Festivals, Prayers & Services
The Talmidi Way of Prayer
I recall once trying to make some rapport with a Muslim fundamentalist who was trying to convert me. I in my turn tried to inform him of the ways of our faith. At one point he said proudly, “We Muslims pray five times a day. How often do you pray?” “All the time,” I replied, “All the time.”
Most Talmidi prayer is informal and direct. If you think of prayer as any communion with God, then Followers of the Way are encouraged to commune privately in their thoughts with God as often as possible.
It is true that our community has formal ritualised prayer for the synagogue, at Sabbaths and for Festivals, but these are given as an assistance and a guide, to bring a group of people together to pray communally. Praying the same prayers together has the effect of increasing a feeling of oneness and togethernes; apparently, the feel-good hormone oxytocin is released whenever human beings do the same things together.
However, there are many people who find it difficult to pray in a formal way; when ritualised prayer is all they are given, they come to see prayer as nothing but formal. It becomes something that has to be done, rather than something that is a lifeline to God.
The Way encourages Followers to foster and develop a direct, close, personal relationship with God – as a friend and confidant. In the same informal way that you speak with a friend – telling them how you feel, what you have done, what your hopes are – this is the nature of our communion with God
Once you learn to pray like this, your prayer becomes constant, and your line of communication with God is permanently kept open your every waking hour.
What is prayer?
Prayer brings us inner peace and understanding of self. It helps us to grow spiritually, and brings us closer to God.
It is unfortunate that many people see prayer as simply asking for something. Many times I have heard reports of people saying, “God, grant me this, and I won’t bother you again.” In effect, this is like saying to a very close friend, “Do me this one favour, and I promise you I won’t ever speak to you again.” Ridiculous, isn’t it!
The manner in which we speak to our friends and maintain our relationships, is through constant communication, frequent contact, being supportive, and making each other feel valued. Similarly, prayer is how we maintain our relationship with God. Prayer is a method of open communication and frequent contact with God, and in turn, God supports us, encourages us, and shows us just how much we are valued. As well as asking God to help us, we should also praise God, in the same way as you would say good things about a friend. And you should thank God too, just as you thank anyone who helps you.
Prayer is an expression of human needs and longings. Not only is it a quest for God, it is also a quest for knowledge of self. We cannot be at ease with the world, if we are not at ease with ourselves. And we cannot be at ease with ourselves, if we do not know ourselves. Speaking with God, as you would with a friend, you can discover your true self – acknowledge your failings as well as your strengths, and admit to your real fears and face them. The one difference is that whereas we can embroider the truth with a human friend, God knows the very intricacies of our hearts, and no matter how much we can try to fool ourselves, we cannot fool God. That is why we have to be honest in prayer.
Prayer is a bridge between us and God. Just as a real bridge enables two-way traffic to flow between two separated points, so prayer allows a two-way traffic between the human soul and the Divine Presence. Opening our hearts and minds in prayer to God enables us to realise the warmth of God’s love for us. When we set our minds to prayer, God is able to display the great delight God has for our presence. God is always eager to listen to and touch our souls.
In order for our prayer life to develop and flourish, we have to unlearn what we have been conditioned to think about prayer itself. We have to let go of the attitudes which have brought us nothing but disappointment, and relearn a different, fresh and more powerful way of prayer that slowly unfolds within us, until we become the true spiritual beings that God created us to be.
Were you taught as a child to close your eyes and put your hands together when you pray? This sometimes makes people think, “If I don’t do this, I’m not really praying.” Or did you see prayer as just uttering requests into the ether, thinking that they would somehow be answered. And when they weren’t, how disappointed you were
And did you think as a child that you could only pray properly in a synagogue or church, or only with a prayerbook in your hand at home? And when you tried to pray elsewhere, and without a prayerbook, did it somehow not feel right?
Changing our image of God
The first step is to change our innermost image of God. If we think of God as something we take off the shelf when we need it, and put back when we don’t, then we have diminished the size of God and turned God into a mere idol or commodity.
God is not a wishing well or a magician. If we see God as someone who grants all our wishes all the time, then most of the time we will be disappointed. If you ask God to make you pass an exam, or make your team win, or make your pay increase, then when none of these things happen, our faith in God is diminished, because we have asked for the wrong things.
Rather, we have to learn to experience God as ever-present, close, caring and nurturing. We have to discover that God is one who strengthens us, encourages us, and helps us get through our trials.
