Parashat Vayetze: Why are There Three?

In Jewish tradition, one is taught to pray 3 times a day: evening, morning and afternoon. Of course, one can pray anytime but on a weekday, there are 3 set prayer services, each built around the amida, the silent standing prayer called Hatefilla, the prayer, in Jewish tradition. 

How did our tradition arrive at 3 services: evening, morning and afternoon? Where did the tradition come from?  

I want to share with you three answers to that question from the traditional literature. Each is interesting in its own way and the three, taken together, lead to an elucidating point. 

In the Talmud, we read a statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that the three services are meant to correspond to the three sacrifices made during the day at the Temple.

The Rabbis of the Talmud would have had ample reason to connect prayer to sacrifice. They saw the tradition of prayer as the natural replacement for sacrifice with the destruction of the Temple, if not before, and they wanted to see that prayer carried with it the same sense of obligation and commandment as did sacrifice and that God favored prayer as God had previously favored sacrifice. One support for the idea of the correlation of the frequency of standardized prayer and the sacrificial tradition is the fact that on Shabbat and on holidays, we add a fourth service, the Musaf, Additional service, meant to correspond to the additional sacrifice made at the Temple on those days.

But, that is only one idea. Here is another idea from the same section of the Talmud: Rabbi Yose ben Hanina teaches that the services were instituted by the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Three patriarchs, three services.

The text teaches that Abraham instituted the shaharit, morning service, and the proof is that the Torah says that Abraham got up early in the morning and went to the place in which he had stood before God.

Isaac, says the text, was out in the field as evening was approaching lasuach, which is explained as meaning: to meditate. Isaac meditated in the field near evening and that is the source for mincha, the afternoon service. 

And regarding Jacob, the Torah says: vayifga bimakom, he reached a particular place as the sun had set and he had a confrontation with the place, or a confrontation with God. That confrontation resulted in the dream of the ladder and, since it took place at night, it proves Jacob instituted ma’ariv, the evening service. 

In addition to wanting to show that prayer is a matter of tradition from the very beginnings of our people, this text does something else as well. It is not a coincidence perhaps that Abraham institutes the morning service. After all, Abraham is the one who was said to have brought light to a darkened world. It is not a coincidence that Jacob institutes the evening service since the two serious spiritual confrontations in his life; the ladder dream and the wrestling match with the angel both happen at night. Thus, the times for the services reflect the individuals who are, in this legend, said to have created them. 

Finally, let me share one last tradition. Maybe the origin of the 3 prayers is not to be found in the sacrifices or in stories about the patriarchs. Some sources teach that the services were designed to respond to our needs. We say ma’ariv to pray that we get through the night. We say shaharit to thank God for getting us through the night and we say mincha to say to God that while we are happy that the last night has passed, we are anxious about the night to come even during the course of the day.

It seems to me that these three traditions are not mutually exclusive but can stand together and point to three major reasons for formalized, standardized prayer. Some look at prayer as an obligation, a mitzva, similar to the sacrifices. Some look at prayer as a tradition, passed down from generation to generation and reflecting who we are as Jews. Some look at prayer as the natural language and longing of the human being. 

While it is easy to say that one of these reasons supercedes the others, different individuals may choose a different reason as paramount. The fact is, however, that each of us needs to find each element in prayer at one time or another.

If prayer were not seen as an obligation, we would only pray when we felt like it.

If prayer were not seen as tradition, we wouldn’t be able to find common ground with other Jews throughout the world.

If prayer were not seen as the reflection of the yearnings of our soul, we would give up on it entirely. 

Thus, we have to try to balance all three, and perhaps other reasons as well, for engaging in this practice which can lead us to live more sanctified lives and keep ourselves moving in the right direction in life. 

We should be open to finding different reasons to pray throughout our life or even through the same day. Perhaps that is why it is not just a coincidence that there are three reasons and three services, one reason for each service. Life usually doesn’t work out that neatly but I think our tradition is sending us a subtle message; we can always find reasons to pray

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