Crash Course on Shemonah Esrei

Basic Background: Who Created The Amidah?

The Amidah was written in the 4th century BCE when Bnei Yisroel first returned to Israel after the Babylonian Exile and had struggled to re-build the Beit Hamikdash that Nevuchatnetzer had previously destroyed. The Amidah was composed by the אנשי קנסת הגדולה (Men of the Great Assembly), with the intention of helping people speak directly to G-d and have a personal connection with Him. It is said 3 times a day.

Shemonah Esrei is divided into 3 sections: praises, requests, and thanksgiving; we are going to focus on the general ideas of each section

Part One: Praise

Q: Why do you think we praise Hashem in the first 3 brachot of Shemonah Esrei?

אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: לְעוֹלָם אַל יִשְׁאַל אָדָם צְרָכָיו לֹא בְּשָׁלֹשׁ רִאשׁוֹנוֹת, וְלֹא בְּשָׁלֹשׁ אַחֲרוֹנוֹת, אֶלָּא בְּאֶמְצָעִיּוֹת. דְּאָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא: רִאשׁוֹנוֹת — דּוֹמֶה לְעֶבֶד שֶׁמְּסַדֵּר שֶׁבַח לִפְנֵי רַבּוֹ. אֶמְצָעִיּוֹת — דּוֹמֶה לְעֶבֶד שֶׁמְבַקֵּשׁ פְּרָס מֵרַבּוֹ. אַחֲרוֹנוֹת — דּוֹמֶה לְעֶבֶד שֶׁקִּבֵּל פְּרָס מֵרַבּוֹ, וְנִפְטָר וְהוֹלֵךְ לוֹ.

Rav Yehuda said: There is an additional distinction between the various sections of the Amida prayer: One must never request his own needs in the first three or in the last three blessings; rather, he should do so in the middle blessings. As Rabbi Ḥanina said: During the first three blessings, he is like a servant who arranges praise before his master; during the middle blessings, he is like a servant who requests a reward from his master; during the final three blessings, one is like a servant who already received a reward from his master and is taking his leave and departing.

Q: How does the example relate to our understanding of the first 3 brachot? Are they meant to 'butter Hashem up', or perhaps, for us to know who we're talking to? What are other possible answers?

(ג) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב הָאֵל הַגָּדוֹל הַגִּבּוֹר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֵל עֶלְיוֹן גּוֹמֵל חֲסָדִים טוֹבִים וְקוֹנֵה הַכֹּל וְזוֹכֵר חַסְדֵי אָבוֹת וּמֵבִיא גוֹאֵל לִבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם לְמַֽעַן שְׁמוֹ בְּאַהֲבָה:

(3) Blessed are You, Adonoy, our God, and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, the Almighty, the Great, the Powerful, the Awesome, most high Almighty, Who bestows beneficent kindness, Who possesses everything, Who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and Who brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for the sake of His Name, with love.

Why do you think we are invoking the names of our patriarch's while beginning to bless Hashem in the Amidah? What is the function of this?

Shemonah Esrei is a direct link to talking to Hashem, one may question whether or not we merit this opportunity. The answer is in the very first bracha of the Amidah, because we are descendants from Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaacov. It is therefore our ancestral merit as Jews to talk to the Creator of the world.

Part 2: Requests

Once we acknowledged that G-d loves us, is all-knowing, and that there is so much we do not know about Hashem, we are ready for part two. The next 16 brachot are requests, some of which include the request for knowledge, teshuva, rebuilding of Jerusalem, and mashiach.

(א) אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּֽעַת וּמְלַמֵּד לֶאֱנוֹשׁ בִּינָה: חָנֵּֽנוּ מֵאִתְּ֒ךָ דֵּעָה בִּינָה וְהַשְׂכֵּל: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' חוֹנֵן הַדָּֽעַת:

(1) You favor man with perception and teach mankind understanding. Grant us knowledge, understanding and intellect from You. Blessed are You, Hashem, Grantor of perception.

