Ask the Rabbi: Must women pray 3 times a day?

It might come as a surprise that many medieval commentators believe that the obligation to pray does not reflect a biblical requirement.

religious women praying 521 AP (photo credit: AP)
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.
Biblical 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 4:18).
Given this background, it might come as a surprise that many medieval commentators believe that the obligation to pray does not reflect a biblical requirement.
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).
Rabbi Joseph 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 (Rosh, Brachot 4:2).
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 (tashlumin) 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 33a).
Given this background, it is not surprising that the Sages declared that women are obligated in prayer (Brachot 20a).
Rashi 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).
Yet 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 OC 6:17). 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 OC 62).
All agree that when possible, it remains praiseworthy for women to recite the formal Amida at least once a day.