I have heard many different opinions and would like to know which prayer is the most fundamental to Jews, the Amidah or the Shema?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
It is impossible to compare, because the Shema is not really a "prayer" at all, while the Amidah is the optimum prayer.
The Shema is not a "prayer" in the ordinary sense of the word, even though it is an integral part of the prayer service. The Shema is a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to One God, an affirmation of Judaism. It is the first "prayer" that Jewish children are taught to say. It is said on arising in the morning and on going to sleep at night. It is said when one is praising God and when one is beseeching Him. It is the last words a Jew says prior to death. It is the expression of Jewish conviction, the historic proclamation of Judaism's central creed.
On the other hand, the Shemona Esrei (a.k.a. the Amidah) is the heart of every prayer service. It contains the basic components of prayer: praising God, petitioning Him, and thanking Him. Whenever the Talmud refers to "Tefilah" (the Hebrew word for "prayer") it means the Shemona Esrei, and not any other blessing or supplication. The obligation to pray three times a day is fulfilled only by reciting the Shemona Esrei three times a day.
So you see, the Shema and the Amidah fulfill completely different purposes.
To learn more, read "To Pray As A Jew" by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, from which this answer was derived.
I recently heard a lecture where the speaker, discussing recent events in Israel and the Middle East, mentioned in passing that these events are befitting the Jewish month of Elul. Although many listeners nodded in understanding, I was not sure what he was referring to; what does a Jewish month have to do with events in Israel?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The Jewish month of Elul is the month which precedes Rosh Hashanah. Traditionally, Jews have assigned tremendous significance to this month. The father of the Mussar Movement, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (19th Century), writes that he remembers in his youth how the entire congregation would literally tremble when the reader announced the upcoming month of Elul. This trembling stemmed from the very palpable belief that Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment when all matters, from monetary to life-and-death, are judged and decided.
Rabbi Salanter writes that this "trembling" bore fruit, as each person used that announcement as a wake-up call to seriously reflect upon, and improve, their thoughts and deeds. He laments how, in his old age, that "trembling" has been largely lost among the Jewish people. (What would he say of our times?)
The converse theme of Elul is one of deepening and enhancing our love relationship with the Almighty. The word "Elul" is spelled Aleph-Lamed-Vav-Lamed, which forms an acronym for the words of the verse "Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li" – "I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me" (Song of Songs 6:3). "My Beloved" is referring to God. The verse is saying that to the extent we reach out and extend our love to God, in turn He reaches back and extends His love to me. The month in which God reaches out more than any other is Elul, when the Heavenly gates of love are opened, beseeching us all to enter and reconnect with the Almighty as never before.
Since the beginning of Jewish history, Elul has been the month where God expresses his love and mercy to the Jews. After the sin of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets, the Jews repented and God invited Moses to return to Mount Sinai. This day was the first day of Elul. Moses remained there for 40 days and nights, culminating in God's forgiveness on the 40th day, the first Yom Kippur.
The morning Moses returned to the mountain, the first day of Elul, the shofar was blasted throughout the camp to remind the Jews not to return to their mistaken ways of the Calf. In commemoration of that, and to serve as a wakeup call to all Jews to improve their ways, it is customary in synagogues throughout the world to blow the shofar every morning of Elul after the morning service, till the day before Rosh Hashanah. This serves as a double reminder: the Day of Judgment is coming, improve our deeds! Also, make the most of this special time to forge a stronger, more meaningful love relationship with God. (These two messages are really two sides of the same coin.)
Perhaps the speaker you mention was referring to the events in and around Israel as a type of shofar, a wake-up call for all Jews to introspection. The Land of Israel is surrounded by unprecedented levels of danger: well-equipped terrorist enemies from all sides, a crumbling peace treaty with Egypt, the specter of a nuclear Iran. This is all given extra strength by a radically anti-Israeli Europe, which, according to the Wiesenthal Center, is expressing levels of anti-Semitism that rival the late 1930s. If all this isn't a "shofar" blasting loud and clear, I don't know what is.
I've always heard that the Jews are the "people of the book." Can you clarify for me exactly what that means?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
On the simplest level, "people of the book" means that the Jews introduced to the world the all-time best-seller, the Bible.
On a deeper level, this means that Torah was meant for everybody. It is not the exclusive domain of some priestly class. Rather, it is a living, breathing document - the lifeblood of our Jewish nation. We are required at all times to involve ourselves personally in its study and practice.
It is interesting to note that the Vatican, by contrast, had an index of prohibited books until not too many years ago. The number one book on that index was the Bible - the Five Books of Moses. They said it was dangerous to the faith and hence prohibited to study.
Judaism is just the opposite. Judaism is unique in that every single Jew is commanded to know the Torah. The first sentence that a Jewish child is taught is "Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilas Yaakov" - Torah was commanded to us through Moses and it is the inheritance of every Jew."
As Maimonides writes (Laws of Torah Study 1:8-9):
"Every Jew is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, healthy or ill, young or old. Even if he is a pauper who derives his livelihood from charity, or if he has family obligations to his wife and children, he must still establish fixed times for Torah study - both day and night, as it says (Joshua 1:8), 'You shall think about it day and night.'
"The great Sages of Israel included wood choppers, water drawers and blind men. Despite these [difficulties], they were occupied with Torah study day and night, and were amongst those who transmitted Torah in the unbroken chain dating back to Moses."
So I welcome you to come and drink from the wellspring of wisdom contained in "The Book"!