Shiur: Rav Soloveitchik on Tefillah #2 – The Community of Prophecy and Prayer

The Community of Prophecy and Prayer

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 51–52

With the sound of the divine voice addressing man by his name, be it Abraham, Moses, or Samuel, God, whom man has sought along the endless trails of the universe, is discovered suddenly as being close to and intimate with man, standing just opposite or beside him. At this meeting—initiated by God—of God and man, the covenantal prophetic community is established. When man addresses himself to God, calling Him in the informal, friendly tones of “Thou,” the same miracle happens again: God joins man and at this meeting, initiated by man, a new covenantal community is born—the prayer community.

Covenantal Dialogue

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 52–53

I have termed both communities, the prophetic and the prayerful, covenantal because of a threefold reason. (i) In both communities, a confrontation of God and man takes place. It is quite obvious that the prophecy awareness, which is toto genere different from the mystical experience, can only be interpreted in the unique categories of the covenantal event. The whole idea of prophecy would be fraught with an inner contradiction if man’s approach to God remained indirect and impersonal, expecting nature to mediate between him and his Creator. Only within the covenantal community, which is formed by God descending upon the mount and man, upon the call of the Lord, ascending the mount, is a direct and personal relationship expressing itself in the prophetic “face-to-face” colloquy established. “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face as man speaketh unto his friend.”

Prayer likewise is unimaginable without having man stand before and address himself to God in a manner reminiscent of the prophets dialogue with God. The cosmic drama, notwithstanding its grandeur and splendor, no matter how distinctly it reflects the image of the Creator and no matter how beautifully it tells His glory, cannot provoke man to prayer.

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 55–56

Indeed, the prayer community was born the very instant the prophetic community expired and, when it did come into the spiritual world of the Jew of old, it did not supersede the prophetic community but rather perpetuated it. Prayer is the continuation of prophecy, and the fellowship of prayerful men is ipso facto the fellowship of prophets. The difference between prayer and prophecy is, as I have already mentioned, related not to the substance of the dialogue but rather to the order in which it is conducted. While within the prophetic community God takes the initiative—He speaks and man listens—in the prayer community the initiative belongs to man: he does the speaking and God, the listening. The word of prophecy is God’s and is accepted by man. The word of prayer is man’s and God accepts it. The two Halakhic traditions tracing the origin of prayer to Abraham and the other Patriarchs and attributing the authorship of statutory prayer to the men of the Great Assembly reveal the Judaic view of the sameness of the prophecy and prayer communities. Covenantal prophecy and prayer blossomed forth the very instant Abraham met God and became involved in a strange colloquy. At a later date, when the mysterious men of this wondrous assembly witnessed the bright summer day of the prophetic community, full of color and sound, turning to a bleak autumnal night of dreadful silence unillumined by the vision of God or made homely by His voice, they refused to acquiesce in this cruel historical reality and would not let the ancient dialogue between God and men come to an end. For the men of the Great Assembly knew that with the withdrawal of the colloquy from the field of consciousness of the Judaic community, the latter would lose the intimate companionship of God and consequently its covenantal status. In prayer they found the salvation of the colloquy, which, they insisted, must go on forever. If God had stopped calling man, they urged, let man call God. And so the covenantal colloquy was shifted from the level of prophecy to that of prayer.

Ethics – Third Parties to Prayer

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 57–59

Both the prophetic and the prayerful communities are threefold structures, consisting of all three grammatical personae—I, thou, and He. The prophet in whom God confides and to whom He entrusts His eternal word must always remember that he is the representative of the many anonymous “they” for whom the message is earmarked. No man, however great and noble, is worthy of God’s word if he fancies that the word is his private property not to be shared by others.

The prayerful community must not, likewise, remain a twofold affair: a transient “I” addressing himself to the eternal “He.” The inclusion of others is indispensable. Man should avoid praying for himself alone. The plural form of prayer is of central Halakhic significance. When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively of himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself. The foundation of efficacious and noble prayer is human solidarity and sympathy or the covenantal awareness of existential togetherness, of sharing and experiencing the travail and suffering of those for whom majestic Adam the first has no concern. Only Adam the second knows the art of praying since he confronts God with the petition of the many. The fenced-in egocentric and ego-oriented Adam the first is ineligible to join the covenantal prayer community of which God is a fellow member.

