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Shiur #01: Introduction: Tefilla

  • Rav Ezra Bick



This week of Torah learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
 is being sponsored by Ronni & Nachum Katlowitz
in honor of Ronni's father's birthday.
Mr. Yanik Pasternak, Happy Birthday!




Welcome to the course, "The Meaning of the Shemona Esrei."


This course will closely examine the language of the "Shemona Esrei" prayer, approximately one berakha each shiur. The main goal is to understand the philosophic ideas embedded in the prayer, both in order to better understand basic principles of Judaism and to enhance the prayer experience itself.


The language of the Shemona Esrei was composed by Chazal in ancient times, and is based closely on Biblical verses. Therefore, one method of analysis of the meaning of the prayer is to re-examine the verses on which it is based. Another method is to search for midrashim and other sources in Chazal which reflect on the terminology of the Shemona Esrei. In both respects, we shall utilize one of the first commentaries written on tefilla in the Middle Ages, the commentary of R. Yehuda ben Yakar, a 13th century scholar of Provence, as well as other commentaries.


Some of the philosophic topics which we will cover are prayer, holiness, Torah, sin and forgiveness, miracles, resurrection, Israel, etc. Because the course is based on analysis of the text of the prayers, some familiarity with the Hebrew text of the Shemona Esrei is necessary. The course itself, however, while aiming for an advanced level philosophically, will be written in such a way that it is open for all levels of educational background.



Shiur #01: Introduction: Tefilla



            This course will concentrate on the text of the Shemona Esrei, with two objectives:


1) to analyze the text and understand the nuances implied in its formulation, thereby enhancing our appreciation of prayer and the experience of prayer itself;

2) to uncover the philosophical principles implicit in the different sections of the Shemona Esrei, on the assumption that in fact many basic beliefs of Judaism are given expression in this most central prayer.


            But first things first. What exactly do I mean when I state that the Shemona Esrei is the central prayer? And what does that tell us about the nature of prayer in Judaism?


            Now, prayer is a complicated institution about which whole books have been written, and this course is NOT about prayer per se, but only about the text of the Shemona Esrei. But we cannot get started without clarifying a few points about what is tefilla - prayer - in general, before we get down to examining the text of the Shemona Esrei.


1. "Tefilla" = Shemona Esrei


            The word "tefilla," when used in Talmudic literature, properly refers to the subject of our course, the Shemona Esrei. In other words, the Shemona Esrei is the prayer par excellence. The laws of tefilla are the details of how one recites the Shemona Esrei. Other parts of what we call a prayer service - the recitation of the Shema, the introductory psalms, the morning blessings - are additions, prefaces, or in fact have no intrinsic connection, to prayer per se, the Shemona Esrei.


            The actual text of the Shemona Esrei was formulated by the Sages. According to the Rambam (as opposed to the Tosafot), tefilla is a Biblical precept. So obviously I do not intend to claim that prayer means only the recitation of the Shemona Esrei. However, practically speaking, the prayer we call the Shemona Esrei is the means that the Sages chose to fulfill one's obligation to pray. Hence, understanding its structure and contents is essential to understanding what the Sages understood prayer to be.


2. Geula and Tefilla


            One classic example of the tefilla=Shemona Esrei  usage of the Sages is a statement that appears in Berakhot 4b. I would like to analyze this statement, firstly because it offers an important insight into the nature of tefilla in general and Shemona Esrei in particular; and secondly, because it introduces our topic for the course, since it refers to the very beginning of Shemona Esrei, or more exactly, the instant before we begin Shemona Esrei.


R. Yochanan said: Who is destined for the future world? - one who says "geula" (the blessing "Ga'al Yisrael" - Who redeems Israel) right before the tefilla of Arvit (Shemona Esrei of the evening prayer).  [From the gemara it is clear that this applies even more so to Shacharit, the morning prayer].


            This statement defines a halakhic necessity not to interrupt between the berakha of Ga'al Yisrael and the Shemona Esrei. For instance, although one can interrupt the recitation of the Shema to answer to Kedusha, this does not apply between geula and tefilla. There are even opinions that prohibit answering amen to the berakha of geula when recited by the chazan. Redemption (geula) must be the staging ground, as it were, for the Shemona Esrei.


            R. Yona of Gerona questioned not so much the halakha itself, as the extravagant praise and reward granted to one who fulfills this requirement. Is a mere recitation of a few words enough to guarantee the world-to-come? This is his answer (R. Yona, Berakhot, ad loc.):


The reason he merits such a great reward is because when God redeemed us and took us out of Egypt, it was so that we should serve Him, as is written, "For they are My servants whom I have taken out of the Land of Egypt." In the blessing of Ga'al Yisrael, we mention the kindness that the Creator did for us. AND TEFILLA IS SERVICE ("avoda"), as is said, "'And you shall serve HaShem your God' - this refers to tefilla" (Bava Kama 92b). Therefore, when one mentions the exodus from Egypt and immediately prays, he shows that just as a slave who has been bought by his master must obey his master's commands, so too he recognizes the goodness and redemption which the Creator redeemed him, and that he is His slave and serves Him. And since he recognizes that he is His slave as a result of the fact that He redeemed him, and fulfills His will and commandments, it follows that he will merit the world-to-come as a result.