God is infinite, all-powerful, and someone we cannot control in any way. God is a Source of strength and power from whom we can draw strength when we don’t have any left. God is Hope, when we no longer have hope; God is Knowledge and Wisdom, when we are lost for answers; God is Love, when we are starved of comfort; and God is Light, when all we see around us is darkness.
The Kingdom of God is within us
We have also to realise that “the Kingdom of God is within us”. God is the Sovereign ruler of the human heart, and rather than waiting for God to do everything for us, we must realise that there is a pure spark of heaven within our own souls which God placed there to empower us; God has enabled us to do great and wondrous things.
Once we see this, we no longer have any doubts that communication with God is possible. God is not in the far distance; God’s Presence touches our very hearts.
Being realistic in prayer
We also have to be realistic in our prayer. When we pray, we need to be aware of our needs, rather than our wants. If we pray, “Cure my father,” we are shattered and angry with God if that beloved parent dies. After all, it is only natural to want the best for our loved ones, and God understands this. We are vulnerable, we are emotional, we are human – and we hurt and bruise easily. We need God’s support and tenderness in our times of pain and trial.
If we pray, “Give me the strength and patience to look after my mother, and be with her through this time of sickness. Let her not be in so much pain, let her know that she is loved and cared for. Never let her once feel that your Presence has departed from her.”
And if that parent dies, we can say, “Beloved YHVH, restore my mother to her heavenly home, where there is no pain or hurt, and bathe her in the warmth of your Presence. And be with us here on earth as we grieve our loss. Help us to be there for one another, and comfort us in those times when we wish to be alone. Help us to cry without fear or shame, and release everything that is a hindrance to our healing.”
This is the difference between praying for what we want, and for what we need. God knows our needs even before we do. If we pray for our needs long before we pray for our wants, our prayers are more powerful, and have greater effect. Prayer empowers us.
I have found the most powerful prayer – and the one to be answered the speediest – is for God to be with me, for God’s protective Presence to surround me, and for God’s love to fill my soul.
Another element of powerful prayer is using the Holy Name in our private prayer. Torah commands us to make the Name of God holy – to set it apart from everyday usage of language. King Solomon believed that using the Name of God in his prayer gave his prayer power and holiness.
In our dealings with one another, we might use euphemisms, such as Ha-Shem, or the Eternal One, or the Holy One. But in our private prayer, can use the Holy Name of YHVH. Doing this gives God a distinct and real personality, and this special sanctification of the Name helps us to experience the specialness of our time with YHVH our God
We also need to be open to what God wants for us. We might think we need one thing, but often God in God’s infinite wisdom, who knows our past, present and future needs, gives us something unexpected – something which ultimately turns out to be better than what we asked for. We need to be open to whatever God is willing to give to us, something that we could scarcely have imagined.
We also need to show humility of spirit in prayer. Some people pray with arrogance, as if they know what’s good for them and are merely telling God what they need, as if to a servant. Followers of the Way emphasise humility of spirit – that before God, we know nothing, though we may consider ourselves wise in other aspects of life. We don’t have all the answers, but if we listen to God’s still small voice within us, we will catch a glimpse of the greater tapestry of God’s will.
Here are some points to consider in re-evaluating your path to effective prayer:
change your inner image of God
be realistic in your prayer
pray for your needs, and for guidance
believe in the power of God’s kingdom within you
we help God to help us if we are willing to help ourselves
you can pray anywhere, anytime
Here are some more lessons about prayer that I have learnt over the years:
let go of the negative, believe in the positive
pray simply, openly, honestly
place no restrictions on what you talk to God about
be open to what God wants for you
open your heart to allow God to fill you with divine love
let God protect you from within
pray with humility of spirit
don’t be afraid – have confidence in God’s power
be persistent in prayer, don’t give up
prayer exercises the spiritual muscles – the more we do, the stronger we become
What prayer does for us:
helps us to grow spiritually
brings us closer to God
brings inner peace and calm
brings down the haughty, and raises the lowly
reminds us of our feelings, and helps us to focus
Things to avoid in prayer
One ancient Jewish tradition which has been revived by some Followers of the Way is the Nazirite vow. When followed properly, it gives us the opportunity to spend a part of our lives in complete and total devotion to our faith. It allows us to concentrate on being more intensely devout for a short while, in the hope that it will change us in the long term.
Unfortunately, in ancient times the vow was heavily abused spiritually. It came to be used as a way of bribing God. People would say to God, “If you grant me such and such a favour, then I will undertake the Nazirite vow for a month.” This is in fact bribing God, and prayer should never become a bribe.
