Genesis 28:10 to 32:3
Each of the three traditional daily prayer services are said to be based on the actions of our patriarchs. The Ma’ariv – evening service – had its beginnings in Jacob’s dream experience recounted in this week’s text.
“And Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. Coming upon a certain place, he passed the night there, for the sun was setting; taking one of the stones of the place, he made it his head-rest as he lay down in that place. He dreamed, and lo – a ladder was set on the ground, with its top reaching to heaven, and lo – angels of God going up and down on it. And lo – the Eternal stood up above it, and said; ‘I, the Eternal, am the God of your father Abraham and God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendents…. And here I am, with you, I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil….” (Genesis 28:10-15)
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935, the first Chief Rabbi of the pre-state Israel) in his comments on this parsha, notes that this meeting between Jacob and the Eternal is the basis for Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service.
According to the Talmud each of the regular traditional daily prayers was begun by one of the patriarchs.
Abraham – Shacharit, the morning prayer.
Isaac – Minchah, the afternoon prayer.
Jacob – Ma’ariv, the evening prayer.
Rav Kook notes that each of these three prayers has its own special qualities which reflect both the time of day… and the nature of the prayer offered by each of the patriarchs.
Shacharit– the morning prayer
“Abraham rose early in the morning, returning to the place where he had stood before God.” (Gen. 19:27) This morning prayer acts to set a solid ethical framework for the day. Abraham “stood” before God… and today, the importance of Abraham’s standing before God is reflected in our “standing prayer,” the Amidah of our morning service.
Minchah – the afternoon prayer
“Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening.” (Gen. 24:64). This second prayer service is observed when the activities of our day are finished. It is a time when we are able to clear our minds and reflect on our feelings of holiness and our connections to God. Rav Kook notes that because our chores are complete, this is an ideal time for the mind and soul to naturally grow and flourish.
Ma’ariv – the evening prayer
“Coming upon a certain place, Jacob passed the night there, for the sun was setting; taking one of the stones of the place, he made it his head-rest as he lay down in that place. He dreamed, and lo – a ladder was set on the ground, with its top reaching to heaven, and lo – angels of God going up and down on it.” (Gen. 28:11-12) The stillness and quiet nature of night provides a special spiritual quality beyond the level to which a person is regularly accustomed. It is a time that is receptive to extraordinary visions and dreams. It is a time when a person can have a “chance meeting” which could include an extraordinary spiritual experience… like that of Jacob.
Traditionally, Shacharit – the morning service, and Minchah – the afternoon service, have been mandatory services….. while Ma’ariv – the evening service is voluntary. Rav Kook notes that the reason for this difference may be found in the fact that Abraham and Isaac took conscious efforts in their prayer/meditation efforts. Jacob’s experience was an unexpected event. This doesn’t indicate that is less important, but the evening prayer is meant to be a more uplifting experience which is better achieved through a voluntary experience… much like Jacob’s unexpected dream experience.
Even though we, as Reform Jews, do not pray three times a day… we do encounter different types of prayer situations which may be similar to the differing prayer formats. By understanding the basis of these prayer services, we can gain a greater spiritual experience from our prayers.