Is Prayer a Mitzvah?
The opinion of Nachmanides (the Ramban) regarding prayer is well known. It is found in his work called the “Comments of The Ramban to the “Book of Mitzvot”. He explains that prayer cannot be defined as a Torah obligation. Rather, it is an expression of G-d’s kindness to listen to all who call out to Him in prayer, just as a loving king, in his great mercy, listens to the requests of his people. Perhaps, according to this approach, prayer is more than a mitzvah since it represents the essential connection between man and his Creator.
In contrast to this, Maimonides (the Rambam) counts prayer as one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot of the Torah (Sefer Hamitzvot, mitzvah 5). According to his ruling it is one’s daily obligation to pray to G-d.
One may ask what these two great Torah giants are arguing about. What is the gain or loss (other than the one mentioned above) if we call prayer a command or not?
As in any dialogue, there are two parties involved.
From the perspective of man’s responsibility in the world, prayer as a command teaches a person that he is obligated to express his belief in G-d’s existence by acknowledging G-d as the absolute Ruler of the world, Who governs over all the details of a person’s life. It follows, therefore, that one who refuses to pray, expresses a lack of faith and trust in God as Creator and Ruler over the forces of Creation. (Divine Providence is one of the fundamental principles of our faith and is directly connected to the concept of prayer. For further research on this topic, see Sefer Ha’Ikarim, Discourse four; chapters 16-18.)
If, however, we look at prayer from G-d’s perspective, we can view it in a different light. Since prayer is a privilege granted to man by G-d in order to appeal to His mercy, it would follow that if a person chooses not to pray his action would not be defined as a lack of fulfilling his obligation, but rather as a lost opportunity. Although by not praying a person will have lost his chance to gain G-d’s favor through prayer, he, however, would not be considered to have transgressed a positive mitzvah.
A difference between these two approaches would be in a case where someone didn’t pray because he felt absolutely sure that G-d would take care of him. According to the opinion of the Ramban his actions may be deemed praiseworthy, while according to the opinion of Maimonides he will have neglected to fufill a positive command.