views updated May 21 2018


PRAYER , understood as the human communication with divine and spiritual entities, has been present in most of the religions in human history. Viewed from most religious perspectives, prayer is a necessity of the human condition. When the human material world is accounted for in an act of creation resulting in a cleavage or separation from the divine or spiritual world, prayer is one means by which this gap of createdness is overcome, if but momentarily.

Abundant texts of such communications exist as well as extensive literatures about them. Still, the general study of prayer is undeveloped and naive. The question of the universality of prayer has yet to be seriously addressed to the relevant materials. A careful comparative and etymological study of just the terminology that designates acts of human-spiritual communication has yet to be done among even the widespread and best-known religious traditions. Studies of prayer in terms of modern communications theories and semiotics are limited and rare. The theories, as well as the intuitive understandings, of prayer have been heavily influenced by Western religious traditions.

A general schema will be used in the following consideration of the typologies, theories, and interpretive issues of prayer phenomena. First, prayer will be considered as text, that is, as a collection of words that cohere as a human communication directed toward a spiritual entity. Second, prayer will be considered as act, that is, as the human act of communicating with deities including not only or exclusively language but especially the elements of performance that constitute the act. Finally, prayer will be considered as subject, that is, as a dimension or aspect of religion, the articulation of whose nature constitutes a statement of belief, doctrine, instruction, philosophy, or theology.

Prayer as Text

Prayer is thought of most commonly as the specific words of the human-spiritual communication, that is, as the text of this communication, such as the Lord's Prayer (Christian), the Qaddish (Jewish), and the prayers of alāt (Muslim). Scores of prayers appear in books of prayer, books of worship, descriptions of rituals and liturgies, ethnographies of exclusively oral peoples, and biographies of religious persons.

A common basic typology of prayer has been formulated by discerning what distinguishes the character and intent expressed by the words of prayer texts. This kind of typology includes a number of classes, all easily distinguished by their descriptive designations. It includes petition, invocation, thanksgiving (praise or adoration), dedication, supplication, intercession, confession, penitence, and benediction. Such types may constitute whole prayers or they may be strung together to form a structurally more complex prayer.

This kind of typology serves to demonstrate the extent of prayer phenomena. It may be used as a device for the comparative study of religion. It suggests that prayer is widespread and has a commonality as well as diversity. The most extensive use of this kind of typology was made in studies, done mostly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of the development of religion over time. Petitionary prayers were thought to be most widespread and thus the oldest form of prayer. The presence of ethical, moral, and spiritual concerns in petitionary prayers was believed to have come later as a development beyond purely personal and material needs. While these developmental aspects are no longer considered valid nor are they of much interest in the study of religion, this content typology has continued to provide the basic descriptive language of prayer.

In his classic early anthropological study Primitive Culture (1873), E. B. Tylor attributed a psychological and spiritual character to prayer. He called prayer "the soul's sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed" and "the address of personal spirit to personal spirit." In perhaps the most extensive comparative study of prayer, Prayer: A Study in the History and Psychology of Religion (1932), Friedrich Heiler understood prayer in much the same terms, describing it, using Hebrew scriptural imagery, as a pouring out of the heart before God. Thus, in both of these classic descriptions, prayer is characterized as free and spontaneous, that is, heartfelt. Such characterization is still broadly held and is, for most, so obvious that critical discussion is unnecessary. However, when the understanding of prayer as a free and spontaneous "living communion of man with God" (Heiler) is conjoined with the general restriction of prayer to the text form, incongruency, confusion, and dilemma arise. Prayer texts, almost without exception and to a degree as part of their nature, are formulaic, repetitive, and static in character, much in contrast with the expected free and spontaneous character of prayer. In the case of Tylor, whose study of culture and religion was directed to the documentation of the evolution of culture, this was particularly confounding. His theory called for religion to follow magic and thus for prayer to follow magical spells and formulas. Yet the abundance of liturgical and meditational prayer forms in the cultures he considered the most fully developed confounded his thesis. Tylor could resolve this dilemma only by holding that prayer "from being at first utterances as free and flexible as requests to a living patriarch or chief, stiffened into traditional formulas whose repetition required verbal accuracy, and whose nature practically assimilated more or less to that of charms" (Tylor, vol. 2, p. 371). Thus, the structural characteristics of prayer that contradicted the expectations of prayer were held to be a product of civilization and evolution.

Heiler was also confounded by this incongruity. He held that prayer texts were, in fact, not true prayers, but were rather artificially composed for the purpose of edifying, instructing, and influencing people in the matters of dogma, belief, and tradition. Heiler's study of prayer, therefore, was a failed effort from the outset in the respect that he denigrated his primary source of data for his study of prayer, leaving him wistfully awaiting the rare occasion to eavesdrop on one pouring out his or her heart to God. Heiler's predisposition for the psychological nature of prayer, conjoined with his failure to make any clear or useful distinction between prayer as text and prayer as act, placed his consideration of prayer in a nonproductive position, one that has generally discouraged the academic study of prayer, especially beyond particular prayer traditions.

Due to the nature of the materials available, prayers must often be considered primarily, if not solely, as texts, whose study is limited to the semantic, informational, and literary aspects of the language that constitutes them. Despite such limitations, the texts of prayers reflect theological, doctrinal, cultural, historical, aesthetic, and creedal dimensions of a religious culture.

Prayer as Act

Intuitively prayer is an act of communication. In its most common performance, prayer is an act of speech. Prayer has been considered as act, including not only the words uttered but some of the performance elements of the speech act, in order to classify and describe prayers in terms of the identities of those praying, the occasions of prayer, the motivations for praying, and such physically descriptive matters as body and hand attitudes. These classifications have been primarily descriptive with institutional and psychological aspects in the foreground.

The distinction between personal and ritual prayer has often been made when viewing prayer as act. Personal prayer, regarded as the act of persons pouring forth their hearts to God, has been considered by many as the truest form, even the only true form, of prayer. Yet, the data available for the study of personal prayer are scant. Still, the record of personal prayers found in letters, biographies, and diaries suggests a strong correlation and interdependence of personal prayer with ritual and liturgical prayer in language, form, style, and physical attitude. A person praying privately is invariably a person who is part of a religious and cultural tradition in which ritual or public prayer is practiced.

Ritual prayer, by not conforming to the naive notions of the spontaneity and free form of prayer, has often been set aside. It was not incorrect of Heiler to understand ritual prayer as being composed for the purpose of edifying, instructing, and influencing people in the matters of dogma, belief, and tradition, although this is but a partial understanding. But Heiler radically truncated his, and consequently many others', understanding of prayer by denigrating these important functions. Such aspects of prayer must be recognized as important and often essential to the continuity and communication of tradition and culture. In its capacity of performing these important functions, the formulaic, repetitive, and standardized characteristics of prayer are effective pedagogically and to enculturate.

Furthermore, and importantly, it can be shown that prayer when formulaic, repetitive, and redundant in message can be a true act of communication, even heartfelt. In recent years a range of studies has developed showing the performative power of language and speech acts. Simply put, these studies show that language and other forms of human action not only say things, that is, impart information, they also do things. Ordinary language acts may persuade, name, commit, promise, declare, affirm, and so on; and these functions are often more primary than that of transmitting infor-mation.

The study of prayer has yet to be extensively influenced by this understanding of the performative power of language, but it is clearly relevant. From this perspective, the many dimensions of the act of prayer apart from the heartfelt communication with God can be appreciated more fully. For example, a prayer of invocation, through its form as well as its content, when uttered in the appropriate ritual context, serves to transform the mood of the worshipers. It sets the tone and attitude of worship. It effects the presence of the spiritual in the minds of worshipers. Likewise, a prayer of benediction releases worshipers from a ritual domain. It serves to extend the reorientation achieved in ritual to the world beyond while releasing people from the restrictions imposed by ritual. Prayers of praise direct the attention of those praying to positive divine attributes, they effect and reflect a doctrine of God, while prayers of confession and penitence direct the attention of those praying to negative human elements, they effect and reflect a doctrine of sin and humankind. Even when formulaic and without a motivation arising directly from individual felt needs, the emotive experience and affective qualities of these prayers differs markedly according to their type. Prayers of praise or thanksgiving are joyous, uplifting, and outgoing, while prayers of confession and penitence are introspective and somber. The formulaic character of liturgical prayers invites participation by establishing a frame of expectation, a pattern that becomes familiar.

Studies of the performative power of language suggest that such enactment capabilities of speech are conventionalized, formalized, and ordinarily involve physical action as well as the utterance of words in order to be felicitious. In other words, a prayer act, to have effect, to be true and empowered includes not only the utterance of words, but the active engagement of elements of the historical, cultural, and personal setting in which it is offered. It may include certain body postures and orientations, ritual actions and objects, designated architectural structures or physical environments, particular times of the day or calendar dates, specified moods, attitudes, or intentions. For example, a Muslim does not enact alāt (daily ritual prayer) by simply uttering the words "Allahu akbar." Rather, alāt is a performance that requires proper timing, dress, directional orientation, a sequence of bodily actions that includes standing, prostration, proper attitudesall of these, as well as the proper recitation of a sequence of words.

When prayer is considered as act, the unresponsive and noncreative dimensions that seem inseparable from the rigidity of words tend to dissolve, for a prayer act always involves one praying in a historical, cultural, social, and psychological setting. These ever-changing contextual elements are necessarily a part of the act. In some prayer traditions, the Navajo of North America for example, it has been shown that highly formulaic constituents of prayer are ordered in patterns and conjoined with familiar ritual elements in combinations that express very specifically the heartfelt needs and motivations of a single person for whom the prayer is uttered. Analogous to ordinary language where familiar words can be ordered according to a single set of grammatical principles in infinite ways to be creative and expressive, prayer passages may be ordered in conjunction with ritual elements to achieve the same communicative capabilities.

The importance of the performative power of prayer acts is attested within many religious traditions by the expressed view that the most important prayers are those spoken in a special language, those mumbled, or those uttered silently, even those that are accomplished without words. Other nonspeech forms are also commonly recognized as essentially prayer, such as song, dance, sacrifice, and food offerings. These nonspeech forms may be understood as heartfelt and spontaneous human acts directed toward the spiritual world, but they may also be understood as religious forms whose enactment strengthens emotion, sustains courage, and excites hope.

When prayer is considered as act, a whole range of powerful characteristics and religious functions may be discerned. Here the issue is not primarily to show that prayer is communication with the spiritual or divine, or even necessarily to discern what is communicated, but rather to direct attention to the comprehension and appreciation of the power and effectiveness of communication acts that are human-divine communications. Likewise, when seen as act, the distinction between prayer and other religious speech actschant, spell, and formulais less significant than it often is when distinguished and evaluated within particular religious traditions or theories of religion.

