Photo Credit:
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Tetzaveh is the priestly sedrah par excellence. The name of Moses does not appear – the only sedrah of which this is true from the beginning of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy. Instead, the place of honor is occupied by Aaron and his sons, the priests – their tasks, vestments, and consecration. In this column I want to look at an argument between two of the great medieval sages, Maimonides and Nahmanides, in relation to prayer. What is the nature of worship in Judaism?

On the duty to pray, Maimonides writes the following:


“To pray daily is a positive duty, as it is said, ‘And you shall serve the Lord your G-d’ (Exodus 23:25). The service here referred to, according to the teaching of tradition, is prayer, as it is said, ‘And to serve Him with all your heart’ (Deut. 11:13), on which the sages commented, ‘What is the service of the heart? Prayer.’ The number of prayers is not prescribed in the Torah. No form of prayer is prescribed in the Torah. Nor does the Torah prescribe a fixed time for prayer … The obligation in this precept is that every person should daily, according to his ability, offer up supplication and prayer…” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 1:1-2).

Maimonides regards prayer as a biblical command, even though the details (texts, times, etc.) were formulated by the rabbis. Nahmanides (in his glosses to Maimonides’s Sefer HaMitzvot, positive commands, 5) disagrees. He points to the many indications in the literature that suggest that prayer is only a rabbinic institution. Prayer in the Bible, he says, is a privilege, not a duty (with the sole exception of the command to cry out to G-d at times of national distress). Worship in the Bible takes the form of sacrifices, not prayer. How are we to understand their disagreement?

There is a key passage in the Talmud (Berachot 26b) that sets us thinking in the right direction:

“It has been stated: R. Yosi, son of R. Hanina, said, ‘The prayers (morning, afternoon and evening) were instituted by the patriarchs.’ R. Joshua ben Levi said, ‘The prayers were instituted to replace the daily sacrifices.’ ”

According to R. Yosi, son of R. Hanina, the patriarchs set the precedent for prayer. Abraham established the morning prayer, as it is said, “And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood” (Genesis 19:27). Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer, as it is said, “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening” (Genesis 24:63). Jacob instituted the evening prayer when he received his vision – at night – of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28). The sages cited proof texts to show that each of these was an occasion of prayer.

According to R. Joshua ben Levi, however, the prayers correspond to the daily sacrifices: the morning and afternoon prayers represent the morning and afternoon offerings. The evening prayer mirrors the completion of the sacrificial process (the burning of the limbs), which was done at night.

This is a fascinating dispute because it reminds us that there were two different spiritual traditions in the Torah: the priestly and the prophetic. These were different roles, occupied by distinct kinds of people, and involved different forms of consciousness.

Prophetic prayer in the Bible is spontaneous. It arises out of the situation and the moment. We think of Abraham’s prayer on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah; Jacob’s prayer before his encounter with Esau; Moses’s prayer to G-d to forgive the Israelites after the golden calf; Hannah’s prayer for a child. No two such prayers are alike.


Previous articleThe Soft Call Of The Priestly Bells
Next articleThe Anglo Vote Video
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.