Law and Democratization

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 59

Both communities sprang into existence not only because of a singular experience of having met God, but also and perhaps mainly because of the discovery of the normative kerygma entailed in this very experience. Any encounter with God, if it is to redeem man, must be crystallized and objectified as a normative ethico-moral message. If, however, the encounter is reduced to its non-kerygmatic and non-imperative aspects, no matter how great and magnificent an experience it is, it cannot be classified as a covenantal encounter since the very semantics of the term “covenant” implies freely assumed obligations and commitments. 

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 61

The above-said, which is true of the universal faith community in general, has particular validity for the Halakhic community. The prime purpose of revelation in the opinion of the Halakhah is related to the giving of the Law. The God—man confrontation serves a didactic goal. God involves Himself in the covenantal community through the medium of teaching and instructing. The Halakhah has looked upon God since time immemorial as the teacher par excellence. This educational task was in turn entrusted to the prophet whose greatest ambition is to teach the covenantal community. In short, God’s word is ipso facto God’s law and norm.

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 61–63

Let me add that for Judaism the reverse would be not only unthinkable but immoral as well. If we were to eliminate the norm from the prophetic God—man encounter, confining the latter to its apocalyptic aspects, then the whole prophetic drama would be acted out by a limited number of privileged individuals to the exclusion of the rest of the people. Such a prospect, turning the prophetic colloquy into an esoteric-egotistic affair, would be immoral from the viewpoint of Halakhic Judaism, which is exoterically-minded and democratic to its very core. The democratization of the God—man confrontation was made possible by the centrality of the normative element in prophecy. Only the norm engraved upon the two tablets of stone, visible and accessible to all, draws the people into this confrontation “Ye are placed this day, all of you, before the Eternal, your God; your heads of your tribes, your elders and your bailiffs, with all the men of Israel… from the hewer of thy wood unto the drawer of thy water.” And how can the woodchopper and the water drawer participate in this adventurous meeting of God and man, if not through helping in a humble way to realize the covenantal norm?

Prayer likewise consists not only of an awareness of the presence of God, but of an act of committing oneself to God and accepting His ethico-moral authority. Who is qualified to engage God in the prayer colloquy? Clearly, the person who is ready to cleanse himself of imperfection and evil. Any kind of injustice, corruption, cruelty, or the like desecrates the very essence of the prayer adventure, since it encases man in an ugly little world into which God is unwilling to enter. If man craves to meet God in prayer, then he must purge himself of all that separates him from God. The Halakhah has never looked upon prayer as a separate magical gesture in which man may engage without integrating it into the total pattern of his life. God hearkens to prayer if it rises from a heart contrite over a muddled and faulty life and from a resolute mind ready to redeem this life. In short, only the committed person is qualified to pray and to meet God.

Prayer is always the harbinger of moral reformation. This is the reason why prayer per se does not occupy as prominent a place in the Halakhic community as it does in other faith communities, and why prayer is not the great religious activity claiming, if not exclusiveness, at least centrality. Prayer must always be related to a prayerful life which is consecrated to the realization of the divine imperative, and as such it is not a separate entity, but the sublime prologue to Halakhic action.

Masorah and Overcoming Finitude

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 61–63

Let us not forget that the covenantal community includes the “He” who addresses Himself to man not only from the “now” dimension but also from the supposedly already vanished past, from the ashes of a dead “before” facticity as well as from the as yet unborn future, for all boundaries establishing “before,” “now,” and “after” disappear when God the Eternal speaks. Within the covenantal community not only contemporary individuals but generations are engaged in a colloquy, and each single experience of time is three-dimensional, manifesting itself in memory, actuality, and anticipatory tension. This experiential triad, translated into moral categories, results in an awesome awareness of responsibility to a great past which handed down the divine imperative to the present generation in trust and confidence and to a mute future expecting this generation to discharge its covenantal duty conscientiously and honorably. The best illustration of such a paradoxical time awareness, which involves the individual in the historic performances of the past and makes him also participate in the dramatic action of an unknown future, can be found in the Judaic masorah community. The latter represents not only a formal succession within the framework of calendaric time but the union of the three grammatical tenses in an all-embracing time experience. The masorah community cuts across the centuries, indeed millennia, of calendaric time and unites those who already played their part, delivered their message, acquired fame, and withdrew from the covenantal stage quietly and humbly with those who have not yet been given the opportunity to appear on the covenantal stage and who wait for their turn in the anonymity of the “about to be.”

