God in Jewish Prayer

The Talmudic rabbis crafted a formula that moves from addressing God to speaking about God. What did they mean to convey through this dual formula?

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Characters in the Bible occasionally employ a formula that begins "BarukhAdonaiasher…"--"Blessed is the Lord who [has done such-and-such]." The rabbis of the talmudic period constructed a benediction formula with a twist: "BarukhAttahAdonai…."--"Blessed are You, Lord, who [does/has done such-and-such]." Many Jewish thinkers have explored  theological implications of that deliberate change; some of their ideas are surveyed here. Reprinted with permission from Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer, published by Jewish Lights.

Why did the ancient sages change the b'rakhah [blessing] formula? Why did they alter the Bible's typical declaration about God to develop the b'rakhah, in which a person speaks directly to God? Professor [Joseph] Heinemann [a 20th-century German-Israeli scholar of liturgy] answers:

"Undoubtedly this gives expression to the inclination to give prayer, even fixed prayer, the quality of turning directly to God as in a conversation in which is revealed the intimate and personal relationship between the one who prays and his God." (See Heinemann's book, Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns, published by Walter De Gruyter, 1977.)

With the addition of the word "You" (Attah), the predominant biblical formula ("Blessed is the Lord") changes to direct confrontation with God ("Blessed are You, Lord").

The change became a fixed part of Jewish liturgy over the course of time, and involved much discussion and argument.

A Personal Relationship with God

The Talmud recounts that two sages of the third century, Rav and Shmuel, debated the addition of the word "You" to the b'rakhah formula (Jerusalem Talmud, B'rakhot12:4). Rav insisted that a b'rakhah include "You," as he maintained that we turn directly to God in a b'rakhah. Rav cites Psalms 16:8 as support: "I have set the Lord before me always" (Jerusalem Talmud, B'rakhot 9:1). Rav's doctrine is theologically bold, and reflects the desire for a personal relationship with God. Mere creatures can address their Creator directly. Shmuel, however, maintained that a b'rakhah need not include Attah; when it does, it places mere mortals in too intimate a relationship with the Creator of the universe.

Apparently, before their debate, Jews used several different formulas for b'rakhot. All Jews have a religious obligation to utter a b'rakhah at the appropriate time, but what words should we use? If expressing gratitude is the main idea, perhaps the specific words do not matter. We learn, though, from the debate between Rav and Shmuel, that the words are important indeed.

The sages agreed on the need to establish a norm, a legal standard to which all must adhere, but they initially differed about the wording of that norm. Ultimately, Jewish law followed Rav's opinion. Thus, if we do not include the word Attah or "You," we do not fulfill our obligation to recite a b'rakhah. A person who recites words that differ from the established norm may have uttered something admirable, but has not fulfilled his or her religious obligation.

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Rabbi Jules Harlow

Rabbi Jules Harlow edited many prayer books and other liturgical works as Director of Publications for the Rabbinical Assembly. He is the Literary Editor of the Torah commentary Etz Hayim, the author of a number of textbooks for children, and a widely published translator of modern Hebrew literature.