אדנ’י שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך/Adonay sefatai tiftach, u’fi yagid tehilatekha. “My Lord, open my lips and let my mouth declare Your praise.” [Psalm 51.17]
The Amidah is preceded by this quotation from Psalms that amounts to a prayer for the power to pray. I will sing God’s praises, sure, but I need God to trigger me first, by opening my lips.
Many interpreters associate this prayer to pray with Proverbs 16.1: לאדם מערכי לב ומה’ מענה לשון. “Humans shape their hearts, but God grants the power of speech.” Religious feelings may be inchoate in the heart, diffuse, and it takes a special divine grace to turn them into formal and ritual prayer.
Rabbinic tradition records this as an innovation of the 3rd century Palestinian sage Rabbi Yochanan as a way of intensifying a worshiper’s concentration [B. Berakhot 4b, Y. Berakhot 4:4, 8d]. Notably, the Talmud affirms that this Psalms quotation is not really part of the Amidah, which begins with Barukh Atah. Instead, this preface is כתפילה אריכתא דמיא, “like a lengthened prayer.” Perhaps R. Yochanan observed people struggling to get in the proper frame of mind to say the Amidah, the obligatory core of every service. Maybe some knew the words but didn’t know how to feel it. Maybe others felt it too much, finding themselves stammering and silent at the thought of addressing Heaven. So, they asked: Lord, open my lips. Give me the power to sing.
Unsurprisingly, in Hasidic tradition, this introductory prayer to pray got a lot of attention. The Baal Shem Tov [Sefer Besh”t, Parshat Noah, #90, 96] thought reciting our verse triggers a small spirit possession: “the Shekhina contracts herself to dwell within a person, to speak the words of prayer.” Under this view, you summon God to open your lips from the inside.
Another Hasidic – I think – interpretation is an inspired word play with inspiring spiritual guidance. I was unable to find this in any book, but I know I heard it and didn’t make it up myself. All credit to the authors, whoever they are. Here is the word play: שפה can mean “lip,” as we have been translating, or it can mean “edge,” such as in the common phrases שפת הים/sefat hayam, “the edge or shore of the ocean,” or שפת היאור/sefat haye’or, the “edge or bank of the river.” [That much I did find in books, eg. R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, Toldot, Parshat Bereshit, introduction, DH Sefat Lo Yadati. But he doesn’t take this next step.]
Translating in this direction, a davener might pray – not “open my physical lips” – but: Adonay sefatai tiftach. Open my spiritual edges. Dismantle the boundaries constraining my spirit. Soften my rigid walls. Open my heart.
For a more dramatic or ecstatic image, call to mind the phrases sea shore/sefat hayam and river bank/sefat haye’or. A davener might pray: Adonay sefatai tiftach! Lord, open my banks and shores! Unleash my tsunami of prayer! Let my spiritual river spill over its levees! Now we’re ready to say the Amidah.