Various traditions of Buddhism present a test case in the consideration of prayer as they do many categories and dimensions of religion. For those traditions that are not theistic, like Theravāda Buddhism, prayer understood as human-divine communication is not possible. However, a number of kinds of Buddhist speech acts, such as meditational recitations, scriptural recitations, mantra s, and bodhisattva vows, have certain resemblances to prayer, especially in terms of many of its functions. Commonly the distinction between prayer and these Buddhist speech forms has simply been ignored and they are considered as forms of Buddhist prayer. It would be more valuable to comprehend specifically the similarities and differences of the various forms and functions of these Buddhist speech acts compared with prayer acts of theistic traditions. In their similarities lies the nature of religion, in their differences lies the distinctiveness of Buddhism among religious traditions.

Prayer as Subject

In religious traditions, prayer is not only words recited, prayer is not only an action enacted, prayer is also a subject that is much written and talked about. It is the subject of theory, of theology, of sermons, of doctrine, of devotional guides, of prescribed ways of worship and ways of life, and of descriptions of methods of prayer. In the style and interest of a number of academic fields that consider human communication processes and the language forms that take these communications as their subject, we propose to term this dimension of prayer "metaprayer," signifying thereby the communications in religious traditions about prayer. The extent of literature in religious traditions about prayer is massive and ranges from personal meditations on the "way of prayer" to formal theologies and philosophies of prayer. In these writings, prayer becomes the subject by which to articulate the principles and character of a religious tradition or a strain within a tradition.

There are countless memorable and distinctive metaprayers. The following examples illustrate the range and character of these statements. In Plato's Timaeus (27b-c), Socrates and Timaeus discuss the necessity of prayer:

Socrates: And now, Timaeus, you, I suppose, should speak next, after duly calling upon the gods. Timaeus: All men, Socrates, who have any degree of right feeling, at the beginning of every enterprise, whether small or great, always call upon God. And we, too, who are going to discourse of the nature of the universe, how created or how existing without creation, if we be not altogether out of our wits, must invoke the aid of gods and goddesses and pray that our words may be above all acceptable to them and in consequence to ourselves.

On the Lord's Prayer, Immanuel Kant in 1793 wrote in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone that "one finds in it nothing but the resolution to good lifeconduct which, taken with the consciousness of our frailty, carries with it the persistent desire to be a worthy member in the kingdom of God. Hence it contains no actual request for something which God in His wisdom might well refuse us" (trans. Greene and Hudson, New York, 1960, p. 183).

Friederich Schleiermacher, in a sermon entitled "The Power of Prayer" (Selected Sermons, London, 1890, p. 38), describes prayer in familiar, sweeping terms: "To be a religious man and to pray are really one and the same thing."

Powerful and provocative are the many statements on prayer of Abraham Joshua Heschel. In Man's Quest for God (New York, 1954) he wrote, "The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God" (p. 87). In an essay entitled "On Prayer" he wrote, "We pray in order to pray. I pray because I am unable to pray. We utter the words of the Kaddish: Magnified and sanctified by His great name in the world which He has created according to His will. Our hope is to enact, to make real the sanctification of this name here and now" (Conservative Judaism, Fall 1970, pp. 34). And finally, in The Insecurity of Freedom (New York, 1966) Heschel wrote, "Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are the same. We have a vision in common of Him in whose compassion all men's prayers meet" (p. 180).

In Western religious traditions, prayer has raised classic issues, the resolution of which corresponds to interpretive traditions. One notable issue is whether or not prayer, particularly petitionary prayer, is necessary or useful, since God is understood as all-knowing and all-caring. The explanation of this issue is an articulation of a theology and an anthropology, and it constitutes a statement of faith. Another classic issue has been whether prayer is monologue, dialogue, or neither. If one holds that prayer is monologue, one must explain how prayer is prayer at all rather than meditation or personal reflection. If one holds that prayer is dialogue, one must describe how God participates in the communication act. Theologies and philosophies of Western traditions no longer give much attention to prayer, but it has nonetheless been a significant topic in many of the classic theological and philosophical systems.

In Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, 1902), William James, upon considering a number of statements about prayer, concluded that "the fundamental religious point is that in prayer, spiritual energy, which otherwise would slumber, does become active, and spiritual work of some kind is effected really."

In Young India, on 24 September 1925, Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote: Prayers are a confession of our unworthiness, or our weakness. God has a thousand, which means countless, names, or say rather that He has no name. We may sing hymns to Him or pray to Him, using any name we prefer. Some know Him by the name Rama, some know Him as Krishna, others call Him Rahim, and yet others call Him God. All these worship the same spiritual being. However, just as everyone does not like the same food so all these names do not find acceptance with everyone. This is to say that one can pray, sing devotional songs not with the lips but with the heart. That is why even the dumb, the stammerer and the brainless can pray.

And on June 10, 1926, he wrote in Young India: "It seems to me that it [prayer] is a yearning of the heart to be one with the Maker, an invocation for his blessing. It is in this case the attitude that matters, not words uttered or muttered."

A final example taken from American fiction not only illustrates that metaprayer appears in a variety of forms of literature, but that metaprayer may even be used to disavow the use and efficacy of prayer. In the following passage from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck distinguishes his own religiousness from that of old Miss Watson:

Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fishline, but no hooks. It warn't any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but some how I couldn't make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn't make it out no way.


In the general study of prayer, the term prayer has been used loosely to designate a variety of human acts, principally speech acts associated with the practice of religion, especially those that are communications with a divine or spiritual entity. There can be no precise definition given the word when used in this way, for it serves as but a general focusing device for more precise comparative and historical study. The term gains definitional precision when seen as any of dozens of terms used in specific religious traditions as articulated in practice or in doctrine.

What can be articulated to facilitate the general study of prayer is the significance of the tripartite distinctions of prayer as text, as act, and as subject.

See Also

Language; Lords Prayer; Mantra; Meditation; alāt; Siddur and Mahzor.


Prayer as a general religious phenomenon has received scant attention by students of religion. There are no recent global or extensive studies. The discussions of prayer that continue to be the standard, while obviously inadequate, are E. B. Tylor's Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, 2 vols., 4th ed. (London, 1903), and Friedrich Heiler's Prayer: A Study in the History and Psychology of Religion, edited and translated by Samuel McComb (Oxford, 1932). Most of the general studies of prayer are strongly psychological in character. Prayer was a topic of extensive consideration by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902; New York, 1961), pp. 359371. Prayer and related religious speech acts are of interest in phenomenologies of religion; see, for example, Gerardus van der Leeuw's Religion in Essence and Manifestation, 2 vols., translated by J. E. Turner (London, 1938), pp. 403446.

Statements of a comparative nature are found scattered throughout the literature, especially comparing specific prayers among Western religious traditions. However, broader and detailed comparative studies of prayer do not exist. Extensive studies of prayer that have attempted to see prayer in more general and universal terms may still be of interest, even though they have a dominantly Christian perspective. Such studies include Alexander J. Hodge's Prayer and Its Psychology (New York, 1931) and R. H. Coats's The Realm of Prayer (London, 1920).

An exemplary study of prayer that makes a clear distinction between prayer as a text, act, and subject is Tzvee Zahavy's "A New Approach to Early Jewish Prayer," in History of Judaism: The Next Ten Years, edited by Baruch M. Bokser (Chico, Calif., 1980), pp. 4560.

Sources for prayer within specific religious traditions can be found under the heading "Prayer" in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1918), which includes a number of articles, some now outdated, on various religious traditions. See also The Oxford Book of Prayer, edited by George Appleton and others (New York, 1985).

There are numerous studies that demonstrate the importance of considering prayer as act. Harold A. Carter's The Prayer Tradition of Black People (Valley Forge, Pa., 1976) is a fine study of the American black prayer tradition; it traces the African heritage, describes the theological influences, discerns the major functions, and demonstrates the remarkable power of this prayer tradition in the context of black movements in American history. Gary Goosen's "Language as a Ritual Substance," in Language in Religious Practice, edited by William J. Samarin (Rowley, Mass., 1976), pp. 4062, considers Chamul prayers as encoding messages interpreted in terms of Victor Turner's method of considering symbols.

On the performative power of Navajo prayer, see my "Prayer as Person: The Performative Force in Navajo Prayer Acts," History of Religions 17 (November 1979): 143157. On the centrality of prayer to the whole system of Navajo religion, see my Sacred Words: A Study of Navajo Religion and Prayer (Westport, Conn., 1981). A notable study of prayer as a tradition of creative acts of oratory, focusing on the inhabitants of sea islands along the Atlantic Coast of the southern United States, is Patricia Jones-Jackson's "Oral Traditions in Gullah," Journal of Religious Thought 39 (Spring-Summer 1982): 2133.

An examplary study of nonspeech acts considered as communication acts similar to prayer is Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi's "Ritual as Language: The Case of South Indian Food Offerings," Current Anthropology 18 (September 1977): 507514.

The performative power of speech acts, relevant to the study of prayer as act, has been shown in many essays. See, for example, Benjamin C. Ray's " 'Performative Utterances' in African Rituals," History of Religions 13 (August 1973): 1635; Stanley J. Tambiah's "The Magical Power of Words," Man, n. s. 3 (June 1968): 175208; and Tambiah's Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, 1970).

While folklore studies have become interested in the performance of many speech forms, especially among exclusively oral peoples, prayer is a form that has received little attention despite its abundant resources and importance within the traditions studied.

On the consideration of second-order language acts (metalanguages), see Alan Dundes's "Metafolklore and Oral Literary Criticism," The Monist 50 (October 1966): 505516, and Barbara A. Babcock's "The Story in the Story: Metanarration in Folk Narrative," in her and Richard Bauman's Verbal Art as Performance (Rowley, Mass., 1977). Sources for prayer as subject are coincident with the second-order interpretative and critical literary traditions of all religions. In the contemporary religions and popular literature of the Western traditions, prayer is a constant topic. It has also been a consideration of major theologies and philosophies, as shown for modern Western thought in a summary treatment by Perry Le Fevre, Understandings of Prayer (Philadelphia, 1981). In Prayer: An Analysis of Theological Terminology (Helsinki, 1973), Antti Alhonsaari considers the theological issue of whether prayer is monologue or dialogue, discerning systematically the forms of prayer that correspond to the combinations of the variable on which this metaprayer discussion turns. While the rubric "Prayer" is not so dominant among non-Western religious traditions, there are nonetheless abundant comparable statements about prayer and prayerlike phenomena found among the writings of the interpreters and believers in these many traditions.

Sam D. Gill (1987)


views updated May 08 2018


PRAYER , the offering of petition, confession, adoration or thanksgiving to God.

