Tag Archives: mikvah

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Instructions About Washings

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings…

Hebrews 6:1-2 (ESV)

Hebrews 6:1-3 identifies “instructions about washings” as one out of six fundamental, elementary teachings about the Messiah. Does this refer to Baptism? Learn about the Jewish practice of immersion in a mikvah and discover evidence of early, apostolic-era catechism prior to immersion.

Includes a short introduction to the Didache.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Twenty-one: Instructions About Washings
Originally presented on June 22, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Instructions about washings (plural). After a brief summary of the first two elementary principles, “Repentance from dead works” and “Faith toward God,” Lancaster continues with the third, “Instructions about washings”. This is often considered in normative Christianity to refer to baptism and easily dismissed as such. The King James Version of the Bible even renders the phrase as “the doctrine of baptisms,” but…

The translators of the English Standard Version, like many Bible scholars, recognized that the Greek word “baptismon” does not sound as if it’s talking about Christian baptism, because it appears in the plural form, whereas Christians are baptized only once. Furthermore, in other places in the New Testament, the word “baptismos” refers to ceremonial purification rituals of immersion in a mikvah. Several scholars looked at this passage and said, “I don’t think he’s talking about Christian baptism. I think he’s talking about Jewish purity rituals.”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Chapter 5: Instruction About Washings,” pg 64
Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity

This book leverages much of the material from Lancaster’s sermons on these elementary principles from his “Hebrews” series and is a good companion to use with these audio recordings.

Here we learn that it is highly likely that these “immersions” mentioned in Hebrews 6:2 do not reference the modern Christian concept of baptism, since a Christian is only baptized once and the Greek word used in the text is clearly plural. It is more likely that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is talking about Jewish ritual purity rites using the mikvah, since the writer (according to Lancaster) is a Jew writing to other Jewish believers in Messiah Yeshua.

Lancaster presents some historical and archeological information regarding ancient immersion pools in the late Second Temple period to illustrate that it was extremely common for Jews to immerse on any number of occasions for the purpose of ritual purity, including participation in Temple sacrifices.

He also takes this opportunity to go on a small “rant” about how Christianity has fundamentally misunderstood the nature and character of baptism, and he ran through a litany of things that he believes the Church has gotten all wrong (he was talking too fast for me to take notes, so if you want to hear his reasons, you’ll have to listen to the recording). I don’t think Lancaster was trying to “diss” the Christian Church so much as he was being passionate about what he sees as the truth of the early history of Jesus-believing Judaism and how it’s been distorted by subsequent Gentile Christianity.

mikvahAs an aside, Lancaster has been lobbying to build a mikvah at Beth Immanuel for the last seven years (eight years as of this writing) but there hasn’t been much of a response. That reminded me of something I just read in Sue Fishkoff’s book The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch. Often, when a Chabad family moves into an area without an Orthodox Jewish presence, their first and overriding priority is to build a mikvah, particularly for the use of the Rabbitzin in relation to the laws of ritual family purity. The reaction from the local Jewish community to the Chabad’s fundraising efforts to build a mikvah (and they’re not cheap) is just as lukewarm. What does Lancaster and the Chabad know about the mikvah that the rest of us don’t, or is that a sad question to ask as connected to “elementary principles” of our faith?

So, what were these “instructions about immersions?” How to build a mikvah? The mechanics of how to baptize? At one point, Lancaster might have said “yes”, but then he realized how “dumb” an answer that was…a typical “Goy” answer.

Jews would have been already well acquainted with the rituals surrounding the mikvah, the occasions when one had to engage in ritual purity rites and so forth. This wasn’t a mystery. While Gentiles may have needed those sort of instructions, they would have been less than useless to the Jewish believers.

Lancaster shared his own revelation. When reading a commentary on this part of the Book of Hebrews, he learned that these instructions about immersions could be referred to as “Catechetical Instructions for Conducting the Baptismal Rite.”

