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Prayer Before Praying- Macy Nulman

A cursory glance at the Siddur or Machzor finds prayers in the form of blessings, supplications, petitions, meditations, benedictions as well as piyyutim (poems) and passages from Scripture, psalms, Mishnah, Talmud and the Zohar. Each passage has been introduced into the structure of the texts of the prayer service: Ma’ariv, Shararit, Musaf, Minhah and Neilah. We do not add to these prayers nor do we subtract from them. Rabbi Dr J. Heinemann wrote,1 “We are no longer accustomed to improvising in our prayers. The wording which gained acceptance in Geonic Times…became transformed into a standardized text binding on all Jewish communities. Although the Shulchan Arukh2 has ruled that the individual is permitted to make additions to his blessings, and an individual offering a freewill Tefillah is obliged to introduce something fresh3 we do not follow this practice……….Creativity was sacrificed for the benefit of orderly and fluent Hebrew prayers which served to unify and consolidate Jews all over the world.” No book, as does the Siddur or Machzor, unites so completely the dispersed people of Israel. Notwithstanding this fact, Kabbalists and Hasidic leaders introduced and sanctioned prayers to be said before and during the prayer service. This essay attempts to explain under what circumstances these prayer recitals were introduced, who were their authors, and what their objectives were.


“The pious men (Hasidim) of old times,” wrote the Mishnah,4 “used to wait an hour before praying in order that they might concentrate their thoughts upon their Father in Heaven.” The fact that the Mishnah utilized the term Hasidim must have encouraged the followers of the Baal Shem Tov around 1740 on their practice of special preparation (Hakhanah) for prayer. They believed that prayer has to be preceded by a period of preparation during which the mind is cleansed of unworthy thoughts and the body of impurities. The Sefer Hamusar writes that a person has to greet his Holy Creator with holy thoughts before the prayer service. As soon as he rises he should accept the Yoke of heaven and fear the Almighty. Before every act that he wants to perform he should imagine, “I have set Hashem before me always.” (Ps. 16:8)

Hasidim are reputed for saying, “Mi she’eino oseh et hakhanot hareiyot, eino yakhol lehitpallel bekavanah (*He who does not make the prayer preparations before prayer cannot pray with concentration).5” It is told that a Hasid visited a Hasidic rebbe renowned as a man of prayer. Upon entering the prayer room, the hasid found the rebbe in deep thought, smoking a pipe. After waiting a while for the service to begin, the hasid noted that the service was not starting and commenced davening by himself. The rebbe did not move the entire time. The hasid timidly approached he rebbe saying, “ It will soon be past the time for reciting the morning Shema.” The rebbe answered the hasid: “You are satisfied to come to the synagogue and say your prayers immediately. But I began my prayers as soon as I rose this morning with the words Modeh Ani (“I give thanks before thee”) and immediately began to meditate- ‘Who am I to give thanks to God’- and I am still pondering this question!”

These sentiments, no doubt, found their way into the “Mi Anokhi” prayer that follows. This recital, composed by an anonymous author, fittingly expresses the thoughts of the rebbe. According to the Shelah, it is preceded by the verse “Ashrei yoshvei veitekha” (Praiseworthy are those who dwell in Your house, may they always praise you, Selah)” The Matteh Moshe6 writes that the verse that follows, “Ashrei ha’am shehakha

lo”Praiseworthy is the people for who this is so, etc) should also be said. The reason for uttering these two verses is to derive from it the practice that one must sit an hour before praying.

Mi Anokhi

Translation (in part):

“Who am I that I should merit to pray before the Holy One, blessed be He? For He is the great and awesome God and I am a sinner and I angered His great name with my wrong doings, For I am flesh and blood, dust and dirt and I am unfit to mention His great, majestic and awesome Name. And even more so to pray before Him.


In examining some twenty-five Siddurim and Machzorim, printed between he mid-1800’s to the mid-1900’s, I found that if a compilation included the section Tefillot Kodem Tefillah, two prayers generally were included: Petihat Eliyahu, by R. Simeon b. Yohai and his close companions (havayrah) and Yehi Ratzon, by R. Elimelech of Lyzhansk. The latter prayer appears in the Hasidic Sephardic rite and does not appear in compilations of any Occidental or Oriental Sephardic rites.

