Tefillat Shemoneh Esrei - Its Institution and Text

  • Rav David Brofsky




            Last week, we discussed the halakhic sources of Tefilla.  We noted that while the Rambam and Ramban debate whether the obligation to pray daily is biblical or rabbinic, all agree that the mitzva should be fulfilled through reciting the Shemoneh Esrei.  Furthermore, we questioned whether women are obligated to recite all three daily prayers (or at least Shacharit and Mincha), or perhaps they may fulfill their obligation through reciting a short supplication.


            This week, we will discuss the institution of the Shemoneh Esrei, as well as its proper times and nosach.


Who Established Tefilla:


            The rabbis disagree regarding the basis for instituting three daily prayers.  As the Gemara (Berakhot 26b) teaches:


R. Yose son of R. Chanina said: The tefillot were instituted by the Avot (Patriarchs).  R. Yehoshua b. Levi says: The tefillot were instituted to replace the daily sacrifices… It has been taught in accordance with R. Yose b. Chanina: Avraham instituted the morning prayer, as it says, 'And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood' (Bereishit 19:27) and 'standing' refers to prayer… Yitzchak instituted the afternoon prayer, as it says, 'And Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field at eventide' (Bereishit 24:63) and 'meditation' means only prayer… Yaakov instituted the evening prayer, as it says, 'And he happened [va-yifga] upon the place' (Bereishit 24:11), and 'pegi'a' means only prayer, as it says, 'Therefore pray not thou for this people neither lift up prayer nor cry for them, neither make intercession to [tifga'] Me.' It has also taught in accordance with R. Yehoshua b. Levi: Why did they say that the morning prayer could be said till midday? Because the regular morning sacrifice could be brought up to midday… and why did they say that the afternoon Tefilla can be said up to the evening? Because the regular afternoon offering can be brought up to the evening… and why did they say that for the evening prayer there is no limit? Because the limbs and the fat which were not consumed [on the altar] by the evening could be brought for the whole of the night…"


The sugya concludes:


"…Who, according to R. Yose b. Chanina, instituted the Tefillat Mussaf? He must hold therefore that the Patriarchs instituted the prayers and the rabbis found a basis for them in the offerings…"


In other words, even R. Yose b. Chanina admits that the proper TIMES for the prayers are derived from the korbanot.


            What is the basis for this debate? Do the different sources reflect different approaches to the nature of prayer?


            One might suggest, that on the one hand, we may view the tefillot as our daily obligatory sacrifice, a CONSTANT ('tamid') offering to God, similar to the korbanot.  Especially in the spirit of "we render for bullocks the offering of our lips" (Hoshea 14:3), and those sources (see Menachot 110a and Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 18:21) which indicate that in the absence of korbanot, their recitation may stand in their stead, the korbanot provide a solid basis for the daily tefillot.


            On the other hand, the tefillot of the Avot might be seen as spontaneous communication, inspired by the different times of the day.  The rising and setting of the sun, as well as complete darkness, inspire one to turn his/her thoughts towards God.  


            Seemingly, both themes are central to the Jewish idea of prayer in particular, and avodat Hashem in general.  Interestingly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:5 and Hilkhot Melakhim 9:1) cites both reasons, separately, possibly alluding to the importance of each theme. 


The Berakhot of the Shemoneh Esrei:


            The Gemara (Berakhot 33a) teaches that the "Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola," the legislative body comprised of rabbis and prophets formed at the beginning of the Second Temple period, established the "berakhot, tefillot, kedushot and havdalot."  Apparently, this body responded to the many challenges of the return to Zion, including the absence of prophecy and the new role played by the second Beit Ha-mikdash.  The early prophets deplored Israel's misplaced trust in their sacrifices, which they apparently felt would absolve them of their responsibility to correct their ways and imbue their life with spirituality (see Yishayahu 1:11-13).  The Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola, through formalizing the obligations and texts of berakhot and tefillot, shifted the central religious venue from the Temple, to the individual's experience.   


Furthermore, the Gemara also reports two later changes to the Shemoneh Esrei. 


