Shiur #30: Prayer (Part I)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     There are various understandings of prayer's role in the framework of the service of God.  Before we begin to examine R. Yehuda Halevi's position, I wish to mention several views, the examination of which will help us locate Rihal's approach to the matter more precisely on the spectrum.




     Our discussion of the meaning of the prayer will begin with the question of whether or not it is possible to define prayer as a commandment.


     The Rambam counts prayer as one of the 613 commandments:


The fifth commandment – is that [God] commanded us to serve Him, may He be exalted.  This command was repeated several times.  It says: "And you shall serve the Lord your God," and it says: "Him shall you serve," and it says: "And to serve Him." Even though this command is also one of the all-inclusive commands, as I explained in the fourth principle, it also has a unique element, the command of prayer.  As the Sifrei states: "'And to serve Him' – this refers to prayer." … And in the mishna of Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose ha-Gelili, they said: From where do we include prayer among the commandments? From here: "You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him you shall serve." (Rambam, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment, no. 5)


     The Ramban has reservations about including prayer in the fixed framework of the commandments.  He argues that it is inconceivable that prayer, which reflects man's need to beseech God for deliverance, should be regarded as an obligatory mitzva.  Thus, we are dealing not with an obligation, but with an act of grace on the part of God, in that He gives man the opportunity to turn to Him and receive a response:


Rather, without a doubt, the whole matter of prayer is not an obligation whatsoever, but rather it is part of the Creator's loving-kindness toward us, that He hears and answers whenever we cry out to Him.  (Ramban, comment to Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment no.  5)


     YeshayahuLeibowitz took the Rambam's position to an uncompromising extreme.  According to him, prayer inasmuch as it is a commandment, is no different than the commandments regarding terumot and ma'asrot, the bringing of bikkurim, or wearing tzitzit.  It is one of the Torah's mitzvot, and when a person fulfills it, he expresses his acceptance of God's lordship and authority three times a day, day after day.


     Prayer, according to Leibowitz, is not a more spiritual experience than any other mitzva, and its purpose is not to provide man with his needs.


Prayer is not an attempt to bring the Creator to intervene in the order of Creation that He Himself established.  Anyone who does not understand that the world of the Holy One, blessed be He, continues as usual, according to the natural order established by Him, and that prayer does not mean that one is asking God to change that order for one's personal benefit, but that it is rather a means of communing with God through His service regardless of what transpires in the natural world – anyone who does not understand this has never in his life offered a prayer of one who believes in God.  (Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Sichot al Avot Ve-al Ha-Rambam, pp. 58-60)


     The fact that prayer is formulated as words of praise for God and as requests for the satisfaction of man's needs might perhaps answer a human need, and indeed this is the way that Chazal instructed us to fulfill the mitzva of prayer.  But this is not the essence of prayer, and what is more, this does not truly reflect the role and action of prayer.[1]


     We can see that this approach totally ignores the content of prayer and the need to concentrate on this content.  The content of prayer is a technical detail relating to the requirements for fulfilling the mitzva, but it does not reflect the essential meaning of prayer.




     Another approach that pushes aside the defined content of the prayer texts is the view that sees prayer as a mystical experience.


The ultimate goal is that prior to prayer one must bare oneself of the materiality that makes him finite and enter into the nothingness that is infinite.  That is, a person must direct himself exclusively to the Creator, and to nothing whatsoever of his own self.  This is only possible if he enters himself into nothingness, that is to say, that he is nothing at all, and then he will not direct himself to anything in this world, because he does not exist.  But rather he will direct himself exclusively to his Maker.  Understand this.  This baring oneself of materiality constitutes redemption for man's soul, for the soul is redeemed from the materiality of the body that is finite and has borders (metzarim) and clings to the Creator who is infinite.  This is called the redemption from Egypt (mitzrayim).  This is the meaning of juxtaposing redemption to prayer.  And perhaps this is the meaning of what the ancient ones said that prior to the Shemoneh Esreh one should recite the verse, "O Lord, open my lips, etc." This means that we are asking Him: My lips, in the sense of border and bank (safa), like the bank of a river – i.e., materiality - open, that is to say, open the fetters and chains of materiality so that I may bare myself of it and cling to nothingness.  (Shemu'a Tova, 79b, from the school of the Maggad of Mezritch)


     This approach totally disregards the text of prayer, and even sees the defined text that deals with this world as an obstacle that stands in the way of communing with God through prayer.


