There are no synagogues near me so I can’t go to services on Shabbat. What are the essential prayers that I should do if I want to pray at home by myself?
Thank you for your question! It is wonderful to know that you are not under the mistaken notion that the synagogue is the exclusive space for Jewish prayer. In fact, the Talmud in Tractate Brachot (Daf 8a) tells us that the great Talmudic sage Abaye actually stopped praying in synagogues and preferred to pray in the place where he studied. Abaye felt that, for him, it was a more conducive space for heartfelt prayer. God’s presence is everywhere, and being that prayer is about conversing with God, one can and should pray anywhere and everywhere.
That said, Halacha (Jewish law) teaches us the importance of creating what is called a makom kavua or an “established place” for prayer. In other words, if one frequents a specific synagogue, then they should try and have a seat in that synagogue where they always sit and pray. That space acts as a kind of emotional and psychological “signal” that one is in their prayer space.
Halacha teaches that the same applies for one’s house if one frequently prays there. That person should set aside a corner or space in their home for prayer. This doesn’t mean that space is now unusable for other purposes; it just means that when you pray, you pray in that spot.
Now, in terms of the prayers that should be said at home, let me preface by quoting the famous Mishnah in Tractate Brachot (4:4): “Rabbi Eliezer says: One who makes their prayer set, ‘supplication’ is lacking from their prayer!” Rabbi Eliezer is referring to those who pray in a set and predetermined fashion. They wake up in the morning and they know exactly what words they are going to use in their prayers simply because those are the words that appear in the prayer book. Their prayer is “set.” If one prays in this manner, their prayer lacks “supplication.”
Most commentaries understand Rabbi Eliezer to be saying that it is as if that person has not prayed at all! This is the great balancing act of Jewish prayer. On one hand, we often need the help and inspiration of the words that we are so familiar with, and indeed are obligated to say, in order to get those prayer juices flowing. On the other hand, prayer is ultimately “service of the heart.” Genuine feelings are indispensable for a real prayer experience. The hope of Rabbi Eliezer is that those feelings become manifest in words of one’s own creation.
So please remember that in addition to the following prayers, you should always try to add your own words of prayer. The prayers that one should say at home on a Saturday morning if unable to attend synagogue are: Morning Blessings, Psalm 96, Blessings Before the Shema, the Shema, the Blessing After the Shema, the Shabbat Morning Amida, and the Mussaf Amida. In addition, it is a beautiful mitzvah to read the weekly Torah portion from a printed Tanakh in both Hebrew and English. One should then try to learn a commentary, preferably Rashi, on the weekly Torah portion.
For more on blessings that you can say on your own, to mark special occasions, to give thanks, or just to celebrate being alive, visit InterfaithFamily’s Blessings For All Occasions.