Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 10 January 2004 / 16 Tevet 5764

Prayer Is Anyone Listening?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Sharon in London

Dear Rabbi,

I realize that G-d controls everything. Therefore I pray to Him that He help me in whatever I do, even for the small, insignificant things. The problem is, He doesnt seem to hear. Why isnt G-d answering my prayers?

Dear Sharon,

It is very good that you realize the need to pray to G-d for help in whatever you do. Praying to G-d is a positive commandment mentioned many times in the Torah, for example "I command you this dayto serve [Me] with all your heart" (Deut. 11:13). Our sages clarified "What is service of the heart? It is prayer". We are particularly commanded to pray to Him for help in times of distress (Num. 12:9).

The Torah warns, "Bewarelest you say in your heart, my strength and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth" (Deut. 8:17). We must remember that while we need to strive for what we want, ultimately our success is from G-d. Praying to Him for success helps us to remember this. Conversely, since success depends on G-d, He may decide, either for our own good or because we lack merit, not to answer our prayers.

The Talmud teaches that one who is persistent in his prayers will ultimately be answered. Expecting G-d to answer our prayers, though, is wrong, and can cause "heart pains" when the prayer goes unanswered. In such a case, what should one do? Our Sages suggest studying Torah, which will increase ones merit in order that the prayers be answered. Then pray again, as the verse suggests, "Wait on the Lord, strengthen your heart, and wait on the Lord" (Psalms 27:14).

That being said, often G-d answers and it is we who dont hear: Once a man fell overboard and was in danger of drowning. He prayed to G-d, "Save me." A man rowed by and offered to pull him aboard. "G-d will save me", he replied. A sailboat passed and threw him a rope. "G-d will save me". A large ship approached and lowered a ladder. "G-d will save me". Eventually the man drowned and, standing before the heavenly tribunal, demanded "I had faith in G-d, I prayed to Him, why didnt He answer me?" Came the reply, "He answered you three times but you werent listening".


  • Shulcan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 106:1
  • Rambam, Mishna Torah, Tefilla, 1:1
  • Ramban, on Rambams Sefer HaMitzvot, mitzvah 5, argues that the requirement to pray is rabbinic, and that the Torah commandment to pray is only in times of distress.
  • Taanit 2a
  • Berachot 32b, Maharsha

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