When I was a pre-teen and into mid-teens, my parents regularly took me to a Lutheran church. Lutheran churches, like Catholic churches, put their young people into a two-year Confirmation class where we studied Catechism, which according to Wikipedia is “a summary or exposition of doctrine and served as a learning introduction to the Sacraments traditionally used in catechesis, or Christian religious teaching of children and adult converts.”

That’s what Lancaster thinks these “instructions about immersions” are. Not directions on how to immerse or baptize, but the very basic instructions a new believer had to know before being immersed in the name of the Messiah as a full disciple.

Lancaster than referenced the best known ancient “catechism” we have access to: the Didache.

Last fall, I read and wrote about First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) Toby Janicki’s article “The Didache: An Introduction” published in Messiah Journal. Since then, I purchased a copy of the Didache along with a commentary and wrote several blog posts on the topic which can be found here.

While Lancaster isn’t saying the Didache we have is the actual set of instructions being referred to in Hebrews 6:2, they may very well be related. It’s clear that the Didache was written for new Gentile “novices” in Yeshua-discipleship in order to prepare them to be immersed into Messiah by being initiated in the teachings of the Master. These instructions may have begun as oral instructions that accompanied the delivery of the Acts 15 “Jerusalem Letter” to the various Jesus-believing Gentile communities in the diaspora.

Didache CodexI should mention here that as Lancaster correctly states, the Didache’s initial discovery prompted accusations of forgery and fraud, since the document didn’t match the theology and doctrine of any Christian denomination and was seen as “too Jewish”. But today, most Christian scholars admit that the document most likely originated within one or two decades of the destruction of Herod’s Temple, written probably by Jewish disciples of Jesus for newly minted Gentile disciples. As I mentioned though, these written instructions could well have been preceded by an oral equivalent and could possibly have first come from the apostles themselves.

However, the Jewish disciples may have required a similar, parallel set of instructions to familiarize them with the teachings of Messiah and what it is to be a Jew preparing for a lifelong commitment to “take up their cross” and follow Moshiach, even unto death.

So look at it like this.

The newly initiated Jewish believers were first taught the very elementary principles of Yeshua-faith starting with repentance from dead works (sin) and then faith toward God as specific to Messianic devotion. Once they had mastered those first two principles, they were ready for the third, the basic instructions required for them to prepare to be immersed into the name of Messiah, which constitutes a vow of eternal fidelity.

Jewish people would immerse in the mikvah an untold number of times over the course of a lifetime, so immersing for ritualistic reasons was hardly novel. However, John specifically practiced an immersion of repentance (Matthew 4:17, Acts 19:4) and the Master commanded another specific immersion:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (emph. mine)

Matthew 28:19-20 (NASB)

The immersion in the name of Messiah fits in perfectly with what the Church calls “the Great Commission” but put back into a Jewish context, the ritual immersion in Messiah’s name makes a great deal more sense.

Jewish ConversionFor Lancaster, and I agree with him, a serious time of preparation must have been thought necessary before formally becoming a disciple of the Master. This was probably quite similar to the proselyte ritual process Gentiles experienced when converting under other Jewish sects. Even today, a Gentile converting to Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism, undergoes a time of intense preparation and study under the supervision of a Rabbi, and must past several tests before becoming circumcised (for males) and immersing in the mikvah as the final rite in becoming a Jew.

It seems very reasonable to believe that in ancient Yeshua-faith, the Gentile “converts” were required to undergo a similar procedure, although I’m sure there were exceptions (Acts 8:25-40, Acts 10:44-48).

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?

Luke 14:17-28 (NASB)

What Did I Learn?

Actually, I felt there were things Lancaster only hinted at in his sermon. If he believes the Christian Church has gotten baptism all wrong, particularly as far as only being baptized once, what other applications might there be for immersion among the body of believers? I’m sure that Messianic Jewish disciples of the Master could and would immerse for the same reasons as other observant Jews, but what about the “Messianic Gentiles?” If we immerse in the name of Messiah once, on what other occasions should Gentiles enter the mikvah?

