Chapter 01: Fundamentals of the Laws of Prayer

01. Prayer

Prayer is one of the principal expressions of belief in God. People are not perfect; they are flawed and they long to improve themselves. They therefore turn to the Creator of the world in prayer.

Human imperfection is apparent on two levels. Most people feel a need to pray to God only when their daily routines are disrupted. For example, when someone is ill or injured and her pain intensifies, when she understands that all the doctors in the world cannot guarantee her health and well-being, and only God, in Whose hands is the soul of every living thing, can cure her and grant her a long happy life – then she prays to God from the depth of her heart to heal her. So it is, whenever a calamity befalls a person, her livelihood suffers, enemies rise against her, or her close friends turn their backs on her. She then understands how the good things in her life hang in the balance and she turns to God to help and save her. However, when daily routines function in their usual proper manner, most people do not detect anything missing and generally do not feel a need to pray to God.   

Those who delve more deeply understand that even their everyday lives are not perfect. Even when they are healthy and earning a steady income, their family life is good, their friends are loyal, and the situation in their country is stable, perceptive people sense their existential inadequacy. They know that their lives are finite, and even if all goes well, there will come a day when they will die of old age. Now, too, when they are young and strong, they are unable to comprehend everything in their lives, and not everything turns out the way they intended. They cannot achieve all of their aspirations or fully attain even one goal. Out of this sense of inadequacy, they turn to God, the God of the heavens and the earth, the only One Who can redeem them from their imperfection. By connecting with God in prayer, people begin the process of fulfillment and redemption.

02. The Prayers of Our Ancestors and Prophets

We learn in the Tanakh that whenever our ancestors and the prophets needed help, they turned to God in prayer.

The patriarch Avraham stood in prayer and begged that Sodom not be destroyed. God answered him that if there were ten righteous people in Sodom the city would be saved. But ten righteous people were not to be found there, and Sodom was demolished (Bereishit 18). Childless for many years, the patriarch Yitzĥak and matriarch Rivka prayerfully pleaded with God and were answered with the birth of Yaakov and Esav (Bereishit 25). The patriarch Yaakov prayed for God to save him from his brother, Esav, who set out against him with four hundred warriors, and he was answered and saved (Bereishit 32). Following the sin of the Golden Calf, God’s wrath was kindled against the people of Israel, and our teacher Moshe prayed intensely until God canceled the terrible decree that He had threatened to visit on His people (Shemot 32). When Miriam, Moshe’s sister, fell ill with leprosy, Moshe stood and prayed, “Kel na refa na la” (“O God, please heal her!”), and she was healed (Bamidbar 12). To turn back a heaven-sent plague, Aharon used the incense to pray, and the plague ceased (Bamidbar 17). After the army of Israel was defeated by Ai, God heard Yehoshua’s prayers and guided him to rectify the sin of Akhan, after which they won their next battles (Yehoshua 7). When the Philistines waged war against Israel, Shmuel cried out to God for help on behalf of the nation. God answered his prayer, and Israel struck and vanquished the Philistines (1 Shmuel 7). King David of Israel would often pray to God; his prayers eventually became the book of Tehilim. After King Shlomo finished building the Temple, he prayed that the Divine Presence (Shekhina) dwell therein, and that all people who pray there would be answered; God acceded to his prayer (1 Melakhim 8-9). When Eliyahu the Prophet fought against the false prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel, he prayed that fire would descend from the sky and so it transpired (1 Melakhim 18). Likewise, Elisha the Prophet prayed to God that He revive the son of the Shunamite woman, and the boy came back to life (2 Melakhim 4). When King Ĥizkiyahu faced death from his disease, he too prayed to God and was cured (2 Melakhim 20).

One of the prayers that left a lasting impression on all generations is the prayer of Ĥana. Barren for years she would often pray at the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in Shilo and was the first to refer to God in her prayer by the holy name “Tzevakot” (“Lord of Hosts”). Eventually, she merited a son, none other than Shmuel the Prophet (1 Shmuel 2). Shmuel the Prophet is said to have been equal to Moshe and Aharon. Through Moshe and Aharon, the word of God was revealed in the transcendental miraculous existence of the Jews in the desert, and through Shmuel, the word of God was revealed in the tangible reality of the people of Israel living in Eretz Yisrael. Shmuel unified the nation, founded the kingdom of David, mentored a generation of prophets in Israel, and inspired the building of the Temple. It was difficult to bring Shmuel’s great and lofty soul down to earth, and Ĥana had to pray intensely until she was worthy of giving birth to him. Her prayer is so important that the Sages learn numerous laws from it (Berakhot 31a and see below, 12:6).

03. The Effect of Prayer

God established a law in creation: when we awaken ourselves to approach the Almighty and request a blessing from Him, He, in turn, is aroused from above to bestow good on us, according to our needs and the world’s needs. This is mentioned in the Zohar in many places.

