Is Reciting Tehillim and Avinu Malkeinu after October 7th Enough?

Man reading Psalms at the Western Wall. Brian Jeffery Beggerly, CC BY 2.0 (
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Chaim Trachtman

After October 7th, many synagogues around the world responded to the war in Israel by expanding the regular services to add elements that enable the community to express their solidarity with the people of Israel, their hope for the safe return of the hostages, and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. These include the recitation of Avinu Malkeinu, select chapters of Tehillim, and prayers written by the Israeli Rabbinate expressing our wish for the continued wellbeing of the Israeli government leaders, combat soldiers, and those held captive by Hamas. Not every synagogue has begun reciting each of these additions, but many have adopted at least one or more of them. Shortly after October 7th, for example, Rabbi Hershel Schachter ruled that Avinu Malkeinu, typically reserved for fast days and the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, should be recited on a daily basis, even on Shabbat, and many shuls have adopted this practice.

There are three things to consider regarding adding extra tefillot in this time of war in Israel.

1. In addition to the daily obligation to pray incumbent on men and women alike, the Rabbis recognized the need for impromptu prayers during times of national peril. In Massekhet Ta’anit, drought and impending agricultural disaster are the paradigmatic threat, and the Mishnah outlines a steady escalation of social withdrawal, public prayer, and communal fasting on behalf of the desperately needed rainfall. But the Rabbis halt communal fasting beyond the imposing of thirteen fasts (Mishnah Ta’anit 1:7). The community remains subdued—business activity, weddings, and even inter-personal greetings are limited—but the religious focus as drought continues is more introspective and private than during the period of communal fasting.

2. The Rabbis warned the people to be on guard lest their prayer become routine and stale. Everyone is aware of the rabbinic injunction “Do not make your prayers fixed” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). The Rabbis recognized the danger that lurked if the words and rituals of prayer were to become too formulaic, because then they would be emptied of meaning.

3. Finally, Rambam repeatedly turned to medicine as a metaphor for how to understand and treat spiritual malaise. In current care, when treating most illnesses, there are two phases: an acute period of intense high-dose therapy in order to bring the newly diagnosed disease under rapid control, and, once this is accomplished, a more prolonged but less aggressive consolidation phase in which the goal of treatment is designed to eliminate the last vestiges of disease and prevent relapse.

With these three considerations in mind, I have been thinking about the prayers being recited in the minyanim I attend as we near day 150 since the murderous attack by Hamas in the Negev. There has been an outpouring of a genuine desire to pray on behalf of the State of Israel and its people, even by prayer skeptics. The reasons why people want to pray, to whom they are directing their prayers, and what they hope to achieve at this moment in history, are as varied and as meaningful as the people who are praying. Yet it is clear that, for many people, there is an unexpected need to pray, and to pray together communally.

The obligatory prayer services during the week, on Shabbat, and on the holidays, have been fixed for nearly two millennia. Their lexicon is complex and can sometimes seem incomprehensible and removed from present challenges. Repetition can thus foster fluency and understanding. And despite calls by some to change the format and alter the language of the prayers to be more consonant with modern sensibilities, I recognize the value of familiar texts and images to provide a safe space in times of need. In fact, many people have written poignantly about how the events of the last five months have deepened their appreciation of the daily prayer service. They see new relevance and personal meaning in the old words, confirming that the rabbinic formulations retain the power to move us.

Adding pirkei Tehillim or Avinu Malkeinu responds to the impulse that, in times of crisis, prayer should be different and more intense. But the war in Israel is rapidly advancing to a more chronic stage. The politics and strategic decisions confronting the Israeli people are increasingly complex and morally fraught, as they struggle to balance national security and the wellbeing of the hostages. The battle will be a long one. Do our prayers match this ever-changing situation? I fear that our recitation of Avinu Malkeinu and the same limited number of chapters of Tehillim is becoming perfunctory, another box to be checked before ending the service. The page numbers are called out and the lines are recited, chazan first and then the community, but for some, there is now minimal emotion and little resonance to our voices. Are we just saying words? Have we let the mechanics of prayer overtake its meaning? Too much of the same good thing is not always a good thing. What begins as a “special crisis prayer” can rapidly become routine and rote. If the additional words simply become part of the set daily prayer regimen, it becomes hard to maintain one’s concentration and access their intended meaning.

True, the Rabbis created a reproducible ceremonial framework and format for prayer in times of drought. But there is an urgency to it, an improvisational quality with changes to the structure and content with each passing day of impending danger. First, individuals fast, then the entire community, then the fasts impose additional restrictions (Mishnah Ta’anit 1:4-7). Like a life-threatening illness, the emergent war in Israel provokes an array of painful reactions—from despair over the hostages hidden deep in the tunnels to grief over the men and women lost in defense of the country; from the dread of future terrorist attacks to the horror of children currently dying; from disgust at the brazen expression of antisemitic hatred to the fear of encroaching violence. Each of these reactions warrants its own prayerful response. Appropriate words are needed to match the unsettled state we are in as we enter the shul to pray.

