The Structure of Shemoneh Esrei

  • Rav David Brofsky



            Last week, we raised the question of the apparent tension between the formality and spontaneity of tefilla.  We examined this issue through discussing the possibility of praying in the vernacular as well as the permissibility of inserting personal requests and supplications into one's Shemoneh Esrei


            This week, we will attempt to understand the structure of Shemoneh Esrei, and the relationship between the various berakhot (blessings).


The Structure of Shemoneh Esrei and the Relationship Between the Berakhot:


            The gemara teaches that the blessings of Shemoneh Esrei were written and arranged in a precise order.


            For example, the gemara (Berakhot 32a) teaches that one should first praise God, and only afterwards ask for one's needs. 


Rabbi Simlai expounded: "A man should always first recount the praise of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and then pray.  From where do we know this?  From Moshe; for it is written, 'And I besought the Lord at that time' (Devarim 3:23), and it continues, 'Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven and earth who can do according to Your works and according to Your mighty acts?' and afterwards it is written, 'Let me go over, please, and see the good land…"


            Furthermore, the gemara argues that the berakhot of Shemoneh Esrei comprise three distinct units, corresponding to the three stages of prayer.


Rabbi Chanina said: "In the first ones he resembles a servant who is addressing praise to his master; in the middle ones he resembles a servant who is requesting largess from his master; in the last ones he resembles a servant who has received a largess from his master and takes his leave."


In other words, the first three berakhot consist of praise of God (shevach), the middle thirteen of requests (bakashot), and the last three of thanksgiving (hoda'a). 


            In fact, the gemara (34a) teaches that one should not petition for his needs during the first or last three berakhot (see last week's shiur at and while if one errs in the first three berakhot, one should return to the beginning of Shemoneh Esrei, one who errs in one of the middle blessings and realizes before concluding need not repeat the ENTIRE Shemoneh Esrei.


            Moreover, the gemara (Berakhot 28b-29a) explains the source of the Shemoneh Esrei (literally, eighteen) blessings and how they became nineteen:


To what do these eighteen blessings correspond?  Rabbi Hillel the son of Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachamani said: "To the eighteen mentions [of the Tetragrammaton] that David made in [Psalm 29, beginning with] 'Bring to the Lord, you sons of the mighty.'"  

Rav Yosef said: "To the eighteen mentions in the Shema." 

Rabbi Tanchum said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: "To the eighteen vertebrae in the spinal column…"


These eighteen are really nineteen!  Rabbi Levi said: "The blessing [against] heretics was instituted in Yavneh…"

  Our Rabbis taught: "Shimon Ha-pekoli arranged the eighteen blessings before Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh.  Rabban Gamliel said to the Sages: 'Can any one among you compose a benediction relating to heretics?'  So Shemuel the Small arose and composed it…"


            If so, we might ask ourselves the following questions: To what extent is the order, or even the number, of the berakhot absolute?  May one, under certain circumstances, recite the berakhot out of order, or even recite fewer berakhot?  Can one who is unable to recite the entire Shemoneh Esrei fulfill his obligation in other ways?  In other words, what is the relationship between the different berakhot of Shemoneh Esrei and their relationship to the whole known as tefilla?


One Who Makes a Mistake in, or Omits, a berakha:


The gemara (Berakhot 34a) teaches:


-Rav Huna said: "If one makes a mistake in the first three blessings, he goes back to the beginning; if in the middle blessings, he goes back to "Ata chonen le-adam da'at," ("You graciously grant knowledge to man"); if in the last blessings, he goes back to the Avoda (the blessing of "Retzei," "Be pleased").  

-Rav Assi, however, says: "The middle berakhot have no order." 

-Rav Sheshet cited in objection: "'Where should he resume?  From the beginning of the berakha in which he erred' - this is a refutation of Rav Huna, is it not?"

-Rav Huna can reply: "The middle blessings are all one."


            All agree that one who errs in the first or last three berakhot — and we shall define the term 'err' shortly — must return to the beginning of the unit.  However, the sages disagree regarding one who makes a mistake in one of the middle berakhot.  Rav Huna equates the middle berakhot to the beginning and end berakhot, and therefore rules that one should return to "Ata chonen," the first of the middle berakhot.  Rav Assi, on the other hand, argues that "the middle berakhot have no order;" therefore one should return to "the beginning of the berakha in which he erred."


            While the halakha is in accordance with Rav Assi, the Rishonim interpret his view in various ways.


            Rashi (34a s.v. Ein), as well as Rav Hai Gaon (as cited by the Rif) explains: "If he omits one berakha and subsequently remembers, he should say it even though it is out of order…"


            Rashi believes that "the middle berakhot have no order" means that these thirteen blessings, be-diavad, may be said out of sequence.  Therefore, one who omits a berakha may recite it elsewhere within the central section of Shemoneh Esrei


            This seems quite difficult in light of the gemara (Megilla 17b) which teaches that "one hundred and twenty elders, among them a number of prophets, established the eighteen berakhot in sequence (al ha-seder)…"  According to Rashi, apparently, one who recites the berakhot out of order may still fulfill his obligation!


            Some (see Ba'al Ha-ma'or 24a in Rif, for example), explain that according to Rav Assi, while the three UNITS of Shemoneh Esrei — shevach, bakashot and hoda'a — must be recited in order, the individual berakhot, be-diavad, may be recited out of order. 


