religious women praying 521 AP.
(photo credit: AP)
Prayer plays a definitive role in the Bible, with humanity’s encounter with the
divine frequently manifested in supplication and dialogue.
characters pray for many things: Abraham demands the salvation of Sodom, Jacob
prays for protection, Moses pleads for atonement for the Jewish people, Hannah
entreats for fertility, and Hezekiah begs for his health. Prayer, moreover,
seems to transcend the bounds of specific religions, as seen in the book of
Jonah (1:14) and in Isaiah’s (56:7) utopian vision of the Temple becoming a
house of prayer for all peoples (Igrot Moshe 2:25).
As Moshe Greenberg
has noted, many biblical prayers follow a structure of addressing God, stating a
petition, and arguing why God should fulfill their wishes. As Rabbi David Kimche
noted, the word tefila in the Bible connotes judgment, as one entreats God to
judge them favorably and not to see their evil actions (Sefer Hashorashim).
While many medieval philosophers struggled with the perception that God could be
swayed, as it were, with such entreaties, they too affirmed the central role of
prayer in Jewish ritual, albeit in a more contemplative form (Sefer Ha’ikarim
Given this background, it might come as a surprise that many
medieval commentators believe that the obligation to pray does not reflect a
The Torah states several times that Jews must serve
(la’avod) God (Exodus 23:25).
Maimonides, following certain Tannaitic
precedents (Sifrei Deuteronomy 41), contended that a daily prayer (including
praise for God, petition for one’s needs and thanks for His goodness) is a
biblical commandment (Hilchot Tefila 1:1-2).
Nahmanides, however, citing
talmudic statements that define prayer as a rabbinic requirement (Brachot 21a),
claimed that prayer is a gift that allows one to supplicate for one’s needs
(Hasagot Sefer Hamitzvot 5). He does, however, acknowledge that prayer in time
of straits fulfills a biblical commandment (Numbers 10:9).
Soloveitchik understood this debate on an existential level: Maimonides viewed
everyday life itself – with all its fears and moments of despair – as a moment
of crisis, while Nahmanides believed that the biblical obligation only applied
in times of acute distress, such as war.
All authorities agree, however,
that the requirement to the daily prayer times and its more definitive forms are
of rabbinic origin. The Sages debated whether the morning, afternoon and evening
times were intended to parallel the sacrificial rite or entreaties recited by
the nation’s forefathers (Brachot
26b). One ramification of this debate is the
obligatory status of the evening prayer, since the Temple service did not
include any mandatory night sacrifices then, even as the entrails continued to
burn throughout the night (Pnei Yehoshua
). While most medieval commentators
believed that the evening service was initially optional, this became moot over
time as the Jewish people accepted it upon themselves as an obligatory service
Since these prayers were instituted as tools for
mercy to benefit the supplicant, a unique element of the prayer structure that
distinguished it from the sacrificial order was the ability to make up for
) for missed services. Decisors debate the scope of this dispensation
(R’ Yona Brachot
18a), with the halacha codifying that one may make up only the
previous time period’s prayer in a case of unintended omission (OC 108:3).
Similarly, a person may pray in any language so that he can develop a more
intimate relationship with his Maker, reflecting the idea that prayer is a gift
from God (Sota
Given this background, it is not surprising that the
Sages declared that women are obligated in prayer (Brachot
and Nahmanides, who believed that the entire institution of prayer was of
rabbinic origin, contended that this obligation stemmed from the “gift” of
prayer, since women would normally be excluded from such time-bound commandments
(as they are from reciting the Shema prayer). As such, they believed that women
were equally obligated in prayers (Magen Avraham
106:2). Some decisors ruled
that women are obligated to recite the Amida three times a day (Aruch Hashulhan
106:7), with others reducing that number to two, since women never took upon
themselves the obligation of the evening service (MB 106:4).
Maimonides and Alfasi, followed by Rabbi Yosef Karo (OC 106:2), contested that
daily prayer was a bona fide biblical obligation that was not time bound. As
such, women remained obligated in one daily prayer. Some understood this
position to obligate one to recite the Amida once a day (Yabia Omer
For many centuries, however, scholars have noted that mothers struggle to find
time for this lengthier prayer, with some decisors justifying their daily
recital of a short, minimal blessing of praise and thanks (Divrei Yatziv
All agree that when possible, it remains praiseworthy for women to
recite the formal Amida at least once a day.