Shiur #13: Geula and Tefilla

  • Rav Ezra Bick

In the siddur, the blessing of Geula is followed immediately by the Shemoneh Esrei. Logically, there is no particular connection between the section of Shema and its attendant blessings and the Shemoneh Esrei. These are two different mitzvot. The first is the mitzva of kriat Shema, derived from the verse "You shall speak them when waking and when retiring." The second is the mitzva of tefilla, the actual obligation to pray, to petition, which according to many authorities is a Rabbinic ordinance; even according to the Rambam, who maintains that it is a Biblical obligation, it is a distinct mitzva. This is clearly indicated by the fact that the two obligations have different time frameworks. Shema must be recited within the first three hours of the day, whereas tefilla is permitted for the first four hours. (There is also a difference concerning the beginning of the permitted period for each.) Additionally, tefilla is an obligation three times a day, whereas kriat Shema is only recited twice. It seems that we should not expect any connection, any seder, between the two.


Nonetheless, there is a well-known principle that directly ties the two together, at least at Shacharit and Arvit: “semichut geula le-tefilla,” “adjoining geula to the Shemoneh Esrei.” Although they are distinct mitzvot, one is meant to recite them together, without interruption. The formulation of this principle refers not to Shema, but to Geula, the last blessing of the Shema, but the result is the same – Shema as a unit with its blessings is to be followed immediately by the Shemoneh Esrei.


Although this is generally thought of as a requirement, the language of the Talmud in formulating this principle does not actually reflect an obligation. The principle is recommended three times in Massekhet Berakhot:


R. Yochanan said: Who is destined for the future world? One who says Geula right before the tefilla of Arvit [Shemoneh Esrei of the evening prayer]. (Berakhot 4b)


R. Yosi b. Eliakim testified in the name of the holy congregation of Jerusalem: One who says Geula right before tefilla will not be injured for the entire day… R. Ela'a said to Ulla: When you go there [the Land of Israel], inquire after the health of my brother R. Bruna in front of the entire college, as he is a great man and is joyful in mitzvot. One time he said Geula right before tefilla and a smile did not leave his lips the entire day. (Berakhot 9b)


"Remember please how I walked before You in truth and with a pure heart, and I did that which was good in Your eyes" [the opening of the prayer of Chizkiyahu]. What is [meant by] "I did that which is good in Your eyes"? R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: He said Geula right before tefilla. (Berakhot 10b)


(There is also a discussion in the gemara regarding which is more important; standing for Shemone Esrei or adjoining Geula to tefilla).


It is clear from these citations that there is in fact no obligation to adjoin Geula and tefilla; it is merely highly – very highly – recommended. The recommendation takes the form of specifying how efficacious it is – one is protected in this world, merits the next, is possibly saved from a death sentence that had already been set, and it is in general a reason for merriment for one who has done it. High praise indeed, but not a halakhic requirement per se. The praise, though, is so high that it elicited a question from Rabbeinu Yona of Gerona:


Why does one receive such a great reward as to merit the World to Come merely because he adjoined Geula to tefilla? My master the Rav said that 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 that he fulfills His will and commandments, it follows that he will merit the World to Come as a result. (Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona, Berakhot 4b)


To explain this idea of Rabbeinu Yona, I am going to borrow from a shiur I wrote in the VBM series "Understanding the Shemoneh Esrei."


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" – Shemoneh Esrei appears to be an inappropriate vehicle to express this. Where in Shemoneh 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 Shemoneh Esrei? On the contrary, we mostly ask for God to grant our wishes – in other words, to serve us, in a sense. Shemoneh 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... everything listed in the Shemoneh 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.


Following this explanation, Rabbeinu Yona continues and offers a second one as well:


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 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.


In terms of the nature of prayer, there is not a great difference between the two answers. Both are based on seeing the God to whom we pray as the sole source of succor, on whom we are dependent totally. This defines tefilla, specifically the Shemoneh Esrei, as avoda, service, and as an expression of our total dependency on God. The major difference is more general: what is the prime religious emotion, dependency or trust? Psychologically, these are two very different states of mind, and R. Yona is here expressing two very different theories of the psychological basis of the proper relationship with God. For our purposes however, the resulting understanding of prayer is quite similar, even if not identical.


There are two other sources for an explanation of the importance of semichut geula le-tefilla, and I will cite them briefly.


1. Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:1: "Immediate to Geula is tefilla, as is written, 'May the words of my mouth be for favor.' What is written immediately after? 'God shall answer you on the day of trouble.'"


I think the meaning of this is that the recitation of Geula produces in us the feeling that today is a "day of trouble." Praying every day, three times a day, is almost guaranteed to produce the opposite, a habitual "touching base" with God, paying one's dues, as it were. Prayer needs to arise from a sense of profound need, a desperate appeal to God for redemption. Remembering the redemption from Egypt and immediately turning to God in prayer places our prayer in that sense of need, of oppression from which only God can save us.


The Ramban, who maintains that the obligation to pray daily is only Rabbinic in origin, agreed that prayer in times of trouble – ze'aka be-eit tzara – is Biblical. R. Soloveitchik zt"l once suggested that the Rambam, who claims that daily prayer is Biblical, does not disagree in principle; he merely maintains that we are always in a time of trouble. This may be the intent of the Yerushalmi.


2. The Yalkut Shimoni (Tehillim 678) states:


Immediate to Geula is tefilla, as is written, "May the words of my mouth be for favor." What is written immediately after? "God shall answer you on the day of trouble." R. Yossi b. Bon said…: He who does not adjoin Geula to tefilla, to what is this to be compared? To the favorite of the king who came and knocked on the door of the king, and the king came out to inquire what he wanted and found that he had already left. So the king also left. So too, a man brings God close to him, and finds favor before Him with praise of the redemption from Egypt, and He comes close to him – when He is close, one should beseech for one’s needs.


The praise and description of the redemption from Egypt "knocks on the door" and brings God closer to listen to us. Why? Our praise for the redemption produces in God a desire to redeem Israel again. It brings Him close to us, and that is the time to make requests. The simile hints at more, however. If you do not make the request, if you leave before doing so, like the favorite who knocked on the door but did not wait for the king to open the door, then God reacts accordingly; He too leaves, disappointed, perhaps frustrated, perhaps even annoyed. Praising God as the redeemer "arouses" God to redeem, and not presenting our troubles before Him at that time is frustrating the redeeming power of God, which has been primed and then "denied," so to speak, an outlet.



The difference between the last two explanations is that the Yerushalmi speaks of arousing in the person the need to be redeemed, while the Yalkut Shimoni speaks of arousing in God the desire to redeem. Both place prayer itself in the context of redemption, and this is the purpose of connecting the blessing of redemption, which properly speaking is part of kriat shma, with prayer, in order to redefine prayer itself.