It had never occurred to me to apply Matthew 28:19-20 to Hebrews 6:2 but now it makes a great deal of sense to connect the two scriptures. I’m sure an entire study could be done applying what we think of as “baptism” in Christianity to ancient and modern concepts of immersion in the mikvah.

This also made me think of my own immersion. In August 1999, my entire family was immersed, under the auspices of a local Hebrew Roots congregational leader, in the Boise River. The following month, my life started to dramatically fall apart in such a spectacular manner that it would take years for me and my family to recover.

My interpretation is that God takes immersion into the name of Messiah quite seriously, even if the people being immersed don’t know what they’re doing (and I certainly didn’t). God delivered the consequences of my ill-conceived decision directly into my lap and it wasn’t pleasant at all. A lot of re-writing of my script had to be done and it’s not finished yet, not by a long shot. The finger of God is still writing on my heart and slowly converting it from a thing of stone to a heart of beating flesh and blood.

How many churches prepare their people with a dedicated set of instructions and tutelage before determining they are ready for this level of life-long commitment? I know in the church I attend there is some sort of formal preparation, but I fear for the sake of the children, some age nine and younger, who are deemed ready to understand what it is to count the cost, take up their crosses, and follow Jesus, even unto death. How could you be nine years old and possibly comprehend who you’re vowing to obey and what the consequences will be?

child baptismLancaster says he believes our churches are filled with “false converts,” people, like me, who consent to being baptized without any real idea of what that truly means. We have very few formal vows in Christianity left. The one you most likely think of is the wedding vow, but the staggering divorce rate in the Church indicates even that one is not well understood.

When we consent to being immersed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit of God, we had better know what we’re doing, and if we haven’t been prepared adequately for the commitment, then even though we are acting out of ignorance, God will hold us accountable.

Lancaster believes we should return to instructing new believers in the elemental principles of our faith which might include some familiarity with the Didache or something patterned after it. I think he’s right. People declare Christ as Lord and Savior and are baptized in his name far too casually in our day. I think thousands upon thousands of people in the Church are in a lot of trouble and don’t even realize it.

The Uncircumcised Convert, Part 2

mikveh-project“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Acts 10:47-48 (ESV)

When Simon Peter heard the Gentiles speaking in the languages and saw that they had received the Spirit just as he and the other Jewish believers had, he could no longer theologically exclude them from participation in the kingdom or discipleship. (see Acts 10:47-48) They had not gone through a legal conversion to become Jewish, nor had they been circumcised. They were still Gentiles, yet they had experienced the Spirit of God, just as the Jewish believers had.

Simon Peter explained to the six men that had accompanied him from Joppa, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” By skipping circumcision and going directly to immersion, Simon Peter inverted the process by which a Gentile might ordinarily become a disciple of Yeshua. Prior to that occasion, he and the other disciples required a Gentile to first submit to conversion/circumcision. Immersion could follow later.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Vayeshev (“And he dwelt”) (pg 235)
Commentary on Acts 9:32-11:18

If you haven’t done so already, please read Part 1 of this commentary before continuing here.

This is the second time in his commentary on Acts 10 that Lancaster suggests Peter or the other Jewish apostles may have previously converted Gentiles to Judaism by first having them circumcised and then entering them into Jesus discipleship. As I mentioned in Part 1, I can’t think of any record in the Bible that points in this direction. I do note however, that Philip also did not require the Ethiopian eunuch to be circumcised prior to immersion. However, that more than likely means the eunuch was Jewish (and did not need to convert) since Luke makes no point of the eunuch being a Gentile as he does of Cornelius (although as previously mentioned, there are a number of assumptions in play).

What Lancaster says regarding circumcision and conversion of Gentiles does fit nicely into Shaye J.D. Cohen’s opinion (see his book, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition) of how Gentiles were made into Jewish disciples as I mentioned in another commentary.