In the Bible

The concept of prayer is based on the conviction that God exists, hears, and answers (Ps. 65:3; cf. 115:3–7) – that He is a personal deity. In a sense it is a corollary of the biblical concept that man was created "in the image of God" (Gen. 1:26–27), which implies, inter alia, fellowship with God (see *Man, Nature of). Although prayer has an intellectual base, it is essentially emotional in character. It is an expression of man's quest for the Divine and his longing to unburden his soul before God (Ps. 42:2–3 [1–2]; 62:9[8]). Hence prayer takes many forms: petition, expostulation, confession, meditation, recollection (anamnesis), thanksgiving, praise, adoration, and intercession. For the purpose of classification, "praise" is distinguished from "prayer" in the narrower, supplicatory sense, and "ejaculatory" from formal, "liturgical" prayer. But the source is the same; in its irresistible outpouring, the human heart merges all categories in an indivisible "I-Thou" relationship. Thus prayer and praise may intermingle (i Sam. 2:1–10) and supplication and thanksgiving follow in close succession (Ps. 13:1–5, 6). Indeed many scriptural passages might be called "para-prayers" – they seem to hover between discourse and entreaty (Ex. 3:1–12), meditation and petition (Jer. 20:7ff.), or expostulation and entreaty (Job, passim). It has been estimated (Koehler-Baumgartner) that there are 85 prayers in the Bible, apart from 60 complete psalms and 14 parts of psalms that can be so termed; five psalms are specifically called prayers (Ps. 17, 86, 90, 102, 142). But such liturgical statistics depend on the definition given to prayer.


The variegated character of biblical prayer has given rise to a rich nomenclature for praying. The rabbis already noted that "prayer is called by ten different expressions" (Sif. Deut. 26), but on closer examination even more can be found. The most common word for prayer is tefillah (Isa. 1:15); the corresponding verb is hitpallel (i Kings 8:42). The stem, pll, has been explained to mean "to cut oneself" and to refer to the primitive pagan custom of slashing oneself in a frenzy during worship. This etymology is not only hypothetical, but is wholly irrelevant to the biblical situation. It was the idol-worshipers who cut themselves (i Kings 18:28) and the verb used is wa-yitgodedu; the Torah forbids such practices (Deut. 14:1). In Scripture the stem pll signifies "to interpose, judge, hope." These meanings are eminently suited to the biblical conception of prayer as intercession and self-scrutiny leading to hope. Other terms are: qaraʾ ("to call" on the name of the Deity, i.e., worship – Gen. 4:26); zaʿaq ("to cry out" for redress of wrongs – Judg. 3:9); shiwwʿa ("to cry aloud" for help – Ps. 72:12); rinnah ("ringing cry" of joy or sorrow – Ps. 17:1); darash ("to seek" God – Amos 5:4); biqqesh penei ("to seek the face of" God – Hos. 5:15); shaʾal ("to inquire" – Ps. 105:40); nasaʾ ("to lift up" – Jer. 7:16); pagʿa ("to encounter," i.e., to appease, gain favor – Jer. 7:16); hithannen ("to seek favor," i.e., beseech – Deut. 3:23); shafakh lev ("to pour out heart" – Ps. 62:9[8]); and si'ah ("complaint" – Ps. 142:3[2]).

the character of prayer

Despite its multifaceted character, biblical prayer is essentially a simple human reaction. The rabbis called it "the service in the heart" (Ta'an. 2a); the expression has its roots in biblical thought (Hos. 7:14; Ps. 108:2; 111:1). But the needs of man are so numerous and complex that prayer inevitably came to reflect the vast range of human moods, fears, hopes, feelings, desires, and aspirations. In early times – in the patriarchal age – a simple invocation, a calling upon the name of the Lord (Gen. 12:8; 21:33), would suffice. The approach to God at this stage was marked by spontaneity, directness, and familiarity – God was near. Yet the future was veiled by mystery; man was often undecided how to act. Hence the request for a sign or oracle addressed directly to God (Gen. 24:12–14), or indirectly through a priest (i Sam. 14:36–37) or prophet (ii Kings 19:2ff.). From this stratum grew the magnificent prayers for understanding and guidance (Num. 6:24–26; i Kings 3:6ff.; Ps. 119:33ff.).

But in emergency man does not merely want to know the future; he seeks to determine it by entreating God's help. Thus Jacob (in a votive supplication) prayed for essential material needs (Gen. 28:20ff.); Eliezer for the success of his mission (Gen. 24:12–14); Abraham for the salvation of Sodom (Gen. 18:23–33); Moses for erring Israel (Ex. 32:31–32); Joshua for divine help in the hour of defeat (Josh. 7:6–9); Hezekiah for deliverance from Sennacherib (II Kings 19:15–19); the prophets on behalf of their people (Jer. 14:1ff.; 15:1ff.; Amos 7:2ff.); Daniel for Israel's restoration (Dan. 9:3–19); Ezra for the sins of his people (Ezra 9:6–15); and Nehemiah for the distress of his people (Neh. 1:4–11). Solomon's noble dedication prayer at the consecration of the Temple (i Kings 8:12–53) includes almost every type of prayer – adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and confession. It also strikes a universal note (8:41ff.) so often echoed by the prophets. The spectrum of biblical prayer thus ranges from the simplest material needs to the highest spiritual yearnings (Ps. 51:1ff.; 119:1ff.), transcending, like prophecy, the horizon of history and reaching to the realm of eschatology (Isa. 66:22–23).

There was an early relationship between *sacrifice and prayer (Gen. 13:4; 26:25), which persisted until the destruction of the Second Temple. The sacrifice suggested man's submission to the will of God; the prayer often provided a commentary on the offering. But the two are not necessarily linked. It is noteworthy that the sacrificial regulations make no liturgical provisions (except for the Day of Atonement, Lev. 16:21); but actually the offerings were themselves a dramatic form of prayer. Contrariwise, prayer could replace sacrifice (Ps. 141:2). In the synagogue, prayer, accompanied by Scripture reading and exposition, entirely took the place of altar offerings.

Examples of prayers of intercession have already been cited. The intercessor, whether prophet, priest, king, or national leader, does not point to the need for an intermediary in worship: "The Lord is near to all who call upon Him in truth" (Ps. 145:18). The intercessor is one who, by his innate spiritual attributes, lends weight to the entreaty. The ultimate criterion still remains not the worthiness of the pleader but of those for whom he is pleading (Ezek. 14:14, 20).

the accessories of prayer

Prayer, unlike sacrifice, could be offered up anywhere (Gen. 24:26; Dan. 6:11 in the upper chamber; Ezra 9:5ff.), but there was a natural tendency to prefer a sacred site (e.g., Shiloh or Gibeon). Eventually the Temple at Jerusalem became the major place of prayer (Isa. 56:7); those who could not be there physically at least turned toward it when worshiping (Dan. 6:11; cf. Ps. 5:8 [7]). In time to come the Temple would be a house of prayer for all nations (Isa. 56:7). The synagogue had its origin during the Babylonian exile; originally a place of assembly, it became in due course a house of prayer and study. The emphasis on congregational prayer began to grow but private prayer was never abolished. The heart and not the hour dictated the occasion for prayer. Day and night the Heavenly Father could be entreated (e.g., i Sam. 15:11; Ps. 86:3; 88:2[1]). But the need for regularity brought about a synchronization of the times of prayer and of sacrifice: morning worship corresponded to the morning oblation (Ps. 5:4[3]), afternoon orisons to the late afternoon sacrifice (i Kings 18:36; Ezra 9:5). Nightfall provided yet another occasion for worship, so that prayers came to be offered thrice daily (Ps. 55:18; Dan. 6:11; though twice in I Chron. 23:30). The seven times mentioned in Psalms 119:164 mean "often" or "constantly."

In the Bible no particular gestures are prescribed in connection with prayer. But certain postures developed naturally to lend emphasis to the content of the prayer: standing, which is normal (i Sam. 1:26; i Kings 8:22); kneeling (Dan. 6:11; Ezra 9:5); prostration (Josh. 7:6); head bowed (Gen. 24:26; Neh. 8:6); hands stretched out or uplifted (i Kings 8:22; Ps. 28:2); face between knees (i Kings 18:42); and even sitting (ii Sam. 7:18). More important accompaniments of prayer were fasting, mourning, and weeping (Isa. 58:2–5; Joel 2:12); but the ultimate criterion remained earnestness of heart (Joel 2:13).

Originally prayer was undoubtedly spontaneous and personal; but the need to organize religion gave rise to liturgical patterns and musical renderings (Ezra 2:65; i Chron. 16). Prayer formulas are found already in the Pentateuch (Deut. 21:7ff.; 26:5–15). The Psalms provide examples of fuller liturgical development, including choral and instrumental features (see *Psalms). The response "Amen" occurs in Numbers 5:22, Psalms 41:14, etc.; a prayer before the reading of the Torah in Nehemiah 8:6; a doxology in Nehemiah 9:5, 32; a typical review of God's dealings with Israel leading to a confession and a pledge in Nehemiah 9:6–10:1 (9:38).

answer to prayer

That prayer is answered is an accepted biblical verity (e.g., Gen. 19:17–23; Num. 12:9ff.); but Scripture is no less emphatic that not all prayers are answered (Gen. 18:17ff.; Isa. 29:13ff.). Ritual is not enough, while hypocritical worship is an abomination (Isa. 1:15; Amos 4:4ff.); and there are occasions when intercession is forbidden (Jer. 7:16; 11:14). It is at this point that the biblical concept of prayer is seen in its true inwardness. Paganism regarded worship as a form of magic, whereby the deity could be compelled to fulfill the worshiper's wishes; the moral element was wholly absent. In biblical faith the divine response is essentially linked to ethical and spiritual values. Man, as it were, answers his own prayer (Gen. 4:7), and fundamentally the answer is a significant change of spirit and outlook. Abraham learned the lesson of faith (Gen. 15:1–6); Moses became his people's deliverer (Ex. 3:2–4:18); Isaiah was transformed into a prophet (Isa. 6:5–8). Prayer and prophecy were probably closely correlated, the former providing spiritual soil in which the revelatory seed took root (Jer. 1:6ff.; Hab. 1:13–2:3). In many instances prayer assumes a tempestuous character (Jer. 12; Ps. 22; Job, passim [cf. 16:17]), but the storm always ends in newfound faith and peace. At times, moreover, God answers before He is appealed to (Isa. 65:24; cf. Dan. 9:20ff.), for man not only beseeches God, but God also seeks man (Isa. 50:2; 65:12). The "I-Thou" relationship is reciprocal.

In sum, the Bible conceives prayer as a spiritual bridge between man and God. It is a great instrument of human regeneration and salvation, worthy even of martyrdom (Dan. 6:11). Rooted in faith (Ps. 121) and moral integrity (Ps. 15), it banishes fear (Ps. 23) and asks, in its noblest formulations, only the blessing of divine favor (Num. 6:24–26). Clothed in language of simple but matchless beauty, it is imbued with religious love and a sense of sweet fellowship with God. Both the Christian and Muslim liturgies have been profoundly influenced by the spirit, thought, and forms of biblical prayer.

