Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 3 February 2018 / 18 Shevat 5778

Personal Prayer

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
ArtscrollLibrary

Until the Common Era prayer did not have a set time or text. People prayed in their own words whenever they chose, each according to his ability. Those more fluent beseeched and praised G-d more, while those who found it difficult to arrange their words prayed less. Some prayed once a day, while others prayed several times.

As a result of exile and persecution, language became confused and Hebrew was becoming forgotten among the average people. Therefore, the leaders at that time organized a set text for all to pray. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 1:3-4)

The Shelah HaKadosh explains that although the Men of the Great Assembly composed a fixed text of prayers for all Jews, in addition each person should pray to G-d spontaneously for his needs. “For every endeavor, one should pray to G-d, expressing himself in any way he is able. After praying, one can engage in his endeavors and trust that G-d will help.”

Rabbi Natan writes, “One should make sure to pray to G-d in his own language. This is how prayer began. The main form of prayer is an expression of the heart before G-d in a person’s own words, as Rambam writes in the beginning of his Laws of Prayer. He states that this was originally the main form of prayer, before worship was formalized by the Men of the Great Assembly.

“But even according to the Law, the original form of prayer is still of utmost importance. Although we follow the order of prayer ordained, one’s personal prayer, as it originally existed, is still the most beneficial. Make a habit of praying to G-d from the depths of your heart, using your own words, in whatever language you know best. Ask G-d to make you truly worthy of serving Him. This is the essence of prayer.”

One should accustom oneself to pray regularly in his own words. Even someone who understands the set prayers in lashon hakodesh should do so, because his own words will be more natural, coming from his heart. All the more so, someone who doesn’t understand Hebrew must make time to pray in his own language, which is the only way for his words to be expressions of his heart. Even a short prayer said with feeling, the way one person speaks to another, will surely be most dear to G-d.

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