Prayer | Part IV - The Power of a Whisper
Updated: Apr 29
Some of the most important laws of davening are learned from a woman – Chana, the mother of Samuel the Prophet. This may seem surprising to some people, who think that because the shul service is led by men, women take a back seat when it comes to prayer. But this is not so. Although the shul service – which is about public prayer – is, indeed, led by men, the mitzvah to pray is equally incumbent upon men and women. As we have mentioned previously, the Rambam says there is a mitzvah to pray every day, and this mitzvah applies equally to men and women. (The exact format this takes with regard to women and how it fits in with the daily structure of shacharit, mincha, and ma’ariv – the morning, afternoon and evening services which were instituted by the rabbis at a later stage – is the subject of another discussion.) One of the fundamental principles of Judaism is that G-d wants a relationship with all people, men and women. Prayer is about forming a connection with Hashem, and therefore both are obligated.
The Gemara (Berachot, 31a) says: “Many great laws are learned from the way Chana prayed.” We read about Chana in the Haphtarah of Rosh Hashanah, from the Book of Samuel. Chana desperately wanted a child and so she went to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, to pray. The way she prayed for a child – who was eventually born and who later became Samuel the Prophet – is the model for how prayer should be conducted.
What do we learn from the way Chana prayed?
The Gemara lists many things, but here we will mention just two of them. The verse in Samuel describes how she was medaberet al liba, “talking on her heart,” which the Gemara says teaches us that when we pray we must have proper intention and devotion. This may sound obvious, but it’s conveying the point that prayer is not some external, superficial process of reciting the words. Rather, it is something which is in the heart, in the neshama – the soul – and must be sincere.
Another thing the Gemara says we learn from Chana is that when we pray, we have to articulate the words, but softly. It says that when Chana prayed, “her lips were moving but her voice was not heard.” The verse describes how the High Priest, Eili, who was watching her pray, thought she was drunk or that there was something wrong with her, because her lips were moving but her voice was inaudible. In truth, Chana was praying in a whisper, and in so doing she gave us the model for our prayers.
When we talk about the model for prayer, we are talking specifically about the Amidah – the silent prayer of devotion, when we stand with our feet together, facing the ark which is ultimately facing the Land of Israel; or, if you are in Israel, facing Jerusalem; and if you are in Jerusalem, facing the Temple Mount. The fact that the Amidah is silent does not mean that it is merely mental; we need to articulate the words, but in a whisper, so that our lips move but our voice is inaudible. In fact, the Gemara says that it is forbidden to daven the Amidah in a way that other people can hear you, as this is a sign of a lack of faith in Hashem, as though we are implying that Hashem needs to hear our voice out loud. It is from Chana that we learn to pray in a whisper, to articulate the words such that we can hear them but nobody else can.
This is a unique dimensions of Jewish prayer: we don’t just pray in our mind, but use our power of speech. We actually have to articulate the words in the siddur, though we do so in a whisper. Let us now try to understand the significance this.
Whispering our prayers symbolizes our intimate connection with G-d
One symbolism of the whispered prayer is that it reflects our intimacy with Hashem. When we talk, it is in a regular tone of voice; whispering is a mode of communication we employ only with someone with whom we are really close. We don’t whisper to someone who is just an ordinary acquaintance, as whispering is an intimate form of communication. Prayer symbolises our closeness to G-d; therefore, when we pray, we do so in a whisper, fully conscious that we have the privilege of communicating directly with G-d, one-on-one.
This idea is contained in another passage in the Gemara (Berachot 28b), where the Gemara says that when Rabbi Eliezer was very ill towards the end of his life, his students asked him to share with them some of the wisdom he had gleaned over the years. One of the things Rabbi Eliezer said to them was about prayer. He said: “When you pray, know before Whom you are standing.” (You will find this phrase on the ark in many shuls – Da lifnei mi ata omed, “Know before Whom you stand.”) Sometimes we forget before Whom we stand, because, after all, prayer is conducted in a shul; there are other people around, and we forget that each one of us has the privilege of standing before Hashem. The whisper is there to remind us that we are talking directly to Him. It is an intimate, private conversation between us and G-d.