There is a commandment which says, “Do not put YHVH your God to the test, like you did at Massah” (Deut 6:16). When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they said to God, “If you can give us water, then we will believe that you are with us” (Ex 17:1-7). This is testing God. It is saying to God, “If you do such and such a thing for me, then I will follow you or believe in you.” When we structure our prayer like threats or ultimatums, more often than not we will be sorely disappointed. We can avoid disillusionment in prayer by avoiding making the wrong kinds of prayer.
You have heard the saying, “God helps those who help themselves”. For example, if we pray for a job, and then sit at home and make absolutely no practical effort to find a job, our prayer will fail (sounds simplistic, but how often do we find ourselves actually doing this kind of thing)! Rather, we can word our prayer like: “Help me to find a job. Be with me as I look for opportunities; give me strength and encouragement as I put myself forward for interviews. God is able to help us by working directly through our own actions.
This is one meaning of the saying, “To those who have, more will be given. To those who have not, even what little they have will be taken away”. More will be given to those who are willing to help God to help them, and those are not willing to do anything, even what they have dwindles away.
Here are some other things to avoid in prayer:
praying for misfortune upon others
cursing others in prayer
making public displays of prayer, in order for others to see your supposed piety
asking for a sign as proof of God’s power (this is testing God)
being false in prayer (lying to God or making excuses)
don’t enchant your prayers (saying words with no heart or thought, believing that the words alone are effective; or praying for the sake of praying)
don’t babble or repeat prayers over and over
don’t be hypocritical (promising to do better, or making shows of righteousness, when you have no intention of doing better. This kind of prayer is displeasing to God (Isaiah 1:15, Amos 4:4ff)
If we avoid these things in prayer, then our prayer is purified, and becomes righteous prayer. Pure and righteous prayer, when spoken in humility, is effective prayer.
Talmidi Jewish Teachings on Prayer
Through the teachings of the Prophet Yeshua‘ and other great teachers of the Way, certain aspects of prayer have been emphasised and brought to the fore.
“Our bread, which is from the earth, give us day by day; and forgive us our sins, just as we should forgive our debtors; and don’t bring us to trial, rather deliver us from evil” (Sefer Yeshua`, passage 41).
We are taught to pray simply, openly and directly. When Yeshua’s followers asked him how to pray, he replied with the Abbun d’bishmayya – the ‘Our Father’ The prayer is an example, not a prescription, of how we should pray. Our prayer has to be natural, and from the heart. Our prayer has to be open, praying for our needs.
“Ask, and it will be given; seek, and you will find” (SY pass. 37)
Have faith, and be persistent in prayer. When we pray honestly, genuinely and sincerely, we should never give up. Several times Yeshua` spoke about persistence in prayer. For example, the friend asking his neighbour for bread until he gets it (SY p. 39), or the widow who keeps on demanding justice from a judge until she gets it (SY p.40)
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you” (SY p.71).
We are taught to be generous and not hateful in prayer. We enrich our prayer when we pray for others, and not just for ourselves. Praying for ourselves alone ends up making us self-seeking and selfish. Praying for others, for the good and for the bad, ennobles our prayer, and a generous soul shines like a beacon before God.
“The good person out of the storehouse of good in their heart brings forth good, and the evil person out of the storehouse of evil in their heart brings forth evil; because from the abundance of plenty in the heart, the mouth speaks” (SY p. 54)
We pray what is in our hearts. Yeshua` believed that praying for evil only reflected what was already in one’s heart – that is, only an evil person prayed for evil on others. On the other hand, a good person reflected what was in their heart, by praying only good things for others.
“Beware of hypocrites, who do their deeds in order to be seen by others” (SY p. 56)
Another characteristic teaching of the Way is that we shouldn’t be ostentatious in prayer – it is better to pray in secret. Private prayer should be said in private, family prayer is said in a family, and congregational prayer is said in congregation. Hypocrites on the other hand, pray their private prayers in full public view. Yeshua` said, “when you pray, go into your innermost room and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret places; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. (SY P. 58)
“When you pray, don’t babble and repeat your prayers over and over like the Gentiles do, for they think that their prayers will be answered because of their many words and repetitions.”(SY p. 152)
We should not enchant our prayers like a mindless mantra, or babble or repeat our prayers. In ancient times, pagan magicians enchanted their words, believing that the mere words themselves were effective. We on the other hand should pray with heart and feeling. When we mean what we pray, and feel the depth of what we pray, then our prayer is more effective.