[Israel Abrahams]

In the Apocryphal Literature

There are a number of references to prayer in the apocryphal books, including the idea of the living offering up prayers on behalf of the dead (ii Mac. 12:44–45). The apocryphal work, The Prayer of Manasseh, is a penitential prayer. The biblical concept that God is near to those who suffer is also developed (Ecclus. 35:13–17). Prayer is associated with the giving of alms (Ecclus. 7:10), and there is a national prayer for deliverance from an enemy (Ecclus. 36:1–17).

In Rabbinic Thought

On the biblical verse "And serve Him with all your heart" (Deut. 11:13), the rabbis commented "What is service of the heart? This is prayer" (Ta'an. 2a). "Service" (avodah) in this context is connected with the Temple and its worship, for which prayer is seen as a substitute. On the other hand, the saying of R. Eleazar that prayer is dearer to God than good works and sacrifices (Ber. 32b), though hyperbolic, may nonetheless be intended to express the real superiority of prayer. Possibly, the tension in this matter is to be perceived in the two reasons given for the statutory prayers of the day. According to one opinion, these were ordained by the patriarchs, while another view has it that they correspond to the perpetual offerings in Temple times (Ber. 26b).

The obligation of offering up prayer, though supported by a scriptural verse, is considered to be rabbinic, not biblical (Ber. 21a). Prayers are to be recited three times a day: morning, afternoon, and night (Ber. 4:1). In addition to the statutory prayers and private prayers of various kinds, public prayers were offered in times of distress; prayers for rain, for instance, in times of drought (Ta'an. 2:1–5).

the value of prayer and concentration in prayer

Prayer stands high in the world of values (Ber. 6b). God Himself prays, His prayer being that His mercy might overcome His judgment (Ber. 7a). Nevertheless, the study of the Torah occupies a higher rung than prayer, and some scholars, whose main occupation was study, only prayed periodically (Shab. 11a; rh 35a). A rabbi who spent too much time on his prayers was rebuked by his colleague for neglecting eternal life to engage in temporal existence (Shab. 10a). Communal prayer is of greater significance than private prayer (Ber. 8a; Deut. R. 2:12). Too much reflection on one's prayers in the expectation that these will be answered was discouraged (Ber. 32b). Prayer should be offered with proper concentration (kavvanah) on the words uttered in God's presence (Ber. 31a). R. Eliezer said: "He that makes his prayer a fixed task, his prayer is not supplication" (Ber. 4:4). R. Simeon b. Nethanel said: "…and when thou prayest make not thy prayer a fixed form, but [a plea for] mercies and supplications before God" (Avot 2:13). One way of avoiding the deadening familiarity of a "fixed form" was to recite a new prayer each day (tj, Ber. 4:3, 8a). When R. Eliezer was asked by his disciples to teach them the ways of life that they might learn them and by following attain the life of the world to come, part of his reply was: "When you pray, know before Whom you stand" (Ber. 28b). A person who has just returned from a journey and is consequently unable to concentrate properly, should not pray until three days have elapsed (Er. 65a).

proper forms of prayer

Not every prayer is valid. A prayer for God to change the past, for instance, is a "vain prayer" (Ber. 9:3). The impossibility of God answering every prayer addressed to Him is acknowledged in the account of the prayer of the high priest on the Day of Atonement who used to pray before the rainy season that the prayers of the travelers who required fair weather should not be allowed to enter God's presence (Yoma 53b). A man should not only pray for himself but should also think of others, using the plural form "grant us" rather than the singular "grant me" (Ber. 29b–30a). If a man needs something for himself but prays to God to grant that very thing to his neighbor who needs it, such an unselfish prayer causes God to grant him his wish first (bk 92a). Man should never despair of offering supplication to God "even if a sharp sword rests upon his neck" (Ber. 10a). In praising God, man should be circumspect, using only the standard forms of praise found in Scripture and established for use in prayer (Ber. 33b). Prayers of thanksgiving, particularly in the form of the benediction (berakhah), are repeatedly enjoined by the rabbis (Ber. 6:1–3), as well as praise of God for His wondrous works and the marvelous beings He has created (Ber. 9:1–2; Ber. 58b).

the addressing of prayers directly to god

R. Judah said that if a human being is in trouble and wishes to invoke the aid of his patron he must first stand at the door and call out to a servant or a member of the patron's family and he may or may not be allowed to enter. But it is otherwise with God. God says, "When a man is in trouble, do not cry out to the angel Michael or to the angel Gabriel but to Me and I will answer immediately" (tj, Ber. 9:1, 13a). On the other hand, R. Johanan said: "When one petitions for his needs in Aramaic, the ministering angels do not heed him, for they do not understand Aramaic" (Shab. 12b). Possibly a distinction is to be made between the angels bringing man's prayers to God and direct intercession, with the angels as intermediaries between man and God (cf. Tob., 12:12, 15). Some men were renowned for their capacity to pray and to have their prayers answered, so that great scholars, less gifted in this direction, would ask these saints to pray on their behalf (Ber. 34b). A number of miracle tales are told to illustrate the immediacy of God's response to the prayers of such men (Ta'an. 3:8; Ta'an. 23a–b).

In Medieval Thought

Although medieval Jewish thinkers profoundly considered major theological problems, there is surprisingly little discussion in their writings of the intellectual difficulties involved in prayer. One of the few discussions as to why prayer should be necessary, since God knows man's needs, is that of Joseph *Albo (Ikkarim 4:18). Albo replies that the act of turning to God in prayer is itself one of the conditions upon which God's help depends, just as it depends on other forms of human effort.


True to his doctrine of theological negation, *Maimonides in the standard liturgy only permits the use of those divine attributes in prayer which have been ordained by the "prophets," and he is opposed to the indiscriminate writing of hymns (Guide, 1:59; cf. Ibn Ezra to Eccles. 5:1). In spite of the talmudic statement that the obligation to pray is of rabbinic origin (mi-de-rabbanan), Maimonides observes that this only applies to the number, form, and times of prayer, and that it is a biblical duty for the Jew to pray daily (Yad, Tefillah, 1:1). The need for adequate concentration in prayer (kavvanah) is particularly stressed in the Middle Ages and formed part of the general tendency prevalent among medieval Jewish thinkers who stressed greater inwardness in religious life. *Bahya ibn Paquda (Ḥovot ha-Levavot, 8:3, 9) remarks that prayer without concentration is like a body without a soul or a husk without a kernel. Maimonides' definition of kavvanah reads: "Kavvanah means that a man should empty his mind of all other thoughts and regard himself as if he were standing before the Divine Presence" (Yad, Tefillah, 4:16; cf. H.G. Enelow, in: Studies in Jewish Literature Issued in Honor of Prof. Kaufmann Kohler (1913), 82–107).

the kabbalists

The kabbalists stress the difficulty of petitionary prayer to a God who is unchanging. They advance the view that prayer cannot, in fact, be offered to God as He is in Himself (Ein Sof), but only to God as He is manifested in the ten divine potencies (the Sefirot). God Himself is, therefore, not entreated directly to show mercy, for example, but prayer is directed to God as He is manifested in the Sefirah of loving-kindness. As a result of the power of man's prayer, this potency might function on earth. The magical nature of kabbalistic prayer and the dangers of setting up the Sefirot as divine intermediaries were the topic of much subsequent debate (Ribash, Resp. no. 157). The kabbalists, in fact, substituted for the older doctrine of kavvanah the concept of special intentions (kavvanot) i.e., meditations on the realm of Sefirot. Instead of concentrating on the plain meaning of the prayers, the kabbalist dwells on the realm of divine potencies and directs his mind, when reciting the words, to the supernal mysteries which govern and are controlled by them (see I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 2 (1961), 247–306).

The Ḥasidim

In Ḥasidism, the kabbalistic type of kavvanot yields to a far more emotional involvement and attachment (devekut) to God. "The metamorphosis which took place in the meaning of kavvanot at the advent of Ḥasidism, and more explicitly after the Great Maggid [*Dov Baer of Mezhirech], consists in this – that an originally intellectual effort of meditation and contemplation had become an intensely emotional and highly enthusiastic act" (Weiss, in: jjs, 9 (1958), 163–92). In Ḥasidism, prayer is a mystical encounter with the Divine, the heart leaping in ecstasy to its Source. Violent movements in prayer were not unusual; some of the ḥasidic groups even encouraged their followers to turn somersaults during their prayers (Dubnow, Ḥasidut, 112–5).

Prayer is frequently seen in Ḥasidism as man's most important religious activity. R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of the intellectual *Ḥabad sect in Ḥasidism, writes: "For although the forms of the prayers and the duty of praying three times a day are rabbinic, the idea of prayer is the foundation of the whole Torah. This means that man knows God, recognizing His greatness and His splendor with a serene and whole mind, and an understanding heart. Man should reflect on these ideas until his rational soul is awakened to love God, to cleave to Him and to His Torah, and to desire His commandments" (M. Teitelbaum, Ha-Rav mi-Ladi u-Mifleget Habad, 2 (1914), 219).

In Ḥabad Ḥasidism, the true meaning of prayer is contemplation on the kabbalistic scheme whereby God's infinite light proceeds through the whole chain of being, from the highest to the lowest. Man should reflect on this until his heart is moved in rapture, but he should not engage in prayer for the sake of the pleasure such rapture will bring him; he must take care not to confuse authentic ecstasy with artificial spiritual titivation (Dov Baer of Lubavitch, Kunteres ha-Hitpa'alut). Many ḥasidic groups, otherwise strictly conformist, disregarded the laws governing prayer at fixed times on the grounds that these interfere with the need for adequate preparation and with the spontaneity which is part of the prayer's essence.

the practice of swaying in prayer

During the Middle Ages, the practice of swaying during prayer is mentioned. The Zohar (3:218b–219a) refers to the difference between Israel and the nations. It states that the soul of the Jew is attached to the Torah as a candle is attached to a great flame, and hence Jews sway to and fro while studying the Torah. *Judah Halevi (Kuzari 2:79–80) also refers to the custom as practiced during the study of the Torah, but makes no mention of prayer. Isserles, however, quoting earlier authorities, also mentions the custom for prayer, while other authorities disagree (see Sh. Ar., oḤ, 48:1 and Magen Avraham, ad loc.). The explanation given by Simeon Brainin (quoted by Judah David Eisenstein in je 11 (1907), 607), that swaying during study and prayer was intended to afford the body with exercise, is incredibly banal. Bodily movements during prayer are, of course, not unusual among the adherents of most religions.