However, as the history of Israel progressed, the concept of conversation to Judaism for the Gentile began to become more formalized. Cohen cites three essential elements of conversion to Judaism: belief in God, circumcision, and joining the house of Israel. Again, this is a definition of a convert to Judaism, not conditions required for the Gentile to join “the Way” as disciples of Christ. Cohen even references the difference:

For Paul, circumcision represents subjugation to the demands of the Torah (Gal. 3-5).

In other words, while Paul did not see circumcision and thus full obedience to the mitzvot as a requirement for the Gentile Christians, he did see it as a necessary step for full conversion to Judaism. The natural conclusion then is that a Gentile becoming a disciple of the Jewish Messiah in the time of Paul was not the same as a Gentile converting to Judaism.

Another indication that Gentiles entering into Jesus discipleship were not converting to Judaism is found in the aftermath of Peter’s experience with Cornelius.

Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Acts 11:1-3 (ESV)

This wasn’t exactly a friendly inquiry on the part of Peter’s fellow Jewish apostles.

Rumors of his (Peter’s) activities among the Gentiles preceded him. It did not take long for word of Simon’s Peter’s theological leap and halachic faux pas to reach the rest of the Judean apostolic community. The inclusion of the Samaritans had been controversial enough. Simon’s fraternization with Gentiles raised astonishment and disbelief.

No one objected to Gentiles joining the assembly of Yeshua so long as they first went through a proper conversion, but according to the rumor, that had not happened. People were even saying that Simon Peter had entered the home of the Roman soldier, eaten with him, and invited him to immerse for the name of Yeshua.

Such an association of Gentiles with Jews, and the Gentiles being allowed into discipleship within a Jewish sect without first converting to Judaism, must have seemed outrageous to the Jewish apostolic community in Jerusalem. Luke points out in verse 2 that “circumcision party criticized him,” meaning the people present were Jews, either people born Jewish or converts to Judaism. A Jew eating with a Gentile was a violation of halachah. Lichtenstein in “Commentary on the New Testament” on Acts 11:3 considers this matter further.

“You went to uncircumcized men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3). This does not present a difficulty, for Cornelius was a God-fearer and certainly had kosher food. And the objection of the circumcised men is only about [Peter’s] approaching uncircumcised men and eating with them, for Jews were forbidden to approach a foreigner.

-Lancaster, pg 236

Cohen might not entirely agree with Lichtenstein, since he believes God-fearers were still polytheists, integrating the God of Israel into a panthenon of other “gods.” However, it is quite likely that Peter and the six Jews in his company would not have eaten with Cornelius unless the food was kosher and there’s nothing to say, Cohen aside, that Cornelius must have been polytheistic.

ancient-rabbi-teachingIn his defense, Peter and the other Jews who accompanied him recounted the events that occurred prior to entering the Roman’s home and what happened once Peter engaged Cornelius, including the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles. (see Acts 11:4-17) Fortunately, upon hearing the explanation, the other apostles understood the graciousness of God, even to the Gentiles.

When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Acts 11:18 (ESV)

Lancaster presents his final interpretation of the “Cornelius event,” raising another interesting question.

The apostolic leadership accepted Simon Peter’s testimony and the corroboration offered by the six men from Joppa. The were forced to concede that Sinon had acted properly in setting aside the halachah about the uncleanness of Gentiles. More than that, they realized that God accepted the Gentiles into the kingdom. They did not determine whether or not the new Gentile believers should be encouraged to remain God-fearers or go on to full conversion. They only determined that they should receive Gentile brethern without objection as fellow disciples and heirs of the kingdom.

Uncertain of what else to make of the situation, they blessed God.

-Lancaster, pg 237

As we can see, both from the text in Acts and in Lancaster’s interpretation, the early Jewish apostles struggled to understand how to integrate the Gentile disciples into the Jewish Messianic community. The realization that Gentiles may not have to convert to Judaism (and according to Lancaster, at this point the jury was still out on this matter) in order to become disciples was revolutionary. All other sects of Judaism who were actively pursuing Gentiles as disciples required that the Gentiles convert to Judaism as a matter of course. In other words, it was a “no brainer.” Only in the Jesus sect was the method of entering Gentiles into a Jewish sect still something of a question mark. God didn’t just flip some sort of “spiritual switch” and suddenly, all of the apostles “just knew” what to do with the Gentiles and what it all meant.