In other words, even when an individual or the world is worthy of God’s bounty, it is sometimes withheld until man knows his predicament and prays to God from the depths of their hearts.

There are two types of prayer. The first is for the continuous existence of the world; without prayer, the world would cease to exist. This kind of prayer parallels the Tamid sacrifice, the merit of which sustains the heavens and the earth (see Ta’anit 27b). 

The second type of prayer concerns specific circumstances, such as when disaster strikes and people pray for salvation, or when people pray for something they desire.

Every prayer has an influential effect, as Rabbi Ĥanina says, “The prayers of one who prays for a long time do not return unanswered” (Berakhot 32b). Sometimes the effect is immediate, and at other times in the distant future; sometimes the prayer is answered completely, other times partially. As the Sages say (Devarim Rabba 8:1), “Great is prayer before God. Rabbi Elazar says, ‘If you want to know the power of prayer – if it does not accomplish all it is meant to do, it at least achieves half.’” God is the One Who knows how to help and support a person. Sometimes, for various reasons, one’s misfortune is for her own good, and therefore God does not accept her prayer. Nevertheless, her prayer benefits her, and its blessing will be revealed in one way or another.

Even the most righteous people, whose prayers were generally accepted, sometimes went unanswered. No one was greater than Moshe, whose prayerful intercession on Israel’s behalf after the sins of the Golden Calf and the Spies annulled decrees of destruction and gained forgiveness (Shemot 32 and Bamidbar 14). Yet when Moshe begged to be permitted to enter Eretz Yisrael, God said to him, “Enough! Do not talk to me further about this matter” (Devarim 3:26) 

Therefore, one must make great efforts in prayer and not assume that since she is praying, God must grant her request. Rather, she should continue praying, knowing that God hears her prayers and that her prayers are most certainly beneficial, though we do not know how much, when, and in what way.

04. Is Prayer a Biblical Obligation?

The Rishonim disagree about whether there is a Torah commandment to pray every day. According to Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, mitzva 5), there is a biblical commandment to pray daily, as the Torah states (Shemot 23:25), “Serve God your Lord,” and (Devarim 6:13) “Revere the Lord your God and serve Him.” Although these verses contain a general commandment to serve God, they also include a specific commandment to pray. The Sages interpreted “service” (avoda) to mean worship through prayer, as it is written:  “Love God your Lord and serve Him with all your heart” (Devarim 11:13), and they explained (Ta’anit 2a), “What is serving with the heart? It must mean prayer.” By praying daily, one fulfills her biblical obligation to pray. To fulfill one’s obligation, one must begin with praise to God, then petition God for her needs, and conclude by thanking God for the good He has bestowed upon her. The Torah does not specify how long one’s prayers must be. Therefore, some shorten their prayers and others lengthen them, yet they all fulfill their biblical obligation (MT, Laws of Prayer 1:2-3). Later, the Men of the Great Assembly formulated a set prayer text, as will be explained below (section 6).

However, according to Ramban (Glosses to Rambam’s Sefer Ha-mitzvot), there is no biblical obligation to pray every day, because, in his opinion, the extrapolation from the verses that Rambam mentions is not a bona fide exegesis, but merely an asmakhta (reference). Rather, the Men of the Great Assembly instituted daily prayers but based their enactment on biblical verses. Ramban maintains that only in times of trouble is there a biblical commandment to pray to God, as we learn from the mitzva of the trumpets (ĥatzotzrot), where it says (Bamidbar 10:9), “When you go to war against an enemy that attacks you in your land, you shall sound a teru’a (short blasts) on the trumpets. You will then be recalled before the Lord your God and will be delivered from your enemies.”

Thus, according to all opinions, there is a biblical obligation to pray in times of trouble. Therefore, anyone who finds herself or her friend in a state of crisis is required to add a special request for assistance in her prayer, since it is a biblical commandment to petition God to save her from that trouble. It is certainly a mitzva to pray communally when the public or the nation is in danger. The Sages even instituted fast days for that purpose.

Next, we will continue to study the order of the prayer service instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly, and in chapter 2 we will learn which specific prayers are incumbent on women.

05. The Institution of Prayer by the Men of the Great Assembly

The Men of the Great Assembly instituted the prayers and the blessings (Berakhot 33a). They set the wording of the Shemoneh Esrei and formulated all the berakhot, including those recited before and after the recitation of Shema (Birkhot Keri’at Shema) and Birkhot Ha-nehenin (blessings recited upon deriving pleasure from something). They also instituted the recitation of the three daily prayers, Shaĥarit, Minĥa, and Ma’arivShaĥarit and Minĥa as obligations and Ma’ariv as a voluntary prayer. 1 

The members Ezra the Scribe’s court, established at the beginning of the Second Temple period, are called the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola). This was the greatest beit din ever convened in Jewish history. It was comprised of 120 elders, among them prophets and sages such as, Ĥagai, Zechariah, Malachi, Daniel, Ĥanania, Mishael, Azaria, Neĥemia b. Ĥakhalia, Mordechai Balshan, and Zerubavel, as well as many other sages, the last one being Shimon Ha-tzaddik (Rambam, Introduction to Mishneh Torah).

