Introduction to Prayer

A collection of the ideas and wisdom of

Rabbi Oury Amos Cherki

Assembled from his lessons recorded at Machon Meir 2009

Compiled by Rabbi Israel Simani

Translated and edited by Rabbi Israel Simani and Dr. Dov Liberman

What is a prayer?

In order to understand prayer we need to define it. המבי"ט, Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef Metrani, (who lived in the 16 century at the time of R. Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulhan Aruch), writes in his book Bet Elohim a definition of prayer. He says, “Prayer is a request which man directs to Hashem in order to fill his deficiencies.” This is the reason that wherever the word “prayer” appears in the Gemarah, it refers only to the silent devotion that is said while standing not to other prayers that we have in the Siddur.

The weekday silent prayer is divided to three sections

  1. Three blessings of praise.

  2. Thirteen blessings of request.

  3. Three blessings of thanks.

The reason for this structure of the silent prayer is that it is not polite to request before praising, and it is not proper to receive without giving thanks. We learn from this structure that the first part of the silent prayer, praise, and the last part of the silent prayer, giving thanks, are both essential to making requests.

Prayer is a situation in which man is standing before his Creator, and this poses several questions:

  1. Do we have to pray? Someone wrote that prayer is Jewish humor; a person is convinced that he is able to speak to Hashem, and, more than that, he tells Hashem what to do. Although this is presented as a joke, it has a serious philosophical component.

  2. It must be totally clear to whom a prayer is directed. In the Tractate Berachot, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel says, “When one is praying he should know before whom is he standing.” It is an essential condition of prayer. Otherwise, he may be standing before someone else, i.e. worshiping idols.

  3. Because prayers of supplication seem to imply that Hashem is influenced by our requests and desires, the fundamental nature of prayer borders on idol worship. Is it permissible to believe the claim that Hashem makes changes only if a person cries out and ask for change?

  4. Is one allowed to tell Hashem what to do in His world? Can a person tell Hashem that his world is not complete and that he knows what needs to be corrected?

  5. Even if one is permitted to tell Hashem what is wrong in the world, how can he be certain that what appears amiss to him really requires correction? For example, when a person asks for healing, how can he be certain that it is not better for that individual not to be sick? Perhaps he is better off in his present condition?

Thus, we see that there are at least three difficulties in Prayer.

  1. Before whom is one standing to pray?

  2. Is it a hutzpah to ask something of Hashem?

  3. How does one know what to request?

Prayer is not a natural state for human beings. The reason Jews want to escape from prayer is because they know the gravity of standing alone, exposed before Hashem. There is a joke about a Jewish simpleton who had a dispute in court with a non-Jew. The Jew presented his arguments before the judges, proving his case. People asked him after the trial, “Where did you find time to collect all the information? You never learned law.” He replied, “It is simple. The non-Jew does not pray; therefore he does not have time to think about these things.” (When one prays one’s mind wanders to other topics in order not to think about the gravity of standing before Hashem.)

The earliest worship recorded in the Bible is not prayer, but sacrifice. It is simpler than prayer. According to our sages, Adam offered sacrifices to Hashem. The Torah also records sacrifices to Hashem being brought by Abel, Noah, Abraham, and Job. People understood that one should not only take but he must also give something in return. Our sages said, “Our forefathers established the prayers.” That is to say, it was a novelty to pray. One needed to be at the spiritual level of the forefathers before even daring to pray. Abraham established the morning prayer service. This indicates that he had discovered the ability to meet Hashem via this channel.

This does not mean that other people did not pray at all. Job lived in the time of the forefathers and offered 10 burnt offerings every week. However, he also prayed. The Satan (adversary) said to Hashem that Job is righteous because he has everything he desires. However, should he find himself lacking something, that would be a true trial of his righteousness. Hashem decided to test Job, and subsequently he (Job) encountered many disasters. He complained, argued with his friends, and eventually accepted the reality of his situation. But he resisted praying to Hashem. Only after Hashem revealed Himself to Job, did he pray for his friends. The friends were told by Hashem to bring sacrifices, and Job would pray for them. Only Job was allowed to offers prayers to Hashem. We see from this that one needs to be a prophet (as Job was) in order to pray to Hashem. This narrative also provides us with answers to some of the questions we posed about concerning the difficulty of the concept of praying.

  1. Know before whom are you standing – Hashem talk to prophets. Therefore, they recognize His presence and are able to pray.

  2. Is it a hutzpah to ask for a change? – Hashem asks prophets to pray.

  3. How does one know what is missing? – Prophets, by the very nature of their relationship with Hashem, know what is lacking and what needs to be requested.

