Question: The Gemara in Berachot states that the sages authored our prayers. Does that mean we didn’t pray beforehand?
Answer: The first mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit opens with the question, “From when do we commence our mention of the power of rain – Gevurat Geshamim?” In the midst of discussing this question, the Gemara (2a) asks further, “Whence do we know that mention of the power of rain is [even] to be made in the midst of prayer?”
The Gemara answers that the Torah states (in Parshat Ekev, Deuteronomy 11:13): “l’ahavah et Hashem Elokechem u’l’avdo b’chol levavechem u’ve’chol nafshechem – to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart.” This verse refers to a type of service that is of the heart. This prompts the Gemara to ask, “What is a service of the heart?” It answers that this must be prayer.
One of the earliest references to prayer in the Torah is in Parshat Vayera, where we find Abraham praying to G-d to heal Abimelech, king of the Philistines (Genesis 20:17): “Vayitpallel Avraham el HaElokim va’yirpa Elokim et Avimelech – And Abraham prayed to G-d, and G-d healed Abimelech.” This prayer, however, is considered the request of a Ben Noach (a Noahite) since most Jewish authorities view Bnei Yisrael – the Patriarchs and their progeny – before the revelation at Mount Sinai as Bnei Noach. In other words, since they were not yet bound by the Torah, they were just like all other righteous gentiles at the time.
Nonetheless, our sages, among them Rav (Yoma 28b), maintain that the Patriarchs observed the entire Torah, both written and oral, in the framework of one who is eino metzuvah v’oseh (someone who is not so commanded but nevertheless observes the mitzvot). They extrapolate this from the following verse in Parshat Toldot (Genesis 26:5): “Ekev asher shama Avraham b’koli va’yishmor mishmarti, mitzvotai, chukotai, v’torotai – Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.”
This is consistent with our tradition (Berachot 26b) that the Patriarchs established the three daily prayers. Abraham established Tefillat Shacharit, the Morning Prayer; Isaac instituted Minchah, the Afternoon Prayer; and Jacob introduced Ma’ariv, the Evening Prayer (see also Bereishit Rabbah 68:11). This tradition, however, refers to the time of day these prayers are said rather than to the formal text of the prayers themselves.
Abraham’s plaintive engagement of Hashem in a dialogue on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah might also be construed as an act of prayer. Indeed, the main facet of prayer is acknowledging that all that we experience in this world is relative to our standing in Hashem’s eyes. Thus, should we wish to change the what is allotted to us or to our fellow man for the better (as Abraham did for the people of Sodom), we need to beseech Hashem in meaningful prayer.
So important is prayer that G-d Himself engages in it. We find in the Talmud (Berachot 7a) that R. Yochanan, in the name of R. Yose b. Zoma, explains that the word “tefilati – My prayer” in Isaiah 56:7, “Vahaviotim el har Kodshi ve’simachtem b’veit tefilati – I will bring them to My sacred mountain and I will rejoice with them in the house of My prayer,” teaches us that G-d Himself prays. His prayers, as the Gemara (ad loc.) explains, are on our behalf.
Post Sinai, we find Moses praying to Hashem (end of Parshat Behalotechah, Numbers 12:13), beseeching Him to heal Miriam of her tzora’at. But the prayer was not composed of a formal text. It was a simple plea: “Kel na refa na lah – Please, Hashem, heal her, please!”