Thus, the individual member of the covenantal faith community feels rooted in the past and related to the future. The “before” and the “after” are interwoven in his time experience. He is not a hitchhiker suddenly invited to get into a swiftly traveling vehicle which emerged from nowhere and from which he will be dropped into the abyss of timelessness while the vehicle will rush on into parts unknown, continually taking on new passengers and dropping the old ones. Covenantal man begins to find redemption from insecurity and to feel at home in the continuum of time and responsibility which is experienced by him in its endless totality. מעולם ועד עולם, from everlasting even to everlasting. He is no longer an evanescent being. He is rooted in everlasting time, in eternity itself. And so covenantal man confronts not only a transient contemporary “thou” but countless “thou” generations which advance toward him from all sides and engage him in the great colloquy in which God Himself participates with love and joy.

Conclusion

Perpetuation of ProphecyHalakhah is “Democratic”Mesorah
Halakhic ManMake yourself into someone who could get prophecyHalakhah’s obligations are equally fulfillable by each and every JewParticipation in Halakhic discourse makes your part of trans-historic mesorah and thus overcomes death
And From There You Shall SeekIdentify with the chain of figures stretching back to the Prophets and Moshe, giving rise to Oral TorahHalakhah’s obligations are equally fulfillable by each and every JewIdentify deeply with and feel driven by the passing on of the tradition
The Lonely Man of FaithPrayer as a covenantal dialogueHalakhah’s obligations are equally fulfillable by each and every JewIdentify with the covenantal dialogues with the eternal God of Jews both past and future, and feel the moral imperative of that “paradoxical time-awareness”

Shiur: Rav Soloveitchik on Tefillah #1 – The Redemption of Prayer and the Human

The first of two classes on prayer for my 2020 Rav Soloveitchik course. In this class, we explore the centrality of prayer in Judaism, why prayer really is about asking for our needs, and the critical role of suffering in human experience and prayer.

The Redemption of Prayer and the Human

1. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 2

Therefore, when I speak about the philosophy of prayer or Shema, I do not claim universal validity for my conclusions. I am not lecturing on philosophy of prayer as such, but on prayer as understood, experienced and enjoyed by an individual. I acquaint you with my own personal experience. Whether, taking into consideration the differences between minds and the peculiarities of the individual, my experience can be detached from my idiosyncrasies and transferred to others, I do not know.

The Redemption of Prayer

2. Rav Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 55

What is redemption? Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community from the periphery of history to its center; or, to employ a term from physics, redemption is a centripetal movement. To be on the periphery means to be a non-history-making entity, while movement toward the center renders the same entity history-making and history-conscious. Naturally the question arises: What is meant by a history-making people or community? A history-making people is one that leads a speaking, story-telling, communing free existence, while a non-history-making, non-history-involved group leads a non-communing and therefore a silent, unfree existence.

Like redemption, prayer too is a basic experiential category in Judaism. We have appeared, within the historical arena, as a prayerful nation. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon all prayed. Through prayer they achieved the covenant with God, and through prayer, we expect eventually to realize that covenant.

3. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 146–147

According to Rambam, it is impossible to conceive of Divine worship without including prayer in it. What then is prayer? It is the expression of the soul that yearns for God via the medium of the word, through which the human being gives expression to the storminess of his soul and spirit.

The Torah commands love and fear of God, total commitment to Him and cleaving unto Him. Antithetical, dynamic experiences which seek to erupt and reveal themselves must be integrated into the external, concrete realm through the forms of language and expression, by means of song, weeping and supplication.