But if the Gentiles didn’t have to convert; if they didn’t have to accept circumcision, then how was Torah and halachah to be applied to them? As we saw above, Paul and Cohen’s commentary on Paul understand that conversion to Judaism and circumcision meant the Gentiles would be fully obligated to the Torah mitzvot. As of the events in Acts 11 that question hadn’t even been brought up let alone answered. The apostles had no idea what was coming next. Neither did Cornelius and his household or any other Gentiles who subsequently became disciples.

It will be weeks before Lancaster’s Torah Club commentary addresses the events in Acts 15 which presumably will answer these questions. I hope you are looking forward to the future revelations of Volume 6 of the Torah Club as much as I am.


A chassid once approached his rebbe, Rav Yizchak of Vorke, in a very broken-hearted manner. He had a physical ailment that contact with water severely exacerbated. When he had been ill the doctor had declared with certainty that his illness was the result of contact with water. Not surprisingly, they absolutely forbade him from going to the mikveh even after he recovered. Chassidim are generally very careful to go the mikveh every day. Interestingly, many pre-chassidic sources mention that observing this takanah is essential for true spiritual development. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, brings a list of some of these luminaries, including the Arizal, the Beis Yosef’s Maggid, and the Reishis Chochmah.

With all these sources it is no wonder that the young man felt frustrated by his inability to maintain this practice. The Vorkever Rebbe turned to his young follower and said, “In Bava Kama 28 we find: ‘—The Merciful One absolves those constrained by mitigating circumstances.’ This seems superfluous. Why not just say that one who is constrained by mitigating circumstances is absolved? In addition, who cares if he is since he didn’t fulfill the mitzvah? The Rebbe answered his own question: “Hashem sees into a man’s heart. If a person yearns to do a mitzvah but truly cannot, it is as though the Torah itself fulfills the mitzvah for him!”

The chassid lingered in his rebbe’s presence, obviously unsatisfied with this response. He clearly was hoping to receive a blessing that he would, in fact, be able to immerse in the mikveh. The rebbe admonished him, “Why are you still standing here? Who will do the mitzvah better—you, or the Torah?”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Merciful One Absolves Him”
Shulchan Aruch Siman 161 Seif 1

All of this is probably hard for most Christians to understand. About the closest we might get to the idea of a mikvah is the concept of baptism, but that happens only once in a lifetime. We also might have a tough time with understanding how someone could suffer because they can’t perform a specific action that they believe God requires of them (namely, a daily immersion in a mikvah). For many Christians, the one time event of “being saved” pretty much sums up all of our requirements. If, for some reason, we were unable to physically perform some act of righteousness because of a medical condition, we would more or less assume God would be understanding.

However, observant Jews conceptualize their relationship with God in a fundamentally different way than Christians (and I’ve said this before). For a Christian, it’s all about what you believe. For a Jew, it’s all about what you do. And yet, whether or not the poor fellow in our “story to share” is able to enter a mikveh, does not particularly determine if he will merit a place in the world to come. Also, and this is important, the chassid’s merit in the world to come may not be the primary focus of his life.

Shocking, I know. For a Christian, “getting into Heaven” is pretty much what it’s all about. We are a very future-minded group of religious people. For a Jew, the main focus of a relationship with God isn’t what he’s going to do for us in the future, but what Jews can do for God right now through performing the mitzvot. The inability to obey God and to perform deeds of righteous and charity for the sake of Heaven is very painful for religious Jews. I don’t think we have this concept in the church, but maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to cultivate it a little bit.

No, I’m not talking about turning Christians into Jews, having us wear tzitzit, immersing ourselves daily in a mikvah, and kashering our kitchens, but imagine what life as a Christian would be like if our overarching purpose in serving God were to actually serve God right here and right now.

