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Question: The Gemara in Berachot teaches that the Sages authored our prayers. If so, it would seem that we did not pray before this. Did we pray before their innovation or not?

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Answer: The first Mishna in tractate Ta’anit (2a) opens with the question, “From when [what time of year] do we commence our mention of the power of rain – Gevurat Geshamim?” During its discussion of this question, the Gemara (infra, 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 it has been taught (parashat Ekev, Deuteronomy 11:13): “… to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart.” Thus, the 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 found in the Torah portion of Vayera, where we find that Abraham prayed to G-d to heal Abimelech, the King of the Philistines (Genesis 20:17): “And Abraham prayed to G-d, and G-d healed Abimelech.” This prayer, however, is in the category of the prayer of a ben Noach, whose prayer is for a specific request. [A ben Noach is a follower of the Noahide Laws, the seven laws binding non-Jews.]

Generally, most opinions view Bnei Yisrael – the Patriarchs and their progeny – before the revelation at Mount Sinai as Bnei Noach, meaning they were just like all other righteous gentiles of the time since they were not yet bound by the Torah. Yet our Sages, among them Rav (Yoma 28b), learn an important fact from the following verse in Toldot (Genesis 26:5): Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.” They extrapolate from that verse that the Patriarchs observed the entire Torah, the written and the oral, in the framework of one who is eino metzuvah v’oseh – someone who is not so commanded, and nevertheless observes the mitzvot.

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 Mincha, the Afternoon Prayer; and Jacob introduced Ma’ariv, the Evening Prayer (see also Bereishit Rabbah 68:11). These references, however, point 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 only relative to our level of standing in Hashem’s eyes. Thus, should we wish to change what is allotted to us or to our fellow man (as in the case of the people of Sodom) for the better, 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) as R. Yochanan, in the name of R. Yose b. Zoma, expounds the verse (Isaiah 56:7) “I will bring them to My sacred mountain and I will rejoice with them in the house of My prayer….” We learn from the word tefillati – My prayer – that indeed, G-d Himself engages in prayer. However, His prayers, as the Gemara (ad loc.) explains, are on our behalf.

We do find a post-Sinaitic prayer – a prayer attributed to a Jew post-Sinai and the receiving of the Torah – yet we do not see a formal text attributed to it. Rather this was a simple short prayer of Moses to Hashem that we find at the end of Behalotecha (Numbers 12:13), beseeching Him to heal Miriam of her tzora’at: “Kel na refa na lah – please, Hashem, heal her, please!”

In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Rambam (1135-1204 C.E.) records prayer as a mitzvah, the fifth in his listing of the positive precepts. He states that G-d commanded us “to serve Him” (i.e., to worship Him). Rambam writes that this precept is mentioned twice in the Torah: Once in Mishpatim (Exodus 23:25), “You shall worship the L-rd your G-d,” and again in Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 6:13), “The L-rd your G-d shall you fear and Him shall you serve.”

Even though this command is inclusive of all other commands, as noted in the fourth shoresh (of the 14 shorashim that precede Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot), the cited verses also contain a separate precept – the command to pray.

Interestingly, Rambam does not cite the verse in Parashat Ekev as a source for prayer, as we did at the outset of this discussion.

The Chafetz Chayyim lists the precept of prayer as the seventh in his Sefer HaMitzvot HaKatzar – The Concise Book of Mitzvot. He limits the list to include only those precepts that are possible to observe outside the Land of Israel, now that we are bereft of our Temple. Is it possible that this is an allusion to prayer as a replacement for the Temple service?

(To be continued)


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.