In Modern Thought

The early reformers were much concerned about such questions as prayers for the restoration of sacrifices or the return to Zion, and whether prayer might be recited in the vernacular. Very few challenges, however, were presented to the idea of prayer as such in its traditional understanding. In the 20th century, Jewish thinkers began to consider the basic philosophical problems surrounding prayer. Petitionary prayer was felt to be especially difficult in the light of scientific views regarding cause and effect. A definite move away from the idea of prayer as a means of influencing God and toward its function as a way to affect man's attitudes can be observed. "Self-expression before God in prayer has thus a double effect; it strengthens faith in God's love and kindness, as well as in His all-wise and all-bountiful prescience. But it also chastens the desires and feelings of man, teaching him to banish from his heart all thoughts of self-seeking and sin, and to raise himself toward the purity and the freedom of the divine will and demand" (K. Kohler, Jewish Theology (1918), 275).

The tendency in some circles to reinterpret the God-idea itself in impersonal terms has cast prayer into a different light. It is seen as an attempt by man to attune himself to those powers in the universe which make for human self-fulfillment and as a reaching out to the highest within his own soul. Defenders of the traditional view of God and of prayer to Him have, however, not been lacking. (See Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, 17 (1953), 151–238, for these two opinions).

[Louis Jacobs]

Women and Prayer

Biblical examples of female prayer include the songs of Miriam (Ex. 15:20–21) and Deborah (Judg. 5:1–31). Hannah's entreaty at Shiloh (I Sam. 2) became the rabbinic exemplar of supplicatory prayer for women and men (Ber. 31a–b).

Although Berakhot 20a–b is clear that women are obligated to pray (since prayer is a supplication "for mercy," necessary for all), rabbinic Judaism exempted women from communal prayers which were to be recited at specific times. Women's prayer was to follow the spontaneous model of Hannah's worship from the heart and could be uttered at any time and in any language (Sot. 32a–33a). However, rabbinic literature has little to say about the content of women's personal worship. Some authorities have claimed that women were not obligated in rabbinic time-bound commandments, including prayer, because regular synagogue attendance would interfere with their primary domestic roles. However, women not responsible for home and family were also exempt from communal prayer. Others have suggested that women were not obligated in time-bound public rituals because, like slaves and minors, they are of subordinate status: In the system of rabbinic Judaism, male heads of households perform religious acts on behalf of women, children, and other dependents under their aegis.

An exception to Judaism's normative exemption of women from participation in communal prayer occurred in medieval Ashkenaz, between the 11th and 13th centuries, when Jewish women's central roles in economic and social life, coupled with a concurrent religious revival in Christian Europe, empowered women to demand more significant participation in Jewish worship (Grossman, Pious and Rebellious …). This included fulfilling time-bound positive commandments such as shaking the lulav and sitting in a sukkah as well as regular participation in synagogue worship on the Sabbath and holidays. Medieval rabbis, among them R. Jacob *Tam, permitted these innovations. A century later, some Ashkenazi sages agreed to include women in the quorum of three or ten needed for the invitation to recite grace after meals. *Dulcea of Worms (d. 1196), wife of R. *Eleazar of Worms (the Roke'aḥ), was one of a number of Ashkenazi women, including Richenza and Urania, described by contemporaries as serving as "prayer leaders of the women." These women stood in the women's section of the synagogue near a small window which was connected to the main sanctuary and repeated the cantor's prayers aloud so that the women could follow the service.

In East European synagogues of the early modern era, women called firzogerin (Yiddish for "foresayers") led prayers among women in the synagogue. Some may have composed *tkhines, vernacular petitionary prayers written for and sometimes by women.

In the modern era, particularly in North America, gender issues in prayer have defined the differences among Jewish denominations. Nineteenth-century American Reform Judaism introduced a number of changes, including family pews, mixed choirs, and the confirmation ceremony (initially intended to replace the bar mitzvah), directed at reducing women's inequality in prayer. Penina *Moise of Charleston, South Carolina, was the author of America's first Jewish hymnal, published in 1842; many of her contributions were used in Reform worship well into the 20th century.

Women's roles in prayer in Conservative Judaism were circumscribed until the 1950s, when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards first raised the possibility of women being called to the Torah. By the 1980s and 1990s, after Jewish feminists agitated for change, women were counted in the minyan and called to the Torah in a majority of Conservative synagogues. Havurot (prayer and study groups without professional clergy, which arose in the 1960s) promoted egalitarian worship and opportunities for women's religious leadership. The Reconstructionist movement established gender equality as a founding principle. By the late 20th century, Orthodox women also expanded traditional roles by forming women's prayer groups where women led services, read the Torah, and celebrated life cycle passages. However, such groups did not say those prayers for which a minyan is required. By the first decade of the 21st century, new prayer communities in Israel and North America included women as much as possible in traditional worship. In these prayer groups, a meḥiẓah separates men and women but divides the room evenly between them. With a traditional minyan of ten men (or, in some cases, ten men and ten women), women lead certain parts of the service (the introductory morning blessings and the prayers welcoming the Sabbath) and fully participate in the Torah service, including reading from the Torah.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, feminism had a significant impact on Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist liturgies. Changes included eliminating references to the community of worshipers as male and adding the names of the matriarchs to those contexts in which the patriarchs were traditionally invoked. Other innovations focused on gender neutral ways to address God, using both English translations and new Hebrew epithets such as Mekor ha-Ḥayyim ("Source of Life").

In the last decades of the 20th century, women also constructed new prayers and rituals for events in their lives not previously sanctified in Judaism, such as onset of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, weaning children, and menopause. Others created liturgical roles for women and girls in traditional lifecycle passages, such as egalitarian wedding ceremonies, lesbian commitment ceremonies, and rituals acknowledging separation and divorce. Healing ceremonies addressed women's pain and losses from violence and abuse, illness, miscarriage, infertility, abortion. Other life cycle innovations, such as bat mitzvah and simḥat bat (baby naming/covenant ceremonies), were female complements to existing rituals centered on males.

[Susan Sapiro (2nd ed.)]


K. Kohler, The Psalms and Their Place in the Liturgy (1897); A. Greiff, Das Gebet im Alten Testament (1915); F. Heiler, Das Gebet (1923); A. Wendel, Das freie Laiengebet im vorexilischen Israel (1932); Idelsohn, Liturgy; P.A.H. de Boer, in: ots, 3 (1943); S.H. Blank, in: huca, 21 (1948), 331–54; 32 (1961), 75–90; idem, Jeremiah, Man and Prophet (1961), 92–93, 105ff., 234ff.; F. Hesse, Die Fuerbitte im Alten Testament (1951); M.D. Goldmann, in: Australian Biblical Review, 3 (1953), 1ff.; D.R. Ap-Thomas, in: Scottish Journal of Theology, 9 (1956), 422–9; idem, in: vt, 3 (1956), 225–41; J. Scharbert, in: Theologie und Glaube, 50 (1960), 321–38; J. Has-Paecker, in: Bibel und Leben, 2 (1961), 81–92, 157–70; E.A. Speiser, in: jbl, 82 (1963), 300–6; H. Ḥamiel (ed.), Ma'yanot (1964); H.A. Broncers, in: zaw, 77 (1965), 1–20; L. Krinetzki, Israels Gebet im Alten Testament (1905); A. Gonzáles, La oración en la Biblia (1968); M. Kadushin, Worship and Ethics: A Study in Rabbinic Judaism (1964); R. Schatz-Uffenheimer, in: Studies in… Gershom G. Scholem (1967), 317–36. add. bibliography: R. Biale, Women and Jewish Law (1984); J. Baskin, Midrashic Women (2002); M. Bar-Ilan. Some Jewish Women in Antiquity (1998); T. Cohen, "Women's Spiritual Alternatives," in: J. Harlow et. al., Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer (2003); S.B. Fishman, A Breath of Life (1995); A. Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe (2004); J. Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis (1998); D. Orenstein (ed.), Lifecycles (1998); S. Grossman and R. Haut (eds.), Daughters of the King (1992). website: (Darkhei Noam);


views updated May 08 2018


Prayer, a universal phenomenon of religion, has passed through a long history in the development of mankind.


Primitive prayer is a rather complex phenomenon. It is treated here under its more significant aspects.

Definition. In its primal and elemental form it may be defined as an act of cult by which man enters into communion with a higher, superhuman, supersensuous being, somehow conceived as personal and experienced as real and present, upon whose power he feels himself dependent. In the world of primitive man there exist a great number of living things and inanimate objects that impress him as mysterious, charged with a preternatural dynamic energy producing effects beyond the ordinary limits of natural processes. In approaching them he treats them with reverential awe, but he does not pray to them. Because they are impersonal, there is no way of his coming into personal relations with them. In order to have prayer, more is required than just the presence of some supernatural, superhuman power. This power must be borne by a personal being capable of governing it by an act of will.

The objects of primitive man's prayer, therefore, are always personal supersensuous beings who possess superhuman power and make him feel this power. Moreover, because of the anthropomorphic conception primitive man has of them, they acquire the features of

a human person. Hence, his way of dealing with them quite naturally takes the forms of the relations of human social life. Since speech, gesture, and countenance are the means of communication with his fellow man, it is by these means, also, that primitive man explains to the higher being he invokes all that moves his soul. His prayer is a communication between an "I" and a "thou," whether it is verbal or remains unspoken, whether it finds no outward expression at all or is expressed by gestures only, whether it is offered by an individual or performed collectively by a group, whether it is a free spontaneous creation of the moment or a fixed, stereo-typed prayer formula.

Primitive Prayer and Magic Formula. Though primitive prayer and magic formula contain some common elements, such as the belief in the transcendent and a certain awe toward the beings or forces invoked, they differ in one essential point. While in prayer man tries by persuasion to move a higher being to gratify his wishes, the reciter of a magic formula attempts to constrain that being or to force the effect to his own ends by the very words of his formula, to which he ascribes an unfailing, immanent power. In the first instance the answer to man's invocation lies within the will of the higher being, in the second the binding of the higher being effected by the formula is considered to be absolute, automatically producing the result desired. In many ritual acts, it is true, the two attitudes exist side by side and often blend one into the other so completely that it is difficult, if not impossible, to decide which of the two attitudes is present or dominant. It is also true that of the two attitudes the one taken by the reciter of a magic formula is cruder. But this does not warrant the conclusion that the magic formula is older than prayer and that the latter grew out of the former. No factual evidence for the priority of the magic formula is adducible.

Motives and Content. The prayer of primitive man arises from concrete environmental needs in which the vital interests, either of the individual or the community, are at stake, and it is directed toward definite, material objectives. Longing for delivery from his predicament, primitive man turns to higher, mightier beings. To make them yield to his desires, he uses every means of persuasion: praise, flattery, allurement, manifestation of gratitude, complaint, self-commendation, apology, self-accusation, lament. If all these verbal artifices are of no avail, he does not shrink from reproaching or reprimanding the mightier beings, or even resorting to insults and threats.

