In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prayer and Liturgy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • More Focused Overviews
  • Biblical and Near Eastern Origins
  • Second Temple Period
  • Origins of the Synagogue
  • Liturgical Spheres in the Axial Age
  • Origins of Rabbinic Prayer
  • Components of Rabbinic Prayer
  • First Prayer-Books in Geonic Times
  • Contribution of Genizah Material
  • Evolution of Medieval Rites
  • Trends in the Middle Ages
  • Significant Changes in Prayer Content
  • Social, Cultural, and Spiritual Evolution
  • Novel and “Enlightened” Thinking
  • Modern Religious Movements
  • Recent Orthodox Responses
  • Recent Non-Orthodox Responses

Jewish Studies Prayer and Liturgy
Stefan C. Reif
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0086


Some two millennia ago, the liturgies of the Jerusalem Temple, which were generally ceremonial rather than verbal and the Psalms, which were primarily verbal, were merged into synagogue worship and the genres of benediction, hymn, and praise were further developed. The Dead Sea Scrolls testify to the timely recitation of prayers and their association with events and pietistic themes. The early rabbis were also influenced by ideas about the end of time and about angels and celestial arrangements. Rabban Gamaliel II in the second century innovated and formalized the content, language, and structure of rabbinic prayer, which was orally preserved and transmitted. Personal prayers and benedictions gradually became communal liturgy. The talmudic rabbis of the early Christian centuries molded together the biblical readings known as the shema’ and the collected ‘amidah blessings, formalized ceremonies for the Sabbath’s arrival and departure (qiddush and havdalah), developed a domestic liturgy on the first Passover night to mark the biblical exodus from Egypt, and formulated benedictions for religious duties. Fixed cycles of biblical readings ensured that the Pentateuch and the Prophets were formally read and expounded in the synagogue, and Torah study, both biblical and rabbinic, was given an almost liturgical function. Orality gave way to the literary medium in the post-talmudic and medieval periods when the prayers were consigned to a codex that became known as the siddur (= “order [of prayers]”) and that evolved an increasingly authoritative form and status. Large numbers of liturgical poems (piyyuṭim) were composed, and supplicatory prayers were incorporated, while the kabbalists made an increasingly impressive contribution and the accuracy of liturgical Hebrew preoccupied grammarians. Magic and popular religiosity made their impact, and special blessings were devised for communal leaders, for the sick, and for the dead. Ceremonials became more formalized, especially with regard to the Torah scroll; formal, communal posts were created for rabbis and cantors; and choirs were introduced. Influenced by the modern intellectual world and by sociopolitical emancipation, some congregations replaced Hebrew with the vernacular, yearnings for Zion with local loyalties, the personal with the communal and the mystical with the rational. New compositions marked rites of passage and contemporary events, while modern interpretations of Judaism gave women an equal liturgical role. The largest synagogues had, in the nineteenth century, attempted to compete in grandeur, style, and decorum with their non-Jewish counterparts; but by the twenty-first century it became more fashionable to find warmer and more modest contexts for Jewish worship.