Petihat Eliyahu is culled from Tikkuner ha Zohar, one of the five divisions of the literary work on Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) called the Zohar. The expositions of the division deal with such topics as the mysticism of the vowel points and accents, mysteries concerning halakhic matters, prayer and so on. Written in Aramaiv, it is a prayer and testimony of God’s greatness. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) wrote in his Sefer Hapardes,7 that the prayer was related by Eliyahu the Prophet (Eliyahu Hanavi) to Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai and his colleagues. Thus in certain editions of the Siddur, the title above the prayer is Petihah Eliyahu Hanavi Zakhor Latov (An Introduction of Eliyahu the Prophet of Blessed Memory”) Rabbi Hayyim Joseph David Azulai (known by the Hebrew acronym HIDA; 1724-1806), the famous halakhist and kabbalist, wrote in his Moreh Be’etzba8 that the recitation of Petihah Eliyahu, brings about the acceptance of the fixed prayers.

Petihah Eliyahu reads (in part):

Elijah began speaking and said: “Master of the world, You are one, not according to any count. You are above the highest exalted ones, and concealed of the al that are hidden. There is no thought to grasp You in order to understand you at all.

You are the One who imparted the Ten Tekkumen that we call Eser Sefirot (signifying Divine emanations or manifestations in order to lead the hidden world that is not revealed as well as the revealed world. Through them You are hidden from man and You are the one who unites together as one. And because You are an internal part, anyone who separates one from the other (i.e. the Eser Sefirot vis sinning) it is considered as making a divergence within you. (It’s as though discrediting the honor of the King Himself). These Eser Sfirot are in order. One long (Midot ha-Hased) one short (Midot Hadin) and one is in between (Midot Hurohaman). You rule them and there is no one who can furl You; not alone, beneath, nor from any side.


Elimelech of Lyzhansk

Another prayer printed in the section of the Siddurim called Tefillot Kodem Tefillah is Yehi Ratzon (“May it be Thy Will”) by R. Elimelech of Lyzhansk. Also known by the name of his opus Noam Elimelech,9 he was one the founders of Hasidism in Galicia.

A pure holy spiritual voice emanates from the prayer. “R. Elimelech,” writes Samuel A. Horodezkey,10 “does not teach one to pray to his God for material well being: sustenance, wealth, etcetera, and the passes over good health in silence. He teaches one to pray for proper and ethical behavior, for purity of heart and mind. He teaches tone to as that he be devoted entirely to God with all his body and soul without and tinge of sin.”


The Magen Avraham rules that before the Shararit service, one should accept upon himself to fulfill the mitzvah of Ve’ahavta Lereiakha kamokha..And you shall love thy neighbor as thyself (Lev. 19:18). This practice is listed in Sefer Hakavanot as part of the Kabbalist legacy o R’ Isaac Luria (Ari Zal)11 By accepting the obligation to fulfill this mitzvah, one’s prayers will be included among the prayers of Israel. He should thus say wholeheartedly, “I accept upon myself the positive commandment of Ve’ahavta Lereiakha Kakoh. But what link is there between loving my neighbor and my prayers that I am about to utter? The three Hebrew words Ve’ahavta Lereiakha kamokha were early regarded as the most comprehensive rule of conduct, as containing the essence of the religion and applicable in every human relation and towards all men. Hillel paraphrased this rule into “what is hateful to you, do it not to your neighbor”; and declared it to be the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary there of.12 Moreover, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi taught that “Loving your neighbor as yourself is a vessel through which one can accomplish loving God. Especially when the words Ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha are followed by Ani Hashem, “I am God;” alluding that through loving your fellow man one can reach loving God.13 In addition, the words Ve’ahavta Lereiakha kamokha have the same numerical value as Ve’ahavta eit Hashem Elokekha (“You shall love Hashem, your God”; Deut: 6:5); that is, 907.14



The three poems as part of the overall preparation for prayer for the morning service are Yedid Nefesh, Odeh La EL, and Shahav Avakeshkha.15

Yedid Nefesh (“Beloved of my soul”) is attributed to the Kabbalist Eleazar ben Moses Askari (1533-1600) of Safed. It appears in his book Sefer Haredim16 among four other poems of love of God and was accepted by all of Jewry. Askari called the hymn, “A prater for union and the desire of love.” The acrostic of the four stanzas contain the four letter Name of God (Tetragrammaton).