One Gemara (Megilla 17b) relates:


"Where does Tefilla come from? As it is taught [in a Baraita]: Shimon Ha-pekoli arranged the order of eighteen benedictions before Rabban Gamliel at Yavneh.  R. Yochanan said - others say it is taught in a Baraita - 'One hundred and twenty elders, with several prophets among them, instituted the order of eighteen benedictions.'… Since 120 elders, with several prophets among them, instituted the order of prayer, what did Shimon Ha-pekoli arrange?! They were forgotten and he went back and rearranged them."


The Rishonim offer different explanations as to what exactly Shimon Ha-pekoli did if the Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola had already established Tefilla!


Another Gemara (Berakhot 28b) reports that:


"Rabban Gamliel said to the Sages, 'Is there anyone who knows how to compile Birkat Ha-minim (the benediction against heretics)?' Shmuel Ha-katan arose, and established it…"


Many assume that this "nineteenth" blessing was directed towards the early sectarians, or Christians.  In fact, the Gemara (ibid.) teaches that while ordinarily a shali'ach tzibbur who errs merely corrects his mistake, one who omits Birkat Ha-minim is immediately removed and replaced.  Seemingly, this blessing served as a litmus test, weeding out those who could not recite the blessing calling for their own destruction.


The Proper Nosach of the Shemoneh Esrei:


The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:4) writes:


"Upon Israel's exile during the time of the evil Nebuchadnezzar the Jewish people were spread through Persia and Greece and other countries.  Their children were born in foreign lands, and those children no longer shared a common language… once Ezra and his beit din saw this they established the eighteen berakhot (Shemoneh Esrei) in their proper order, i.e. the first three berakhot contain praises for God, the final three thanksgiving, and the middle ones contain requests for personal and communal needs… and because of this they established all of the berakhot and tefillot to be ordered and the mouths of all of Israel…"


Furthermore, the Rambam explains (Peirush Ha-Mishnayot Menachot 4:1) that the actual texts of these tefillot were not included in the Mishna, as they were well known to all. 


            While that may have once been true, as the years passed, the need to record the nosach ha-Tefilla became apparent.  Rav Amram Gaon authored the first siddur, in response to a request from the Barcelonan community, in the ninth century.  Rav Saadya Gaon, in the tenth century, also composed a siddur, explaining:


"In the lands in which I have traveled I have seen (additions to and subtractions from the texts)… and they motivated me and called upon me to remove them.  And therefore there are things from our early national traditions in prayers and berakhot which are no longer said, forgotten and even completely erased, except from a few of the elite, such that they have been changed or destroyed from the purpose for which they were originally established!"


While historians differ as to whether, and to what extent, there ever was a "fixed" and exact text of the Shemoneh Esrei, in our day, there are a number of popular nosachim of the tefillot.   Many communities pray according to the older nosachim, such as Ashkenaz, Eidot Ha-Mizrach and Nosach Teiman, whereas others use Nosach Sefarad (popular among Chassidic groups and in many religious Zionist communities) and Nosach Ha-Ar"i siddurim. 


            The Acharonim debate whether one nosach should be viewed as preferable, or superior to another.  Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yabia Omer 6:10), sides with those who strongly prefer the Sefardi nosach.  Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe 2:24) even questioned the legitimacy of Nosach Sefarad and Nosach Ha-Ar"i, and ruled that one who prays according to one of these texts may certainly return to the original, more authentic nosach, Ashkenaz.  


            The Chatam Sofer (2:15-6) rejects these approaches, and asserts that all variations are equally legitimate.  He does, however, rules that generally one should follow the custom of one's family, in fulfillment of the verse (Mishlei 1:8) "Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the teaching of thy mother."


            How should one conduct oneself while praying with a congregation which uses a different nosach?


            Many authorities express concern that an individual who prays in a different nosach than the rest of the congregation may create a problem of "lo titgodedu," i.e. the appearance of two "Torot" (see Yevamot 14a).  Others point to the general principle that when visiting a place which follows different customs, one should not differ from the custom of the place, lest one cause "machloket" (see Pesachim 50b).