I’m being unfair of course, because many Christians are extremely mindful of their duties to God and to human beings, and Christianity throughout the ages has carried the Torah out of Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem (Micah 4:2):

Christianity has brought billions of people to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and King of the Jews. This is a non-trivial accomplishment. Even some Jewish scholars have recognized the significance of this fact. In Hilkhot Melakhim 11:10-12, Maimonides credits Christianity with preparing the Gentile world for the arrival of King Messiah by spreading knowledge of the Bible far and wide. If even those who do not claim Jesus as Messiah can affirm the good that has come from Christianity, certainly believers should be able to as well.

-from an unpublished manuscript of a super-secret book I can’t talk about right now

But as James, the brother of the Messiah noted, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).

Christianity has helped uncountable numbers of poor, hungry, destitute, abandoned people. Myriads of counselees—drug abusers and alcoholics, victims of abuse, troubled spouses—have benefited from a pastor’s Biblical advice. From Carey and Wilberforce’s campaigns against satī in India to the modern phenomenon of “adopting” starving African children, Christians everywhere have expended their resources to help those less fortunate. Today, Christian orphanages in India take in abandoned children with nowhere else to turn, just as devout Christian George Müller did over a century ago in England.

-from the same super-secret book I still can’t talk about

As difficult as it may be to actually experience the concept, Christianity is an offshoot of ancient Judaism. We share the same foundation. We share the same God. The writers of the New Testament were almost assuredly all devout Jewish men and as such, they would have understood God, the Prophets, the Messiah, and the entire tapestry of the Creator’s continual interaction with humanity from a uniquely Jewish framework.

The Holy Scriptures the church has today were inspired by God and written by Jews. We Christians have done a good bit of “sanitizing” of these works over the past couple of thousand years, but if we choose to, we can try to recapture the good of both Christianity and Judaism as authored and willed by God.

Maybe someday, we in the church will understand why a young chassid would be so anguished to be forbidden to enter a mikvah. Maybe we’ll understand also how the unfulfilled desire to do so can be counted as if completed by the Torah. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll reclaim the ancient tradition and commandment to obey God in this world as our real reason for being here. The world to come will take care if itself.

Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and comforted the mourning the very day all these events were happening. He didn’t wait for his death or resurrection and he didn’t wait for his second coming to start performing tikkun olam (though that won’t be completed until a future time). We don’t have to wait either.

It’s time to immerse ourselves not only in the Word and the Spirit, but into the action of obeying God and living like our Master.

Know Before Whom You Stand

PrayingOur sages would put much effort into their prayer preparations (Talmud, Berachot 30b). The essence of prayer is kavanah — focus and concentration. In order to achieve proper kavanah, it is important to pray in the proper place and with as few distractions as possible. This article focuses on the appropriate location for prayer, as well as the immersion in a mikvah (ritual pool) before prayer. There are additional preparations; they will be discussed in another article, G-d willing.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron
Commentary on Parashat Chayei Sarah
“Preparing for Prayer”

If you read the rest of Rabbi Citron’s article on prayer, you’ll find that Jews take praying very seriously and utilize a great deal more ritual in prayer than most Christians would find comfortable or necessary. And yet, think about what you are doing when you’re praying. Prayer isn’t just shooting off an email, IM, or text message; prayer is entering into the presence of the living and eternal God. If you were to enter into the court of a King, or even into the Oval Office of the President of the United States, wouldn’t you prepare extensively for the occasion?

Of course you would. It’s just amazing how much effort we’ll put into say, getting ready for a job interview, but we’ll just “drop in” in God anytime we feel like it, wearing whatever and saying whatever.

OK, I’m not suggesting that God isn’t available to us under any circumstances and that He would refuse to hear us if we prayed while wearing our pajamas on our sick bed, but perhaps there is some merit to approaching prayer the way we would approach a meeting with an important person.