     According to this approach, prayer is an opening through which a person can ascend to the celestial worlds, which are over and beyond any individual or even communal petition.  The experience is one of communion and the intensity is that of intimacy that strips itself of all materiality and definition.  According to those who advocate this approach, a person must raise himself above materiality, and prayer is meant to serve him as a jumping board.




     Rav Yosef Soloveitchik characterizes man as "an existential slave." The two main characteristics of this slavery are: 1) the anonymity that overtakes man as a result of his vanishing into the crowd, contemporary and historical, and 2) the ignorance that relates not only to his understanding of the world around him, but also to his understanding of his own mission and needs.  This brings a person to lose his ego, and the objective of prayer is to redeem man from this anonymity.


     According to RavSoloveitchik, the key to avoiding this alienation from a person's true needs is awareness of his suffering.  A suffering person is essentially a person who cries out for his true needs (spiritual and material).  Suffering is the feeling that allows a person to understand his needs, that is to say, to know himself.  According to RavSoloveitchik, "I suffer, therefore I am."[2]


     There are then two stages to man's quest for self-knowledge: 1) Awareness of and sensitivity to his own suffering.  2) A renewed understanding of his true needs and the desire to satisfy them.


     According to RavSoloveitchik, both are provided by prayer.  Prayer has two dimensions:


1)   A cry – awareness and expression of the suffering person.

2)   Ordered prayer – a structured, cognitive process, by which a person slowly clarifies his own needs (with the help of the text of the prayer) until he reaches a full understanding of them.[3]


At this stage, the prayer is no longer merely a cry or a wail.  It is well-defined thought, a clear concept.  A cry turns into prayer.  We do not know the precise semantics of the term tefilla.  One thing, however, is clear: the term is connected to thought, judgment, and distinction.  In short, prayer is connected to intellectual activity.  A graded scale of needs, clearly defined and evaluated, is found in the text of the Amida prayer, where not only the emotional awareness of the person in need finds redemption, but also his logos - and with it the human creature himself… To pray means to distinguish, to evaluate, to understand; in other words, to seek understanding.  (Ge'ula, Tefila, Talmud Torah, in Divrei Haggut ve-Ha'arakha, p. 267)


     From this perspective, mystical prayer, or even prayer that is entirely praise and glorification of God, is not desirable (at least not for the ordinary person), because it does not match the overall objective of the Torah and Halakha, to direct man to repair his world, actions, and ways.  Rav Soloveitchik does not demand of man that he must detach himself from the world and create for himself a bubble of holiness, wholly unconnected to the mundane world, where most of man's life is conducted.[4] From this perspective, RavSoloveitchik would have denounced the prayer described above, from the school of the Maggid of Mezritch, since it is not aimed at repairing man in the material sense or to understanding his needs or those of the community.


     To a certain degree, Rav Kook's understanding of prayer embraces both approaches mentioned above.[5] He, too, sees prayer as a redemption of the will and the removal of man and the entire world from their perdition.  And he, too, speaks of the needs of man and of the world finding expression in the individual and the collective will.  The way to reveal the individual will, however, is by joining it to the collective will operating in the world, the will of all being, the will of the king of the universe.