To the various motives urging primitive man to pray correspond certain types of prayer. The commonest type is the petitionary prayer, which, in accordance with primitive man's childlike selfishness, is concerned almost exclusively with his own material well-being. Reflecting the conception of prayer as a give-and-take relationship between man and the higher being invoked, prayers of this type are often strengthened by vows or by sacrifices. Some primitive prayers contain, in place of a petition in the strict sense, an emotional complaint, man either simply pouring out his need and misery before a divinity, or quarreling with the deity, indignantly questioning its power, and even reprimanding and insulting it, because his previous prayers have remained unanswered. The same naïveté manifests itself in primitive man's prayers of cursing and vengeance, in his passionate appeals to higher beings for the destruction of enemies and evildoers. On the other hand, primitive man is not devoid of social feelings. The intercessory prayer for living and dead members, either of the family or the tribal community, has a surprisingly prominent place in primitive devotion. The same is true concerning the prayer of thanksgiving. Though many primitive peoples possess no special word for "thanks," they actually give thanks either by an offering or by simply acknowledging the bestowal of a gift by a benevolent deity.

Form, Prayer Formula, Sacred Language. Primitive prayer has a very simple form, consisting of two parts, the address and the prayer itself. The first word uttered in the invocation is usually the proper name of the divine being. In this way the attention of the deity, who may be either at some distance or not listening, is called to the presence of the worshipper. Sometimes a loud cry or a long, drawn-out whistle precedes the deity's name, or some such word as "Hear!" is added to it. Ordinarily, the worshipper is not satisfied with simply mentioning the name of the deity. He feels it necessary to add one or more epithets to pay tribute to the deity from whom he hopes to obtain a favorable hearing. Often he also ceremoniously apologizes, begging for only a moment's attention. This does not prevent him, however, from becoming verbose in the prayer proper, whose main theme he likes to repeat over and over with now slight and now more elaborate variations.

Primitive man appeals to higher beings not only in moments of distress. He brings to them also his permanent needs, concerns, and wishes. Thus, besides the extraordinary occasions of prayer, there are regular, customary ones suggested by such phenomena as sunrise and sunset, the changes of the phases of the moon, and the alternations of the seasons. Because of the frequent recurrence of these occasions and their connection with ritual acts, the prayer loses its originally flexible, elastic outline, tends to become more rigid in the arrangement of thoughts and their wording, and finally hardens into fixed formulas whose words are chosen with the utmost care to obviate any displeasure on the part of the divinities invoked. Deities whose power is especially feared are generally referred to by affectionate and flattering names that emphasize their beneficent character and veil the darker side of their nature with conciliatory euphemism. As a result, there arises a particular prayer language, marked by great solemnity, wholly ritual in character, and regarded as sacred.


In the ancient Chinese, Vedic, Babylonian, Egyptian, Homeric and old Roman religions, prayer in general retains the peculiar qualities of primitive prayer. It is essentially eudaemonistic, that is, directed toward the attainment of material blessings. The feeling for ethical values is seldom powerful enough to serve as a motive of prayer. The prayer of the Chinese religion is characterized by ceremonial stiffness, that of the Roman religion by legal formalism. In the Vedic-Brahmanic religion prayer is the business of the priestly caste. In possession of a comprehensive collection of prayer formulas, the priests alone know "the right art of prayer."

On the other hand, of the numerous Egyptian and Greek prayer hymns that have been preserved, many not only show a high degree of artistic perfection, but they also contain a lofty conception of the Deity and promote the tendency toward monotheism. The vitality and personal character of the Greek religion keep prayer from stiffening into a ritualistic formula and enable it to rise to ever higher moral purity. Prayer finds its most sublime expression in the petition of Socrates for "inward beauty." By excluding eudaemonism from piety and purifying the conception of the divine from all anthropomorphic features, Greek philosophy creates a new ethico-religious ideal of prayer. It is the product of rational and ethical criticism. Its content is threefold: petition for moral blessings, perfect surrender to the eternal decrees of fate, adoration and praise of divine greatness.

In Mystic Religions of Redemption. The mystic religions of redemption arrive at a spiritualization of the prayer by another route. Mystical prayer tends to pass from prayer in words, either uttered aloud or inwardly framed, to wordless prayer, to meditative absorption in the spiritual or metaphysical. It may be called a state of prayer rather than an act of prayer. In the various ramifications of Indian mysticism the prayer is largely replaced by silent contemplation that, gradually perfected by the means of the Yoga exercises (correct sitting posture, control of the process of breathing, withdrawal of the senses from the external world, calm and concentration), aims at the liberation of the soul from the mechanism of the forces of life and its final absorption in the Absolute (see yoga). In the Neoplatonic religion of redemption, the most sublime manifestation of Hellenistic mysticism, contemplative prayer leads the mystic, in an ascent of the soul in successive steps, from the transitory world to a union with the One, the imperishable foundation of all existence.

In the Prophetic Religions. In the Pentateuch and in the Gāthas of the Avesta, which reflect the prophetic experiences of Moses and Zarathustra (Gr. Zoroaster), respectively, prayer appears as the spontaneous, personal communion with the Godhead, in which the harassing emotions of fear and doubt are first overcome by the feelings of hope and trust, and finally replaced by the blissful certainty of being cared for by the infinite goodness of an all-wise, omnipotent God.

The same spirit of prayer is alive in the Psalms of the Old Testament, which often begin with a troubled question and a moving lament, and then shift to heartfelt outpouring of trust, joy, praise, and thanksgiving; it is present also in the entreaties of the prophets who intercede with Yahweh for faithless, wayward Israel. With the Babylonian captivity and the end of the old sacrificial cult there arises a purely spiritual congregational worship in which the psalter becomes the prayer book of the exiled Jewish community. The religious vitality of the Jewish people, strengthened by a succession of highly gifted mystics, has protected Jewish prayer from petrification.

The development in the Iranian religion is different. With later Zoroastrianism hardening into a constricted, legalist religion, spontaneous devotional intercourse gives way to regular recitation of ethical prayer formulas, a practice considered as the performance of a duty imposed by divine law and a meritorious work.

A similar development takes place in Islamic prayer. While the prayer life of Muammad and his disciples is, in its spontaneity, akin to that of the Old Testament prophets, and the devotional piety in the ûfistic mysticism of Islam shows personal warmth and fervor, the daily obligatory prayers and the liturgical prayers recited on Fridays and holidays in the mosque become ritually fixed in wording and gesture.

See Also: prayer (in the bible); prayer (theology of).

Bibliography: e. n. fallaize et al., j. hastings, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 10:154205. b. thum et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:537540, prayer in the general history of man and in the OT. f. heiler et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 2:120918, prayer in the general history of man, in the OT, and in Judaism. f. heiler, Prayer, tr. and ed. s. mccomb and j. e. park (New York 1958). t. ohm, Die Gebetsgebärden der Völker und das Christentum (Leiden 1948). g. van der leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation: A Study in Phenomonology, tr. j. e. turner (London 1938) 422429 (par. 62), 519526 (par. 78.2). e. conzo, Buddhist Meditation (London 1956). j. b. pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (2d, rev. ed. Princeton 1955) (Egyptian) 365381; (Akkadian) 383392; (Hittite) 393401. h. schmidt, Veteres philosophi quomodo iudicaverint de precibus (Giessen 1907). g. appel, De Romanorum precationibus (ibid. 7.2; Giessen 1909).

[r. arbesmann]


views updated May 14 2018


Prayer is a name given to the primary means for humans to make contact with the divine. In Western religion, especially, it is the means of contact between God and the individual believer. Prayer generally consists of one or more of the following elements: adoration and praise, thanksgiving, confession of sin, intercession for others, and supplication.

The belief that God intervenes to grant the petitions of fervent prayers, especially in the matter of healing the sick, has long been a central aspect of Christian theology, although in modern times more emphasis has been laid on submission to divine will than on desire for special favors. Such intervention is seen as the cause of most miracles and raises questions of the persistence of supernaturalism. Faith remains an essential component of successful prayer.

Samuel Jackson, in his biographical sketch of Jung-Stilling (J. Heinrich Jung ), records that he attained the means for his education by a succession of miracles in answer to fervent prayer. J. K. Lavater's life abounded in similar incidents. Augustus Franke of Halle erected a vast orphanage and yearly fed and educated thousands of children by the power of prayer, he said.

Christopher Blumhardt (1805-1880) of Württemberg, Germany, was not only famous for his prayer cures but also for his philanthropy, the means of which were procured by answer to prayer. Hundreds of persons reported to have been compelled by a power they could not resist to send presents of clothes or food to Blumhardt.

The Curé d'Ars, Jean Baptiste Vianney (1786-1859), furnishes a similar example of an extraordinary life of faith. He built three chapels and established a home for destitute children and another home for friendless women. Constant prayer, he said, was the source of his beneficence. When food, fuel, or money was wanted, he prayed for it and it came.

George Muller of Bristol, as related in his Life of Trust, being a Narrative of Some of the Lord's Dealings with George Muller (2 vols., 1837-41), depended on prayer for half a century for his own maintenance and that of his charitable institutions. He never asked anyone, or allowed anyone to be asked, directly or indirectly, for a penny. No subscriptions or collections were ever made. Hundreds of times there was no food in his house, yet he never took a loaf or any other article on credit even for a day. During the 30 years covered by his narrative, neither he nor the hundreds of children dependent on him for their daily food were ever without a regular meal. Secret prayer was his only resource, he claimed. The donors always described sudden and uncontrollable impulses to send him a definite sum at a certain date, the exact amount he was in want of.

F. W. H. Myers states in Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (2 vols., 1903) that "the recorded appearances, intimations, and messages of the departing and the departed" prove that "between the spiritual and material worlds an avenue of communication does existthat which we call the despatch and receipt of telepathic messages, or the utterance and the answer of prayer and supplication."

Traditional prayer in Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that imply a direct relationship between the believer and a beneficent deity have always been severely challenged by the existence of significant evil. The idea of a loving and omnipotent God acting on behalf of human life was put to its most intense test by the Holocaust of World War II. If there is any simple efficacy to devout and heartfelt prayers to a deity, why did the inconceivably monstrous horrors of the Nazi persecutions and prison camps fail to be averted? Reflection on this question has provided a watershed in theological thinking. It led in the short term to the emergence of the "death of God" movement in theology and only as some distance and reappraisal of the Holocaust has occurred has a theological reconstruction of faith been possible for many.

Less affected by the Holocaust were those who had adopted the alternative perspective on prayer offered by the metaphysical movements of the nineteenth century. Christian Science and New Thought metaphysics jettisoned a personal deity in favor of an underlying divine principle or law undergirding the visible structures of the universe. Prayer is seen much more as atuning oneself with the underlying universal spirit, in which condition anything is believed possible, especially on a personal scale. Numerous reports indicate that prayer with faith and confidence in this metaphysical context has produced the desired results in both a religious and secular setting. One wing of New Thought has retained a religious prayerful context, while a secular wing has simply emphasized the creative powers of the mind in achieving fulfillment of desire.