Q: Why do you think our first request to Hashem is for knowledge?

(יז) רבי אלעזר בן עזריה אומר, אם אין תורה, אין דרך ארץ.אם אין דרך ארץ, אין תורה.אם אין חכמה , אין יראה.אם אין יראה, אין חכמה.אם אין בינה, אין דעת.אם אין דעת, אין בינה.אם אין קמח , אין תורה.אם אין תורה, אין קמח.

(17) Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says: If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation, if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom (chochmah), there is no fear of God; if there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge (daat), there is no understanding (binah); if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge. If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour.

מוֹדִים אֲנַֽחְנוּ לָךְ שָׁאַתָּה הוּא ה' אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד צוּר חַיֵּֽינוּ מָגֵן יִשְׁעֵֽנוּ אַתָּה הוּא לְדוֹר וָדוֹר נֽוֹדֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ עַל־חַיֵּֽינוּ הַמְּ֒סוּרִים בְּיָדֶֽךָ וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵֽינוּ הַפְּ֒קוּדוֹת לָךְ וְעַל נִסֶּֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּֽנוּ וְעַל נִפְלְ֒אוֹתֶֽיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶֽיךָ שֶׁבְּ֒כָל עֵת עֶֽרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר וְצָהֳרָֽיִם הַטּוֹב כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמֶֽיךָ וְהַמְ֒רַחֵם כִּי לֹא תַֽמּוּ חֲסָדֶֽיךָ מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּֽינוּ לָךְ:

We are thankful to You that You Hashem are our God and the God of our fathers forever; Rock of our lives, You are the Shield of our deliverance in every generation. We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, and for our souls which are entrusted to You, and for Your miracles of every day with us, and for Your wonders and benefactions at all times— evening, morning and noon. (You are) The Beneficent One— for Your compassion is never withheld; And (You are) the Merciful One— for Your kindliness never ceases; we have always placed our hope in You.

Q: According to this prayer, what sparks feelings of gratitude for the person reciting it? At what points in your life do you feel the most grateful?

רַבִּי פִּנְחָס וְרַבִּי לֵוִי וְרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי מְנַחֵם דְּגַלְיָא, לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא כָּל הַקָּרְבָּנוֹת בְּטֵלִין וְקָרְבַּן תּוֹדָה אֵינוֹ בָּטֵל, כָּל הַתְּפִלּוֹת בְּטֵלוֹת, הַהוֹדָאָה אֵינָהּ בְּטֵלָה

Rabbi Pinchas, Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yochanan [said] in the name of Rabbi Menachem from Gallia: In the time to come, all sacrifices will be annulled - but the sacrifice of thanksgiving will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled.

After having just asked for a multitude of requests, we now get a nice dose of humility. Rav Kook explains that we bow in order to stand humbly in Hashem's presence. However, we only bow a limited number of times throughout Shemona Esrei so as not to damage our healthy sense of self. Bowing at this point will hopefully prevent us from acquiring an ego.

(ד) יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּ֒פָנֶֽיךָ ה' אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ שֶׁיִּבָּנֶה בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵֽינוּ וְתֵן חֶלְקֵֽנוּ בְּתוֹרָתֶֽךָ: וְשָׁם נַעֲבָדְךָ בְּיִרְאָה כִּימֵי עוֹלָם וּכְשָׁנִים קַדְמוֹנִיּוֹת: וְעָרְ֒בָה ה' מִנְחַת יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלָֽםִ כִּימֵי עוֹלָם וּכְשָׁנִים קַדְמוֹנִיּוֹת:

(4) May it be Your will, Hashem, our God, and the God of our Fathers that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our share in Your Torah. And there we will serve You reverently as in the days of old, and in earlier years. And let Hashem be pleased with the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem as in the days of old and in earlier years.

Q: What do you think the concluding prayer of the Amidah is saying? What is the message and how does it relate to the general idea of Shemonah Esrei?