(photo credit: Courtesy)
What is prayer, and what is its purpose? Hassidism has taught that prayer is
like making love to God.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg said it was “a bridge to
God.” Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel said it was an “act which makes the heart audible
There are two kinds of prayer – spontaneous and
The first occurs any time we feel the need or the desire to
pray – times of trouble, times of joy, times of need, times of thankfulness,
times when we need guidance. It comes spontaneously, in our own words.
Prescribed prayer is the daily routine that Jewish tradition has created, with
the specific prayers that have come down through the centuries.
once asked Rabbi Louis Finkelstein if he was able to achieve true meaning in his
prayer three times every day. He replied that he did not, yet sometimes he did,
and then only because he made prayer part of his regular routine. Without that,
he would never achieve true prayer.
The point of prescribed prayer,
according to Heschel, is to arouse in us a feeling of awe, a feeling of
awareness, a feeling of appreciation. The soul that does not sense the presence
of what he called “the Ineffable” in the world is numb, even dead.
us are overwhelmed by the countless tasks that confront us in daily life. We are
caught up in routine, in work, in household chores, in running here and there,
even in simply having a good time. Although we often exercise our bodies, when
do we pause to exercise the soul? When do we pause to ask ourselves the
questions that really matter: Who and what am I? What purpose do I serve? What
can I do better than I am doing now? What really counts in my life? What is it
that God wants of me? Unless we stop ourselves and make a conscious effort to
find these moments away from our routine, we will never lift ourselves above the
The Sages fancifully taught that our three Patriarchs originated
the three daily prayers. Abraham was the first to pray in the morning. He did so
after his dialogue with God concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah –
thanking God for the safety of his family there, Lot and his wife and children.
Isaac was the first to pray in the afternoon, going out into the field to
meditate as he awaited the arrival of his bride, Rebekah.
originated the evening prayer, praying when he was lonely and afraid, fleeing
from his brother Esau (Brachot 26b).
Abraham was praying in thankfulness.
Jacob was seeking strength for his struggles. Isaac was simply meditating on
life, finding peace and meaning in his existence and perhaps contemplating the
prospect of marriage and family. Each of us has moments like these. We seek
strength, we are grateful for the good things that have happened, we seek to
find a moment of peace, of meaning and significance.
Still, the purest
prayer is not one in which we ask for our needs – though that is permissible and
very human – but the prayer in which we ask that God’s will should become our
It is said of Abraham Lincoln that someone once told him that he
prayed God was on “our side in this war.” Lincoln replied that he prayed they
were on God’s side.
The words of a prayer, the words written in the
siddur, are the text. But there is a subtext as well, and that is the feeling
one brings to the words. Often the subtext is more important than the text. The
text is the springboard for prayer, not the boundary of it. A wordless tune, a
niggun, even a sigh, can be as meaningful as the most beautiful
Prof. Ernst Simon, a saintly man, once said, “Prayer is one of
man’s greatest but also most difficult arts.” It is worth the time and effort it
takes for each of us to master that art and thereby raise our lives to a new
level of meaning.
The writer, former president of the International
Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest
book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).