With the cycle of Festivals behind us, and approaching the Torah portion Parashat Bereishit ("In the beginning . . . "), it is fitting to look at the very beginning of the core text of our liturgy—the 'Amidah or tefillah. We turn to this ordered sequence of blessings in every Jewish service, whether with a community or praying privately. The structure and history of the 'Amidah open enormous areas of reflection—to which this column will turn quite frequently—but here let us look at the phrase that comes, so to speak, even before the beginning. The words "Adonai sefatai tiftach ufi yagid tehilatekha" (God open my lips and my mouth will declare Your praise) are from Psalm 51:17, and are printed in just about every version of the siddur (in smaller type) just before the opening of the 'Amidah (see for example the Shabbat/Festival siddur of the Rabbinical Assembly on pages 35, 115, 156).
There is a teaching (applicable especially to Shaharit, the morning service) that there should be no interruption between the conclusion of the blessing " . . . ga'al Yisrael" ( . . . God Redeemer of the people Israel) [Shabbat/Festival siddur of the Rabbinical Assembly 114] and commencing the 'Amidah. How then is it permissible to insert our phrase?
We know from the Talmud that the text is from antiquity—it is recorded (Berakhot 4b) that the insertion of our verse was introduced by R. Yohanan. Some justify the insertion simply by noting that there is authoritative precedent—and so it must be permissible. Others see the words as necessary in order to prepare for the act of prayer, or almost as requesting permission (reshut) to pray. The recently published Koren Mesoret HaRav Siddur presents the insight of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik (z"l):
On his own it is impossible for man to comprehend his needs and formulate them in a lucid prayer. His mouth is inarticulate, his tongue falters. He required divine assistance not only for his sustenance, but also to recognize his deficiencies and arrange his words . . . We cannot contemplate prayer unless we seek God's assistance in formulating our entreaties. (121)
Seligman Baer, in his great commentary to the siddur, amplifies this approach by quoting Proverbs 16:1: "The preparation of the heart is a human act, but the answer of the tongue is God's."
I would suggest that there is a further, perhaps more radical, level at which to understand this verse. It is important to recall that there was wide knowledge of the texts of the Bible, and perhaps especially the Psalms, in antiquity; and that a short quotation may well invoke a broader context and implication. So it is not without liturgical significance that Psalm 51 continues immediately from our quote:
Several musical settings of these words may offer inspiration, and are sometimes included in services.
A more reflective modern arrangement by Rabbi Hannah Tifferet Siegel can be heard here:
This is a choral setting composed by Sharon Farber:
As always, I am interested to hear comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at email@example.com.