Like giving charity, prayer constitutes a fundamental and regular part of Jewish practice. The Master criticized those who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners” to be seen by men (Matthew 6:5). He referred to such behavior as “hypocrisy,” a word He used to mean religious pretension and showing off.
To understand the context of Yeshua’s criticism, two modes of prayer must be distinguished. Jewish practice enjoins people to pray three times a day at the times of prayer. The times of prayer correspond to the morning and afternoon sacrifice in the Temple and the recitation of the Shema in the evening. Prayer at the fixed times of prayer ideally happens in the context of a liturgical synagogue prayer service, but individuals may pray the liturgies of the times of prayer on their own, in priavte.
Yeshua and His disciples obviously participated in the liturgical prayers services of the Temple and synagogue, and the book of Acts characterizes His disciples as continually in the Temple worshipping God and devoted to “the prayers” (Acts 2:24). Public, liturgical prayers services, however, are not occasions for personal prayer. For this reason, synagogue liturgy is always formulated in the first person common plural: “Our Father, Our King, Our LORD, Our Savior, etc.”
A second mode of prayer (not necessarily attached to the daily times of prayer) encourages prayer and petition without fixed formula or liturgical pattern—similar to the individualized, extemporaneous type of prayer familiar in modern Evangelicalism. Yeshua’s criticisms in Matthew 6 apply primarily to this second mode of prayer, not the first. Yeshua’s admonition should not be construed as indictment against public, liturgical prayer in the synagogue or Temple—rather He spoke against the extemporaneous prayers of an individual conducted in public. Yeshua’s words do not not suggest that all prayers conducted in public forums and houses of worship are disingenuous or publicity seeking. Rather, He warned against the “hypocrites” who abused places of prayer by using them as stages for pious showmanship.
The Master warned His disciples against making their personal prayers and petitions public. To do so draws attention to oneself and crosses the fine line between piety and pretentiousness. The problem is not the public visibility of a man in prayer but his desire to be seen by others and perceived as pious.
For purposes of personal prayer, Yeshua told His disciples to “enter into your rooms and close your doors behind you” (Isaiah 26:20), like the prophet Elisha who shut the door upon Gehazi and the Shunammite woman in order to pray (2 Kings 4:33). The Master exemplified this form of personal, private prayer by daily seeking out lonely places to offer up prayers to His Father in Heaven.