The first place in the Torah that the word prophet is mentioned has the word prayer in the same verse .When Abimelech took Sarah, Hashem told him in a dream, “Restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for you, and you shall live.” (Genesis 20:7) Another example of a prophet’s responsibility to pray Hashem’s to pray can be found in First Samuel 12:17-23. When the nation of Israel asked Samuel to have a king to rule over them, he responded that Hashem does not approve. Samuel said to them “Is today not the wheat harvest season? I shall call to Hashem, and He will set forth thunder and rain… Then Samuel called to Hashem, and Hashem set forth thunder… All the people then said to Samuel, pray on behalf of your servants…And Samuel said to the people far be it from me to sin against Hashem and refrain from praying for you.” Samuel understood that, since he is the prophet, it is his obligation to pray. The clear message is that only prophets can pray.

That it is forbidden for one who is not a prophet to pray is also confirmed by Halachah. The Mishnah in Tractate Berachot (30b) states, “One should not rise to pray other than with seriousness.” The Mishnah continues, “The early pious ones would tarry for an hour and then pray in order that they might direct their hearts to their Father in Heaven.” That is to say, they should know before whom they rise. The phrase, “Should not rise to pray” is understood to mean that an ordinary person is forbidden to pray. The word seriousness implies that the early pious ones, in the hour before prayer, invested their efforts in rising to the spiritual level of the prophets before they felt that they were permitted to pray.

Based on this statement in the Mishnah, the halachah in the Shulhan Aruch (98a) states, “One who prays must apply his mind to the meaning of the words he speaks and act as though he is standing before the Shechinah.” The text holds up the early pious ones as examples to one who prays. The text continues, “This is how the pious would act. They would seclude themselves and apply themselves to their prayer... to the point that they would come close to the level of prophecy.” We are then confronted with the question of how does one know when he has come close to the level of prophecy? The answer is that only one who has reached this level can truly know. Thus, we see once again that the Shulhan Aruch would seem to imply that only prophets are permitted to pray. Why this is so becomes more apparent when we examine what spiritual conditions are necessary in order for one to be able to pray.


What we must experience in order to be able to pray

Earlier we asked a question, how can one be certain he is standing before Hashem? Perhaps it is an illusion? Bible critics present several possibilities:

  1. A person is depressed. He is emotionally unable to take action. Therefore, rather than preparing a meal, he prays and bemoans the fact that he is hungry.

  2. A person has feelings of guilt and therefore stands before Hashem. He just as easily could have chosen to seek help from a psychiatrist.

  3. Prayer is an aesthetic experience. It is a catharsis - a purifying or figurative cleansing of the emotions.

  4. Prayer is an expression of fear. Rudolf Otto writes in his book The Idea of the Holy that the Kol Nidrei service of the Jews is a religious experience because people are in a dark synagogue, crying, afraid of their fate.

The Gemarah in tractate Berachot deals with each of these contentions. Each emotion is discussed, and its relationship to a meaningful encounter with the Creator is made clear. Let us, therefore, examine this tractate. The Mishnah on page 30b states: “One should not rise to pray other than with seriousness כובד ראש.” (The literal translation of the Hebrew term כובד ראש is “heavy head.” Because the discussion in the Mishnah deals with the question of determining how to understand the term, we will use the Hebrew idiom כובד ראש.) According to Rashi, כובד ראש means surrender. That is to say, prayer is possible only if one feels that he lacks something. One who is praying feels nullified before Hashem; there is a distance between him and Hashem. (Hasidic philosophy disagrees with Rashi and states that all is filled with Godliness. If this is so, than there would seem to be no need to pray because, since Hashem is everywhere, there can be no deficiency in anything.) The Gemarah continues and asks, “From where are these words?” The question does not mean from what source in Scripture is the law of praying with seriousness derived? Since Halachah is based on tradition, there is no compulsion to find a specific verse to support this practice. Rather, the Gemarah wishes to clarify why it is necessary to pray with seriousness. And in order to answer this question, one needs to turn to specific biblical verses.

According to the Mishnah, “One should not rise to pray unless one feels כובד ראש.” The Gemarah brings forth several explanations of the term כובד ראש. Rabbi Elazar taught that the Bible says: “And she (Hannah) was in bitterness of soul and prayed to Hashem.” Thus, his interpretation is that the Hebrew words כובד ראש mean bitterness. Therefore, in order to pray the required three times per day, one needs to feel bitterness. Additionally, in order to turn to the Creator, this feeling of bitterness must be justified. In Hannah’s case this was clearly so. Hannah was in a different situation from the ordinary person because she was a Prophetess, and, being a Prophetess, her bitterness was justified because she surely knew that she was destined to have a child.

