05 March 2019

How Jewish is the Lord’s Prayer
in its structure and its petitions?

Prayer shawls on shelves in the synagogue in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I spent most of today [5 March 2019] at an all-day seminar organised by the Interfaith Working Group of the Church of Ireland.

The programme for today included a visit to the Irish Jewish Museum in Walworth Road near Portobello in an area once known as Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’, including the former synagogue on the first floor, roundtable discussions in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute (CITI), and a meeting with Rabbi Zalman Lent.

During the day, as I prayed and thought about what we share in prayer, I found myself asking, how Jewish is the Lord’s Prayer?

There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament (see Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 2-4).

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them ‘to pray as John taught his disciples’ (Luke 11: 1), they were familiar already not only with the prayers of Saint John the Baptist, but also with the traditional Jewish prayers in the home, the synagogue and the Temple.

As a rabbi and religious leader, Christ was responsible for teaching his followers how to fulfil Jewish religious commandments, including the obligation to pray at certain times and in certain forms.

The most important Jewish prayer, the Shema, is the basic Jewish affirmation of faith and is based on Deuteronomy 6: 7. Other basic prayers include Grace After Meals, derived from Deuteronomy 8: 10.

But the central prayer of Jewish public worship is the Amidah (‘the Standing Prayer’) or the Shemoneh Esreh, which means 18, referring to 18 petitions, although the number of petitions is now 19. Observant Jews recite the Amidah at each of three weekday prayer services: morning, afternoon, and evening. Praying three times a day is a long-established Jewish tradition (see Daniel 6: 11, Psalm 55: 18).

By the time of Christ, daily prayer was an integral part of Jewish religious life, and the basic structure of the Amidah was well established. Its form was regularised soon after, so that the prayer had taken its present form in the early first century AD.

The schools of Hillel and Shammai both accepted as the proper form nine petitions for Rosh Ha-Shanah (New Year) and seven petitions for the Sabbath. By the first century, the Amidah was one of the most important series of petitions. By then, there were probably 12 to 14 petitions, and more were added after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD to reflect changes in Jewish life.

There are many discussions in the Talmud about the minimum number of petitions, but consensus was not reached until the sixth century.

The rabbis recognised that not everyone in every circumstance could find time to pray the entire Amidah. Even as early as the third century, shortened versions were being prayed. So, is the Lord’s Prayer an early version of the Amidah that Christ taught his disciples so they could fulfil their minimum obligations of prayer?

But, just how Jewish is the Lord’s Prayer?

Perhaps when the disciples are asking Jesus to teach them to pray, they are also asking him the minimum number of petitions needed to fulfil the obligation to pray.

1, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’: The Lord’s Prayer opens with the acknowledgment of the fatherhood of God and his place in heaven. While the opening verses of the Amidah talk of God as the God of our fathers in, the fatherhood of God is a common phrase throughout Jewish liturgy.

Avinu, meaning ‘Our Father,’ is a word repeated constantly throughout the prayers that make up the Jewish services (see also Deuteronomy 32: 6; Isaiah 63: 16).

In the Amidah the title occurs twice: ‘Cause us to return, O our Father, unto thy Torah; draw us near, O our King, unto they service …’ (fifth benediction); ‘Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed’ (sixth benediction). It also found in the second benediction before the Shema: ‘O our Father, our King, for our fathers’ sake, who trusted in thee, and whom thou didst teach the statutes of life, be also gracious unto us and teach us. O our Father, ever compassionate, have mercy on us.’

The name ‘Father’ is also widely used in the liturgy of the celebrations of the new year and of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), where the phrases ‘Father of mercy’ and ‘O our Father’ occur frequently.

2, ‘Hallowed be thy name,’ or ‘may your name be sanctified’: The Hebrew word kadosh can be translated as either holy or sanctified. The third petition in the Amidah prays: ‘Thou art holy and thy name is holy and the holy praise thee daily. Blessed art thou O Lord, the holy God.’

3, ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’: In the Amidah, the words pray: ‘Reign thou over us O Lord, thou alone in loving kindness and tender mercy and clear us in judgment. Blessed art thou O Lord the King who lovest righteousness and judgment.’

The words ‘thy will be done’ also occur in I Maccabees: ‘It is better for us to die in battle than to see the misfortunes of our nation and of the sanctuary. But as his will in heaven may be, so he will do’ (I Maccabees 3: 59-60). The same attitude of abandonment to God’s will finds expression in the prayer which Jews utter as they feel death drawing near: ‘May it be thy will to send me a perfect healing. Yet if my death be fully determined by thee, I will in love to accept it at thy hand.’

4, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’: The ninth Amidah blessing prays: ‘Bless this year unto us O Lord our God together with every kind of the produce thereof for our welfare.’ A short prayer ascribed to the rabbis prays: ‘O God, the needs of thy people are many, their knowledge slender. Give every one of thy creatures his daily bread and grant him his urgent needs.’

There is an interesting thought in the Book of Proverbs: ‘give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need,’ or, ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread’ (Proverbs 30: 8).

5, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’: The sixth Amidah blessing prays: ‘Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned, pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed, for thou dost pardon and forgive. Blessed art thou O Lord who art gracious and dost abundantly forgive.’ It is an important Jewish concept that one cannot ask for forgiveness from God until first making amends with others I may have wronged or I have been wronged by. Before going to sleep at night, pious Jews pray, ‘Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonised me or who sinned against me.’

The majority of the rabbis taught, ‘if you forgive your neighbour, the One will forgive you; but if you do not forgive your neighbour, no one will have mercy on you’ (Midrash Tanhuma Genesi).

6, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’: The seventh blessing in the Amidah is a prayer for deliverance from afflictions of all kinds. A modern version says, ‘Look with compassion on all afflicted among us; be thou our guardian and our advocate, and redeem us speedily from all evil, for in thee do we trust as our mighty Redeemer.’

7, ‘For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.’ The doxology in added in some manuscript versions of Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 6: 13). It is similar to David’s benediction (see I Chronicles 29: 10-13), which is part of the daily prayer service and an essential component of the section called Pesukei D’zimrah (‘Verses of Praise’) that comes immediately before reciting the Shema. Whether or not the doxology is included in the Lord’s Prayer, it is rooted firmly in Jewish tradition.

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute in morning sunshine today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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