[Somebody asked me yesterday for this explanation. There is a concept of “ner l’echad” a candle for one can light up the dark for others, too. Hence, why should this explanation only go to one who asked, if I can share it here…]
We take three steps back, we take three steps forward. We’re standing at attention, feet together, back straight and are about to begin our “Avodah” the service of G-d, of saying the Shemonah Esray [19-Benediction Prayer], the crux of our praying experience. Just before we begin, we whisper, “Ado-nay Sifahsaiy Tiftach, Oofee Yagid Teehalasecha” [Our Master, open my lips and my mouth will tell Your praises]. This is a verse from Psalms [51:17].
It is nice to say it, but what does it mean?
Rabbi E. Munk in the Book The World of Prayer explains how this sentence came to be placed right before our prayers. There was a great Torah sage Rabi Chanina ben Dosa who would know automatically during and right after his prayers whether or not his supplications were heard and accepted up on high. When questioned about it, he said that if the words of his prayer flowed from his mouth, then he knew he would be answered favorably. Rabbi Yochanan, therefore, placed this verse of Tehillim right before our prayers so that each one of us asks for a smooth-flowing prayer that would be answered.
Nice, but does elocution matter in having prayers answered? Can I just become suave and work on my phonation and articulation, doing voice, lip and muscle exercises as do broadcasters, and then, “poof” just like NBC would court me for my flowing language, so too would G-d flow blessings into my life? Nah, can’t be.
Rashi comments that this verse is beseeching G-d: Forgive me and there will be an ability for me to say Your praises. Metzudas Dovid concurs that this is about G-d forgiving us, allowing us to go into prayer properly. In other words, with all the wrong-doing we might have done, it might be that we cripple our power of prayer. Therefore, we ask forgiveness with this line and ask that G-d allow us the prayer to come forth.
Radak says it is about restoring Ruach HaKodesh [divine inspiration] in our prayers (which ties in again to being forgiven, for clean of sin we are worthy of the divine inspiration).
There is actually a book that has been published (Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean by M. Erard) that analyzes the different slips of tongue and speech disfluencies that people can utter. A noted blunderer was the famous Reverend Spooner of Oxford University who, when toasting the Queen of England, did so with this bon mot: “…cheers for our queer old dean.”
I’ve been there a few times, where I’ve put my foot in my mouth majorly. The more benign time was when my brother and his friend were learning in Israel and I had to drop off something at the friend’s parents. I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Sruly’s brother…no, no, I mean Sruly is my sister…” It was not fun saying these hoof-in-mouth declarations during social settings. It would be more disastrous in prayer mode. Here, at the time when I’m pleading for the most important things, when I’m connecting to the reality of spirituality, that is when I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth with some malapropism.
And since my sins might make my lips betray me, I beg forgiveness before I begin praying.
Another reason we say that verse can be deduced from visiting those who had strokes or other major illnesses and watch them be robbed of speech. That is why we use the name for G-d of Our Master. We think we are master of our limbs and faculties, up until we get the control taken from us. Then we realize that it is only by the Grace of G-d that we speak, walk, live and breathe. Therefore, before beginning all else, we acknowledge that the fact that we can say this prayer of Shemoneh Esray is totally dependent on G-d’s allowing us to retain the faculty of speech.
May all our prayers flow fluently.