What we don’t do
When non-Jews think of Jews at prayer, they think of Orthodox Jews, rocking and bobbing in prayer.
The rocking started in the Middle Ages – it’s not something that was done in ancient times. The Zohar (a major text of Kabbalist mysticism) says that the Jew is a candle flame, swaying and flickering in God’s presence. The soul of the Jew is supposedly attached to Torah, as a candle is attached to a flame. Others say that when you stand to pray for any great length of time, rocking supposedly avoids circulation problems.
Whatever the reason, this practise is not followed at all by Talmidi Jews. For one thing, it is an ostentatious show of prayer, and our tradition discourages this – we should not be like those who love to be seen in public places for the length or show of their prayers.
The bobbing comes from the misuderstanding that the word ‘to bless’ (barakh) is connected with the word for knee (berekh). They have completely unconnected etymological journeys. Kabbalah again mistakenly connects them, so when the word ‘bless’ is said in a prayer, many Jews bob to connect the two otherwise unconnected words. Again, this is relatively recent, and is not part of our tradition.
Various stances of Talmidi Jews in prayer
So we don’t bob, and we don’t rock. What do we do? Quite a wide variety of things. For example, in private prayer, whenever God’s Holy Name is spoken, some Followers bow their heads slightly. This comes from the ancient reverence for the Holy Name, and goes towards sanctifying God’s Name.
Again in private prayer when standing, some Followers like to hold their hands out, raised to God. This also comes from ancient custom. In the Temple, for example, Jews would stand, eyes closed, head tilted slightly upwards, hands a little out in front at shoulder level, with palms facing upwards. This was not a pleading or begging gesture, rather a ‘lifting up’ of prayer in a gesture of sacred offering to God.
On the Day of Atonement (Yom ha-Kippurim), at certain points in the ancient Temple service, Jews would, in a sense, pray with their whole body: three times, they would bow, then kneel, and then go prostrate. This was done on the three occasions when the Holy Name was mentioned by the High Priest when praying for forgiveness for the people of Israel. Moderate Talmidis and some Ebionites still do this, and I understand that the Reform Movement is trying to revive the custom.
Talmidi Jews don’t wear tefillin (phylacteries or prayer-boxes) attached to their foreheads; this is a rabbinic misreading of the Shema`. The only item Talmidi Jews wear for special moments of prayer – as with many of our fellow Jews – is the prayer-shawl or tallit. In a way this sanctifies our prayer – makes our formal prayer moments special. It is not an essential part of prayer – we can pray without it – but wearing it has a psychological effect on us. With time, almost upon touching it, we ready our minds for prayer, and steady our souls to make contact with God.
However, the commonest way of prayer is just to sit quietly, with the hands gently resting on one another, with the eyes closed. In ancient times this was done seated on the ground, but I think human comfort can give way to being seated in a comfortable armchair!
There are a number of prayers to be found in the Miqra (Bible). In fact, there is a whole range of words used for the one English word ‘to pray’. The Hebrew words give us an insight on the ancient Jewish mind at prayer. Some words mean variously, to call, to cry out for justice, and to cry aloud for help; others mean to seek God, to enquire, or to ask; yet others, very tellingly imply that prayer is lifting oneself up, to encounter God, or pour out the heart to God.
The greatest wealth of biblical prayer is found in the Book of Psalms. Here is an excellent example of biblical prayer. It reflects humility, the need for God, and confidence in God’s power. It is open, simple and unrestricted.
Incline your ear, O YHVH,
For I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am steadfast;
Deliver your servant who trusts in you.
Have mercy on me, O YHVH,
For I call to you all day long;
Bring joy to your servant’s life,
For on you, O YHVH, I set my hope.
For you, O YHVH, are good and forgiving,
Abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O YHVH, to my prayer;
Heed my plea for mercy.
In my time of trouble, I call on you,
For you will answer me
(Psalm 86:1-7, a psalm of David.)
Our prayer life is the most important pillar of our relationship with God. It allows God to feed us and clothe us spiritually, and without it our inner sustenance would cease, and we would die inside.
Prayer is also our wealth. I recall a wise friend of mine commenting that in his opinion, the most beloved elders were always the ones who prayed a lot. Their prayer filled them with wealth, and they gave out that wealth, like charity, to their communities.
Giving ourselves in prayer helps us to become better people, and changes our lives for the better. And of all things, it is the one unifying factor in humanity. For as long as we humans have believed in a Power greater than ourselves, we have prayed. Men and women of all religions pray, and it is the one thing that will bring us peace. Pray for peace, and peace will belong to you.