It has become fashionable in certain circles to encourage people to pray for anything that they want. The reasoning is that since there is nothing difficult – let alone, impossible – for God, we should not put any limitations on what we ask of Him. Comforting, though, such an idea may be, it is apparently at odds with Jewish tradition.
It is true that the Talmud has Chizkiyahu (Berakhot 10b) teaching us that “even if we have a sword poised against our necks to kill us, we should still not refrain from prayer.” Nevertheless, it is clear from other passages that there are limits. The clearest and most authoritative expression of these limits is found in a famous Mishnah in Berakhot (9:3). There we find that we are seemingly not allowed to pray for God to reverse the gender of a fetus. Though the Yerushalmi limits this to when the baby is coming out, the poskim understand the Bavli to be saying that it is forbidden from when the sex is determined – tradtionally, forty days after conception.
The above Mishnah defines the problem as praying to undo the past. But according to the Gra and others, this is not meant as an exclusive condition. Rather, the Mishnah is just an example of asking for something that goes against the ways of nature. Of course, God can change the sex of an embryo in the womb. Yet He refrains from doing so. Likewise with the rest of nature. Hence it is inappropriate to pray for anything that can only happen by way of a miracle. (We often confuse God’s answering us by making the improbable happen with a miracle – the former we should request, the latter we should not.)
On some level, the limits of prayer are intuitive. While we all would like God to reverse the death of our loved ones and bring them back to life right away, I don’t think any of us includes such an item in our prayers. (The second blessing in the Amidah only being an acknowledgement of God’s kindnesses, which prominently includes the revival of all the dead in the future.) Clearly this is not because God is not able to do this. Rather it is in line with the above Mishnah, especially as understood by the Gra.
But there seem to be even more limits to proper prayer than what we have mentioned so far. In Moed Katan (18b), we are also taught not to pray to marry someone specific. Granted, based on another discussion in the Talmud (Sotah 2a), this is ultimately limited to the “first match,” of a person. (The simple reading of this means a first marriage, as opposed to a second marriage; but there are those like Meiri who limit this further.) Regardless, the issue here does not seem to be going against nature – “natural matches” seem to be foiled all the time by the efforts of eager suitors. Rather it is the presumption that we know better what is right for us than God. Of course, one could say the same about any prayer. Yet from the Gemara, it would appear that there is a “stronger” Godly will involved in the making of a person’s first match than in most things. In such a case, prayer – while still having the power to “change” God’s will – represents an unwelcome interference with God’s plans.
In a different situation (Ta’anit 22b), it is likely that Shimon ben Shetach censored the famous Honi HaM’agel for the same reason. The name, HaM’agel (circle-maker), came from Honi’s telling God that he would not move out a circle that he drew on the floor until God would bring rain. Not only that, when God twice gave rain in a way that was unhelpful, Honi challenged God further until God finally acceded to his prayer. While praying for rain is not only legitimate but even expected, there are limits here too. If normative prayer efforts have been exhausted, we should reach the conclusion that God’s answer is no. To continue to pray beyond that point would seem to be an abuse of prayer.
The two reasons given above for not praying are really one: God invites us to pray and participate in the determination of what He does. But this gift should never allow us to forget that only He ultimately knows the best outcome. If He runs the world a certain way – meaning according to nature – He has a good reason for it, and we are not in a position to challenge it. Likewise regarding something that is within the realm of natural possibilities but that He has nevertheless somehow indicated to us that He does not want us to ask. As always, the proper thing to do is to comply with God’s wishes.
We should not be surprised to find out that prayer is not a free-for-all. There is a time to pray and there is a time not to pray. Just as in everything we do, the goal is not to have God do what we want, but rather to do what He wants and thereby sanctify Him in the world. Often, that is accomplished by praying, but sometimes it is better accomplished by not praying – we are to look to halacha to tell us which situation is which. In the latter case, it is particularly important to remember the immortal words of Rav Shimon HaAmsoni, “Ke’shem sh’kebalti schar al ha’derisha, kach ani mekabel schar al haprisha” – the same way that I received reward for action (in his case, biblical interpretation), so too will I receive reward for restraint.“