3. Avoda


            Rabbeinu Yona's answer is based on the claim that tefilla is the supreme expression of service of God. Now in English, prayer is often called service, but I am not sure what we mean by the word. Rabbeinu Yona is drawing our attention to the fact that service means to serve, as a slave serves and obeys his master, and therefore "geula" - the recognition that God took us out of Egypt and granted us our personalities as free men - is the basis of "avoda," for we belong to God by virtue of the exodus.


            But precisely because R. Yona identifies the service of God with servitude - in his words, one "fulfills His will and commandments" - Shemona Esrei appears to be an inappropriate vehicle to express this. Where in Shemona Esrei do we state that we will obey God, follow His commandments and submit to His will? R. Yona, in order to connect service to geula, derives service from ownership, the ownership of God of those whom He has redeemed from slavery. Indeed, service based on ownership should be expressed in obedience. But how is the attitude of servility expressed in Shemona Esrei? On the contrary, we mostly ask for God to grant our wishes; in other words, to serve us, in a sense. Shemona Esrei, which consists mostly of requests, expresses OUR will, not God's. How is this the attitude of a slave who has been acquired by the act of redemption?


            The answer is found, I think, in understanding the true nature of the servitude of God, as expressed in tefilla. A slave is expected to obey His master's will, because he has none of his own. But this is only one aspect of a wider and more significant negation of the slave's self. A slave has no future of his own, no purpose of his own, no property of his own, no independence of his own. The aims and goals of his life derive from his master. Everything he has comes from his master. In a word, he is totally DEPENDENT. The ultimate meaning of slavery is total dependence.


            There is one crucial difference between human bondage and the service of God. A human master has selfish goals, goals for himself. If he is the source of the meaning of the life of his slave, then the slave has no goal other than the welfare of the master. But God has no selfish goal which we can serve. His goal is the good of Man. By deriving our goals from God, by seeing in Him the source of all our happiness and the aim of all our endeavors, we acquire for ourselves a goal above all value - that which the Torah calls "the image of God." Slavery to man exhausts the slave by exploiting him. Service of God fulfills man by giving him meaning.


            How is tefilla, the turning to God in supplication and request, a service of God? He who prays declares that there is no other source for his good than God. "Ein lanu ela Avinu she-bashamayim" - We have no one other than our Father in heaven. Just as a slave knows that his only source of food is his master, that the direction in his life will come from his master, so the servant of God turns only to God to fulfill his needs, and to receive instruction. The commandments of God, unlike the commands of the slave-owner, give meaning, divine transcendent meaning, to the life of the servant of God. Is there anywhere else to where man can turn to satisfy his thirst for a mission, for significance, for the means to survive? He who prays answers in the negative.  "Ein lanu ela Avinu she-bashamayim."


            It is therefore not surprising that the central defining element of tefilla is "tachanunim" - supplication, request - rather than hymns of glory and psalms of praise. We serve God by declaring that He is the only address for our needs. What we lack - which is everything - can be satisfied only by Him, who is everything. It is the angels' job to sing in the heavenly court; our job is to serve. We serve by stating: Without You I am nothing, dust and ashes, therefore I turn to You for... for everything listed in the Shemona Esrei - wisdom, forgiveness, health, redemption, sustenance, justice, etc. And where did we learn this, to view God not just as a convenient supply house but as the master of our fate and the source of our lives? From the exodus, when He redeemed us from being slaves to exploitative man and granted us the freedom and value of accepting His values and His munificence for ourselves.


            In summation, the content of tefilla, of the Shemona Esrei, is primarily requests. The technical halakhic term is "bakashat tzerakhav" - the requesting of one's needs. The meaning of this activity is service, placing ourselves before God as dependent totally on Him. By turning to Him for our needs, we are stating that there is none other than Him from whom we can obtain anything. As we shall see, the "needs" of man include both physical and spiritual values, all of which are derived from the Master to the servant.


4. Trust


            R. Yona offers another answer to the question about geula and tefilla. The answer is different than the first, but you will immediately perceive that underlying it is the same idea about looking to God as the only source which can satisfy our needs. He writes:


When one mentions the redemption from Egypt and prays immediately afterwards, he shows that he trusts in God for his prayer, since he requests his needs from Him. For one who does not trust Him will not request anything from Him. And this idea is found in (Midrash) Shemot Rabba on Parashat Bo, where it is written that when Israel saw the miracles and the wonders which God did for them, against the laws of nature, they trusted in Him, as is written, "And Israel saw the great hand which God wielded against Egypt; and the people feared God, and they believed in God...." (Shemot 14,31). So now, when one mentions that redemption where our forefathers  trusted in God and He saved them; and then he immediately prays, it is clear that he also trusts in God to answer him, just as He answered the Jews when they trusted in Him. That is why one mentions that redemption (geula) and prays immediately. And trust ("bitachon") is the foundation of faith and fear of God, so he will merit thereby the world-to-come.


            R. Yona offers two suggestions as to what should underlie tefilla, based on the connection to geula - service (avoda) or trust (bitachon). As we have seen, the two ideas are closely related, for service of God also involves turning to Him as the source of all that help us. Understanding this, we can now begin our analysis of the text of Shemona Esrei itself.



            Next shiur we shall begin to read the text. Actually, we have one slight detour before we start the Shemona Esrei itself. Before the Shemona Esrei appears a single quote from the Book of Psalms. "HaShem sefatai tiftach.... God, open my lips, and my mouth shall utter Your praises." That shall be our text next time. If you have a chance, look up the gemara which is the source for reciting this verse - Berakhot 9b, "Heikhi matzi samikh... ki-tefilla arikhta dami."