Had the Torah not commanded prayer as the exclusive medium for expressing inward worship—we do not know what the God-seeking human being, whose soul thirsts for the living God, would do. Could one entertain the thought that Judaism would want man to suppress his experience? On the contrary! The Halakhah was always interested in expressions of the inner life, in the uncovering of the subjective and opaque, and in the conversion of emotion and thought into action. How could one assume that the Halakhah was totally oblivious to the supreme attainment—that is, to prayer?! Did Halakhah demand that worship be mute, that experiences be concealed, that they not be allowed expression?

When Rambam said that prayer is Biblically ordained and identical with the service of the heart, he thereby redeemed love, fear, and indeed our entire religious life from muteness. They were given a voice. The lover expresses his yearning, the trembler his fear, the wretched and dejected his helplessness, the perplexed his confusion, and the joyful his religious song—all within the framework of prayer. 

Prayer, Suffering, and Petition

4. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 12

The reason for the centrality that Judaism has given to the element of petition in the service lies in our philosophy of prayer. Avodah she-ba-lev, for all its tendency to express the religious experience as a whole, and particularly its emotional aspect, does also tend to single out a particular state of mind. For when we view the noetic content of prayer we must admit that one emotion is central as far as prayer is concerned— namely the feeling of unqualified dependence. David expressed this experience of complete, absolute, unconditional dependence upon God in his beautiful verses: “If I did not quiet myself like a weaned child upon his mother, verily my soul is like one weaned. Let Israel hope in God now and forever” (Ps. 131:2-3).

5. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 32–33

Human existence exhausts itself in the experience of crisis, in the continual discovering of oneself in distress, in the steady awareness of coming closer and closer to the brink of utter despair, the paradoxical concept of being born out of nothingness and running down to nothingness. This is a part of the ontic consciousness of man. The factum expressed in the two words “I am” is an incomplete sentence. We must always qualify it by adding two words: “I am in distress.” Judaism wants man to discover the tragic element of his existence, to place himself voluntarily in distressing narrowness, to explicate and bring to the fore the deep-seated crisis in his very existence. Surely man must fight courageously against the extraneous surface crisis. Judaism has charged man with the task of improving creation, of confronting evil and destructive forces, of protecting himself against disease and natural catastrophes, approaching the world with an optimistic philosophy of activism…

Out of the depths in which the individual finds himself, one calls upon God in seclusion and loneliness. The existential, passional experience is not shared by the thou, however close he is to the I, since it is an integral part of the existential awareness, which is singular, and hence inexpressible in the universal terms through which we communicate our standardized experiences. No one but the sufferer himself is involved in this deeply human anguish and conflict. It is the sufferer whose awareness oscillates between bliss and pain, in the great negation of the finite that rises out of its confrontation by the infinite. Neither spouse nor child nor parent may understand and sympathize with the lonely individual when his existential experience is at a low ebb, when trials, doubts and inhibitions abound. The prayer echoing the depth crisis of a questing soul emerges from seclusion, from out of the loneliness of the individual whom everybody save God has abandoned.

6. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 35–36

When man is in need and prays, God listens. One of God’s attributes is shomea tefillah: “He who listens to prayer.” Let us note that Judaism has never promised that God accepts all prayer. The efficacy of prayer is not the central term of inquiry in our philosophy of avodah she-ha-lev. Acceptance of prayer is a hope, a vision, a wish, a petition, but not a principle or a premise. The foundation of prayer is not the conviction of its effectiveness but the belief that through it we approach God intimately and the miraculous community embracing finite man and his Creator is born. The basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences but the metaphysical formation of a fellowship consisting of God and man.

Man is always in need because he is always in crisis and distress. Inner distress expresses itself in man’s disapproval of himself. This awareness is of a metaphysical origin, although it may be manifested at an individual-psychological, social-institutional or political level. Man is dissatisfied with himself and he lacks faith in the justifiability and legitimacy of his existence. Somehow, every human being, great or small, however successful and outstanding, loses every day afresh his ontic fulcrum (the equilibrium of his being), which he tries steadily to recover. He feels the paradox involved in an existence which has been imposed upon him in an unexplained way, and which finally betrays and deserts him in the same absurd manner: “Against your will were you born, against your will do you live, and against your will do you die” (Avot 4:29). Even the simplest man may perceive and comprehend this existential tragic aspect of man.

