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The Tefillah Paradox: Standardized or Spontaneous?

Tevet 5782 | December 2021
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Tefillah is such a significant part of our lives. 1 Yet, it contains a paradox – on the one hand, the times we pray and the words we say are prescribed by halakha. On the other hand, tefillah is meant to be heartfelt and filled with kavanah. How does one approach such standardized devotion while retaining continuous intention? The sources of the mitzvah of tefillah reflect this tension and offer some potential insight into this dilemma.

The Talmud goes to the heart of what tefillah is about and the nature of the mitzvah of tefillah. There is a famous machloket (Brachot 26b) about whether tefillah was instituted by the Avot or by Chazal, based on the sacrifices offered daily in the Beit Hamikdash. Rabbi Yose BeRabbi Hanina teaches that tefillah is derived from the Avot. This is based on the various words used for prayer in the Tanakh. Moreover, it connects each of the three daily times for prayer with each of the Avot. Avraham is the source of shacharit based on the word amidah, “standing,” which he does in the morning (Bereshit 19:27). The word amidah is associated with prayer. Yitzchak is associated with praying mincha, since he went out to the field to lasuach, “converse” before nightfall (Bereshit 24:63). Yaakov, is associated with maariv and his prayer is based on the root פ.ג.ע. – encounter – as he encounters “the place” after sunset (Bereshit 28:11). The Avot as a source of tefillah offers models of different types of tefillah at different times. They generally prayed in the Torah when there was a specific need, such as before the destruction of Sodom. It also suggests that each of the three daily tefillot relates to the experiences of the Avot they are associated with. Avraham instituted the first tefillah, shacharit, as he was the first Jew and brought the light of monotheism to the world. Mincha is the transitional prayer from day to night; Yitzchak is the bridge between the three Avot. Finally Yaakov, who lived in exile and went through difficult times yet overcomes, gives us strength during the evening prayer, before dawn. 2

This is in contrast to the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, that tefillah times are derived from the korbanot tmidin. Just as the sacrifices had to be offered within a certain time frame, so too for the times of each of the three daily tefillot. This position advocates for consistency and ensuring a regular routine of daily tefillah being offered.

Either way, it seems from here that the requirement to pray three times per day is Rabbinic in origin. There is another Talmudic source which is the basis for some aspect of the mitzvah of tefillah being a mitzvah M’Deoraita (biblical in origin). The Talmud cites the verse from Shema: “To love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 11:13) and asks: “Which is the service of God that is performed in the heart? This refers to prayer. (Taanit 2a). 3

Based on these biblical and Talmudic sources, the rishonim debate the scope of the biblical mitzvah – what aspect and amount of tefillah is required from the Torah. The Ramban’s view is that the biblical mitzvah of tefillah applies only when one feels the urgency, as in times of tza’ar, or wartime, to call out to God in prayer. What about the biblical source from Devarim? The Ramban holds that this is an “asmachta” (an allusion to the mitzvah of tefillah, not a biblically mandated requirement). 4

In contrast, the Rambam holds that tefillah is required by the Torah once a day, based on the verse in Devarim – “to serve God with all your heart” – as cited by Gemara Taanit. Maimonides also provides an overview of the development of tefillah. 5 He writes that from the time of Moshe until Ezra, tefillah was not standardized, and people would turn toward the Mikdash one or more times daily. The words were not yet prescribed. In the time of Ezra, tefillah times and form became fixed because people had become dispersed and assimilated. Hence Ezra and his beit din “arranged [in a fixed form] all the blessings and prayers for all Jews so that the substance of every blessing should be familiar and current in the mouth of one who is not expert in speech.”

In this debate amongst the rishonim as well, one can see a tension between tefillah as a tool for times of suffering or need, as is the position of the Ramban. However, Rambam viewed tefillah as an integral part of a devoted Jew’s daily routine. Of course it should be done with kavanah, but this daily commitment and regularity created the space for different types of tefillah for different times and reasons.

From this short survey of the origins of tefillah in the Talmud and rishonim, we can see that tefillah contains a paradox for good reason. The daily standardized regularity, like the korbanot, provides a framework for reinforcing our emunah and expressing our thanks and requests. At the same time, the association with the Avot who prayed at moments of need or thanksgiving, or the Ramban’s connection with prayer during battle, inspires us to find ways to truly make our tefillot “service of the heart.”

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  1.  This is part I of a Shayla blog series on Tefilla.
  2.  Various sources have discussed the significance of connecting the 3 times for tefillah to the avot. For instance: Maharal, Netivot HaOlam, Netivot Haavodah chapter 3.
  3.  See also Sifre Devarim parshat Ekev 41.
  4.  Hasagot haRamban on Sefer Hamitzvot, positive mitzvah 5.
  5. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, hilchot tefilla, 1:1-4.

Karen Miller Jackson

is a Jewish educator and writer, who studies and teaches at Matan HaSharon and recently completed Matan HaSharon’s Morot l’Halakha program. She has an MA in Talmud and Midrash from NYU.