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The spiritual communion with God through prayer as an important form of worship has been part of Jewish religious experience from the beginning. In the Jewish religion, prayers may be individual or congregational, since organized religious services consisted in the offering of sacrifices. Some eloquent examples of individual prayers in the Bible are the prayers of praise and thanksgiving offered by Moses after the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:1-18); by Deborah after her victory over Sisera and his Canaanite hordes (Judges 5:2-31); by Hannah after the birth of her son Samuel (I Samuel 2:1-10); and by King Solomon after the construction of the Holy Temple (I Kings 8:23-53). Most psalms were also individual prayers.

Congregational services began in the period of the Babylonian exile from 586-536 B.C.E. When Jews returned to Judea, rebuilt the Temple, and organized community life under Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Men of the Great Assembly, an early form of congregational service developed. These services took place alongside sacrifices at the Temple, as well as in numerous synagogues throughout Palestine and Babylonia. However, with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the dispersion of the Jewish people, and the complete elimination of sacrifices, congregational services in the synagogue became the exclusive form of worship. Prayers were standardized by religious authorities and assembled into prayer books. In the course of centuries, new prayers were composed and incorporated into the prayer book.

The traditional Jewish prayer book is known as the siddur, and the special holiday and festival prayer book is called the mahzor. The present prayer book consists of portions of the Bible, including approximately half of the psalms; selections from the Talmud; religious poems by medieval poets; Maimonides‘ Thirteen Principles of Faith and other prayers of benediction, petition, adoration, confession, and thanksgiving, originating in various ages.

Congregational prayers are grouped into the following services: shaharit (morning service), minhah (late afternoon service), and maariv (evening service). On Sabbaths and festivals, the musaf (additional service) follows the reading from the Torah after shaharit, and on Yom Kippur, the neilah (closing service) is added at the end of the minhah. The Kiddush (Sabbath and festival consecration service over wine), the Havdalah (separating the holy day from the weekdays), and the Birkat Ha-mazon (grace after meals) are examples of prayers in the home.

The most important daily synagogue prayers are the Shema (Deut. 6:4), which proclaims the unity and sovereignty of God; the Shmone Esre (or Amidah), consisting of eighteen basic benedictions which comprise the main portion of every service; the Ashre (Psalm 145) and the Alenu, both prayers of adoration repeated three times a day.

The great majority of prayers in the traditional prayer book are in Hebrew, the holy tongue of the Jew. A few are in Aramaic, a Semitic language akin to Hebrew, which the Jews spoke for many generations. (See also Synagogue.)

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