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If someone is learning how to pray and wants to start with the essentials - to not be overwhelmed by too much at once - or if someone is limited in time available to pray, what are the core (most essential) prayers?

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This is a great question and I am surprised we don't have it already.

Prayer is called the "service of the heart", meaning that kavana (intention) and understanding of the words are truly essential. As such, you are correct not to want to rush through but rather go-slow and understand what you say.

Experience shows that one should learn one prayer well, and as one grows in practice, it becomes possible to add more within the same time frame. One Rav experienced with baalei tshuva advises to pick a time frame for prayer that matches your abilities (say a quarter of an hour in the morning), and gradually add prayers as you go faster over those you know.

The core of morning prayers is in order of priority (based on R Eliezer Krohn's A woman's guide to practical halacha, incidentally a very recommended book)

  • the morning blessings (birkot haTorah and birkot haShachar at the very beginning of the prayer order)
  • Shema Israel (at least the first two verses, ideally all three paragraphs) - if the choice is between Shmonei Esrei and 3 paragraphs, then prefer the former
  • the Shmonei Esrei (or Amida)
  • Psukei d'Zimra (a series of psalms before Shema, the core minimum being Baruch Sheamar, Ashrei, Yishtabach)
  • Aleinu

Artscroll's women siddur gives a slightly different order of priority: Morning amida, afternoon amida, first two verses of Shema, blessings of shema OR morning blessings. Then Psukei d'Zimra with same priorities as above, then Aleinu. This siddur has a very nice introduction on women's prayers incl. general guidelines as well as women-specific prayers.

Depending on your level of understanding of Hebrew, you might find an interlinear siddur to be helpful, it has the words in English below the Hebrew. After a bit of practice, it is a very helpful way to understand prayers as one says them.

Any beginner is always well advised to choose a Rabbi (or Rabbanit) she feels comfortable with and who can advise on all sorts of questions that will pop up. Prayer is no different.

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  • Would this list be different for a man?
    – Joel K
    Dec 31, 2023 at 6:43
  • @JoelK surely and, according to most authorities, women too. See my answer below for a more comprehensive picture.
    – Double AA
    Dec 31, 2023 at 19:37
  • @joelk - List of priorities for women may not be the same for men. For example, Krias Shema is biblical obligation for men but not for women, and therefore it would be highest on the list.
    – chortkov2
    Mar 13 at 12:03
  • @Chrotkov krias shema isn't a prayer. For prayers there is no recorded distinction between men and women (at least in all extant Jewish literature till the 17th century or so, when a few rabbis first suggested as a possibility there maybe should be)
    – Double AA
    Mar 13 at 13:38
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Classically, Jewish prayer was entirely free-form, spoken from the heart in the pattern of praise-request-thanks. That's still what someone does in an emergency, such as soldiers on a battlefield (Berakhot 29b). Due to practical compositional difficulties, our Sages formalized the process into what we call "the amida". In traditional rabbinic terminology, "prayer" is actually just the name of what we often call "the amida".

Prayer is thus defined as a set of topical blessings, preceded by Psalms 51:17 and followed by certain free-form supplications (commonly, "Elohai Netzor" and, on non-festive days, "Tachanun"). Some customarily add other opening verses and customs vary widely which preset nice supplications are appropriate in the closing on which occasions. This prayer is said standing at attention (until the final supplications), kempt, and facing the site of the Temple. That is the essential Jewish prayer.

That's what you use whenever you want to pray, but our Sages enacted praying at least 3-5 times daily: once in the morning, (once additionally on festivals focused on that festival's sacrifices,) once in the afternoon, (once at the very end of special public fast days,) and once at night. (Technically, the night one can be skipped if too busy with another mitzva, but traditionally Jews have tried to do it even in that uncommon case.) It's generally assumed that nowadays our capacity for proper prayer has weakened such that we shouldn't seek more times than that.

Throughout the day there are various short blessings on foods and sights and aspects of life. In a sense they are all "mini-prayers" and everyone should also say all of them as relevant.

(In the early modern period, some rabbis bemoaned that the largely illiterate women of the time had stopped following these guidelines, and tried with great difficulty to defend the change in practice. Thankfully most women nowadays don't have this issue.)

Men are obligated to recite Shema in the first half of the morning and at night. Certain blessings were enacted to precede and follow the Shema, complimenting its themes. A woman voluntarily reciting these would be a beautiful thing too.

That's essentially it. R' Yosef Eliyahu Henkin in his introduction to the synagogue prayer guide which defined the standard practice in America writes those in a rush to work can stop here.


For those with more time/ability, there are a host of other beautiful Psalms and petitions that have ages of Jewish tradition behind them, and I'll discuss some common ones below, but for the essentials you can just stop here.

Shema and prayer compliment each other thematically and thus it is recommended to follow the shema service with a prayer.

The Talmud (Pesachim 118a) praises one who reads Psalms every day. Accordingly, as a beautiful way to set the tone for the obligatory prayer, morning services can be preceded with a set of Psalms, especially 145[-150]. Short blessings surround these.

A short study session was instituted after morning prayer to allow everyone to learn some Torah daily. Topics would vary but nowadays it is common to study Psalms 145 and 20, followed by a short petition for success.

The "Alenu" section from Rosh Hashana was seen as a beautiful way to close out the service before heading out to work, and it became widely used as a conclusion.

As each of those became more formalized, new ideas of various timely psalms and/or readings got tacked on to the standard set in appendices which themselves became formalized leading to new ideas being put in new appendices, etc.

All that can be wonderful and meaningful for those who can handle it. As Rabbi Yochanan said (Berakhot 21a) "If only one could pray all day!"

Beware though biting off more than you can chew. The earliest record we have of widespread neglect of prayers (Meshivat Nefesh (Beshallach) about 15th century German women) writes they gave it up because they thought the siddur ("from adon olam to alenu") was too long and didn't know how to focus on the essential parts.

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In addition to the answers already given, I would say a good road map is to look at the shulchan aruch Siman 52 where he discusses the order of prayers for one who comes late to shul. That provides a hierarchy of importance for prayers.

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