Nature Of Prayer

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Written by: R. Yitzchak Seltzer

The Nature of Prayer

The nature of prayer is somewhat paradoxical. How could man speak to G-d? How could a mere finite mortal influence a transcending infinite plane? How does one know what to say? All these questions need to be answered and can be best understood after research into the origin of prayer.

The ability to pray and converse with G-d plays a central role in the Bible. However, it is not clear whether or not every time one is conversing with G-d or asking something from Him, one is praying. In the Bible the word or the verb form are used scarcely in the Bible. However, the Midrash in various places tries to link other terminology with prayer, broadening what is considered prayer.

There is a disagreement between the various Halachic authorities as to the nature of the commandment in the Torah to pray. In the Torah it is written [1] :

" ' - And you shall serve Hashem your G-d." The Midrash explains that the term "" refers to service of the heart, which is defined as prayer.

Maimonides [2] explains that there is a commandment to pray everyday. However, the language and times were set by the rabbis. Nachmonides argues that the commandment of prayer is only in times of need but not everyday. The idea of praying all day is entirely rabbinical.

In a superficial glance at prayer in the Bible the argument of Nachmonides is very convincing. The term "" is mentioned in the five books of the Chumash only three times. Each time it is used in reference to calling out to G-d in a time of need. However, through a closer look through the lens of the Midrashic literature the concept of daily prayer regardless of the situation one is in, is very prevalent in the Bible. This is portrayed both in the prayers of the forefathers, Moses, and throughout the prophets.

The term "" is first mentioned by Abraham when he is requested to pray for the welfare of Avimelech after he was punished for kidnapping Sarah. G-d tells Avimelech in a dream [3] " - - - - -- - And now return the wife of the man because he is a prophet and he will pray on your behalf and you will live. And if you do not return (Sarah) know that you will surely die along with all that you have." Rashbam explains [4]: that Avimelech needed heavenly mercy since the divine decree has already started. In this instance prayer is employed when Avimelech is in despair and his only hope is for G-d to heal him and bring him out of his situation. The prayer is not a preventive measure but rather used only used when necessary like described by Nachmonides.

The second time the term is used is by Moses. He uses the term twice when need to implore on behalf of the nation of Israel in order to remove a punishment that has already been bestowed upon them. In the second instance the Nation of Israel has sinned after the death of Aaron they complain about the difficult journey in the dessert. Hashem sends poisonous serpents that bite the complainers and kills them. The Torah States:

- - ' -' - :

And the nation came to Moses and they said 'we have sinned because we spoke (wrongly) with Hashem And you should pray to Hashem and he will remove the serpent from upon us. And Moses prayed for the nation.

Again, prayer is employed after the Nation of Israel find themselves in a dangerous situation and need the snake to be removed. This also supports Nachmonides' opinion that Biblical prayer is required only to save oneself for danger.

The term "" or "" is not used again in the five books of the Torah. It is not used in Joshua or Judges. The term is next found in the beginning of Samuel I. Hannah who is childless and also emotionally abused by her husband's other wife cries out in prayer for G-d's help. The scripture reads: [5]

- :

In her wretchedness, she prayed to the Lord, weeping all the while.

Only after she was in the bitter depths do we find prayer mentioned in the scripture. This also supports Nachmonides' opinion that prayer is only after one is already in need of Hashem's help to get out of a situation of despair.

This biblical conception of prayer is broken in the second chapter of Samuel I. In this chapter Hannah gives Samuel over to Eli the Cohen. When she brings him to the Mishkan she recites a prayer of thanks and gratitude for answering her prayers and giving her her first child Samuel. This prayer is not at a moment of despair. On the contrary, this is at a moment of happiness and triumph.

The scripture reads:

- :

- - :

- )( ][ :


- :



- :

)( ][ - -:

)( ][ )( ][ - - :

1 And Hannah prayed: My heart exults in the Lord; I have triumphed through the Lord.I gloat over my enemies;I rejoice in Your deliverance.

2 There is no holy one like the Lord,Truly, there is none beside You;There is no rock like our God.

3 Talk no more with lofty pride,Let no arrogance cross your lips!For the Lord is an all-knowing God;By Him actions are measured.

4 The bows of the mighty are broken, And the faltering are girded with strength.
5 Men once sated must hire out for bread;Men once hungry hunger no more. While the barren woman bears seven,The mother of many is forlorn.
6 The Lord deals death and gives life,Casts down into Sheol and raises up.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;He casts down, He also lifts high.
8 He raises the poor from the dust,Lifts up the needy from the dunghill, Setting them with nobles,Granting them seats of honor.For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's; He has set the world upon them.
9 He guards the steps of His faithful,But the wicked perish in darkness--For not by strength shall man prevail.

10 The foes of the Lord shall be shattered;He will thunder against them in the heavens. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth.He will give power to His king,And triumph to His anointed one.