It seems possible that there are factors in prayer that are applicable to both religious and secular frames of thought, that faith and confidence enhance psychic factors at present not clearly identified. Even such mundane attempts to influence events as the willing of the fall of dice in parapsychological research may hold clues to the mechanisms of prayer.

Again, it is interesting to note that in such ancient religions as Hinduism, the gods are said to be unable to avoid granting requests when the petitioner has practiced intense austerities. This idea suggests that spiritual disciplines may bring about psychophysical changes in the petitioner that influence events. Secondary aspects of traditional prayer that may also have relevance are the ritualistic forms of prayers and the need for constant repetition, which, like autosuggestion, may enhance subconscious powers. The concept of faithful prayer often gradually drifts into various attempts not just to petition the divine but to assist or coerce the deity's action.

Ultimately, however, divine will takes priority over the mundane desires of petitioners, and even in mystical Hinduism the highest wisdom is said to be transcendental awareness, which is beyond desires and fears in the mundane world and which accepts favorable or unfavorable destiny with equanimity, much as the petitioner in the Christian tradition concludes, "Thy will be done."


Bounds, E. M. Power Through Prayer. London, 1912. Reprint, Chicago: Moody Press, 1979.

Brown, William A. The Life of Prayer in a World of Science. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927.

Carrol, F. The Prayer of the Early Christians. London: Burns & Oates, 1930.

Fillmore, Charles, and Cora Fillmore. Teach Us to Pray. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Greene, Barbara, and W. Gollancz. God of a Hundred Names. London: Gollancz, 1962.

Humbard, Rex. Prayer With Power. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, n.d.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. London, 1902. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.

Loehr, Franklin. The Power of Prayer on Plants. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959.

Patton, William P. Prayer and Its Answers. New York, 1885.

Petuchowski, Jacob J., ed. Understanding Jewish Prayer. New York: Ktav Publications, 1972.

Sherman, Harold. How to Use the Power of Prayer. New York: C. & R. Anthony, 1959.

Stanton, Horace. Telepathy of the Celestial World. New York, 1913.

Steiner, Rudolf. The Lord's Prayer. London: Anthroposophic Press, n.d.

Theresa, St. The Interior Castle. London: Baker, 1921.

Yatiswarananda, Swami. Universal Prayers. 6th ed. Hollywood, Calif.: Vedanta Press, 1963.


views updated May 18 2018


The motto of the Benedictine monastic order is popularly cited (in Latin) as "ora et labora" (the force of the et in Latin provides an English rendering as "to pray is to work and to work is to pray," or "pray and work"). This terse couplet nicely provides the widest possible definition of "prayer" and at the same time provides a focus from which to analyze and understand this universal human phenomenon, which admits of no limitations by denomination, tradition, or circumstance, even though it is often formed by such factors. This motto does reflect, of course, the particular Benedictine commitment to a daily cycle of corporate, sung services of prayer and praise, as many as eight times each day, as the heart of its weekly, annual and vocational rhythms of life, all of which are known historically as the opus Dei (the work of God).

Thus prayer may be thought of as both a human activity and as touching on the divine. Further, it is, as the motto so succinctly says, an act of piety and also of the very essence of the never-ceasing "work" or "labor" or "effort" of life itself. The Benedictine monastic locus of such a definition reminds us that prayer is equally personal and corporate, just as it is both ritual and secular. One needs only to refer to the classic Jewish practice (also daily) of "davening," or the regular saying of one's private prayer and praise. It is customary in this tradition to speak the words just loud enough to hear the sound of one's own voice as a reminder that "all of Israel" is praying along. This bears a not surprising resemblance to the traditional Catholic practice of moving one's lips during the daily office of prayer (using a look known as the Brievary) even when entirely alone, or in a crowded public place.

Thus it is possible again to widen the definition/description of prayer by saying that this human-divine, personal-corporate, sacred-secular activity is an once a reaching "up" and a reaching "down," a reaching "out" as well as a reaching "in."

All of these characteristics are in that most loved and well-used corpus of prayer known to Christians and Jews as the Book of Psalms, the Psalter. The classically accepted genres of these 150 Hebrew poems express this universality very well: praise, hymns, thanksgiving, petition, and lament. For centuries these texts have formed the basis and heart of the daily opus Dei for both Jews and Christians. Also for centuries, these texts, together with certain New Testament "canticles" and liturgical formulas, have functioned as the sole body of corporate song in Christian public worship, whether in a sermonic or in a sacramental context.

The varied roles of prayer in contemporary American culture range from such highly structured practices as already mentioned to more spontaneous moments in public and private life. The 1980s and 1990s, which witnessed an extraordinary explosion of charismatic, spiritualistic, and ecumenically based patterns of liturgy, have also come to include more opportunities for spontaneous, spoken prayer, often associated with the sharing of "joys and concerns" by members of the worshiping assembly. There also has been considerable effort and experimentation to adapt the language of corporate prayer to the contemporary vernacular by Protestant churches, which for centuries used an archaic, Elizabethan form of English, and by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, which traditionally have used formal liturgical languages, not English. This has encouraged fuller participation by lay as well as clerical persons. Most notably and somewhat controversially, many churches have printed a new translation of the Lord's Prayer, produced by an international and ecumenical body known as the English Language Liturgical Consultation. This text cuts through the historic standoff between "debts" and "trespasses" in favor of a more literal rendering of the Greek as "sins." It also rids the verbs of ancient forms such as "art" and the formal "thee/thou" pronouns. Interestingly, Reform Judaism has found it important to move in a somewhat opposite direction just at the close of the century by adopting a "platform" that calls for a return of some use of the Hebrew language and Jewish customs in the context of its prayer and worship. But this simply underlines the fact that prayer and liturgy are always bridges between contemporary culture and concerns and traditional memories and identities.

More recently, independent, nondenominational local churches have developed in urban and suburban areas, often under the leadership of self-appointed charismatic persons. Many of these "megachurches" engage in highly informal styles of worship and prayer, often using the styles and media of public entertainment.

In spite of this sort of development, however, the incidence of spoken prayer in civic and public events has been subjected to growing criticism, if only under the impact of a pluralistic and secularistic consciousness. Prayers still grace the halls of Congress and other legislatures as well as sports events, but the focus of such praying is highly contextual, lacking much serious theological reflection or, as some would contend, integrity!

Debate continues in the United States with regard to prayer in the public school system. The assumptions involved in "the separation of church and state" vary from region to region but are increasingly subject to litigation and conflict. This is especially true at festival times, either religious or civic. Various strategies are often employed to circumvent some of these problems, such as silent prayer, interfaith celebrations, and the recovery of ethnic customs and festivals.

In short, the twentieth century has seen the stubborn continuance of prayer and religious observance, however much a highly secular mode of thought and behavior has come to characterize its latter decades. The sheer fact that the incidence of positive responses to poll-taking regarding private prayer and participation in public worship regularly seems to be exaggerated and not in full accord with observable practice is perhaps evidence enough that the American people regard prayer as essential to the working out of their lives, however much the perceptible work and practice of prayer is obvious or not.

See alsoBible; Book of Common Prayer; Church; Church and State; Divinity; God; Liturgy and Worship; Meditation; Music; Practice; Prayer Breakfast; Prayer in School; Religious Experience.


Hoffman, Lawrence, and Janet Walton, eds. SacredSound and Social Change: Music in Jewish and Christian Experience. 1992.

Irwin, Keith W. Liturgy, Prayer and Spirituality. 1984.

Martimort, A. G. The Church at Prayer: The Liturgy andTime, vol. 4. 1985.

Seybold, Klaus. Introducingthe Psalms. 1990.

Taft, Robert, S. J. The LiturgyoftheHours inEastandWest. 1986.

Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The OrthodoxWay, rev. ed. 1998.

White, James F. A BriefHistoryofChristianWorship. 1993.

Horace T. Allen, Jr.


views updated May 29 2018


Gender and sexual identity have had varying implications for prayer in different devotional traditions, sects, and denominations, related primarily to the language of prayer in fixed liturgies (especially as it ascribes a gender to God), the gender of those credentialed to lead prayers in worship communities, and the matters about which one prays. Traditional liturgies in monotheistic traditions often presume a male God in the use of masculine pronouns and male imagery (God identified, for example, as Father or King), even when the underlying theology assigns no gender to God. When praying communally most Muslims and Orthodox Jews pray in sex-segregated groups, and in most religious traditions, women are relative newcomers to prayer leadership. In some Christian traditions the cleric's role as a representative of a male-embodied Christ privileges male prayer leadership; classic Jewish law (halakha), which specifies that a quorum for prayer be ten men, requires that the cantor, or public representative, be a man; and in Islam, where full bowing is a repeated feature of prayer, rules of modesty are among the reasons that restrict women from assuming a position at the front of the prayer space.


Prayer—whether petition, thanksgiving, or confession—often reflects the priorities of a religious tradition. Blessings for uniquely female experiences—such as onset of menses or childbirth—have typically not been codified in formal liturgies, though there is a history of women's private traditions for sanctifying their experience or pleading for health, for example, in pregnancy and labor. Similarly, public rituals that include prayers have had a heterosexual bias: Religious commitment ceremonies or same-sex weddings are relatively recent innovations in traditions with an otherwise long history of sanctifying marriage.

In many world religions in which prayer tends to be meditative, private, and personal without a formal leader or fixed liturgy, these gender imbalances are less in evidence. In some of cases of polytheism the different characterization of gods and goddesses has implications for the construction of gender. In Hebrew Scriptures women's prayers are efficacious. Early in Genesis, Hagar's prayer, unusually, receives a direct response when God provides water in the desert for her son, Ishmael. Other biblical matriarchs' prayers for fertility are answered, and in the Book of Samuel, Hannah's fervent prayer, with moving lips, later becomes the textual basis for the Jewish practice of shaping the words with one's mouth during the important silent devotion prayer. Moses utters the first biblical prayer for healing on behalf of his sister Miriam ("Please, God, heal her!") when she is struck with leprosy. And the figure of Mary has also been a focus for Christian prayer, especially for prayers of intercession. Although the monotheistic faiths generally maintain that all prayer reaches God equally and that God is without gender, over time, men's prayers were codified in prayer books, the God to whom adherents pray was imagined in masculine form, and houses of worship privileged men's authority and community, whereas women more often prayed privately at home.


Christian and Jewish feminists have led the way in modifying prayer experiences to make them more inclusive. Liberal Christian and Jewish denominations have afforded authority to women prayer leaders and have embraced equal participation for women and men in worship, though some denominations still do not ordain out gays and lesbians. There has also been a growth of Christian women's prayer circles, and in Judaism all-female minyanim (prayer quorums) in which women chant from the sacred Torah scroll in women's community even if they would be unwilling to do so in a mixed-gender group. Some Jewish women gather in groups monthly to ritually celebrate the new moon. Because formal Muslim prayer is largely reading from the Koran, the focus of Islamic feminists has not been on prayer. Orthopractic Muslim imams and male worshipers in the Middle East, Asia, and even Europe and North America often exclude women from Friday prayers. Those Muslim women who regard Islam as an egalitarian faith have protested such exclusion.

