In Judaism, a prescribed prayer exists for literally everything—even a praise of thanksgiving for success in the bathroom. Jewish prayer accompanies life’s daily activities and defines the faithful’s relationship with God. Let’s take a deeper look at how Jews pray.
How Jews Pray: A Replacement for Sacrifice
Judaism includes a requirement for adult men to pray three daily prayers. (Requirements for women vary among sects.) In practice, devout men and women pray throughout the day, using prayers from the Psalms and recitations from prayer books written by Jewish religious leaders called rabbis.
Jewish prayer is tied to the concept of sacrifice. For hundreds of years, the people of Old Testament Israel offered animal sacrifices for the atonement of sin according to God’s law set forth in the Torah. But animal sacrifices came to a violent halt after the Romans destroyed the temple in the year AD 70.
To replace sacrifices, Jews reached back to a psalm of David, which says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps. 141 ESV). This and similar verses from the Psalms became the instruction manual to earn God’s favor for the Jewish community that couldn’t offer animal sacrifices without a temple. Many modern Jews still believe their daily prayers correspond directly to the ritual temple sacrifices.
After the destruction of the temple, the Jewish community relied on local rabbis for spiritual instruction. The rabbinate multiplied, and over time each community followed their local rabbi’s unique set of rules, including an ever-growing list of prayers to recite beyond the obligatory daily order of three. Today, prayers are a critical aspect of a Jew’s portfolio of good deeds that they hope will please God.
Jewish tradition is expansive and the practice of Judaism differs widely from secular to religious, Orthodox to Reform Judaism. But there are some generalities regarding prayer that hold true among the majority of Jews.
The Posture and Practice of How Jews Pray
One common prayer behavior among both men and women is a repeated and subtle bow during prayer. They hold Scripture or prayer books and rock their upper bodies forward and back in a rhythmic sway as they recite the prayers.
Men traditionally wear a fringed prayer shawl called a tallit during the ritual morning prayer. The prayer shawl originates from God’s commandment to Moses that the Israelites wear garments with fringes to remind them to be holy to God (Num. 15:37–41).
Religious women, meanwhile, keep their heads covered—not just for prayer, but always. Many Orthodox Jewish women heed this law by wearing wigs. Secular women might pray with only a loose headscarf or even no covering at all. Nearly all forms of Judaism hold that women must pray silently when in the presence of men.
Tefillin, also called phylacteries, are small leather boxes and leather straps that Orthodox men wear on their foreheads and forearms during the morning prayer. The boxes contain Scriptures from Exodus and Deuteronomy (Ex. 13:1–16; Deut. 6:4–9; 11:13–21). These verses direct the Israelites to bind God’s words as signs on their hands and foreheads.
Public prayer rituals must occur in a quorum of least ten men, called a minyan. It’s not unusual for Jewish men to find each other in public places and constitute a minyan, sometimes even congregating in places like airport gates and airplane galleys to pray.
How Jews Pray at the Western “Wailing” Wall
Jewish law instructs Jews to pray toward Jerusalem, and when in Jerusalem, to pray toward the temple and Holy of Holies. The Western Wall, or Kotel, is a remaining segment of the retaining wall surrounding the former temple complex. Jews believe the Western Wall is the closest of the four walls to the Holy of Holies.