Rabbi Citron suggests praying in a fixed place where you will not be distracted. This is derived both from “Abraham who, on the morning after Sodom was destroyed, went back to pray to the same spot where he had prayed the previous day to prevent its destruction” (Genesis 19:27) and from Isaac praying the afternoon (Minchah) prayer in a particular, secluded field (Genesis 24:63). The Rabbi goes on to say that the “very air of a synagogue is sanctified due to all the prayers uttered there” (See Rabbeinu Yonah on Berachot 4a, d.h. Eimasai). Perhaps prayer can make a place special and holy.

Jews also value praying in the synagogue rather than just alone:

The ideal place to pray is in a synagogue. One should always try to pray with a minyan (congregation); but even if one is unable to do pray with a minyan, he should still try to pray in a synagogue.

Corporate prayer is not unknown in Christianity, but it would be unusual for a Christian to pray with a “minyan” (in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, this is ten men) morning and evening. While corporate worship is generally conducted on Sundays in the church, Christianity still largely sees the Christian faith as a faith of individuals, with each one of us negotiating our own, personal relationship with Jesus. Judaism is much more about a faith of the community and that not only does the person approach God in prayer, Israel approaches God, much as they did at Sinai when they received the Torah from the hand of Moses (see Exodus 19 and 20).

For Christians, the most important thing we’ve been told we should know about prayer is said here:

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’ –Matthew 6:9-13

The church tends to disdain (rather unfairly) the way Jews pray in the synagogue because of a misapplication of this:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. –Matthew 6:5-8

Jesus was speaking of specific groups who practiced prayer so that others would see them and be “impressed” by their “holiness”, but that doesn’t taint all communal prayer. As Rabbi Citron said, prayer is about “kavanah — focus and concentration”, not about how you think others will perceive you when they see and hear you pray.

There is also a tradition of purifying oneself in the mikvah before prayer:

Ezra the Scribe instituted that a man who had a seminal discharge – during intercourse or otherwise – should go to the mikvah before praying, reciting blessings or studying Torah. The Jewish people found this decree too difficult to keep, so the Sages repealed it. Some say the decree was only repealed with regards to Torah study, not in relation to prayer. Although this is not the commonly accepted view, all agree that prayer is more accepted after immersion.

Throne of GodChristianity only immerses once for baptism, which is the extent of our adaptation of the Mikvah in our religious practice.

That said, if we want to take our approach to prayer and to God a bit more seriously, we might want to consider some form of preparation before prayer as a matter of self-cleansing. I’m not suggesting immersion as such, but I am saying that we might want to meditate upon the gravity and seriousness of approaching God. Yes, there will always be times when we need to cry out to Him in our anxiety, our torment, and our pain, but when we pray each day to make a connection, to pour out our hearts, to live and be with Him, is it so wrong to treat God with respect in the process? Is it a bad thing to prepare ourselves in advance, to adopt the proper intention before going before the Throne of the Eternal King?

da lifnei mi attah omed – “Know before whom you stand.”

-the words displayed before the Holy Ark in the synagogue

Two more things about prayer and our relationship with God before leaving this morning’s meditation:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” –Luke 18:9-14

We are imprisoned because we have exiled our G-d.

As long as we search for G-d by abandoning the world He has made, we can never truly find Him.

As long as we believe there is a place to escape, we cannot be liberated.

The ultimate liberation will be when we open our eyes
to see that everything is here, now.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
“G-d in Exile”

We “exile” God from the world He made because we believe He stands apart from us. We believe that He is in Heaven while we are stuck on Earth. We long for the day when Jesus comes so that we can be with God and serve at the Throne of the Father and the Throne of the Lamb. But when we pray, we are not just reaching up to Heaven, we are bringing Heaven down to Earth. God is with us. While we pray with proper respect and awe of the King, once prepared, all we need to do to enter into His presence is to speak. He is already here listening.

Jerry Landers: Maybe, sometimes… couldn’t we just talk?
God: I’ll tell you what. You talk… I’ll listen.

from the film Oh, God! (1977)