As we will see in Mitzvah #433, there is an obligation for us to try to get closer to God through prayer. To help us fulfill this, our Sages established a prayer to be recited thrice-daily, corresponding to the prayers of our Forefathers. This prayer is called the Amidah (because it is recited standing); the weekday version is also called Shemoneh Esrei, the Eighteen Benedictions (although a nineteenth has since been added). Once a week for nineteen weeks, we will review the contents of the 19 blessings of “Shemoneh Esrei.”
The Shemoneh Esrei was first composed by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), whose ranks included such august personalities as Ezra, Chagai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some 400 years later, the order of the blessings – which had been recited orally since their initial composition – was standardized by Shimon HaPakuli in the presence of Rabban Gamliel; this represents the Shemoneh Esrei as we recite it today. (See Talmud Megilla 17b-18a.)
The first three blessings serve as a sort of introduction, as we approach the King. These blessings address the nature of God and of our relationship with Him. The first bracha, Avos, recalls the Forefathers (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), each of whom recognized God and forged his own unique relationship with Him.
The words of this blessing reflect a number of Biblical themes. For example, the phrase “God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob” is how God identified Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:6 and how He told Moses to refer to Him in Exodus 3:15. Similarly, the phrase “God, the great, the mighty and the awesome” is the exact phrase that Moses uses to describe Him in Deuteronomy 10:17. (According to the Talmud in Brachos 33b, those are the only praises we are allowed to say at this point – and the only reason we may say those is because they were given to us in the Torah!)
The reason we use the Forefathers as the basis for the first blessing in given in Genesis 12:2. God said to Abraham (then still called Abram), “I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” The Talmud (Pesachim 117b) says that “I will make you a great nation” corresponds to the phrase “God of Abraham,” “I will bless you” corresponds to “God of Isaac,” and “I will make your name great” corresponds to “and God of Jacob.” One might think that all three of the Forefathers should be mentioned in the blessing’s conclusion, therefore the Torah says, “and you (that is, Abraham) will be a blessing.” For this reason, the blessing concludes “shield of Abraham,” naming him alone.
This blessing is unique in that it starts “Baruch Atah Hashem” (“Blessed are You, God”) but it does not continue “Elokeinu Melech ha’olam” (“our Lord, King of the world”). This appears to violate a principle that in order for a blessing (or a series of blessings) to be valid, its opening phrase must include mention of God’s dominion. Actually, this is accomplished by the reference to God as “God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob.” It was the Forefathers who recognized God as King and who publicized this fact throughout the world.