source of the phrases used in the Shemona Esrei.  We shall see that the Sages carefully combined biblical phrases into a seamless whole.  Every noun, every adjective, was chosen for its appropriateness.  In the first berakha, as we shall see next time, the Sages claimed that without prophetic sanction - in other words, without the sanction of God - they could not have composed that berakha the way they did.  If, in times of emergency, one can burst in before God and cry out whatever is in one's heart, daily prayer, the daily service of God, demands that one say that which should be said before God, that which is service of Him, and not whatever merely reflects my most immediate and pressing feeling.  If the standard of choosing what to say is what is appropriate before God, rather than what is appropriate to come out of me, than we do indeed need the help of God to open our lips so that our mouths utter HIS praises.


[Note: In Mincha (and Musaf), another verse is commonly said before Hashem sefatai - "Ki shem HaShem ekra, havu godel le-Elokeinu."  This is a variation of an older custom to recite a different verse - "Shome'a tefilla adekha kol basar yavo'u."  Since these two verses are not required by Sages, they do not enjoy the exemption from the ge'ula-tefilla rule granted to Hashem sefatai.  Therefore, they are not recited during Shacharit and Maariv when one must not interrupt the direct connection of ge'ula and tefilla.  Sefardim add other verses before the Shemona Esrei.  As opposed to what I have suggested concerning Hashem sefatai, all these other verses are merely introductions, expressing some idea about prayer, but not an integral part of the Shemona Esrei itself.]


B.  The Berakha


            We are finally ready to start the Shemona Esrei proper.  Before getting to what we say, it would make sense to devote some time to what we DO - three steps forward, standing erect, bowing on the first word of the first berakha.  But we cannot do everything, and this course is meant to be devoted to the text analysis.  So I leave it to you to think about - what do the three steps, the bowing, the erect position, all signify?  In other words, what do they mean?


            Next time, we shall analyze the first berakha, called "avot" (fathers), since it is based, in part, on the forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.  But first a word on structure.



            Most of the berakhot of Shemona Esrei, with the exception of the first, do not begin with the word "barukh."  However, all of them end with the formula, "Barukh ata HaShem, who is 'something-or-other.'"  This is called the "chatima," the closing of the berakha.  There is a halakhic requirement to precede the chatima with a line that is "me-ein chatima," the theme of the chatima.  The minimum requirement of any berakha is the recitation of these two parts.  On the logical assumption that the chatima expresses the central theme of the berakha, we shall always examine it most carefully, together with the "me-ein chatima," which expresses the same theme, in order to extract the central motif of each section of the Shemona Esrei.