09. The Order of the Berakhot of Shemoneh Esrei

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Shemoneh Esrei, the weekday Amida, is divided into three parts: praise, petition, and thanksgiving. While reciting the first three berakhot, we resemble slaves who offer words of praise before their master. While reciting the middle blessings we are like slaves who make requests of their master. When we recite the last three blessings, we are like slaves who gracefully accept reward from their master, then are dismissed and go on their way (Berakhot 34a).

We learn this from the prayer of Moshe, which begins with praise before continuing to plead and petition (Berakhot 32a; also see below, 15:3). Without the introductory praise, there is concern that our prayer will resemble pagan worship, whose entire aim is to magically manipulate higher powers to work for one’s benefit. In contrast, we wish to serve God and devote ourselves to Him, and all we ask is that He bestows goodness and blessing upon us in abundance so that we can study Torah, perform mitzvot, and reveal His name in the world. Therefore, we must first recognize before Whom we stand in prayer. We stand before God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome, the One Who sustains life and resurrects the dead, the holy God. With that understanding, we can approach Him and pray with a pure heart for all of Israel and for ourselves (see Olat Re’iyah vol. 1, p. 14).

The petitionary section, in which there are thirteen berakhot, contains and expresses the general aspirations of the Jewish people. They do not focus on the individual advancement of the person praying, but on the revelation of God’s glory in the world. Even our personal requests for health and livelihood are to enable us to participate in tikun olam. We ask for the following thirteen things: wisdom, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, health, livelihood, the ingathering of the Jews from exile (Kibbutz Galuyot), the restoration of justice, the destruction of those who hate us, the blessing for the righteous, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the re-establishment of the Davidic dynasty, and finally, that our prayers be heard.

After these requests, we end the Amida with three general berakhot, the centerpiece of which is Modim, a blessing of thanks for our our lives and for all the goodness that God constantly bestows upon us. It is accompanied by two other berakhot. In the first we pray for the restoration of the Temple service, and in the last we pray for peace, since peace is the vessel that contains all berakhot. It is important to note that the Men of the Great Assembly were precise about the order of the berakhot, and one who switches their order does not fulfill her obligation (see below, 13:1).

In truth, Shemoneh Esrei (which means “eighteen”) is comprised of nineteen berakhot. When the Men of the Great Assembly first instituted the Amida, it was made up of eighteen berakhot. After the proliferation of slanderers and informers after the rise of Christianity and its preaching of hatred against the Jews, the Sages instituted an additional berakha, a prayer to save the nation from apostates and slanderers. 1

  1. The Amida continued to be called “Shemoneh Esrei,” since this was its name originally. My teacher and master, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook, further explains that the essence of the Amida is, indeed, the eighteen berakhot that have inherent value as praise and petition. Only Birkat Ha-minim is about the uprooting of evil and therefore temporary, since the eradication of evil will render it unnecessary. Therefore the name of the Amida remains “Shemoneh Esrei” (quoted in Netiv Bina, vol. 1, p. 261).
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