This is clearly not a prayer of someone in despair. However, one can argue the use of the term "" is used in conjunction with the first verse which talks of deliverance. However, the term seems to be described that action of Hannah reciting the entire prayer.

The new usage adds an entirely new dimension to prayer. It is an ongoing relationship that one prays when they do not have and one prays when they do. The Rabbis felt fit to glorify this prayer and to find root of this type of prayer in five books of the Bible. One can argue that after seeing this wonderful insight about prayer in the prophets it was essential to find a Biblical source. This would work very well with Maimonides' approach to prayer that a one must pray every day regardless of the situation. However one may variably argue that the rabbis wanted to justify the making of their own daily service by finding concept of prayer in all situations Biblical.. This would grant greater authority to their institution of daily prayer.

The glorification of Hanna's prayer can be find in a variety of ways. The Rosh Hashanna Prayer service, one of the holiest prayer's of the year, was fashioned in a model similar to Hanna's prayer.

The Midrash states:

( ) ,

And way do we pray on this First of the Year Nine Blessings? Rava the son of Chanina says in accordance with nine mentionings of G-d's name that Hannah said in her prayer

Furthermore, Hanna's prayer was chosen to be the selection read for the Haftorah on Rosh Hashanna.

Search for other forms of prayer in Biblical literature is also prevalent in the Midrash.

The Midrash states:

" :

Rabbi Yohannan says there are ten different terms for prayer . And they are:

1. .

2. .

3. .

4. .

5. .

6. .

7. .

8. .

9. .

10. .

The Midrash than goes on to explain the source that these terms are terms of prayer. Once the terms have broadened, there are now numerous instances in the Bible where prayer is done differently in a variety of situations. Once we have seen from Hanna that prayer includes more it now opens the eye to look at other conversations with G-d and determine if they are considered prayer. The difference of terms probably denotes the different modes that prayer can be applied.

The application of other terms is widely used by the rabbis when constructing the prayer service. Since, the prayer service is daily and is not only requests but consists of thanks and other such praises other terms for prayer must be used. The Talmud states:

' ' '


It is said: Rabbi Yosse the son of Rabbi Haninna says, The prayers were established by the forefathers...Abraham established the mourning prayer...Isaac established the evening prayer...Jacob established the evening prayer....

In this Midrash, our sages link our daily prayer service to the ongoing relationship that our forefathers had with G-d. The terms used to describe the forefathers conversations with G-d have been identified as prayer as well. Not only are they considered prayer but they are also the foundation of our daily prayer service. Abraham is praying to spare Sedom, Yitzchak is conversing in the field and Jacob is taking a nap in which he envision a prophetical dream. All these experiences which glorify a relationship with G-d in a variety of circumstances are associated with prayer. This association is necessary for the rabbis who are instilling the daily prayer service and teach us about the nature of prayer.

Although, prayer can be found in a variety of terms perhaps the biblical choice to only use the term "" when in despair and a situation of need is meant to tell the reader something about the nature of prayer. The most natural time for a human to react by turning to G-d is in a time of despair. This is because of the severity of the situation the person sees as his only hope is G-d. Seeing that there is no natural solution to the situation, the person becomes aware of his dependency on the supernatural. When a person shows dependency on another he expresses a close relationship. As a result of this close relationship created through the dependency on G-d, it is only natural for salvation to be delivered. Since G-d is merciful to those close to him. The dependency is what brings one close. However, in order to really create a relationship this dependency must be continuous and seen in a variety of situations.

If prayer would have been exclusively for times of despair it might have denoted something resembling a business transaction. Man prays to G-d and offers his servitude in exchange for help in the situation. Although, it is a high level to realize ones dependency on G-d, this is not the way it was meant to be. Prayer is a way that man reflects his close relationship with g-d, which as a result of that relationship G-d will save him. This is seen clearly after the term for prayer is used for times of victory as well. In such a situation when there is nothing to ask for if it were a transaction there would be no reason to pray. If it is an ongoing relationship then there is no better opportunity to express that than in times of triumph.

This is expressed in Hanna's prayer before the deliverance and afterwards. It is therefore very fitting to be a focal point for the First of the Year, which is also the Day of Judgment. If ones relationship with G-d is seen in a variety of situation he will certainly be judged favorably by Hashem. This is perhaps the lesson of the Torah opened to us through the eyes of Midrash. Prayer is about expressing ones dependency and closeness to G-d. However, that closeness will be strengthened if expressed in a variety of situations. We do not speak to G-d as part of our business dealing nor do we offer gifts to influence Him. We express and fuel our close relationship which can yield certain results. Prayer is a way to set the stage for a close relationship with G-d.

[1]Exodus Chapter 23 verse 25

[2]Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer Chapter 1 lawa 1-4 & Book of Mizvot Aseh # 5 and commentary of Nachmonides there. Also see Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva 333



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