It is man's job to join his individual will to the Divine will by way of the act of prayer.  This act is experiential and to a certain degree even mystical, but it is directed at realizing the individual wills that find expression in the text of the prayer.[6]




     The Rabbi relates to prayer in his description of the life of the pious servant of God:


The tongue agrees with the thought, and does not overstep its bounds, does not speak in prayer in a mere mechanical way as the starling and the parrot, but every word is uttered thoughtfully and attentively.  This moment forms the heart and fruit of his time, while the other hours represent the way which leads to it.  He looks forward to its approach, because while it lasts he resembles the spiritual beings, and is removed from merely animal existence.  Those three times of daily prayer are the fruit of his day and night, and the Sabbath is the fruit of the week, because it has been appointed to establish the connection with the Divine Spirit and to serve God in joy, not in sadness, as has been explained before.  All this stands in the same relation to the soul as food to the human body.  Prayer is for his soul what nourishment is for his body.  The blessing of one prayer lasts till the time of the next, just as the strength derived from the morning meal lasts till supper.  The further his soul is removed from the time of prayer, the more it is darkened by coming in contact with worldly matters.  (III, 5)


     During prayer, the pious man "resembles the spiritual beings, and is removed from merely animal existence." The role of prayer, as understood by Rihal, is to detach man from the material world and elevate him to the level of angels.  Moreover, Rihal asserts that the more time that has passed since a person last engaged in prayer, the more his soul is darkened by coming into contact with worldly matters.  Prayer serves as a "nature reserve" or a "greenhouse" in which a person cuts himself off from his surroundings and "connects with the Divine Spirit."


     Thus far, Rihal's words sound more like those emanating from the school of the Maggid than the other approaches.  In this passage Rihal seems not to not relate to the text and content of the petitions of prayer, but rather to the very experience of standing before God, which raises man above the murky world in which he lives.


     A later passage, however, implies otherwise:


The godly person fully grasps the meaning of each blessing, and knows its purpose in every connection.  The blessing, "He who created the lights" places before his eye the order of the upper world, the greatness of the heavenly bodies and their usefulness, that in the eyes of their Creator they are no greater than worms…

At the blessing beginning "with eternal love," he, in a similar manner, bears in mind the attachment of the Divine Influence to the community which was prepared to receive it, as a smooth mirror receives the light, and that the Law is the outcome of His will in order to establish His sway on earth, as it is in heaven.  His wisdom did not demand of Him to create angels on earth, but mortals of flesh and blood, in whom natural gifts and certain characteristics prevail according to favorable or unfavorable influences, as this is explained in the "Book of Creation." Whenever some few, or a whole community, are sufficiently pure, the divine light rests on them and guides in an incomprehensible and miraculous manner which is quite outside the ordinary course of the natural world.  This is called "Love and joy"…

In the reading of the Shema, which then follows, he accepts the obligations of the Law, as in the piece beginning "True and certain," which expresses the firm resolution to observe the Torah.  This is as if, after having clearly and unmistakably imbibed all that preceded, he binds his soul and testifies that the children should submit to the Law for ever, just as the forefathers had done, according to the words: "Upon our fathers, and upon us, and our children and our (coming) generations… a good word, firmly established, that never passes away."

To this he attaches these articles of creed which complete the Jewish belief, the recognition of God's sovereignty, His eternity, and the providential care which He bestowed on our forefathers; that the Torah emanated from Him.  (III, 17)


     In the continuation of that same passage, the Rabbi explains the conceptual meaning of the next blessings until the Amida prayer and the rationale behind the order of the Shemoneh Esreh.


     From this perspective, prayer seems to resemble a theology class, through which a person learns the correct outlook and proper doctrine concerning God and the way that He conducts the world.


While it is true that Rihal focuses not on the petition itself, but on the outlook that grows out of the prayer, this rational prayer, in which, as Rav Soloveitchik would put it, the pious man "distinguishes, evaluates and understands," is very far from the mystical prayer advocated by the school of the Maggid.  We are not dealing with a mystical experience that is beyond words and definitions, but with an educational and declaratory act by which the pious man learns and declares the correct and appropriate creed.


