Question: The Gemara in Berachot states that the sages authored our prayers. Does that mean we didn’t pray beforehand?
Summary of our response up to this point: The Gemara (Ta’anit 2a) explains that “to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 11:13) refers to a type of service that is of the heart, i.e., prayer.
The Patriarchs and their progeny before the revelation at Mount Sinai were not bound by the Torah, yet our sages teach us that they nonetheless observed the mitzvot, including prayer. One of the earliest references to prayer in the Torah is Genesis 20:17, which relates that Abraham asked G-d to heal the king of the Philistines.
According to tradition, the Patriarchs established the three daily prayers (Berachot 26b). Abraham established Shacharit, Isaac instituted Minchah, and Jacob introduced Ma’ariv. They did not establish the formal text of these prayers, however. Rather, they set the times of day for prayer.
So important is prayer that G-d Himself engages in it. The Talmud (Berachot 7a) expounds on Isaiah 56:7, “I will bring them to My sacred mountain and I will rejoice with them in the house of My prayer,” saying that the word “tefilati – My prayer” demonstrates that G-d Himself engages in prayer on our behalf.
In his Sefer HaMitzvot, the Rambam records prayer as a mitzvah, the fifth in his listing of the positive precepts. The Chafetz Chayyim lists prayer as the seventh mitzvah in his Sefer HaMitzvot Hakatzar. His list includes only those precepts that are possible to observe outside the Land of Israel, now that we are bereft of the Temple.
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We now cite from the Rambam’s magnus opus, the Yad Hachazaka (Hilchot Tefillah ch. 1). Drawing on many sources, he provides us with a clear understanding of the post-Sinaitic requirement for prayer. He writes: “On the basis of tradition, we have learned that the avodah [referred to in the Torah] means prayer…. The number of prayers in itself is not derived from the Written Law, nor is the order of the prayers [nor is their text, adds the Kesef Mishneh]. Also [from the Torah] there is no set time [of day] for prayer. Women and slaves are therefore required to pray since it is a positive precept that is not dependent upon time. The precept requires a person to implore [G-d] and pray daily and recount the praise of the Holy One, blessed be He, and afterward ask for all his needs in a manner of entreaty and supplication. He should give praise and thanks to G-d for the good that He has given him. Each individual [should do so] according to his capabilities….”
The Rambam continues with a historical description: “Such was the manner of prayer from the time of Moses until Ezra. However, when the Children of Israel were exiled in the days of the wicked Nebuchadnezzar, they were interspersed in Persia and Greece, among other nations. In these lands, children were born to them whose language became a mixture of many languages. When they wished to express their needs, they could not do so in any one language, as is written (Nehemiah 13:24), ‘Half their children spoke Ashdodian, and they did not know how to speak the language of the Jews. Similarly, the same occurred in each of the lands of their dispersal’ – they were unable to articulate a proper prayer to express their needs….
“When Ezra and his Beit Din saw [this state of affairs] they instituted for them the Shemoneh Esreh….
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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