Ladder of Prayer

ladder-curvedJewish communal prayer is both liturgy and experience. The liturgy expresses a theology — a theory about God. The experience stimulates inner spirituality — an encounter with God.

The liturgy is structured and traditional; my experience is unique and changing. Still, the two interact regularly. Here is an introduction to a Shabbat morning prayer service that includes a bit of both.

Pesukei D’Zimra (Verses of Song): Singing psalms together lifts us up the first step. With rhythmic breath, we engage our bodies. With dramatic music, we stimulate our emotions. We conclude with Psalm 150, honouring the spirit – if not the actual intent — of the great 1st century Rabbi Yossi the Galilean who said, “May I be among those who complete the book of psalms every day.”

Shema and Its Blessings: With bodies and emotions engaged in praise, we focus our thoughts, first through theology and then through contemplation. Theologically, we reflect on monotheism. As the great medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides said, “What does it mean for God to be One? God is not one like a genus which subsumes many species, nor one like a body divisible into parts, nor one like the first in a series. To understand this is a positive commandment, for it is written in Deuteronomy: Shema Israel: Listen Israel, The LORD our God, the LORD is ONE.”

Amidah: Dwelling in the mystery of the ONE brings us into contemplative intimacy with God. During the Kedushah, or holiness prayer, we place ourselves right into Isaiah and Ezekiel’s visions of heaven. The Kedushah is part of a practice we call Amidah, standing in the presence; or Tefillah, deepest prayer; or Shemoneh Esrei, eighteen blessings. Quietly, we reflect on eighteen issues of personal and communal concern. Our modern prayer book offers a poetic script to guide the reflection, but the sages who created the practice thought each person should reflect on the issues in their own way.

Torah Service: With our hearts and minds opened to Divine presence, we listen for God’s speech. Our sages say that “Torah was written with black fire on white fire.” Black fire refers to the letters; white fire to the spaces between them. When a reader chants from a first-century style Torah scroll, pronouncing the words, and pausing in the spaces, we are each touched differently. With songs and blessings, we celebrate the power of the reading.

Closing: Our closing hymn is usually a grand medieval poem that bridges heart and mind, earth and heaven, or time and eternity. Adon Olam, Master of Time and Space, describing an experience of God both transcendent and immanent, is a favorite for Shabbat morning. Its meter marks time so perfectly, that it can be sung to almost any tune, and brought to life in almost any emotional key.

Transitions: In between each section of the service, we usually chant the Aramaic Kaddish, sanctification prayer, composed around the year 600. The Kaddish encourages us to climb the ladder of spiritual engagement, helping us declare with each step, “Let’s raise up God’s name higher than any blessing, poem, praise or petition ever recited in this world! And let’s all say Amen!”

Prepared for a program at the Vancouver School of Theology. Inspired by teachings of Rabbi Marcia Prager, Hazzan Jack Kessler, and Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, z”l. Image:

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