Photo Credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

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

Via Email



Synopsis: The Gemara on Ta’anit (2a) explains that Deut. 11:13, “…to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart,” refers to a type of service that is of the heart, meaning prayer.

The Patriarchs and their progeny before the revelation at Mount Sinai were not yet bound by the Torah, yet our Sages teach that they nonetheless observed the mitzvot, including prayer. One of the earliest references to prayer in the Torah is in Genesis 20:17, where Abraham prayed to G-d to heal the King of the Philistines.

This is consistent with our tradition that the Patriarchs established the three daily prayers (Berachot 26b). Abraham established Tefillat Shacharit, the Morning Prayer; Isaac instituted Mincha, the Afternoon Prayer; and Jacob introduced Ma’ariv, the Evening Prayer. These references, however, point to the time of day these prayers are said rather than to the formal text of the prayers.

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” – shows that G-d Himself engages in prayer on our behalf.

In his Sefer HaMitzvot, 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. Is it possible that this is an allusion to prayer as a replacement for the Temple service?

* * * *


Answer: We now cite from Rambam, in his magnum opus Yad HaChazaka, also referred to as Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Tefillah ch. 1), where drawing on many sources, he provides us with a clear understanding of the post-Sinaitic requirement for prayer. He states: “On the basis of tradition [of what we were instructed at Mt. Sinai], we have learned that the avodah [i.e., the service 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. [If it were dependent on time, they would not have the obligation to pray.] This precept requires that a person implore [G-d] and pray [to Him] 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. [Finally,] he is to give praise and thanks to G-d for the good that He has given him. Each individual [would do so] according to his capabilities….”

Rambam continues with a historical description: “Such was the manner of prayer from the time of Moses until Ezra. However, since the Children of Israel had been 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 (Nehemia 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 [the state of affairs] they instituted for them the Shemoneh Esreh (the Eighteen Benedictions of the Amidah; see Megillah 17b-18a).

“They decreed that the number of [daily] prayers should coincide with the number of sacrifices [in the Holy Temple]: Two daily prayers corresponding to the two Temidim [the two Daily Offerings], and, for days on which there was a Korban Mussaf [an Additional Sacrifice, such as one marking the Sabbath, the New Moon and the Festivals], they instituted a third prayer for the Mussaf sacrifice. The prayer corresponding to the Daily Offering of the morning was called the Morning Prayer [Shacharit]; the prayer corresponding to the Daily Offering of the afternoon was called Mincha [lit., a present or gift offering], and the prayer corresponding to the Additional Sacrifice was called Mussaf [lit., additional]. They also established the requirement for an evening prayer, since the limbs of the afternoon sacrifice would continue to burn and be consumed throughout the night. The evening prayer, Arbit [as Sephardim refer to it] or Ma’ariv [as Ashkenazim refer to it] is not of the same obligatory standard as Shacharit and Mincha. However, all of Israel, wherever they resided, followed the custom of reciting the Arbit or Ma’ariv prayer and took it upon themselves as an obligatory prayer.”

We see from all of the above that Ezra the Scribe and his Beit Din established the text as well as the times for these prayers.

Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 8:9-12) now proceeds to discuss variations in the prayers, namely, additions depending on special occasions as well as various laws pertaining to prayer. He covers the function of the shliach tzibbur, the reader [or cantor] who leads the congregation in prayer, and the required qualifications of one who is appointed to exercise that job. He states that the shliach tzibbur is delegated to fulfill the obligation of the congregation, i.e., those of the assembled who listen and respond Amen after each beracha. But this function of the shliach tzibbur was established only for those who do not know the prayers, whereas those who know how to pray fulfill their obligation only if they themselves recite the prayers.

In Tractate Rosh Hashana (35a) we are told that Rabban Gamaliel also used to allow those working in the fields – who were prevented by their work from coming to the synagogue at the required time and were therefore considered anusim, i.e., those restrained by matters beyond their control – to have their obligations of prayer fulfilled by the reader.

The fact that a distinction was made between those who “know how to pray” and those who do not is proof that some had memorized the text while others had not mastered it. A reader who was well versed in the prayers was therefore needed to fulfill the obligations of the others.

(To be continued)


Previous articleMahmoud Abbas’ Jewish problem
Next articleChabad House for Israelis in Orange County Celebrates Its First Sefer Torah
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.