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Prayer is an attempt to communicate with a choosen deity or deities. The existence of prayer is attested in written sources as early as 5000 years ago, and anthropologists believe that the earliest intelligent humans practised something that we would recognize today as prayer.

There are many types of prayer. Four of the most basic types of prayer are thanksgiving, confession of one's sins, praise of the divine, and petitioning for help or fulfilment of need.

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1 External links and references

The Biblical views of prayer

The Bible contains many examples of prayer and various instructions and teachings about prayer. The book of Psalms is entirely composed of prayers by various authors, and its prayers in particular have been used by Jews and Christians for thousands of years, in corporate prayer and individual prayer, and used both verbatim and as inspiration for new prayers and songs.

In the Tanach (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament) various forms of prayer appear; the most common form is petition. This in many ways is the simplest form of prayer. Some have termed this the "social approach" to prayer. In this view, a person directly confronts God in prayer, and asks for their needs to be fulfilled; God really does listen to prayer, and may choose to answer. This is the primary approach to prayer found in the Tanach (or Old Testament), the New Testament, most of the Church writings, and the Talmud.

This "petition approach" to prayer is supported for example by Matthew 21:22, where Jesus is reported as saying "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."

Most modern day prayerbooks by monotheistic religions contain many prayers that were originally written as petitions. However, many modern believers may recite the same prayers with a different understanding of prayer (see below) in mind.


Moshe Greenberg, "Biblical Prose Prayer as a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel."
Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Man's Quest for God" Scribner, NY, 1954
Seth Kadish, "Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer" Jason Aronson Inc., 1997

Prayer in Eastern Religions

The religion of Buddhism, well known for being non-theistic, utterly discards worship and places devotional emphasis on the practice of meditation alongside scriptural study. Although God and deities are recognized as present, Gautama Buddha claims it is mankind who by their own free will, possess the greatest capacity and potential to liberate themselves and are urged to do so without exterior assistance. Therefore, prayer is not as central to devotion as in its neighbouring asiatic faiths.

In religions such as Hinduism and Jainism, prayer has a greater significance and role for salvation. Hindus in India have numerous devotional movements. Stemming from the highest Creator God called Brahma, prayer is focused on His many manifestations, including the most popular deities Shiva, Vishnu, Rama and Krishna. Although Jains believe that no spirit or divine being can assist them on their path, they do hold some influence, and on special occasions, Jains will pray and meditate for right knowledge to the twenty-four Tirthankaras (saintly teachers).

Prayer in Paganism

In Graeco-Roman paganism, ceremonial prayer was highly formulaic and ritualized. The Iguvine Tables contain a supplication that can be translated, "If anything was said improperly, if anything was done improperly, let it be as if it were done correctly."

The formalism and formulaic nature of these prayers led them to be written down in language that may have only been partially understood by the writer, and our texts of these prayers may in fact be garbled. Prayers in Etruscan were used in the Roman world by augurs and other oracles long after Etruscan became a dead language. The Carmen Arvale and the Carmen Saliare are two specimens of partially preserved prayers that seem to have been unintelligible to their scribes, and whose language is full of archaisms and difficult passages.

Roman prayers and sacrifices were often envisioned as legal bargains between deity and worshipper. The Roman formula was do ut des: "I give, so that you may give in return." Cato the Elder's treatise on agriculture contains many examples of preserved traditional prayers; in one, a farmer addresses the unknown deity of a possibly sacred grove, and sacrifices a pig in order to placate the god or goddess of the place and beseech his or her permission to cut down some trees from the grove.

Philosophical re-interpretations of prayer

Post-Biblical theologians considered the philosophical problems involved in prayer (see below). Over time a number of re-interpretations of prayer evolved. These were developed in great detail by the medieval neo-Platonic and neo-Aristotelian philosophers, and have influenced how many people still pray today. At the moment, the descriptions below list some Jewish sources, but each of these views of prayers also has Christian and Muslim proponents as well; there was much intellectual cross-fertilization between Jews, Christians and Muslims during parts of the middle-ages, and so there appears to be some convergence among the philosophers of that era.

The educational approach: In this view, prayer is not a conversation with God. Rather, it is meant to inculcate certain attitudes in the one who prays, but not to influence God. Among Jews, this has been the approach of Rabbenu Bachya, Yehuda Halevy, Joseph Albo, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. This view is expressed by R. Nosson Scherman in the overview to the Artscroll Siddur (p.XIII); note that R. Scherman goes on to also affirm the Kabbalistic view (see below). Among Christian theologians...(please add examples here) Among Muslim theologians....(please add examples here).

The Kabbalistic view of prayer: People involved with kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) often reject rationalist reinterpreations of prayer outright, but they also reject the social approach, in which prayer is viewed as a dialogue with God. Instead, this approach ascribes a higher meaning to the purpose of prayer, which is no less than affecting the very fabric of reality itself, restructuring and repairing the universe in a real fashion. For Kabbalists, every prayer, every word of every prayer, and indeed, even every letter of every word of every prayer, has a precise meaning and a precise effect. In Kabbalah and related mystical belief systems, adherents claim intimate knowledge about the way in which God relates to us and the physical universe in which we live. For people with this view, prayers can literally affect the mystical forces of the universe and repair the fabric of creation.

