Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jerusalem: Three Steps Away

Sometime last week I was strolling in a park with my young son and his friend. There was an open courtyard paved in brick with lighter and darker paving stones. I began to follow a pattern in the pavers and shortly realized that I was walking the course of a public prayer labyrinth. I’ve been stressed lately and was grateful for the opportunity to employ this ancient meditative tool. The pattern itself was calming, a narrow winding path that has a way of clearing the mind. My steps were slow and careful; I recognized the pace, it was the same even gait I use in preparation for my Amidah.

The core of Jewish liturgical prayer is known by two names. The term Shmoneh Esreh means 18, recognizing the 18 benedictions which originally formed this prayer and the name Amidah means standing; it describes the posture taken during our meditation. Beginning a journey with the right foot we enter the Shmoneh Esreh with three steps towards the East. Upon arriving at our destination we stand with feet together in prayer.

As I walked the path in the park I thought about how the prayer labyrinth and Amidah complemented each other. Prayer is both journey and destination. I had once heard that labyrinths were used by devout Christians as a kind of meditative pilgrimage. Those unable to travel the physical distance would imagine this walk as a journey to Jerusalem. Our Amidah is an arrival. The few steps we take before this prayer are also a path to The Land.

Preparing for prayer we take three steps backwards, in doing so we acknowledge our exile and distance from G-dliness and set our minds to return to Israel, the place of connection and the throne of Mashiach. With one…two…three deliberate steps we arrive with feet planted firmly together in The Land, the place of connection and holiness. The ultimate goal of Judaism is the elevating of the mundane…the infusion of holiness into even the lowest parts of creation. Two primary examples of this are Haaretz (The Land of Israel) and Mashiach. In these we find the place of meeting. The very soil of Israel is called holy because it has been given a spiritual purpose; its here that heaven and earth connect. Similarly, through his embodiment of Torah, his keeping of the mitzvot, Yeshua transformed even his body into a vehicle for G-dliness. Mashiach is the image of unity between creature and Creator. It is for this reason our Amidah is both a return to The Land and a witness to an awaited messianic advent. Jerusalem is never more than three steps away.


Pastor Steven said...

Tim, I will have to give it a try, as I stand for much of my morning and evening prayers. Is it customary to stand for prayer Judaism? I know that in Eastern Christianity it is tradition to stand for much of both public and private prayers. What a blessing to come across a labyrinth like that.



Tim Layne said...

When the Talmud speaks of Tefilah (prayer) its intention is the 18 (19) benedictions of the "standing prayer," so while there are many Jewish prayers that might be recited while sitting the Amidah out weighs them. Thanks for all your great comments P"Steven. :)

Roman said...

This is very cool, I will definatly have to give this a try. The labyrinth could be a nice form of hitbodidut before davening the Shemonei Esrei. Intersting comment Pastor Steven about Eastern Christianity standing in most of their prayers. Very cool stuff!

Roman said...

Would anyone happen to know how often a prayer labyrinth would be used? Judaism prays three times a day, would there be set times to use the labyrinth possibly?

Boaz said...


Tim Layne said...

Thanks Boaz :)

Mitko said...

Again beautiful story - this time of sacred direction and space. Thanx Tim!
The most ancient prototype of the labyrinth is AEgyptian game, called Mehen. It represented the coils of the snake that surrounds the One God inside the Sun. He was also the supreme target for the departed souls.
In Early Christianity the path of the liturgy in the church from western entrance to altar was called "the way to Salvation". Some describe it as a prayer towards Jerusalem, and others as a prayer towards the sun, rising in eastren horizon.
In ancient Galilee synagogues the Torah shrine was in the southern wall, facing Jerusalem. In Dura synagogue it was in the western wall also pointed to the Holy city.

Beulah Land said...

I have wondered what the purpose of the three steps forward and back was and what it meant. It's nice to hear it connected to Jerusalem as an explination and visual, instead of just "it's tradition." Some of us like to know the whys of tradition as well. :) Thank you.


Pastor Steven said...

I tried the three steps back and the three steps forward. I like the thought of arriving in Jerusalem as I have always wanted to make that pilgrimage.

Roman, I believe the labyrinth could be used when every a person wanted to pray in that manner. Even though it would not have to be a daily practice, as they are not really that common in many areas.

Standing in prayer is a very ancient practice as in standing in the presence of a lord or king. After all we are standing in the presence of our Lord.



Tahor Mitchell said...

Interestingly enough, the Hebrew for "step" is "tza-ad", from which we get the verb "tzadik", to be righteous,just and the noun "tzadik", for a righteous person.
It is also interesting to note that there were six steps to the throne of Solomon. Yet in the morning prayers it is three forward and three back.
Six, the number of man.
Approaching, yet acknowledging the distance of exile.
Yet in Mashiach we live in the heavenlies and we are told to "come boldly to the throne of grace".
In Mashiach it is as if we are not in exile!
Note also that the temple Ezekiel speaks of has in one place seven steps and in another eight.
Seven, it is finished, shabbat, rest in Mashiach.
Eight, new beginning, olam haba!

Miss Serenity said...

Hm. Interesting. But, then again, all your posts are very thought-provoking. I've got I'm pretty to have such a smart uncle! :)

Hey, did you know Grampy started a blog? Check it out at


Jennifer said...

Hey, um... when can we all look forward to the next instalment here? Been a lot time since you've posted, you know.

Mitko said...

Where are you friend? Miss your posts!