            Most authorities (see Iggrot Moshe 2:23, Shoel U-Meshiv 3:1:247 etc.) maintain that one should recite the SILENT Shemoneh Esrei in one's own nosach.  However, regarding the other parts of davening, there remains a disagreement. 


            Rav Ovadya Yosef (ibid.), for example, rules that one may even recite those parts usually said out loud in one's own nosach, and this does not pose a problem of lo titgodedu, especially in our day and age in which it is known that there are many variant nosachim.  Others insist that those parts said publicly and aloud, such as Kedusha and vidu'i said by some during Tachanun, should certainly conform to the local congregation's nosach. 


            As for Pesukei De-zimra, Birkhot Keriyat Shema, and Tachanun, while Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that since they are often said out loud, one should conform to the community's custom, others maintain that as long as one does not publicly contradict the communal custom (such as the different texts of Kedusha), one may continue to pray in one's own nosach.  


            In a community in which there is NO set nosach, and the nosach is determined by whoever happens to be the shali'ach tzibbur, it would seem that one may certainly recite Pesukei De-zimra, Birkhot Keriyat Shema, Tachanun, etc according one's own minhag, as long as one does not noticeably contradict the communal recitation, such as in the Kedusha.  It is even quite common, especially in Israel, for the mourners to recite different nosachim of the Kaddish, in unison.  Furthermore, even in minyanim in which one nosach is used, it is quite common for some to stray from the minhag ha-makom, apparently assuming that all are aware, and accept and tolerate the variant nosachim. 


            Some authorities question whether one MUST pray in a minyan that uses one's nosach, or whether and to what extent other factors may be taken into account.  Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe 4:33), for example, writes that the quality of tefilla, as well as the overall religious and spiritual level of a given congregation, may be a factor in choosing a place to pray, even at the price of davening in a beit kenesset which using a different nosach.  


            Regarding a shali'ach tzibbur leading a congregation which prays in a different nosach than his own, Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yabia Omer 6:10:8) insists that one should not adopt the congregation's nosach, and that it is preferable, even for a mourner, to forgo being the chazzan and to pray quietly in his own nosach.  Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe 2:29 and 4:33) adopts the opposite approach, and insists that the chazzan recite the silent Shemoneh Esrei in the congregation's nosach, as a chazzan's Tefilla be-lachash is viewed as preparation for the chazarat ha-shatz.  Rav Shelomo Zalman Auerbach (Halikhot Shelomo 5:19) apparently disagreed, arguing that since nowadays a shali'ach tzibbur has his own siddur, the silent prayer is not necessary as a preparation for the chazarat ha-shatz, and while the chazarat ha-shatz should conform to the community's minhag, the chazzan may recite the silent Shemoneh Esrei in his own nosach.


May one actually change one's nosach ha-tefilla?


            Based upon the above cited principle of "Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the teaching of thy mother" (Mishlei 1:8), authorities do not generally approve of changing one's nosach ha-tefilla.  However, a number of poskim discussed scenarios in which such a choice would be legitimate.  The Chatam Sofer (2:15) records that his teachers, Rabbi Natan Adler and Rabbi Pinchas Levi Horowitz, changed their nosach ha-tefilla (and pronunciation!) to the Sepharadic nosach.   Similarly, the Maharam Shik (Teshuvot Choshen Mishpat 24) suggests that if one feels that he or she will achieve greater kavana through praying in a different nosach, one may change a customary nosach. 


            Furthermore, a woman upon marriage, according to many, may and should adopt her husband's nosach ha-tefilla. 


            Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe OC 1:158) rules that just as someone who moves to a different community should adopt the customs of the new place, similarly, a woman, upon entering her husbands "community," should adopt his customs, and need not even recite Hatarat Nedarim. 


            Alternatively, the Tashbetz (1:178) explains that a woman should change those minhagim which may lead to "machloket" within the household.  Seemingly, tefillot, which are said privately, do not affect the family's shalom bayit, and a woman should NOT be obligated to change her custom.  


Next week we will continue our study of Tefilla, focusing us the preparations for prayer.