There’s an old joke about a Jewish astronaut who is part of a successful space mission. When it returns to earth, his colleagues look wonderful—vital and healthy—but the Jewish astronaut looks exhausted and haggard. “What’s wrong?” people ask. He responds, “Every ninety minutes, Shacharit, Minchah, Ma’ariv; Shacharit, Minchah, Ma’ariv.”
Jewish tradition prescribes three daily prayer services: morning, afternoon, and evening. The source of these is found in the daily Temple sacrifices and the requirements to recite Shema evening and morning, yet the Rabbis sought to connect the three daily prayer services with the three patriarchs, grounding them in the personal, spontaneous prayers of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When they prayed determines when we pray, the Rabbis tell us, but why they prayed may give us clues about the purpose of prayer.
Parshat Vayeitzei begins with a leave-taking. Jacob, having cheated his brother Esau out of their father Isaac’s blessing, flees the home tent in Beersheba and heads to Haran. Fearing Esau’s wrath, Jacob needs a safe hideout, which he will find with his uncle Laban, the brother of Rebekah.
וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב, מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ, חָרָנָה. וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. He encountered a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Genesis 28:10-11)
Va-yifga ba-makom — What does “he encountered the place” mean? The Rabbis read much into two Hebrew words. The term “makom” is among the stable of favorite terms the Rabbis use to connote God, the Place of the universe. That night Jacob encountered God for the first time and was inspired to pray to God. His prayer established Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service. As R. Yehoshua b. Levi explains, Abraham established Shacharit, the morning prayers; Isaac established Minchah, the afternoon prayers; and now Jacob establishes Ma’ariv, the evening prayers:
R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “The first fathers established three prayers. Abraham established the Shacharit (morning) prayer as it says, Abraham woke up early in the morning to go to the place where he had stood before God (Genesis 19:27) and there is no standing (Amidah), except in prayer, as it says, Pinchas stood and prayed (Psalm 106:30). Isaac established the Minchah (afternoon) prayer, as it says, Isaac went out to converse in the field (Genesis 24:63) and there is no conversation aside for prayer, as it says, I will pour out my conversation in front of [God] (Psalm 142:3). Jacob establish the Aravit (or: Ma’ariv, evening) prayer, as it says, he encountered the place (Genesis 28:11) and there is no encounter aside for prayer, it says, do not raise a cry of prayer on their behalf and do not plead with Me… (Jeremiah 7:16).” (Genesis Rabbah 68:9)
The Rabbis derive each set of daily prayers based on a term in the verse cited, and then prove that the term actually means “prayer” by its use in yet another verse. We will explain each in turn, and as we do, let us also consider the situation and emotions that inspired the patriarchs to pray.
We begin with Abraham: When Genesis 19:27 says that Abraham “stood before God,” the term “stood” refers to the Amidah (standing prayer). This is reinforced by Psalm 106:30, which says that Pinchas “stood and prayed.” Abraham has been through a lot with and for God. He left his homeland and family in obedience to God’s call, settled in a new and foreign place, circumcised himself and all the males in his household to forge a covenant with God, and negotiated with God concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 19:27, Sodom and Gomorrah have been annihilated with sulfurous fire from heaven. When morning dawns and Abraham arises and stands before Adonai, imagine his horror and terror as he looks over the plain of destruction, smoke rising “like the smoke of a kiln.” It is in this moment, at dawn, R. Yehoshua b. Levi tells us, that Abraham feels the need to pray. Thus Abraham is credited with establishing Shacharit, the morning prayers.
Isaac “converses” in the field just before he meets Rebekah (Genesis 24:63). R. Yehoshua b. Levi explains that “converse” connotes prayer, as we learn from Psalm 142:3, where Pinchas’ conversation is with God is termed prayer. Isaac, who lived his life quietly in the tent of his mother until his father took him on a “camping trip” and came close to sacrificing him on an altar—which the Rabbis say so traumatized Sarah that she died upon learning what happened— awaits the arrival of his bride, whom Eliezer is bringing from abroad. Isaac’s prayer derives for his longing for a wife, made all the more poignant by this grief for his lost mother. Since it is “toward evening” (v. 63), Isaac is credited with establishing Minchah, the afternoon prayers.
Jacob provides the third instance of prayer. R. Yehoshua b. Levi understands Isaac's “encounter” with God to be an act of prayer, supported by Jeremiah 7:16, where the phrase “do not encounter [meaning: plead with]” is parallel to “do not pray,” thereby establishing “encounter” as a synonym for prayer. Jacob is running for his life, keenly aware that he has cheated his brother out of the birthright and stolen from him their father’s blessing. Jacob is carrying a heavy load of guilt with him when he reaches out for God in prayer. Since this happened “after sundown” (see Genesis 28:10-11 above), Jacob is credited with establishing Ma’ariv, the evening prayers.
Anne Lamott wrote that there are three essential prayers: Help, Thanks, and Wow. R. Yehoshua b. Levi, however, suggests a different three essential prayers: I’m scared; I need; and I’m sorry. Abraham turns to God in terror, horrified by the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac turns to God out of his longing and need for a wife to comfort him. Jacob turns to God when he is mired in guilt. Fear, longing, and guilt are all impetuses to prayer, emotions that inspire us to look for help, strength, and comfort. R. Yehoshua b. Levi is telling us that when our emotions overwhelm us, when they are a burden too heavy to carry alone, we can share them to God.
There is a prayer I often recite prior to El Malei Rachamim or Kaddish at a funeral, whose origin I cannot recall, but one particular sentence of it is germane here: “In life and in death, we cannot go where You, O God, are not, and where You are, hope endures.” We reach out to God when we are afraid, when we are long for something, and when we are wracked with guilt, because God offers hope: hope to hold strong and not be overcome by our fear, hope that our worthy desires may be fulfilled, hope that we can repent and be forgiven. The thrice daily formal prayers offer us ample opportunities to pray, but in truth we can at pray any time, in any place, because as this same midrash also reminds us: “God is ha-Makom the place of the universe, but the universe is not God’s place.” (Genesis Rabbah 68:9) God is not limited by time or space and therefore God is all the time and everywhere available for us.
The daily Tamid and Minchah offerings in the Temple were “replaced” by Shacharit (morning prayers) and Minchah (afternoon prayers). Torah requires that Shema be said “when you lie down and when you rise up,” hence Shacharit includes a recitation of Shema. Ma’ariv (evening prayers) also includes a recitation of Shema to cover nighttime requirement to say Shema, but since Ma’ariv does not correspond to an offering in the Temple, the Rabbis debated whether it was optional or obligatory (and eventually decided it was obligatory). This notwithstanding, there is a formulation of the Shema to recited at bedtime.