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.
Prayer: 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 Jewish Prayer
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.
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.
Jewish tradition holds that God’s presence, which rested over the Holy of Holies, never completely left the Western Wall. Jews believe the Western Wall is literally the closest they can get to the presence of God.
At any time of day or night, men and women stand or sit at the wall and pray, often with deep emotions and tears. They ask for the rebuilding of the temple. They recite Scripture and traditional prayers. And they write personal prayers, fold them up, and tuck them into the cracks in the wall’s ancient stones.
Despite the depth of their eager prayers, Jews finish their prayers unsure if they were effectual. One Messianic believer in Israel remembers observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as a child. Her family prepared for weeks, fasting and asking people for forgiveness. When Yom Kippur finally arrived, she went to the synagogue with her father. After the prayers and activities ended and they left for home, she remembers her father saying sadly, “Maybe this time God heard us.”
How to Engage with Jews about Prayer
It is easy for Christians to feel an affinity with the Jewish community because of our shared biblical history. Yet the reality is that without faith in Christ, Jewish men and women are separated from God. The tears, yearnings, and prayers offered at the Western Wall bring them no closer to his presence.
Here are a few encouragements for engaging with Jewish friends.
Understand the Old Testament
Read and study the Old Testament, especially to fully capture the ways the sacrificial system, Old Testament stories, and prophets point to Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew. Learn how Yeshua fulfills the Law. He is the unblemished Lamb of God and the final sacrifice for sin. Only Yeshua has made a way for Jews and Gentiles to enter the presence of God.
Jews sometimes quote Isaiah who said the temple is “a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7). Yet the presence of God is no longer tied to a building. It is found in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself quoted this verse from Isaiah after he entered the temple before his crucifixion (Mark 11:17). The very presence of God walked into the temple yet those in the temple were blind to the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus.
Faith in Jesus’s sacrificial work brings atonement for sin and a relationship with God. Indeed, in Christ all nations can approach God in prayer but not as those hoping to please God with prayers and good deeds—rather as forgiven children of God bringing their love and praise to the One who redeemed them. Talk about Jesus and show them how he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:15).
Pray with and for Jews
Ultimately, no one will believe unless the Spirit of God gives understanding. Pray God will give the Jewish people eyes of faith to see Jesus the Messiah. Pray those who seek God’s favor with prayers and good deeds will understand the power of the gospel.
And take every opportunity to pray with your Jewish friends in Jesus’s name. Show them through your own prayer life what a relationship with God looks like. In Christ alone, God is satisfied, atonement is accomplished, and prayer is accepted.