General Overviews

The academically radical scholarship of Zunz 1859 and successive work in 19th-century Europe that analyzed Jewish literary history laid the foundations for an approach that classified the Jewish prayer-book as a work that was not unilaterally created by the talmudic rabbis but evolved over subsequent centuries in response to a variety of influences in numerous contexts. Elbogen 1993 (originally published in 1913) gave expression to such a view and was the first to offer a critical but comprehensive account of Jewish liturgical history. Although it is now obvious that the author underestimated the medieval contribution, favored mild reform, and preferred the rational to the mystical, his major study remained the classical text for all serious students until the last quarter of the twentieth century. The attempts of Finkelstein 1925 and Finkelstein 1928–1929 to trace the origins of some rabbinic prayers to the pre-Christian period was not wholly successful or convincing but did indicate the need to look for pre-rabbinic precedents. Music and poetry having been of special interest to Idelsohn 1932, the author’s introduction took account of their role in Jewish liturgical history while also explaining how the rabbinic prayer-book compares with biblical precedents and with Karaite and Christian equivalents, and the degree to which it became subject to infiltration by mystical texts and ideas. A broad sweep and a popular style characterize Millgram 1971. That volume does not limit itself to a scientific history of the prayer-book but is also keen to explain the spiritual ideas that lay behind its contents and to assess the total nature of Jewish worship in modern times, in progressive as well as traditional circles. A combination of history and theology is contained in Petuchowski 1970, which tackles liturgical poetry as well as statutory prayers and tries to direct future research by summarizing what had been discovered to date. The overall approach of the Encyclopaedia Judaica is reflected in the liturgical articles and illustrations collected from that reference work in Posner, et al. 1975 but not evaluated or compared in any way, nor set into any general theological, historical, or literary context. Reif 1993 combines a history of Jewish liturgy with an account of liturgical scholarship, distinguishes speculation from sound conclusion, and argues strongly that future work should embrace a multidisciplinary approach to the subject. The collections of essays in Calduch-Benages, et al. 2019 will long constitute essential reading for all those who are interested in the development of Jewish prayer in the biblical, Second Temple, and rabbinic periods.

  • Calduch-Benages, Nuria, Michael Duggan, and Dalia Marx, eds. On Wings of Prayer Sources of Jewish Worship; Essays in Honor of Professor Stefan C. Reif on the Occasion of His Seventy-Fifth Birthday. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2019.

    These twenty important essays by leading specialists deal with prayers and liturgical customs in the Second Temple period as well as in rabbinic traditions.

  • Elbogen, Ismar. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. New York: Jewish Publication Society and Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1993.

    An English edition, by Raymond P. Scheindlin, of a work first published in German in 1913 (the third revised edition was published in 1931, which is the basis for both the Hebrew and the English editions), and in a revised edition in Hebrew in 1972. The first scientific and comprehensive account, but with its own Tendenz.

  • Finkelstein, Louis. “The Development of the Amidah.” Jewish Quarterly Review 16.2 (1925): 1–43.

    DOI: 10.2307/1451747

    See also pp. 127–171. A thorough study of the manuscript evidence but unsuccessful in its attempt to relate much of rabbinic liturgy to the pre-Christian period.

  • Finkelstein, Louis. “The Birkat Ha-Mazon.” Jewish Quarterly Review 19.3 (1928–1929): 211–262.

    DOI: 10.2307/1451807

    A similar study of the manuscript evidence but equally unsuccessful in its attempt to relate much of rabbinic liturgy to the pre-Christian period.

  • Idelsohn, Abraham Zevi. Jewish Liturgy and Its Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1932.

    An overview of the subject, paying special attention to poetry and music and comparing the Christian and Karaite liturgies.

  • Millgram, Abraham. Jewish Worship. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971.

    A popular but extensive study of the siddur as a dynamic and spiritual organism within Judaism.

  • Petuchowski, Jakob J., ed. Contributions to the Scientific Study of Jewish Liturgy. New York: Ktav, 1970.

    A collection of seminal articles reprinted with an introduction by the editor that complements his other volumes in the field.

  • Posner, Raphael, Uri Kaploun, and Shalom Cohen. Jewish Liturgy: Prayer and Synagogue Service Through the Ages. New York: Leon Amiel, 1975.

    Articles collected from the Encyclopaedia Judaica of 1972 and placed under twelve chapter headings but without any introduction or assessment.

  • Reif, Stefan C. Judaism and Hebrew Prayer: New Perspectives on Jewish Liturgical History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511598180

    Traces the topic from biblical to modern times in a critical and dispassionate way and offers evaluations of the work done to date.

  • Zunz, Leopold. Die Ritus des synagogalen Gottesdienstes geschichtlich entwickelt. Berlin: Julius Springer, 1859.

    The first attempt on the part of the leading light of the Wissenschaft des Judentums to trace the historical development of the various rites in numerous parts of the Jewish world.

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