Besides reciting the prayer prior to the daily Shararit service, it is also said before Kabbalat Shabbat,17 at Shalosh Se’udah, as a Bakkashah among Sephardim before Minhah of Rosh Hashana, and for the first Hakkafah on Simchat Torah in the Ashkenazic rite.

Odeh la-EL (I will give thanks to God) is a poem said by some every morning and sung as a table hymn on the Sabbath.18 It is ascribed to R. Shemayah, whose name is formed in an acrostic in the initial letters in each of the five stanzas. It is customary to omit the fourth stanza, Yimtza’ah mekushetet, on Sabbath and festivals because it refers to the Tallit and Tefillin.

Shahar Avakeshkha (“At dawn do I seek You”) is a bakkashah attributed to Solomon ibn Gabriel (1021-1056) recited prior to Birkhot Hashahar by Ashkenazim19 and in Birkhot Hashahar by Sephardim.20 It is said in the morning in order to create a mood of concentration in prayer.21


In the sixteenth century Hasidic leaders, following Kabbalistic custom, instituted the formula Leshem Yihud to be said before carrying out the performance of a mitzvah In Siddurim and Machzorim, the formula appears before the blessing of Tallit, Tefillin, counting Sefirah, Birkat Lulav Ve’etrog, entering the Sukkah, etc. The formula reads “For the sake of the unification (Leshem Yihud) of the Holy One, blessed be He, with His presence in fear and love to unify the Name Yod Heh with the Vav Heh in perfect on behalf of all Israel. The source for this custom is the words of the Zohar;22 T. Eleazar said: “In all his actions a person should have in mind the Holy Name and declare with his moth that whatever he is doing is for His worship so that the other side (i.e. Satan) should not rest on him.” Saying the blessing only is not enough; it must be said with proper preparation for fulfilling the mitzvah in the prayer frame of mind. T Shneur Zalmen of Liadi wrote,23 “Our Rabbis said that a person should never remove himself from the community. He should therefor strive to unify with and cling to Him, may He be blessed, the creator of his divine soul and all of the souls of Israel….This is he meaning of Leshem Yihud– for the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He, and his presence, in the name of all Israel.”

In a reply, in the form of responsum,24 concerning the formula to Rabbi Baer, head of the holy communion of Gortern (Koyetein of Moravia) Rabbi Ezekiel Landau (1713-1793) thunders against the recitation of Leshem Yihud as done by the Hassidim, and applies to them the words of Hosea 14:10, substituting hasidim for poshim (sinners). He writes:

“Rather than asking me the correct formula of Leshem Yihud, you should have asked whether it should be recited at all. In my opinion, this is the grievous end of our generation; the earlier generations…did not know of the formula and did not say it…and they devoted all their days to Torah and Mitzvot.”

Rabbi Landau concludes:

“Where a benediction has ben ordained before the performance of a mitzvah it is unnecessary to say anything other than the benediction before the performance of the mitzvah. Where no benediction has been ordained it is my habit to state verbally, ‘Behold, I am about to do this in order to fulfill the command of my Creator.’ This is sufficient and nothing more is required…Even in the mind there should only be the thought of the meaning of the words [of the prayers and benedictions, that is, and not the Kabbalistic mysteries]. In this way you will walk in safety and not stumble in anything….


A rare find in a Siddur or Machzor is the following prayer to be recited by the Sheliach Tzibbur prior to every service- Shararit, Minhah, and Ma’ariv. The prayer culled from an 11×18 ½ inch SiddurMachzor is entitled Kol-Bo, vol. 4. It was printed in Vilna in the late 1800’s by the press of the Widow and Romm Brothers. Its author is not specified.

The translation of the prayer is: “May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers in this hour when I stand to pray for myself and the people of Israel that You remove from me all strange thoughts and all sorts of fear that my thoughts should not become confused. Give me strength (courage) and pure heartedness to cause to marvel at my service so that my voice does not become fretful. And I should not become weak and the good inclination should rule over me rather than the evil inclination. Grant Your love and fear in my heart to be able to stand before You, to serve You, and chant in Your name, and intent should be heavenly with a full heart.


