This week’s Ask the Rabbi examines prayer rituals, bar mitzvahs and the benefits of fasting…
With Rabbi Reuben Livingstone
- Praying three times a day
What is the significance of praying three times a day?
Surely once every day is more than sufficient?
Praying at any time is a positive and spiritual experience. According to Maimonides (12th Century), originally there was no set form or format of services.
But the Great Assembly (Babylon, 5th Century BCE) was concerned that, given the harsh conditions of Jewish life in exile and the absence of a Temple focus, prayer – both communal and individual – would fall into disuse.
Accordingly, they created a framework of three services a day (with Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat, festivals, and Yom Kippur having additional services).
The Talmud suggests that the earliest origins of this practice lie with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who each innovated and popularised one of the services during their lifetime.
These services were further designed to commemorate regular sacrificial events in the Temple during three periods of the day; morning, afternoon, and overnight.
- Why a time for every prayer?
Why do the prayer services have to be recited at specific times of the day?
I suspect that part of the answer can be found in my previous response.
The Torah further mandates that the Shema prayer be said specifically at the time of “waking up” and “lying down”, ie morning and evening. The Amidah silent prayer is also to be recited at these times – and, additionally, in the afternoon.
The prayers at such regular intervals are designed to accompany us through the day and give a rhythmic sense of being close to the Divine as we travel through the days, weeks, months and years of our life.
- Benefits of an empty stomach
Regarding a fast day, what does one achieve through depriving themselves of any sustenance throughout the day?
Surely this minimises one’s concentration with regards to the importance of the day?
There is little that focuses the mind and connects us to an awareness of our mortality and frailty better than fasting.
When we need to gain a sense of humility – and solidarity for what we have suffered as a people – fasting rapidly transports us to such emotional and spiritual places.
Of course, concentration and well-being do indeed suffer a bit – but I would suggest that in this connection there is “no pain, no gain”!
Recently, it has been discovered that occasional fasting can actually improve well-being and health and serves to reset the immune system and strengthen it.
Likewise, the Jewish spirit benefits from moderate deprivation from time to time.
- The difference between laws
Is there a difference in stringency between a rabbinic law and a Torah law?
There certainly is a difference as far as Halacha is concerned. But that does not allow one to take rabbinic laws lightly.
Torah laws are more stringent and absolute, whereas rabbinic laws are often subject to specific conditions that govern when they are fully applicable and not.
In practical terms, we respect both types of law equally.
- Meaning of a bar/Batmitzvah
What is the meaning of a bar/batmitzvah for a Jew?
Simply put, 13 and 12 are the ages of initial religious responsibility for young people when one literally becomes a “son or daughter of the Mitzvot”.
This happens upon reaching one’s birthday, regardless of whether or not there is a ceremony.
- Ashkenazi and sephardi origins
From where were the terms ‘Ashkenazi’ and ‘Sephardi’ derived?
Both terms are biblical Hebrew words.
Ashkenaz is used to refer to Germany, and Sepharad to Spain. Ashkenazim are, therefore, the Jews of France, Germany, and Eastern Europe and their descendants. Sephardim are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East and their descendants.
But the picture is slightly more nuanced as Sephardi Jews are sometimes subdivided into Sephardim, deriving from Spain and Portugal, and Mizrachim, deriving from the North African Maghreb and the Middle East. The word Mizrachi comes from the Hebrew word for East.
- Rabbi Schochet returns in September