Praying at the Place

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Old Siddur

Makom, with regard to the patriarchs, means a place for prayer: “And he lighted upon a certain place, va’yifga ba-makom, and remained there all night” (Gen. 28:11). Based on this verse, Chazal say that Jacob was the one who established the evening prayers (Berachot 26b). He petitioned God ba-makom, at a certain place.

Prayer requires a set place – one should designate a place for prayer (Berachot 6b). A beit knesset is sacred because prayer is inseparably combined and intertwined with makom, with place. “Abraham went early in the morning to the place, makom, where he stood before the Lord” (Gen. 19:27) – the place, the makom, where he was confronted by God, where he encountered the Almighty and stood with Him face to face. Chazal say this is the morning prayer, because tefillah means being confronted by God the way we confront someone else and engage him in a conversation, in a dialogue, face to face (Berakhot 26b).

The theme of tefillah can be contrasted with that of Shema. The experience of God associated with Shema is called accepting the yoke of Heaven; the one connected with prayer is called worship of the heart. Of course, there are elements of affinity and kinship between them. Nevertheless, each one represents a different awareness, a separate mode of expressing the experience of God.

Prayer, avodah she-ba-lev, asserts itself in the great experience of Divine presence, the awareness of God, of His proximity and closeness to us. In worship of the heart, the finite being encounters his infinite, invisible God, stands before Him and addresses himself to Him. Tefillah is considered a dialogue, a conversation, a colloquy between God and man, between Infinity and finitude, Being and nothingness. Man does not talk about God as a third person, as someone who is not there. He employs the thou, the grammatical form which brings together two unique individualities, which draws the inaccessible thou into the bounded I, and the mysterious I into the strange Thou. In short, in prayer man established contact with God – the miracle of revelation repeats itself.

In contrast with Shema, the theme of tefillah is not that of the grandeur of majesty with its attendant motifs of remoteness and inaccessibility, but that of friendship and sympathy. This feeling of friendship in prayer should be experienced not only in terms of nearness and immediate presence but as an intimacy which prompts us to confide in God and reveal ourselves to Him, by addressing Him in the second person, by approaching Him as Thou, not as He. One may find himself in the company of a great person, whom he does not dare to encounter face to face and employ the grammatical thou. That is not the case with prayer. Prayer forms a conversation that joins two into one community.

Speech is not always a colloquy, a conversation that expresses a sympathetic community and a friendship. Many a time we address ourselves to others in the form of a monologue, which the “other” happens to overhear. The addressee never enters our presence as the second person thou does. He remains outside of ourselves as a third party, alien and remote. The crux of prayer manifests itself in a feeling of companionship with Him and mainly in experiencing Him face to face (panim el panim); in having my whole self talk not only towards Him but also with Him, confronting Him. The preposition “with” makes all the difference. Hence, the moment of majestas which spells strangeness, inapproachability, exclusiveness, and the He “capitalized” is superseded by the motif of the parent who is not only close, but also involved with the fate and destiny of his child. The King is always addressed in the third person; the Father, in the second.

Therefore, the mood in which Shema is recited is an intense response to the display of Divine might and power. It contrasts with that of the man engaged in prayer who is receptive to the grace of God. In Shema one assents to and accepts authority. In the Amidah one gives Himself to God Who, in His infinite grace, meets him on almost equal terms within a community created by the worship.

Excerpted from Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch and Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer, both by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.