Among Jews, this approach has been taken by the Hassidei Ashkenaz, the Zohar, the Kabbalist school of though created by the Ari, the Ramchal, most of Hassidism, the Vilna Gaon, and rabbis such as Yaakov Emden and Kalonimus Shapira. In the 1800s some European Christians were influenced by Kabbalah...(please add information here)

The rationalist approach: In this view, ultimate goal of prayer is to help train a person to focus on God through philosophy and intellectual contemplation. This approach was taken by Maimonides and the other medieval rationalists; it became popular in Jewish, Christian and Islamic intellectual circles, but never became the most popular understanding of prayer among the laity in any of these faiths. In all three of these faiths today a significant minority of people still hold to this approach.

The experiential approach: In this approach, the purpose of prayer is to enable the person praying to gain a direct experience of God. This approach is very significant in Christianity and widespread in Judaism (although less popular theologically). In Eastern Orthodoxy, this approach is known as hesychasm. It is also widespread in Sufi Islam, and in some forms of mysticism. It has some similarities with the rationalist approach, since it can also involve contemplation, although the contemplation is not generally viewed as being as rational or intellectual. It also has some similarities with the Kabbalistic view, but it lacks the Kabbalistic emphasis on the importance of individual words and letters.

The practice of prayer

The actual act of praying can take on many different outward forms. Most religions or religious subgroups have certain forms that they recommend, usually more than one; occasionally, there may be specific forms that are forbidden. Prayer may be done privately and individually, or it may be done corporately in the presence of fellow believers. Some outward acts that sometimes accompany prayer are: ringing a bell; burning incense or paper; lighting a candle or candles; facing a specific direction, i.e. towards Mecca or towards the East.

A variety of body postures may be assumed, often with specific meaning associated with them: standing; sitting; kneeling; prostrate on the floor; eyes opened; eyes closed; hands folded or clasped; hands upraised; and others. Prayers may be recited from memory, read from a book of prayers, or composed spontaneously as they are prayed. They may be said, chanted, or sung. They may be with musical accompaniment or not. There may be a time of outward silence while prayers are offered mentally. Often, there are prayers to fit specific occasions, such as the blessing of a meal, the birth or death of a loved one, other significant events in the life of a believer, or days of the year that have special religious significance.

The philosophical paradoxes of prayer

There are a number of philosophical paradoxes involving prayer to an omnipotent God, namely:

  • If a person deserves God to give him the thing he prays for, why doesn't God give it to him, even without prayer? And if a person is not deserving of it, then even if that person does pray and request it, should it be given just because of his prayer?

  • Why should it be necessary to pray with speech? Doesn't God know the thoughts of all people?

  • If God is omniscient (all-knowing) then doesn't God know what we are going to ask Him for even before we pray?

  • How can a human being hope to change God's mind? Why should human prayers affect God's decisions?

  • Do human beings actually have the ability to praise an omniscient and omnipotent God? Praising God is difficult to do without describing God, yet how can a finite human being know anything about God's ultimate nature? This question was the subject of heated debate among many religious philosophers; one such debate took place in the 14th century between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria[?].

These questions have been discussed in Jewish, Christian and Muslim writings from the medieval period onward. The 900s to 1200s saw some of the most fertile discussion on these questions, during the period of Neo-Platonic and Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. Discussion of these problems never ceased entirely, but they did fall mostly from the public view for several centuries, until The Enlightenment reignited philosophical inquiry into theological issues. (More to be written.)

All of these questions have been discussed in many Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious texts. Many of these texts offer proposed resolutions to some or all of these paradoxes.

Prayer and Medicine

Several studies have claimed that patients who pray for their health or are being prayed for recover faster. Critics have attributed this to the placebo effect. Typically, the scientific establishment ignores studies of the occult and esoteric, but in 1999, media reports on prayer studies prompted a comprehensive review of such studies in The Lancet. The result: "Even in the best studies, the evidence of an association between religion, spirituality, and health is weak and inconsistent." A 2001 double-blind study of the Mayo clinic[?] found no significant difference in the recovery rates between people who were (unbeknownst to them) assigned to a group that prayed for them (five people praying once a week for 26 weeks), and those who were not.

Jewish prayer

Prayers said by Jews are described in the entry on Jewish services. The prayers of the Jewish services are collected in a prayerbook called the Siddur. The entry on the siddur describes the different types of Jewish prayerbooks and how they have evolved over time.

The most imporant Jewish prayers are the Shema[?] ("Hear O Israel") and the Amidah ("the standing prayer").

Christian prayer

Orthodox Christianity, Catholic Christianity and the many branches of Protestant Christianity each have distinctive liturgies. Some of the more commonly recited Christian prayers include the following:

Islamic Prayer

Muslims pray a brief prayer service in Arabic, facing Mecca, five times a day. (More to be written.)

Bahá'í Prayer

Baha'is are required to recite each day one of three obligatory prayers revealed by Baha'u'llah. The believers have been enjoined to face in the direction of the Qiblih when reciting their Obligatory Prayers.

One, the longest obligatory prayer, may be recited at any time of day; another, of medium length, is recited once in the morning, once at midday, and once in the evening; and the shortest is recited at noon. This is the text of the short prayer:

I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth.
There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.

Baha'is also read from and meditate on the scriptures every morning and evening. There are also many other revealed prayers in the Baha'i scriptures, most for general use at the choice of the individual and some for specific occasions.

See also: public prayer[?], prayer in school[?] and moment of silence

External links and references

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