It is a principle of Talmudic interpretation that when several explanations are posited, the first one is true, but only applies to the righteous few. Therefore, this same Gemarah rejects the use of this source as a foundation for determining halachah and states “Perhaps Hannah is different, for she was exceptionally bitter at heart.” That is to say, her bitterness of soul was justified, but her case is too unique to serve as a basis for deciding a general principle that would apply to all.

Thus, Rabbi Yoseh the son of Rabbi Hanina said: “As for me, through Your abundant kindness I will enter Your house; I will prostrate myself toward Your holy sanctuary in awe of You.” Rabbi Yoseh maintained that this statement led him to the conclusion that כובד ראש means awe. However, there appears to be an inconsistency in the verse. The beginning of the same verse says, “Through Your abundant kindness.” This implies a feeling of love, not of awe. King David said, “As for me although Hashem showers kindness on the world, I come before him with awe.” He made this statement because he had sinned, and he experienced anxiety because of that sin. Therefore, it could be concluded that one must experience daily sin in order to pray. The Gemarah challenges this source as well and states “Perhaps David was different, for he would torment himself exceedingly in mercy (prayer).”

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said that we should arrive at an understanding of the term כובד ראש by referring to the verse “Prostrate yourself before Hashem in holy splendor” (Tehillim 29:2). He said that the Hebrew word in the psalm should not be read as behadrat (in splendor), but rather as beherdat (in awe). According to this interpretation, כובד ראש would be understood to mean fear. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi alters the text because this chapter of Psalms describes nature’s splendor, and he is concerned that people will witness the majesty of nature and turn to idolatry. Therefore, one should understand the psalm as pointing to Hashem’s infinity, and this will lead one to becoming a God-fearing person. However, the Gemarah also rejects this as the proper source to look for the meaning of the term כובד ראש. It states, “From where do you know this? Perhaps, in fact, I will tell you that the word hadrat is to be taken literally. This literal interpretation would mean that one should dress in his finest as a preparation for engaging in prayer. Such was the practice of Rav Yehudah, who would distinguish himself by donning his finest attire and then pray.” In the psalm King David found splendor in nature, but Rav Yehudah found splendor in himself. His physical adornment was a reflection of his spiritual elevation, and thus he could bring himself before Hashem. However, it must be understood that this physical adornment was the culmination of a long, difficult process. Therefore, Rav Yehudah prayed only once a month.

We see that the Gemarah is not satisfied with any single suggestion that was offered, apparently because all of the explanations of the term כובד ראש are unidimensional. Each emotional experience discussed as a possible meaning for the term כובד ראש - bitterness, guilt, awe, splendor - expresses only one dimension of the soul, whereas the soul is multifaceted.

The Gemarah offers a final source, “Rather, Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said, it is derived from here: “Serve Hashem with awe, and rejoice with fear. What is meant by and ‘rejoice with fear’? Rav Adda bar Matna said in the name of Rabbah in the place where there is rejoicing, there should also be fear.” Therefore, a true religious experience is multi-faceted in that combines two opposites. In other words, feeling happiness and fear at the same time means that one is standing before Hashem. In a mundane world when there is rejoicing there is no fear and when there is fear there is no rejoicing. But when standing before Hashem, one feels happiness because of the encounter with the source of life and at the same time experiences fear because he is being judged.

Now we can understand why we are permitted to pray. The early pious ones tarried for an hour until they were able to balance love and fear. Compared to them our love and fear are minute. Therefore, it takes us but a few seconds to reach the level of emotion of which we are capable. Nonetheless, the Members of the Great Assembly instituted prayers for us and gave us permission stand before Hashem and to pray even at the diminished levels of love and fear that we are able to achieve. However, this permission to pray is limited by the structure they instituted because we are unable to achieve the balance between love and awe that the prophets achieved.

In summary, we have learned that prayer is not a natural state for human beings. A person needs to prepare himself to pray. Furthermore, the Gemarah, Mishnah, and Shulhan Aruch make it clear that, in order to pray, one must be near a level of prophecy for the following reasons:

1) to know before whom one rises

2) to know what to request

3) to know whether that request is justified.

Since only prophets can know all these things, and we are not prophets, on what basis are we permitted to pray, thus apparently contradicting the halachah set down in the Shulhan Aruch? The answer is that we are permitted to pray because of an act of kindness bestowed upon us by the Members of the Great Assembly (of whom 83, of a total of 120, were prophets). Using their knowledge and insight, they compiled and instituted the formula of prayer that we use to this day. In other words, every time we pray we reconstruct something of their prophetic experience.