The question was raised as to why there are different customs regarding the order of prayer [such as Ashkenaz and Sephard], and how each individual should pray. I replied that it is impossible to adequately explain these things in writing. But the following can be revealed:

Our sages teach us that [a person entering and leaving] the Holy Temple would have to bow 13 times, paralleling the 13 gates [of the Temple]. These are also alluded to in the Book of Ezekiel, where each tribe will have its own gate when the holiness of Jerusalem is restored to the status it had in the time of the Temple. The thirteenth gate…is for the individual who does not know from which of the twelve tribes he originates…

It is known that the Temple here on earth paralleled the celestial Temple. The Holy Temple on high therefore also has a gate for each tribe, as explained in the writings of the Ari.

Paralleling these gates were the 13 times that a person had to bow. These kneelings involved the transmission [of the spiritual sustenance that flows through these gates] as is known to those who delve into the writings of the Ari.

The concept of prayer is therefore [the key with which] each individual enters through his own gate. We are thus taught that prayer is "the ladder standing on earth, with its head reaching the heavens". (Gen. 28:12) Each gate has its own combination, and it is for this reason that there are different orders of prayer. [Each of the twelve tribes has its own liturgy.]

The thirteenth gate, however, is for the individual who does not know from which of the twelve tribes he originates. Since he does not know which gate to use, [he can use this one] to enter the King's courtyard.

This thirteenth gate also parallels the thirteenth Attribute of Mercy, which is "and cleanses". This includes the other twelve Attributes, as is known to those who comprehend. The godly Ari…arranged a special order of prayer based on all the others…

Knowing the paths of heaven as he did, the godly Ari taught a way for those who do not know from which tribe they originate. For this reason, he arranged a special order of prayer based on all the others, as is known to those who are well versed.

It may then be asked why the other twelve gates were needed, since they are all included in the thirteenth. Why is the thirteenth gate not enough? The answer is, however, that each tribe originally knew its own particular order of prayer, and it was certainly best for each one to enter through its own gate…

Now that people do not know the tribe of their origin, and we also do not know which customs apply to which tribes, it is best to follow the order arranged by the Ari, which is universal.1

The prophet Ezekiel predicted that in the Ultimate Future there would only be twelve gates in Jerusalem [one for each tribe]. The reason for this is that everyone will then know his own tribe.

[from Magid Devarav Le Yaakov 141, The Chasidic Masters/Moznaim]

To continue on to a related article on the nature of prayer, May the Words of My Mouth..., click here.