I suggest that we have an opportunity to use this moment in history to increase the depth of our petitionary prayer by allowing for an ongoing reformulation of what we recite when we pray on behalf of Israel and its people. There is extensive halakhic literature about the permissibility of modifying the content and structure of the mandatory daily prayers. But if we add prayers to supplement the standard morning, afternoon, and evening services at their close, they need not necessarily be bound by the format legislated by the Rabbis. In order to minimize conflict with halakhic precedent, other than Avinu Malkeinu which is being recited in its standard location before Tahanun, most communities insert the additional chapters of Tehillim outside the boundaries of the prayer service, such as after the full kaddish towards the end of Shaharit, or at the very end of Shaharit, or at the conclusion of Minhah. This approach has allowed the communal response to emerge spontaneously without challenging rabbinic authority.

Many are reciting Avinu Malkeinu and select chapters of Tehillim. I suggest that we can allow, even encourage, the leader of the service to choose from a wider array of texts that express our anxiety, loss of confidence, and fear for our individual and collective safety. James Kugel, in How to Read the Bible, has written that Tehillim may have originated as a collection of liturgical poems meant to be recited on specific occasions. We can return to this model and open the entire book of Tehillim, finding inspiration to pray in response to our feelings at the moment. Tehillim, chapter 5 expresses the wish for our prayers to be heard; chapters 10, 22, and 28 articulate feelings of despair when searching for a silent God; and chapter 43 voices the hope that God will rescue people in need. That is just within the first 50 chapters. There are also chapters elsewhere in Tanakh that can be recited communally that articulate ideas and emotions that are increasingly relevant as the war in Israel persists and the human cost mounts. Communities could turn to the words of the Nevi’im, such as Hosea chapter 2, Amos chapter 1,  Isaiah chapters 11 and 40, or Micah chapter 4, to be comforted or inspired to improve as individuals and as a people despite these trying times. The themes and imagery are familiar to most people. Poems by Yehuda Amichai such as “God full of Mercy” and “A Man Doesn’t Have Time in His Life” combine ancient and modern images in a way that poignantly capture the heartfelt sorrow felt by those who have suffered the loss of loved ones in the initial onslaught and the ongoing war. We should and can expand the sources that we can draw upon to make our prayer more expressive. Jewish literature is so vast and so varied that it is likely that there will always be material ready at hand that captures our emotional state and that can offer spiritual support at every stage of this ever-changing crisis. 

Rabbis can establish a portfolio of optional prayers to be said at various stages of the ongoing crisis. Communities should be encouraged to compile a list of texts that they have used effectively as supplementary prayers, and share this knowledge with other synagogues and prayer groups. Local decisions by each community about which prayers to recite could foster a more intense connection with what is happening in Israel. Introducing singing can intensify the power of the words being recited. I have seen it work. During the week, my community recites the paragraph Aheinu Kol Beit Yisrael very quickly at the end of every service. But on Friday, at Minhah before Kabbalat Shabbat, we sing it aloud. I do not think I am the only person in the room who is moved by the harmony of the voices and who is made all the more aware of the deadly threats confronting Israel.    

It may sound like a cliché, but this trying time in our history may provide a genuine teaching moment. There are potential disadvantages to my proposal to expand the supplemental liturgy, because the additional chapters of Tehillim or Tanakh or poetry may be unfamiliar to some people. They may stumble over the words, let alone their meaning. Efforts could be made to ensure that the texts selected for communal recitation are not overly long. A brief introduction before the text is recited could orient the community. This background material, together with the texts, could be assembled into booklets that can be expanded as more options are added to the communal prayer library. The texts could be recited in the local language, whatever that might be. These steps would enhance communal engagement and sustain the spiritual power and emotional depth of the added prayers.

By widening the scope of our prayer, we will give better expression to our changing perspective on what is happening in Israel and around the world since October 7th.  By reengaging on an ongoing basis with what we recite in prayer at this critical time, we will reconnect with our need to pray, and we will reinforce the meaning of what we hope to accomplish with our prayers.

I would like to thank Barry Rosen and Gordy Schatz for reading early drafts of this essay and for their thoughtful comments. I also appreciate all of the editorial suggestions and comments that helped make the final product tighter and more focused.

Chaim Trachtman teaches as Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan and is the founder of RenalStrategies LLC. He is on the board of Yeshivat Maharat and is an editor of the book Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 2010).