Why We Pray What We Pray in JewishMediaReview

by Dov Peretz Elkins

So many of us recite the words of the Siddur without understanding the meaning of the Hebrew (or Aramaic) words – like a mechanical exercise. This book helps the reader understand the meaning and depth of several of the most important prayers.

Why We Pray What We Pray details the various factors that influenced six important Jewish prayers and shaped how and when Jews recite them. This book shows that each prayer Shema, Nishmat, Birkat HaHodesh, Anim Zemirot, Aleinu and Kaddish has a complex history of which contemporary worshippers are mostly unaware. When we learn about the factors and forces that shaped these prayers and Jewish liturgy in general, our appreciation of what Jewish worship is all about becomes that much more profound. Why We Pray What We Pray also sets forth important moments in Jewish history with depth and detail.

Leon Wieseltier, author of Kaddish, and the literary editor of The New Republic, writes this about the book:

“Barry Freundel’s studies of the Jewish liturgy are quite unique: they are a guide to understanding and to practice. A scholar and a rabbi, he has an uncommon talent for combining textual and historical erudition with an immense sensitivity to the experience of prayer. He deploys his immense learning with great skill, and again and again casts new light upon some of Judaism’s most familiar words. Above all, this book is animated by a profound and admirable commitment to the thoughtfulness of religious faith. If you have ever wondered what iyun tefilah [study of the meaning of prayer] is, it is this.”

Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel is the author of Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response to Modernity (Ktav) and the Rabbi of Congregation Kesher Israel at the Georgetown Synagogue located in downtown Washington DC. Rabbi Freundel serves as vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and chair of its Conversion Policies and Standards Committee, where he helped create and administer the RCA’s network of North American conversion courts. He is also Associate Professor of Religion at Towson University and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University.

The book is a must-read for everyone who wishes to understand both the content and history of the prayers they recite. Why We Pray What We Pray belongs in every Jewish home and library!

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