Rihal, as we have seen with Rav Soloveitchik, focuses on the text, and sees in it prayer's primary meaning and significance.  He differs with RavSoloveitchik in that he does not focus on the dimension of petition found in prayer, but rather on its theological dimension.[7] But for Rav Soloveitchik and Rihal, prayer is a cognitive act that relates to the text and words that are uttered.[8]


According to this, we can understand in a different manner what Rihal means when he says that for the pious man, prayer lifts him up from the material world.


Were Rihal to agree with RavSoloveitchik that prayer involves contemplation about the needs of the individual and of the world at large, it would not lift man up from the material world; it would rather stand him up to face it, and force him to deal with it without fear.  As we have seen, however, Rihal focuses on the theological doctrines arising from prayer.  In this philosophical sense, prayer lifts the pious man up from the material world and draws him close to his Creator.  Rihal sees this occupation with correct ideas and this contemplation of concepts relating to the world of the Divine as rising up from the material world and communing with God. 


Prayer directs the pious man to disregard reality and, as the philosophers would put it, to turn into Active Intellect.  In "Rihalian" terms, this means identification and unification with the correct beliefs that have come down to us by tradition through the Torah and through Chazal,who looked into the Torah and created prayer.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] It should be noted Leibowitz is driven to understand prayer in this manner because of a theological difficulty regarding change effected in God.  Prayer, in its simple sense, is based on the assumption that God changes in response to man's actions and prayers, and that the world is governed in light of these actions and prayers.  Leibowitz, like other philosophers, was not prepared to accept this argument, and this led him to his understanding.  Rav Kook also related to this difficulty.  See Orot ha-Kodesh III, p. 48.

[2] In this context, Rav Soloveitchik condemns "mystical silence that praises tolerance with respect to pain," and thus he challenges the quality of equanimity advocated by Chassidut.  This also fits in with the difference between Rav Soloveitchik's prayer and the prayer of Chassidut, which stems from the quality of equanimity.

[3] It should be noted that Rav Soloveitchik himself writes that prayer does not always bring a person to understand his own needs, and that sometimes God's help is needed.  "He is slow of tongue and a stammerer.  He need's God's help not only to ensure his existence, but also to recognize his deficiencies and to prepare his words.  Before a person begins the Amida prayer, he declares: 'O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise'" (Ra'ayonot al ha-Tefila, p.  263). 

[4] It should be noted that Rav Soloveitchik relates to other aspects of prayer as well, but we shall content ourselves with those aspects that are pertinent to our discussion – comparing Rav Soloveitchik's view with the other approaches.

[5] See Orot Ha-Kodesh III, pp.  45-46.

[6] This approach is also evident in many other passages in Rav Kook's writings. 

[7] Perhaps on account of the same theological difficulty that we saw in the context of Leibowitz's position.  It should be emphasized, however, that Rihal does not hesitate to relate to petitioning for one's needs, and he does not add any qualifications.  Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that he does not assign primary importance to the matter of petitioning for one's needs, not here and not in his previous remarks about the pious man. 

[8] It should be noted that both views, that of Rav Soloveitchik and that of Rihal, allow us to deal with the difficulty arising in every generation, and perhaps especially in our generation, of identifying with the text.  Many in our generation seek spontaneous prayer, where a person can relate to what is truly bothering him at the moment, rather than to what Chazal enacted two thousand years ago.

Rav Soloveitchik would respond that a person is not necessarily aware of his true needs and troubles.  Prayer provides him with the tools to discover those dormant and unconscious needs, and therefore the accepted text must be retained.

Rihal would go even further.  Prayer does not come to provide man with his physical needs or even his psychological needs, but rather to educate him towards correct beliefs and doctrines.  Therefore, one should not deviate from the accepted text, but should rather make the effort to understand and identify with its contents.