Weekly Torah Portion – The Original Prayer Book
Parshat V’etchanan: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11; Isaiah 40:1-26.
In this week’s Torah portion, we find Moses’ personal prayer, petitioning God for entry into the Land of Israel. Moses prayed to God countless times — but which prayer book did he use?
In a synagogue today, you can find all sorts of prayers in the siddur. There are different ones for the weekdays, Shabbat or holidays. But what was there to pray from before the structured siddur was composed?
King David compiled the book of Tehillim (Psalms) as the first official prayer book. He published it with the intent that these prayers be for all times and occasions. Yet not all the psalms were composed by King David. Some were composed by Adam, Shem, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and others. The Midrash tells us that for the entirety of the 20 years that Jacob lived by Laban, he didn’t sleep a wink. Rather, he was continuously reciting psalms.
For more than 1,000 years, before the siddur of today was compiled, the Tehillim served as our prayer book. When the men of the great assembly worked to compile the siddur, they did not intend for it to take the place of Tehillim. Rather, it was intended as a companion, providing prayers for specific times and occasions. They set prayers for morning and night, Shabbat and holidays, bedtime, travel and grace after meals.
Yet, what if one would like to offer a spontaneous prayer, to ask for or give thanks for something personal or to pray for someone’s health? Whenever one feels the desire for further prayer, he turns back to the original prayer book, Tehillim, which allows for free expression to simply tell God what’s happening. There is no limit to how much one can say. On the contrary, the more said the better.
So, how can we integrate this important book into our daily routine? The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, introduced the custom that every Jew should say the chapter of Tehillim corresponding to his year of life. A 30-year-old would say Chapter 31, for the year of life he is currently living. Furthermore, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson of blessed memory, suggested to many people that it’s a good thing to pray for their children and loved ones as well recite daily the chapter that corresponds to their age.
Therefore, each day I recite my chapter, my wife’s chapter and each one of my children’s chapters. After all, it’s a way to give them a spiritual kiss.
Rabbi Schneor Greenberg is rabbi of the Chabad Jewish Center of Commerce, firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you do when you want to offer a spontaneous prayer? Is there ever too much to include in a prayer? Would you turn to Tehillim when you aren’t sure what to say? Did you know King David did not write all the Psalms?