            Tosafot (Berakhot 34a, s.v. Emtza'iot) disagree and argue:


The view of the Rashbam and the Rif seems correct, that "have no order" comes to teach only that one should return to the place where he omitted a berakha and continue from there, and that one should not return to "Ata chonen," like the first and last three…"


            Thus, according to Tosafot, one who returns to the point at which he erred must repeat the subsequent berakhot which he has already said, even though we normally avoid unnecessary blessings; apparently, in order to fulfill the obligation of Shemoneh Esrei, the berakhot must be recited in a certain order. 


            The Shulchan Arukh (OC 119:3) rules in accordance with Tosafot and the Rif, and one who omits or errs in one of the middle berakhot must return to the beginning of that berakha and continue from there. 


            What type of error invalidates a berakha?  The Biur Halakha (119 s.v. Im dileg) enumerates two types of errors which disqualify a berakha.  Firstly, he explains, one who did not complete the berakha, for example, by leaving out its conclusion, must repeat the berakha.  Regarding whether one who omits a central theme, such as the ingathering of the exiles from the main body of the blessing of "Teka be-shofar" ("Blow the horn") there is an argument.  Rav Yosef Karo (59:1) rules that one must return to it, but others, including the Vilna Gaon, argue that one need not repeat the berakha, since its conclusion mentions this them.


            Secondly, he continues, one who inserts a phrase that corrupts the blessing, such as asking for rain during the summer in the blessing of "Bareikh Aleinu" ("Bless for us"), would also have to repeat the berakha. 


            In summary, one who omits, corrupts or fails to complete one of the berakhot and has already moved on (either with the concluding formula or by starting the next blessing), must go back and say the berakha properly.  During the first and last three berakhot, one returns to the beginning of that unit.  During the middle berakhot, one should return to the berakha which was omitted or said improperly and continue from there through the entire Shemoneh Esrei


            Finally, the Chayei Adam, (Rabbi Avraham Danzig, 1748–1820) relates (24:21) to one who has lost his place.  During the first or last three berakhot, one should return to the beginning of the unit.  However, during the middle berakhot, he asserts, one should return to the first berakha which he is CERTAIN that he has not said.  However, he should NOT return to a berakha concerning which he is in doubt whether or not he has recited it.


            Incidentally, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899–1985), known as "The Steipler," in his Kehillat Yaakov (1:1), rejects this opinion; he posits that, on the contrary, if one would not say the questionable berakhot, his entire Shemoneh Esrei would be in vain!


            We will attempt to explain the position of the Chayei Adam in the next section.


Nineteen Commandments - or One?


            Whenever confronted with a mitzva comprised of multiple parts, one must always question the nature of the parts and their relationship to the whole. 


            For example, regarding the mitzva of counting the omer, the Acharonim (see Minchat Chinukh 306, for example) question whether to view it as forty-nine separate and distinct commandments, or one large mitzva comprised of forty-nine parts.  In fact, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in a context beyond the scope of this shiur, even suggests that while there may be forty-nine separate commandments, each one can be fulfilled only in the context of the others.


            How are we to view the berakhot of Shemoneh Esrei?  Are we to consider these nineteen blessings nineteen separate commandments, which theoretically could be recited separately and independently, but ideally should be recited together and in their proper order; or do the berakhot comprise one mitzva, whose different parts must be recited in a specific order?


            The Acharonim discuss the following question.  What if one is unable to recite the entire Shemoneh Esrei?  May one recite SOME of the berakhot?


            The Shulchan Arukh (OC 593:2) rules:


The berakhot of Rosh Ha-shana are intertwined, as are those of Yom Kippur.  If one does not know how to recite all of them, he should NOT recite the ones which he knows; rather, he should not recite any of them…


            Based on this, the Magen Avraham writes, "This implies that during the rest of the year if one knows one berakha, one should say it, as the berakhot do NOT invalidate each other…"  (The Biur Halakha cites Acharonim who disagree.)  It seems that the Magen Avraham believes that, be-diavad, one may view Shemoneh Esrei as nineteen separate, distinct and significant berakhot.  Those who disagree either believe that the nineteen berakhot form one long mitzva, or they at least hold that their individual significance depends upon their juxtaposition amongst other berakhot.


            In light of this question, we might wish to reexamine the opinion of the Chayei Adam cited above.  The Chayei Adam rules that one has who lost his place should skip to the first berakha he is CERTAIN was not recited.  We noted that the Steipler points out that if one has indeed omitted a berakha, then ALL of the berakhot were said in vain!


            One might suggest that the Chayei Adam, in the spirit of the Magen Avraham cited above, intends to ensure that the person recite as many berakhot as possible.  As for the possibility that he may have truly omitted a blessing, he might respond that even if he indeed omitted a berakha, he has still fulfilled the mitzva of each berakha recited, even if the additional mitzva of tefillat Shemoneh Esrei, a whole and organized unit, has not been fulfilled.  Since the law is that one who is in doubt whether he has fulfilled the mitzva of Shemoneh Esrei does NOT repeat the tefilla, here too, he should merely recite the berakhot that he is sure were not recited.



            Next week, we will discuss whether one may fulfill the obligation of tefilla by reciting a prayer other than the "official formula" known as Shemoneh Esrei, consisting of the nineteen berakhot instituted by the Kenesset Ha-gedola.