7. Rav Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 65–66

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person’s own need-awareness is dull, and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferre ergo sum – I suffer, therefore I am – to paraphrase Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. While the Cartesian cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil knows suffering.

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about. Of the nineteen benedictions in our עמידה, thirteen are concerned with basic human needs, individual as well as social-national. Even two of the last three benedictions (רצה and שים שלום) are of a petitional nature. The person in need is summoned to pray… To a happy man, to contented man, the secret of prayer was not revealed. God needs neither thanks nor hymns. He wants to hear the outcry of man, confronted with a ruthless reality. He expects prayer to rise from a suffering world cognizant of its genuine needs. In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer. Of course, the very instant he finds himself, he becomes a redeemed being.

Sacrifice – Because nothing is ever just one thing

8. Rav Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 70–72

What does this term denote? Not the service by the heart, but the offering of the heart; Judaic dialectic plays “mischievously” with two opposites, two irreconcilable aspects of prayer. It announces prayer as self-acquisition, self-discovery, self-objectification and self-redemption. By sensitizing and logicizing the awareness of need, man delivers himself from the silence and from non-being and becomes an I, a complete being who belongs to himself. At this level, prayer makes man feel whole: at this level, prayer means self-acquisition. Yet there is another aspect to prayer: prayer is an act of giving away. Prayer means sacrifice, unrestricted offering of the whole self, the returning to God of body and soul, everything one possesses and cherishes. There is an altar in heaven upon which the archangel Michael offers the souls of the righteous. Thrice daily we petition God to accept our prayers, as well as the fires – the self-sacrifices of Israel – on that altar (ואשי ישראל ותפילתם באהבה תקבל ברצון). Prayer is rooted in the idea that man belongs, not to himself, but that God claims man, and that His claim to man is not partial but total… Of course Judaism is vehemently opposed to human sacrifice. The Bible speaks with indignation and disdain of child sacrifice; physical human sacrifice was declared abominable. Yet the idea that man belongs to God, without qualification, and that God, from time to time, makes a demand upon man to return what is God’s to God is an important principle in Judaism…

A new equation emerges: prayer equals sacrifice. Initially, prayer helps man discover himself, through understanding and affirmation of his need-awareness. Once the task of self-discovery is fulfilled, man is summoned to ascend the altar and return everything he has just acquired to God. Man who was told to create himself, objectify himself, and gain independence and freedom for himself, must return everything he considers his own to God.

Suffering and the Community of Prayer

9. Rav Soloveitchik, “The Community,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 19

When the I becomes aware of his being responsible for the well-being of the thou, whom he has helped bring into existence, a new community emerges: the community of prayer. What does this mean? It means a community of common pain, of common suffering. The Halacha has taught the individual to include his fellow man in his prayer. The individual must not limit himself to his own needs, no matter how pressing those needs are and how distinguished he is. Halacha has formulated prayer in the plural. There is hardly a prayer which avails itself of the grammatical singular. Even private prayers, such as those offered on the occasion of sickness, death, or other crises, are recited in the plural.

10. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 19

Job suddenly understood the nature of Jewish prayer. He discovered in one moment its plural voice and the attribute of loving-kindness that sweeps man from the private to the public domain. He began to live a communal life, to feel the community’s hurts, to mourn its disasters and rejoice in its moments of celebration. Job’s sufferings found their true repair in his escape from the prison in which he had found himself, and God’s wrath was assuaged. As it is written: “And the Lord changed the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends״ (Job 42:10).

Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Before you is a gemara from Masekhet Berakhot that I can only describe as subversive. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.” (Translation from halakhah.com)

 

This gemara presents 4 differing approaches to the question of the effectiveness of prayer, with most of them being quite subversive. I’m still not quite sure what to do with this gemara myself, so for now I would just like to lay out the gemara as I understand it.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

 

Opinion #1, that of Rabbi Hanin and Rabbi Hanina is what I think of as the classical approach to tefillah. Prayer works. If you pray for something you will get a response. If you pray for something and there is no noticeable, presumably positive, response, it is because you are not praying properly. If you want your prayer to succeed, then you have to pray harder. Pray longer. Prayer works, so if it’s not working for you than the problem must be with you/ The flipside is that this means the problem is likely within your power to fix.

