What is the appropriate length of time for prayers? Reb Menahem Ziemba (1883 - Warsaw Ghetto, 1943), one of the outstanding rabbinic leaders of Polish Jewry, would often finish his silent Amida well before many of the congregants. When asked how was it that a rabbinic personality such as himself could complete his supplications with such speed, he replied: "I say the words; I don't know what everyone else is doing!"
Yet what are the limits of lengthy and abbreviated prayer? When does the service become too drawn out and, conversely, when is it considered too brief? Our sages recount two tales that provide guidance in the appropriate length of prayers (B. Berachot 34a).
A student of Rabbi Eliezer once led the services in front of his teacher. As he excessively lengthened the service, perhaps by adding extra supplications (Meiri, Provence, 13th century), the other students present turned to their teacher: "Our master, what a prolonger this person is."
Rabbi Eliezer calmed his disciples with reference to a biblical episode: "Does he prolong his prayers more than our master Moses? For didn't Moses say: And I threw myself down before God for 40 days and 40 nights (Deuteronomy 9:25)."
Following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses prayed to the Almighty to avert the destruction of the Jewish people. Moses's supplications lasted for 40 days and 40 nights and thus provided a paradigm of protracted prayer. Rabbi Eliezer appears to be chiding his students, explaining that the prayer leader need not be condemned, for he had not exceeded the bounds of extended prayer.
Immediately following this account, the Talmud offers a similar tale that is striking in its variation. A certain student once led the prayer services in the presence of his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer. This time the student markedly abbreviated the service and the other students turned to their teacher: "What an abbreviator this person is."
Again Rabbi Eliezer provided a biblical paradigm in defense of the leader of the service: "Does he abbreviate his prayers more than our teacher Moses did?" The Torah records Moses's concise and crisp prayer for the healing of his sister Miriam: Please God, please heal her (Numbers 12:13). Succinct prayers also have their place.
The commentators sought to differentiate between the two statements of Rabbi Eliezer. Returning to the biblical verses quoted, they distinguished between times when lengthy prayer was called for and circumstances when a concise supplication was appropriate.
One commentator noted that Moses's terse prayer was offered when he sought a cure for Miriam's malady, while his protracted supplications were for the salvation of the entire Jewish people (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). The rule can be drawn from this contrast: When the requests concern the wider public, prayers should be appropriately extended; when praying for the needs of an individual, the supplication should be concise and to the point.
Indeed, following the paradigm of the prayer for Miriam, our sages teach that when seeking divine mercy for a friend, the individual's name need not even be mentioned. As one commentator explained, the Holy One will see into the heart and know the intent of the supplicant (Maharsha). Later authorities limit this ruling to when the prayer is offered in the presence of the person for whom the supplicant is praying; if the object of the prayer is elsewhere, however, the supplicant should include the name (Maharil, 14th-15th centuries, Germany).
Another commentator, using the same method of examining the biblical verses quoted, suggested a different distinction (Rabbi Hanoch Zundel, 19th century, Poland). Moses's clipped prayer was offered for Miriam's physical ailment; his extensive supplications were proffered for the spiritual survival of the Jewish people. Following this distinction, when praying for physical well-being, a concise prayer is suitable. When the prayers concern sacred matters such as spiritual survival, the supplicant should maximize the length of prayers.
Perhaps we could suggest a further approach that focuses not on the biblical verses quoted but on the juxtaposition of the two tales and Rabbi Eliezer's seemingly contradictory teachings. As an enterprise of the soul, prayer should not be artificially bound by dictates of time. It would be incongruous to suggest that a sincere, heartfelt prayer must fit into a predetermined time frame. The sum of Rabbi Eliezer's two statements is that there is no set length of time for prayer.
This lesson may not only be drawn from the juxtaposition of Rabbi Eliezer's two responses. In an earlier rabbinic source, the contrast between Moses's prayers teaches us that there is a time for concise prayer and there is a time for extended prayer (Mehilta). Pointedly, the sources are silent as to when these times are, leaving a gap that the commentators attempt to fill. Perhaps the silence leaves room for flexible approach to the length of prayers.
Moses also provided us with a third paradigm of prayer to complement the lengthy 40-day-and-night prayer and the terse, one-line supplication. After hitting the rock instead of speaking to it to extract water for the Jewish people, Moses was barred from entering the Land of Israel (Numbers 20:7-13). In his parting speech to the Jewish people, Moses related that he beseeched the Almighty to allow him to enter the Promised Land. Our sages tell us that the word used to describe Moses's supplication - va'et'hanan (and I besought; Deuteronomy 3:23) - contains a hint about Moses's prayer approach. The numerical value of the word va'et'hanan indicates that Moses offered 515 supplications, beseeching the Almighty to grant him access to the Land of Israel (Yalkut Shimoni).
Alongside the concise prayer and the extended prayer, we also have the repeated supplication offered over a lengthy period of time. Thus Rabbi Eliezer's responses and Moses's prayers suggest that our prayers should not conform to a set time schedule. In certain circumstances we may be moved to lengthy supplications. At other times a soulful but terse prayer will emanate from our hearts. And there may be cases when a protracted prayer is offered not in one sitting but over time.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.