For the week ending 9 May 2015 / 20 Iyyar 5775

Torah Prayer

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Gabe

Dear Rabbi,

Since the prayers were instituted by the rabbis of the Talmud, before that time did Jews not pray? Or if they did, how did they pray?

Dear Gabe,

Before the Sages instituted the formal payers we know today, Jews prayed according to the Torah. What does this mean?

For one, when discussing the basis for the rabbinic requirement to pray, the Talmud (Berachot 26a) says that the Sages patterned their prayers after the Torah-mandated sacrifices — morning, afternoon and evening (since the afternoon offering was completed in the evening). In fact, in the absence of the Temple, the prayers are described as being in lieu of the sacrifices. Accordingly, before the formal rabbinic prayers, Jews got close to G-d through the venue of personal or communal sacrifices. Indeed, the word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “korban” which implies “getting close”.

Secondly, another source mentioned in the Talmud (Ber. 26a) as a basis for the formal rabbinic prayers is the example of the forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Avraham is described as standing before G-d in prayer early in the morning (Gen. 19); Yitzchak is described as communing in the fields in the late afternoon (Gen. 24); and Yaakov’s quintessential connection to G-d occurred at night (Gen. 28). Even though their service was individualized, their prayers set a precedent for personalized prayer, which was followed by their descendents until eventually becoming the basis for the standardized rabbinic prayers.

Lastly, even though the Torah does not prescribe a daily requirement to pray specifically-worded payers, according to the Rambam there is still a Torah requirement to pray to G-d in one’s own words at least once a day (Laws of Prayer 1:3). Most other commentators differ (See Mishna Berura 106:2:4). But even they agree that the Torah requires calling out to G-d for help in time of individual crisis or during times of danger for the community, such as times of famine or war (See Rambam, Laws of Fasting 1:1 on Num. 10:9). Thus, even before the Sages instituted the formal prayers, Jews nevertheless fulfilled the mitzvah of prayer, either personally or in these types of circumstances, respectively.

One very important point that’s worth making in the context of this discussion is that since individualized, personal prayers were practiced at least since the times of the forefathers, the formalized, rabbinically required prayers were not intended to, and should not, replace personal prayer. Rather, they were instituted in addition to, or parallel to, one’s personal prayers that develop and maintain a highly personal relationship with G-d. In truth, the two forms of prayer actually complement each other and eventually, if one works hard at it, can be merged and fused into one uplifting and inspiring connection with G-d.

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