 

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

 

Rabbi Hiyya the son of Abba presents Opinion #2, a radically opposite to Opinion #1. Expecting your prayer to work is just going to frustrate you. Tefillah doesn’t “work” in the classical sense. However tefillah is thought to work, it is not a guarantee. It does not itself effect any process in some sort of mechanical way. If you think it does, then prayer will inevitably be a frustrating experience for you. His solution for this frustration is to study Torah, presumably either because A) it is a process the results of which are obvious, thus alleviating the frustration of waiting unendingly for the results of prayer, or, conversely, because B) Torah study is a practice with no expected results, and the change of mindset from result-focused to process-focused relieves the frustration.

 

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

 

The gemara is alive to the fundamental contradiction between the two opinions. The two opinions present opposite results (tefillah works/frustrates) for almost exactly the same process (one who prays long, כל המאריך בתפילתו). The gemara resolves this by focusing on the one difference between the two descriptions of tefillah: “looking for fulfillment,” “המעיין בה.” The gemara thus resolves the contradiction by saying that the two results (works/frustrates) apply to two distinctly different processes.

This provides us with Opinion #3. Tefillah works, but only when you have given up on any thought that it works. If you pray thinking that your tefillah works, that your prayer sets in motion a process leading to the results you desire, then it is seemingly guaranteed that your prayer will not work. If you think tefillah works, then it only frustrates. On a theological level this has its own logic to it. Process A leads to Result A; while Process B leads to Result B. On an existential level, Opinion #3 is asking you to pray without expecting any results from it.

EDIT: It’s important to note, in terms of understanding the Gemara, that at this point one should probably assume Opinions 1 & 2 never existed. They arise in the course of the discussion with a superficial contradiction, but a careful reading by the anonymous voice of the Talmud points out the obvious resolution, leading us to realize that Opinions 1 & 2, then, are really just different facets of one opinion, Opinion #3. My thanks to David Nagarpowers for pushing me to clarify this point.

 

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.”

 

This last piece of the gemara might seem to be technically separate from the previous pieces. It falls outside the immediate argument, but is also about prayer and thus might have been recorded together. However, I think the connection goes deeper than that. Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina (see the author of Opinion #1) gives us Opinion #4, which is somewhere in between Opinions #1 & #3, while rejecting Opinion #2. Rabbi Hama says that tefillah does not work in a strict sense. There is no one-to-one connection between prayer and result. Thus when one prays one should not expect their prayer to work, but nor should they simply expect their desires to be frustrated. Instead, they should hope. Rav Hama invokes a verse which equates praying with “קוה,” which can be translated as “wait” or “hope.” The verse refers to קוה, then to taking courage, then to קוה again. So too Rav Hama says that a person should pray, then they should not be frustrated if their tefillah is not answered, and then they should pray again.

Opinion #4 says tefilla can work even if you think it works, but also says that it may or may not work no matter what you think. But it’s that “may” that makes it distinct from Opinion #2, indeed from all the previous opinions. All those opinions insisted on an absolute approach to tefillah. It either works, or it doesn’t, or either one depending on the specific conditions of the prayer. Opinion #4 doesn’t leave you with a strong sense of certainty, which can be troubling. But it leaves the options open, and leaves you the ability to hope.

 

This gemara presents 4 opinions about tefillah, with one being the classical approach that “Tefillah works” (#1), while the other three range from simply complicating how tefilla works (#3) to rejecting the idea entirely (#2), suggesting, that rather than working, Tefillah frustrates. Even the more moderate final approaches that the gemara concludes with (#3 & #4) are a strong step away from the classical model that the gemara starts with, and thus this gemara can only be seen as subversive. I’m not sure yet what to make of this gemara, how to fit it into a broader picture of prayer, Hazal, Judaism, etc. I am, however, fascinated by it, and I would love to hear if anyone has any different ways of interpreting it.