By way of analogy, in the political world, everyone wants to meet kings and presidents – who are flesh and blood, here today and gone tomorrow, mere mortals full of frailties and imperfections. In contrast, when we pray, we have the opportunity to communicate with the King of all Kings, the Creator of the universe. We have direct, immediate access to Hashem. Rabbi Eliezer’s message was: “Know before Whom you are praying”; if you want advice on how to pray, all you need to do is simply realise where you are standing.
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, one of our great halachic authorities from the nineteenth century, says something similar with regard to the minimum definition of prayer: prayer is not just about mouthing the words but about the intention, thoughts and feelings – and the knowledge that we are standing before G-d. If one is not aware that he or she is standing before G-d, says Rav Chaim, then one has not fulfilled even the minimum requirement of prayer. Prayer can only take place with the understanding and awareness that we are praying directly before G-d.
Most of us have had prayer in our lives from a very young age. We have grown up with it and we sometimes take it for granted and forget what a privilege it is. At any time we want to, we can turn and talk directly to G-d. This closeness is symbolised by the whisper, and this is why we say the Amidah silently.
Articulating our prayers symbolizes the uniqueness of our being human
The Maharal of Prague, one of our great philosophers from the sixteenth century, says that the reason prayer has to be articulated with the mouth, through the power of speech, is because the power of speech is so central to what it means to be a human being. In fact, it is the human being’s defining quality. Our Sages in the Talmud refer to the human being as the medaber, “the speaker.” In the Book of Genesis, when G-d created Adam and Eve, it says: Vayehi ha’adam l’nefesh chaya, “and man became a living being.” The Aramaic translation of nefesh chaya, based on the oral tradition is ruach memalelah, “a speaking being.”
Why is speech the defining symbol of the human being?
The Maharal explains that what makes the human being unique is that we are a combination of different elements. Animals are purely of the physical world, while angels are purely of the spiritual world. Only the human being has the uniqueness of being a combination of the physical and the spiritual; this is the wonder of the human creation.
At the end of the blessing said after using the bathroom, when we thank G-d for our miraculous body and the fact that nothing is blocked and that we are able to function normally, we say: Rofeh chol basar umafli la’asot, “Who heals all flesh and works wondrously.” The Rama, one of the codifiers in the Code of Jewish Law, says that this refers to the wonder of having the body and the soul come together in one being.
The power of speech, says the Maharal, symbolises the composite whole of the different elements comprising the human being. In order to be able to speak, the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual must all come together. The faculty of speech symbolises the uniqueness of the human being, in that we are physical and spiritual. When we pray, we bring our essence before G-d. Therefore, when we connect with G-d through prayer, it must be through the power of speech.
The spirituality of a whisper
Chana taught us that prayer has to come through the power of speech, and specifically through a whisper. A whisper, says the Maharal, indicates the highest spiritual level because the more external and perceptible something is, the more physical it is; whereas the more spiritual something is, the more it is hidden. For example, the neshama – the soul – which is spiritual, is hidden; so is Hashem. Prayer embodies what it means to be a human being and it enables a person to reach the highest spiritual levels. It is achieved through the power of speech, and specifically through the whisper which, in a sense, is the “hidden” dimension of speech.
The power of speech is unique to the human being; it is our defining quality. In fact, there is a passage in the Gemara (Bava Kama 3b) within the context of the technical laws of damages, where the human being is referred to as the mav’eh, which in Aramaic means “the one who prays.” A person is defined as “the one who prays” because prayer is natural to the human being. Therefore, when we stand before G-d in prayer, we employ our power of speech – the faculty which represents our humaneness. And it is done specifically through the whisper, the hidden aspect of speech, which represents the highest spiritual level possible.
Chana prayed desperately to have a child, and the manner in which she prayed has taught generations of Jews how to pray. We must articulate the words, in a whisper, realising that we have a personal, intimate connection with Hashem. When we articulate our words in a whisper, we are expressing what it means to be a human being; the neshama and the body come together as a composite whole before G-d, forming a spiritual and inspiring connection with Him through prayer.