For the first edition of his book Guide to Jewish Prayer, Rabbi Wohlgemuth provided a short history describing his Maimonides School Beurei HaTefillah course:

“Some thirty years ago the Principal of Maimonides School, Rabbi Moses J. Cohn, zt”l asked me to develop and teach a course on prayer. We called it Beurei HaTefillah, or “Explanations of the Prayers.” It was to be taught from eighth through twelfth grades. For the senior class I outlined a special program that was a comprehensive review of the entire course. The students were also asked to present a term paper on a subject of their choice.

It is amazing how often former students, sometimes those who graduated more than a generation ago, come to me to discuss a detail they remember from the course. Some made it a ritual to go over their notes with their families. They often assure me that of all of their religious studies, Beurei HaTefillah was the one that helped them the most in life. It made the hours spent in Shul more meaningful, and helped them establish a more intimate relationship with the Almighty.

Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (the Rav), zt”l enthusiastically endorsed the course and stated that no student could graduate from Maimonides School without passing it. The Rav encouraged me to discuss with him all problems that might arise in teaching this course. I took ample advantage of his invitation to consult him. I usually asked him questions in the morning when I had the privilege to drive him to and from Shul. The Rav’s interpretations and explanations thus became a major part of my understanding of prayer.

Why was the Rav so interested in Beurei HaTefillah? Most likely it was because his soul thirsted for closeness to God, (Hashem). On one occasion, when he had resumed teaching his classes at Maimonides after serious abdominal surgery, he expressed his frustration with many of our brothers and sisters who go into surgery without a last-minute appeal to God to crown the effort of the surgeon with success.

“It is the gentiles,” the doctors told him, “who muster all their feelings to get God’s assistance in their difficult ordeal.”

“What a disgrace!” the Rav exclaimed. “We Jews, who taught the world to pray, have forgotten this art. For this reason,” he explained, “I shall dedicate my Saturday evening classes to relearning the true meaning of prayer.” It was indeed a year of great discoveries and spiritual heights.

The Rav often visited the classes in religious subjects. The Rav did not attend these classes to criticize the instructors but rather to determine the academic standing of that particular class. One day I had prepared a test for my senior students, and the Rav entered the class to listen to the lesson. I quickly explained the situation to him. “Just give me a copy of the test,” the Rav said, and left the room. A few weeks later he called me and said, “By the way, I gave your test to my senior rabbinical students. None of them could answer all the questions. It is a good course.”

Naturally, I read and studied all books and sources on prayer that were available to me. The German Jewish movement, the Wissenschaft des Judentums, consistently dealt with this crucial subject. The study of prayer started in Germany in the nineteenth century as a result of the development of the Reform and Conservative movements, which started during this period. As these movements appeared on the stage of Jewish history, they promoted the study of prayer. On the one hand, Reform and Conservative Jews wanted to show that our prayers were not always a part of our heritage; what was not original could be eliminated. They disliked long prayers, as well as prayers in Hebrew; they preferred sermons. Thus they attempted to demonstrate that their reforms were legitimate.

On the other hand, the Orthodox college tried to show that every element of the traditional prayer service was essential, that we have no right to institute changes or omissions. Great scholars appeared in Germany to grapple with this subject. We no longer know the first names of these men, but their family names were Berliner, Landshut, and Sachs; they were all strictly Orthodox. One of the last scholars in Germany was the late Dr. Ismar Elbogen. Although he was a Reform scholar, he was always fair and thorough when he transmitted the Orthodox point of view. His contributions were based on the works of many scholars and are now available in an excellent English translation, HaTefillah B’Yisrael[1]. Rav Soloveitchik said to me, “Read his books. Study his books. He is very traditional in his approach. He is very clever and he made very valuable contributions to the study of prayer.” Yitzhak Baer was another early German-Jewish Orthodox scholar. His classic commentary on the prayers, Avodas Yisrael[2], is an important work.

This book, Guide to Jewish Prayer, is an outgrowth of my Beurei HaTefillah course and is meant to be a companion volume to the Siddur. The systematic reading of this volume, and an occasional review of it, should keep the meaning of the prayers fresh in the mind of the reader.

This book is not meant to make new discoveries in the study of the prayers, but rather to keep the kavanah (concentration) of its students at a high level. Since the purpose of this book is to inspire the reader, I did not feel it necessary to list the sources of my ideas (the rabbinic sources found in Talmudic literature will be cited in the footnotes). My method was to review most of the literature on the various prayers and present a thorough summary of the issues that that would be most interesting to the reader. As noted before, in most cases I have presented the philosophy of Rav Soloveitchik.”

[1] HATEFILLAH B’YISRAEL — Written by Ismar Elbogen (1874-1943), HaTefillah B’Yisrael covers the entire range of Jewish liturgical development — beginning with the early cornerstones of the siddur, through the evolution of the medieval piyyut tradition to the modern siddurim. Elbogen made major contributions to studies of Jewish history, literature, and biblical exegesis. Hatefilah B’Yisrael, considered his major work, first appeared in German in 1913. It was updated with supplementary notes in the second and third German editions. A partial Hebrew translation appeared in 1924. In 1972, the entire book was reissued in Hebrew by Devir Publishing House, Tel Aviv, completely revised and updated by a committee of specialists headed by Professor Joseph Heinemann. An English translation by Raymond Scheindlin, published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1993 as “Jewish Liturgy, A Comprehensive History,” includes all the supplementary materials from the later German and the Hebrew editions.

[2] AVODAS YISRAEL — The classic commentary on Nusach Ashkenaz prayer, written by the German-Jewish Orthodox scholar, Yitzchak Ben Aryeh Yosef Dov, Seligman Baer, (1825–1897). It gives detailed explanations of the Nusach Ashkenaz with an extensive collection of prayers. Baer’s commentary explains the variants in his source manuscripts. His book forms the basis for many of the 20th century’s Ashkenazic siddurim. His extensive commentary is frequently quoted in academic studies of Jewish liturgy. Baer was a specialist on Jewish liturgy. His major work Avodas Yisroel, written in Hebrew, was originally published in 1868, again in 1901 by M. Lehrberger in Rödelheim, Germany and by Schocken in Berlin, Germany in 1937. The 1901 Hebrew edition (980 pages), now in the public domain, is available for free online from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/08/Avodas-Yisrael-Baer-1901-1.pdf.

Rabbi Wohlgemuth used the 1901 Hebrew translation (over 900 pages) in his Beurei HaTefillah course.