More complex has been the gender identity of God, a problem energetically articulated in 1973 by Mary Daly in her theological treatise, Beyond God the Father. In the years since then, some Christian feminists have advocated for vertical inclusive language, using such strategies as balancing paternal with maternal imagery, utilizing gender-neutral language, or replacing formulations such as the Son of God with Divine Child. Jewish feminists have reached into mystical literature and recovered the Shechinah, a feminine characterization or aspect of God, for use in prayer. Feminist liturgists have experimented with changing classical blessing formulas, as Marcia Falk (1996) does when she replaces King of the Universe with Source of Life. Nonmonotheistic and mystical traditions have been a resource for images that have been imported into patriarchal traditions. In addition to the systematic editing of prayer books for gender inclusiveness in the liberal denominations, some feminists have worked to discover women's unique folk traditions, including prayers written by or for women (such as Yiddish techines) as a way of honoring the heartfelt expressions of the foremothers. Feminists have also been responsible for a flourishing of new rituals and liturgy, ranging from welcoming ceremonies for daughters to croning ceremonies for women elders and including prayers sanctifying coming out as a homosexual and blessing same-sex unions. The ceremonies described on evidence decades of creativity and effort to enlarge the opportunities for prayer in a traditional religion by acknowledging the distinctive experiences of the female body and other long-neglected transcendent human occasions or needs.

The power of the printing press and art did, however, reify traditions that privilege men and masculinity, and the process of defrosting religious language and ideas can be slow. Although the Internet has become a resource for innovative prayers and practices, revising liturgical canons and codifying innovation remains challenging. Nevertheless, attention to gender and sexuality has led to some significant adjustments in how people define prayer communities, who is authorized to pray on whose behalf, which pronouns and images are used for God, and which compelling subjects are included in prayers.


Christ, Carol P., and Judith Plaskow, eds. 1979. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. San Francisco: Harper & Row

Daly, Mary. 1973. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Falk, Marcia. 1996. The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ford-Grabowsky, Mary, comp. 2003. WomanPrayers: Prayers by Women throughout History and around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. Available from

Walton, Janet Roland. 2000. Feminist Liturgy: A Matter of Justice (American Essays in Liturgy). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Weissler, Chava. 1998. Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women. Boston: Beacon Press.

                                    Lori Hope Lefkovitz


views updated Jun 27 2018

Prayer (from Lat., precare, ‘to beg, entreat’). The relating of the self or soul to God in trust, penitence, praise, petition, and purpose, either individually or corporately. Some of these aspects of prayer have been isolated (e.g. petition as intercession), as have some of the ways of being before God (e.g. contemplation, meditation, recollection), so that the term ‘prayer’ may cover more, or less, in each tradition.




Prayer is the acknowledgement of God as the source of all goodness and therefore the One who can meet human need and longing. It is thus an expression of wonder and a cry for help. A. Tanquerey (The Spiritual Life …, 1930) defined prayer as ‘an elevation of our soul to God to offer Him our homage and ask for His favours, in order to grow in holiness for His glory’. Christian prayer is prayer in Christ, sharing in the prayer of the Son to the Father through the Spirit, who in prayer exposes our deepest need (cf. Romans 8. 14–27). The model is Jesus' prayer to his Father, joyful, intimate, trusting, and obedient; the pattern is the prayer he gave to his disciples, the Lord's Prayer, which moves from adoration of the Father, through surrender to his will, to petition for sustenance, recognition of the need for forgiveness in the darkness of the world, and a cry for deliverance.


There are three major forms of prayer in Islam: ṣalāt, the obligatory prayer five times a day; dhikr, remembrance of God, developed especially in Sūfī Islam; and duʿāʾ, a more personal calling on God, of which the prayers based on yā Laṭīf, ‘O Gracious One’, are an example, based on Qurʾān 42. 19: ‘O Gracious One, … as you were generously kind in creating the heavens and the earth, and to me in the darkness of the womb, so be generously kind in your unswerving decree [qadar], and in your decisions concerning me.’ Prayers, or blessings, on the Prophet are also important.


Prayer permeates Hindu life, but not in so formal or detached a style as it does e.g. for Muslims. Great merit (puṇya) is accrued from the saying of prayers, many of which are derived from the Vedic hymns. Prayer is highly devotional, especially in bhakti, and often merges into mantra.


Prayer is rooted in nām simaraṇ, the calling to mind of God, brought about by meditation. Formal and informal prayer both begin and end with ardas. Praise is expressed through kirtan. Out of all this, petition flows.


There are two main types of Zoroastrian prayer: private and more public liturgies. Every Zoroastrian is expected to recite the kusti prayers (naujote) at least five times daily having first cleansed himself or herself physically (by washing). The duty of prayer is common to all, high or low, male or female. There is a series of Avestan prayers which each Zoroastrian is expected to learn by heart, the Yatha Ahu Vairyo (Pahlavi, Ahunavar), thought to have been composed by Zoroaster himself: as the greatest of all Zoroastrian prayers, it can, where necessary, replace all other acts of devotion; Asem Vohu in praise of truth or righteousness; the Yenhe hatam, in praise of holy beings which is recited at the end of litanies; and the Airyema ishyo especially recited at weddings and which will be recited by the saviours at Frasokereti.

There are also the formal liturgies performed mainly in a temple, though some are still performed in the home.


views updated May 29 2018


Buddhists, like many other religious people, usually pray to someone or something, and they pray for the realization of certain goals. Sometimes Buddhists pray using their body alone (a simple bow in front of an altar); sometimes they use words (the recitation of a verse of homage or devotion, a verbal petition or a supplication). Buddhist prayer can also be done in the mind. Buddhists pray in private, individually in public, or together with others as a joint activity.

Buddhists pray to a variety of beings, both human and nonhuman. The object of prayer can be the historical Buddha, or one of a seemingly infinite number of transhistorical buddhas or bodhisattvas. When TheravĀda Buddhists, for example, prostrate before a Buddha statue, this might be considered an act of praying with the body. If, in addition, they chant the most famous Pāli worship formula, "Homage to the worthy one, the lord, the completely awakened one," that might be considered to involve a verbal prayer as well. If this is further accompanied by thoughts of the Buddha's greatness, or by feelings of gratitude or devotion, this might be considered to involve the mind in prayer. In the Chinese and Japanese Pure Land tradition, the practice of nenbutsu (nianfo), the recollection of the Buddha AmitĀbha and his pure land, is quintessentially a mental action, but it is usually accompanied by the repeated recitation of a prayer-formula, "Homage to the Buddha Amitābha."

Prayers can also be directed to human beings, both living and not. For example, Tibetan Buddhists practice what is popularly called guru devotion. Mentally, this involves the cultivation of an attitude in which the teacher comes to be seen as a buddha. Verbally, guru devotion can be done through the simple repetition of the guru's name. In more elaborate rituals, for example, in the "worship of the guru" (bla ma mchod pa), the living or deceased guru, whose presence is ritually invoked, becomes the object of the adept's devotions: Offerings are made, the guru is requested not to forsake the world and to continue to teach the doctrine, and he or she will also be asked to impart blessings on the adept.

Buddhists also direct their prayers at special things. For example, the widespread practice of "going for refuge to the three jewels" can be seen not only as a prayer to the buddha and the sanṄgha, but also to the dharma (a holy, but inanimate, object). Sometimes a specific scripture will become an object of prayer and devotion, as in the Sino-Japanese cults of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪkasŪtra). The worship of stŪpas or relics might also be said to be forms of prayer directed at something, rather than at someone.

Besides praying to what we might call "transcendental" objects, however, Buddhists also pray to the various divinities (devas) that are believed to inhabit the world. These can be quite extraordinary beings, like the great gods of the Hindu pantheon, or the protectors of the dharma. They can also be lesser, though nonetheless powerful, spirits associated with a particular region or place. Tantric Buddhists developed elaborate prayer rituals to propitiate both dharma protectors and indigenous spirits. In many of these rituals practitioners visualize themselves in the form of an enlightened deity, who then demands, rather than requests, the cooperation of the protector. This is important, lest it be thought that all forms of Buddhist prayer requires the adept to assume a position of humility and submission before the object to whom the prayer is directed.

Finally, Buddhists pray for a variety of things that range from worldly goals (e.g., a good harvest, children, protection from harm, health, money, erudition, love) to the most sublime (enlightenment). They pray for a better rebirth (e.g., as a human or god) or, as is widespread in Mahāyāna Buddhism, they pray to be reborn in a pure land. When one engages in prayer for one's own sake, this is often conceptualized in terms of the dual activities of purification and the accumulation of merit. For example, Tibetan Buddhists spin prayer wheels, metal cylinders that rotate on their axes and that contain mantras (Tibetans themselves call these objects maṇi wheels). The spinning of prayer wheels is often done during other activities, almost as a reflex, and would appear not to involve any conscious goal. However, Tibetans generally believe that the movement of sacred objects (in this case, printed mantras) generates merit for the mover, and so the goal of merit-making is at the very least implied in the spinning of prayer wheels.

Buddhists also believe in the efficacy of prayers for the sake of others, both living and dead. The Mahāyāna in particular stresses the importance of praying for others, as in the practice of "dedicating one's merits" for the benefit of all sentient beings, which can also be seen as an act of prayer.

See also:Merit and Merit-Making; Nenbutsu (Chinese, Nianfo; Korean, Yŏmbul); Refuges; Relics and Relics Cults


Griffiths, Paul J. "A Hymn of Praise to the Buddha's Good Qualities." In Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Makransky, John. "Offering (mChod pa) in Tibetan Ritual Literature." In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, ed. José I. Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

Sharf, Robert. "The Scripture on the Production of Buddha Images." In Religions of China in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.

JosÉ Ignacio CabezÓn


views updated May 17 2018

prayer / pre(ə)r/ • n. a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship: I'll say a prayer for him| the peace of God is ours through prayer. ∎  (prayers) a religious service, esp. a regular one, at which people gather in order to pray together: 500 people were detained as they attended Friday prayers. ∎  an earnest hope or wish: it is our prayer that the current progress on human rights will be sustained.PHRASES: not have a prayer inf. have no chance at all of succeeding at something: he doesn't have a prayer of toppling Tyson.


views updated Jun 11 2018

prayer Act of thanking, adoring, conferring with, or petitioning a divine power; also the form of words used for this purpose. Many religions have set forms for praying. Muslims recite prayers while facing in the direction of Mecca. In Christianity, the Roman Catholic missal contains regulated customary prayers. The Book of Common Prayer plays the same role in the Anglican Communion. Prayer can also be the private devotional act of an individual using his or her own words.