Prayer Formulas

When the Sages formalized the Jewish prayers, they used fixed turns of phrase that we may call “prayer formulas” (or prayer coinages). In this resource we will study some of these formulas and understand their importance.

Resource Ages: 12-14


It happened during the War of Liberation [Israel’s War of Independence, 1948-1949]… As darkness fell, everything was ready and we were waiting for the attack that was expected at dawn. I lay in one of the trenches in the orchard and began to imagine what would happen when the new day dawned – and I was seized by a terrible fear. […] And then at some point I felt a strong desire to pray – but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know any of the prayers by heart. I prayed in simple words as I saw best. But I remember the strong desire to pray the same prayers Jews have said over the generations – even though I didn’t know a single prayer like that.

Mordechai Bar-On, The Faith of the Non-Believer, Ptachim b, Kislev 1968 

Examples of Prayer Formulas:

Opening for Birchot Ha-Nehenin – prayers said over foods and other experiences 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-להֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם

Blessed are You, Sovereign of the universe…


Opening for blessings over the commandments 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-להֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְווֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ

Blessed are You, Sovereign of the universe, who has made us holy with Your mitzvot and commanded us…


Opening for prayers

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, אֱ-להֵינוּ וֵא-להֵי אֲבותֵינוּ

Blessed are You, Sovereign, our God and God of our ancestors…


Opening for supplications (prayers where we ask God for something)

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ (ה’, אֱ-להֵינוּ וֵא-להֵי אֲבותֵינוּ)

May it be Your will (Sovereign, our God and God of our ancestors…)


Closure of prayers

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’…

Blessed are You, Sovereign (followed by words relating to the prayer)


Special Prayer Words

אמן, אָמֵן סֶלָה, הַלְלוּיָהּ.

Amen, Amen Sela, Halleluyah

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do values and tradition impact my Jewish practice?
  • What can we learn from different generations?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How do fixed prayer formulas enrich the prayer experience?
  • How does prayer connect us to our past?
  • How does prayer connect us to other Jewish communities?
  • Why do we sometimes need to use someone else’s words in order to express our own thoughts?

Background for Teacher

Most of the Jewish prayers and blessings were composed during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods (around 1,500 – 2,000 years ago). The Sages created fixed formulas that are repeated in the different prayers. These formulas actually create a unique “language” for prayer. Fixed formulas...

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Most of the Jewish prayers and blessings were composed during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods (around 1,500 – 2,000 years ago). The Sages created fixed formulas that are repeated in the different prayers. These formulas actually create a unique “language” for prayer.

Fixed formulas are very important for the ceremonial aspect of prayer, they serve as markers within the service (when we begin a prayer, when it ends, etc.) they help us remember the prayers and they connect us to the Jewish people and tradition.

The words “Amen”, “Selah”, and “Halleluyah” all come from the Book of Psalms. They are probably very ancient formulas associated with songs of praise. The word “Amen” may mean truth, serving to confirm the accuracy of what we have just said in our prayers. The origin of the word “Selah” is unclear, but it may be associated with the idea of eternity. This word is used to confirm and reinforce the prayer. “Halleluyah” is formed from two Hebrew words – hallelu yah, meaning praise God.

Mordechai Bar-On  was born into a secular family in Tel Aviv. He served as an officer in the IDF and filled senior positions, including Chief Education Officer. He was a historian by profession.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study

Tell the students that you want to write a short message with just two sentences to a friend who is about to celebrate their birthday. Ask the students to think of a blessing or message,  to write it down and not say it aloud. Then ask at least ten students to read out their messages.

Write on the board expressions that repeat themselves (happy birthday, congratulations, good luck, I hope you…, etc.) You could play a song that includes some of these expressions.

Discus: What can we learn from the fact that many of us used the same words and phrases? It doesn’t mean that we’re lazy or unoriginal; it means that a particular phrase has become accepted and widely known. People understand immediately what it means, like a language with known and familiar words and letters.

Explain that now we are going to learn about the “language” of prayer.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. Why do we use fixed formulas in  prayers?
  2. What value do fixed formulas add to blessings and prayers, as opposed to just letting everyone say what they feel like?
  3. When do we use fixed formulas or expressions in our lives and how does this help us?
  4. Give an example of a case when a fixed formula allows us to connect with Jews who come from a different community. 
  5. Fixed formulas also have disadvantages and limitations. Give some examples.

After hearing the story:

  1. What situation led the narrator to feel a strong desire to say a prayer?
  2. How did you feel when you read the story? Did you identify with the narrator, or were you surprised by how he felt? Explain your answer.
  3. If you could meet Bar-On, what would you ask him about his experiences after the war? What would you want to tell him from your perspective as Jewish kids living outside Israel?
  4. According to his own account, why did he feel a particular need for fixed and familiar words?
  5. What reasons do you feel there could be for using fixed words rather than making the prayer up on the spot?
  6. When traditional people face danger, they often recite Psalms – even if the text has nothing to do with the problem they are facing. Based on the story, why do they do this?
  7. Do you ever feel the urge to pray? If so, what words do you use?
  • Use the fixed formulas to write some personal prayers and blessings. Think of an occasion when you would like to pray or say a blessing. Choose an opening and ending from the list and complete the middle section of the prayer. Try to use serious and elegant words suitable for prayers.
  • Hebrew isn’t our everyday language. Do you think it’s better to pray and say blessings in Hebrew or in your own language? Hold a debate on the subject and choose two representatives to present the opposing arguments. They could prepare their arguments with the class or in a small group of students. After they present their case, the students vote whether to use Hebrew or the everyday language in their prayers.
  • Study the Amidah prayer, which includes 19 blessings and uses many of the expressions and formulas we have studied. Pay attention to which formula appears at the beginning of the prayer and why. Identify the closing expressions of the different blessings. What do they have in common and what differences can you see?
  • Learn about types of prayers and become familiar with the different formulas used in prayers that express praise, requests, and thanks.
  • Learn about the concept of Kavanah – intention – the challenge that is created when fixed formulas make it hard for us to pray from our hearts.