Prayer | Part I - The Sources Of Prayer
Updated: Apr 29
Over the last few months we have been discussing the mitzvah of Shabbat. Now we begin a new series on the mitzvah of tefilla, prayer. This forms part of a greater series to understand the rationale behind the mitzvot which G-d has given us. Of course, whenever we try to understand the reasons for the commandments, we must acknowledge that these are our own speculations; we can never know G-d’s ultimate reasons. Nevertheless, for the commandments to have an impact on us we need to understand the message and philosophy behind them to the best of our ability.
Tefilla is one of our most important mitzvot. It is one of the very few mitzvot which are referred to in the Thirteen Principles of Faith. One of the Thirteen Principles of Faith is to pray to G-d alone, and to nobody and nothing else. Prayer is not just another mitzvah, but a major pillar of Judaism. As the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1:2) says, “The world stands on three things: Torah, which means the study of Torah; avoda, the service of G-d in the Temple, and through prayer; and gemilut chassadim, kindness.
What is tefilla? Where is the commandment to pray mentioned in the Torah? What is the philosophy behind the mitzvah?
The source for the mitzvah of prayer
According to the Rambam, prayer is one of the 613 commandments. As we know, the Gemara tells us that the 613 commandments are comprised of 248 positive commandments where G-d commands us to do something, and 365 prohibitions. The Rambam lists prayer as positive commandment number five. According to the Rambam, the halachic definition of prayer is to praise G-d, ask for our needs, and to thank G-d.
The source for the commandment is a well-known verse in the second paragraph of the Shema, which says, ule’ovdo bechol levavchem – that we must serve G-d with all our heart. The Gemara asks: Eizo hi avoda shebalev – “what is the service of the heart?” The Gemara answers, zu tefilla – “prayer.”
This is an interesting description of prayer. What does the “service of the heart” mean?
The performance and fulfilment of prayer
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that there are two aspects to the commandments: the performance of the action of a commandment and the fulfilment of one’s duty. Often, the two aspects are achieved in the same action. For example, the mitzvah of tefillin: by putting on the tefillin one has performed and fulfilment the mitzvah. Or, for another example, shaking a lulav; the action is sufficient to fulfil the commandment.
But there are certain commandments where the action alone does not fulfil the commandment, unless there is an internal component that goes along with it. One of the examples Rav Soloveitchik gives is the mitzvah of aveilut, mourning the loss of a close relative. We know that it is a mitzvah to mourn, and there are specific laws regarding how to mourn – sitting shiva, the tearing of the garments, etc. These particular laws and customs are the actions of the mitzvah. However, the mitzvah is only fulfilled if there is an internal, emotional component to it – the pain of the heart. The external performance of the commandment is manifest in the actions we do; the internal fulfilment is what we feel inside and the deep connection we form with Hashem.
Another example that Rav Soloveitchik gives is the mitzvah of reciting the Shema. The performance of the mitzvah is to say the words of the Shema, particularly the opening line. The fulfilment of it, however, is achieved by thinking about the fact that G-d is the sovereign authority in our lives as we say the words of the opening line of the Shema. In Hebrew this is called Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, “accepting the yolk of Heaven” and the authority of G-d in our lives. Saying the words Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad is the physical performance of the commandment, but the fulfilment is only achieved when we consciously think about accepting G-d’s authority over us. Similarly, explains Rav Soloveitchik, prayer has two different aspects to it: The physical performance of prayer is manifest in saying the words while the fulfilment is the avoda shebalev, the service of the heart, which fosters the spiritual connection to G-d.
Rav Soloveitchik’s grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, explains how to define this spiritual connection from an halachic point of view. He says the minimum definition of prayer is that when we say the words of the prayers, we must be fully aware that we are standing before G-d. There is a great Hebrew phrase which some shuls have on the Aron Kodesh, which says Da lifney mi ata omed, “know before Whom you stand.” The minimum requirement of prayer, says Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, is that at the moment of prayer we feel as though we are standing in front of Hashem. Prayer is a unique opportunity to have a one-on-one audience with G-d. Thus we have the performance of the mitzvah, which is saying the words of our prayers, and the fulfilment of it, which is the internal aspect – the emotional and spiritual connection to G-d and being aware that we are standing in His presence.
The sources of the siddur
We now understand the basic definition and components of prayer. But where does the nusach, the set text of the siddur, come from?
In his discussion of the laws of prayer, the Rambam sets out the history of prayer. When we talk about tefilla, we automatically associate it with the siddur. However, according to the Rambam, in terms of the basic Torah law the mitzvah of prayer can be fulfilled using one’s own words, unstructured. That is the minimum requirement, and in fact that is how it was for many generations: one had a mitzvah to pray every day, but one could construct the prayer any way he or she wanted. Every prayer had to include praise, a request and thanks, but it could be said using any words one chose, at any time of day and however often one wanted, though it had to be at least once a day.
But, says the Rambam, when the Babylonian Empire invaded the land of Israel about 500 BCE and the Temple was destroyed and the people were taken into exile, the Hebrew language deteriorated, as did the people’s spiritual level. Leaving the prayers to personal discretion was no longer practical, and so the rabbis of the Sanhedrin, under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemiah who were the leaders who brought them back from Babylon to the Land of Israel to rebuild the Second Temple, decreed that prayers be structured. They set the standardised text of the Amidah prayer, the silent prayer of devotion that is said three times a day, morning, afternoon and evening. This is the source of the siddur. The Men of the Great Assembly – the great sages of the time, many of whom were prophets, possessed Ruach Hakodesh, the “holy spirit of prophecy”, drafted the words of the Amidah prayer and gave it its structure, and this text became the formula for Jewish prayer ever since.
The Amidah follows the pattern of the basic mitzvah of prayer: the first three blessings are in praise of G-d, the middle blessings are our requests from G-d, and the final three blessings are about giving thanks to G-d. It follows the exact structure of the basic Torah law. One of the major enactments in history was about how and when to pray. Though this is built on the Torah concept that we must pray to Hashem daily, the structure and the words were enacted by our Sages and this is the set text which Jews have been using ever since. This is an important concept to know in general: In Judaism we have laws that were enacted by G-d in the Torah, but we also have laws that were enacted by the Sages. G-d gave the authority to the Sanhedrin and the Sages of the Talmud to enact new laws, so long as they were clearly identifiable as rabbinic laws and never claimed to be Torah laws like those given by G-d.
The structure of our daily prayers
The structure of Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv, the services in the morning, afternoon and evening, respectively, is based on the service in the Temple. There were daily offerings, in the morning and in the late afternoon; at night all of the leftovers from the offerings were burned on the altar. Our prayers of Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv parallel this structure.
Additionally, the daily services correspond to the three Forefathers. The Gemara tells us that Avraham prayed at Shacharit, in the morning; Yitzchak established the Mincha prayer in the afternoon, and Yaakov established the evening service.
Of course, on Shabbat and Yom Tov there is a special Amidah because we are not allowed to make requests on Shabbat and Yom Tov, as it is a time of happiness, when we focus on feeling satisfied with what we have. We don’t ask for things on Shabbat and Yom Tov unless it’s an emergency. On Shabbat and Yom Tov we also have Mussaf, an extra service paralleling the extra Mussaf offering which was brought on Shabbat and Yom Tov in the Temple. And then, of course, on Yom Kippur there is the extra service which is the Ne’ila. But the basic structure was enacted by the rabbis, and parallels the service in the Temple.
This gives us the basic conceptual and historical framework of tefilla. In the coming weeks we will, please G-d, explore the ideas, vision, meaning and purpose of this vital mitzvah.