Another prayer recited by the Sh’liach Tzibbur prior to the service is the well known prayer Hineni. This prayer, whose opening words are “Here I am, poor in worthy deeds,” is recited prior to Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a petition to God to accept the Sheliach Tzibbur’s prayers on behalf of the congregation. Following the Hineni prayer, the Ba’al Musaf recites El Melekh Ne’eman (“God trustworthy King”), a prayer beseeching god to grant him a sweet and strong voice due to the length of the Musaf service.

In the Sephardic-Oriental ritual the Reshut Hashem Shomati Shimakha is chanted prior to the repetition of the Amidah. The Tetragrammaton constitutes the beginning and the end of each line.


Today we are familiar with several variant forms of nusah haTefillah; Nusah Ashkenaz, Nusah Sefard, Polish Nusah, and Nusah Ha-Ari, What is common to all, are the prayers formulated and ordained by the Anshe Knesset Hagedolah (The Men of the Great Assembly).; They vary only in minor details. The Siddur and Machzor passed through a long process of evolution until it reached this present stage. The first authentic compilation of prayers was edited by Rav Amram Gaon in 875, and the first known Machzor (of piyyutim) was that of Yannai of the seventh century.

In order to understand the structure of the Siddur and Machzor so that a higher level of devotion and intention my be obtained, it is important to be able to divide into parts each of the prayer services. To know which prayers are of biblical origin, those of psalms, and those that belong to the period of poets and Kabbalists. The diversified authorship of the Siddur and Machzor embracing prophets, psalmists, poets and kabbalists, is proof in itself that all of Israel had a share in its making.

Philip Birnbaum was so right when he wrote in his introduction to his Ha-Siddur Hashalem,25 “Editors of the Siddur should not take liberties with the original, eliminating a phrase here and adding one there, each according to his own beliefs, Such a procedure is liable to breed as many different kinds of public worship as there are synagogues and temples. The danger of rising sects is obvious, sects that are likely to weaken still more our harassed people. The ever increasing modifications in the text of the Siddur are apt to destroy the unique source book of Judaism, designed for old and young, scholars and laymen.”



  1. Prayer as Viewed by the Rabbis of the Talmud, Amaneh, Jerusalem, 1960 pp 16,17.
  2. Orah Hayyim, 119.
  3. Ibid, 107.
  4. 5:1.
  5. Toldot Aharon, Ha’asinu.
  6. 1:30.
  7. 4:85.
  8. Lvov, 1787.
  9. Ha-Hasidut Veha-Hasidim; 2, p. 160
  10. Shulhan Arukh 46:1; of also Sefer Hakavanot, R. Moshe Tremki, Venice, 1620.
  11. 31a. Of also B.M. 62a.
  12. Hayom Yom, Vav Tishri, Otzar Hahasidim, Brooklyn, NY
  13. Rabbi M. Bogomulsky, Vidibarta Bam, vol 3, Brooklyn, NY, 1996, p. 120.
  14. Of Hasidus Hameforash Haskaleinu, Yaakov Weingarten, Jerusalem, 1991, pp. 28,29,30.
  15. Sefer Haredim (Venice 1601), chap. 34.
  16. Of Matteh Ephraim, 581:57.
  17. Yaakov Weingarten, Seder Zemirot Shabbat Hameforash, “Gefen,” Jerusalem, pp. 67,68.
  18. Of Baer, Siddur Avodat Yisrael, p. 190.
  19. Of Mahzor Tefillat Yeshurun Hashalem Leyom Kippur; Saleh J. Monsour, Jerusalem, p. 189.
  20. M. Elbogen, HaTefillah BeYisrael, Dvis Publishing House, Tel-Aviv, p. 68.
  21. Vayikra, end of Folio 51.
  22. Tanya, 1, chap. 41.
  23. Responsa, Noda Bi-Yehudah, Yoreh De’ah, 93. For details re this controversy, see Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer, Schocka Books, NY, 1973, chap. 12.
  24. Hebrew Publishing Company, New York, 1949, p xi.


Macy Nulman was the Director of the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an affiliate of Yeshiva University) from 1966-1984. He authored the Encyclopedia of the Sayings of the Jewish People (Jason Aronson, Inc.), the 1993 award winning book The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (Jason Aronson Inc.), Concepts of Jewish Music and Prayer (CCA), and Concise Encyclopedia of Jewish Music (Mcgraw Hill Book Company).




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