During the time of the First Temple, the Jewish people attained superior spiritual accomplishments: the Shekhina dwelled in the Temple and the great scholars of Israel achieved prophecy. Nevertheless, grave sins like idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and murder proliferated amongst the masses, ultimately causing the Temple’s destruction and the exile of the people of Israel. Therefore, when Israel was able to rebuild the Temple, the Men of the Great Assembly constituted a large beit din, set safeguards for the Torah, made enactments, and formulated and arranged prayers and berakhot. They created a full framework for Jewish life, giving expression to Torah values in an organized and established manner within everyday living, thereby distancing the nation from sin and bringing them closer to serving God.

Of course, even in the First Temple era, Israel prayed to God and thanked Him for all the good and blessing they received. However, those prayers did not have a set formula. Since it had no set formula, righteous and devout people would pray and recite berakhot with great kavana (focus), but the masses would minimally fulfill their duties with shallow prayers. Passionate prayer from the heart in one’s own words is the ideal form of prayer, but in actuality, the routine demands of everyday life wear us out, and without regular fixed prayers, the public gradually drifts away from worshipful prayer and eventually from God. Following the establishment of the prayers and their fixed wording, all of Israel started to pray, and as a result, faith in God intensified. That is what sustained the nation’s devotion that even two thousand years of exile could not extinguish.

Moreover, during the time of the First Temple many people mistakenly regarded the offering of korbanot as idolatrous acts possessing magical powers, able to grant good fortune in matters such as livelihood, health, and the abolishment of evil decrees. The prophets severely condemned this misguided notion and taught that a korban in its essence, is an expression of the people’s desire to get closer to God through total devotion. That is the primary purpose of humanity in this world, as The torah states (Devarim 10:12): “What does God want of you? Only that you revere the Lord your God, follow all His ways, love Him, and serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” When the person who brings the offering does not demonstrate true devotion to God nor the desire to improve, not only is the offering ineffective, but it is repulsive in God’s eyes, as it is written: “‘Why do I need all your sacrifices?’ God asks. ‘I am sated with your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts, and I have no desire for the blood of cattle, sheep, and goats. When you appear before Me, who asked you to do this, trampling My courts? Do not bring any more vain meal offerings; incense is offensive to Me…’” (Yeshayahu 1:11-13). By instituting the prayers, the Men of the Great Assembly restored the proper priorities to the worship of God, reminding us that faith, focus, and devotion are primary. These values indeed find their clear expression in the prayers, as R. Elazar said, “Prayer is greater than sacrifices” (Berakhot 32b). By emphasizing our kavana, we pray to God that He rebuild the Temple speedily in our time so that we may express our devotion to Him fully – through both prayer and sacrifice.

  1. In Megilla 17b-18a, it is told that Shimon Ha-Pekuli formulated and arranged the Shemoneh Esrei in the presence of Rabban Gamliel. A beraita is then cited, which explains the order of the berakhot on the basis of biblical verses. A question is then raised there: If the Men of the Great Assembly instituted it what was left for Shimon Ha-Pekuli to arrange? The Gemara answers that it was forgotten until Shimon Ha-Pekuli reestablished it. We may ask, how can they have forgotten the prayers that they were obligated to recite every day? Shita Mekubetzet (on Berakhot 28b) states an answer: they merely forgot the order of the berakhot, which is what Shimon Ha-Pekuli then restored. In R. Ĥananel and Meiri’s version of the Gemara, there is no mention that Shimon formulated any part of Shemoneh Esrei, so the question does not even arise.

06. The Fixed Formula (Nusaĥ)

Establishing a uniform formula that is repeated thrice daily in prayer has a certain disadvantage. Prayer is likely to become routine and one may lose the kavana that is aroused when one prays to God in her own words. On the other hand, had the Sages not established a fixed formula, though the righteous would utter beautiful and sincere prayers from the depths of their hearts, most people would recite hurried and brief and defective prayers.

Rambam explains (MT, Laws of Prayer 1:4) that especially after the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of Israel among the nations, this problem has intensified. Many Jews lost their proficiency in holy tongue (the Hebrew of the siddur), in which it is proper to pray. Moreover, they did not have any appropriate formulas for prayer in other languages. Therefore, the Men of the Great Assembly established the wording for all the berakhot and prayers so that all Israel would be fluent in them and so that the theme of each berakha would be stated articulately even by those who are otherwise unable to do so.

Another advantage to a fixed wording of prayer is that it includes all the general and specific needs for which it is proper to pray. Without a standard formula, everyone would presumably pray for one specific thing. Doctors would pray for the health of their patients, farmers would pray for rain, and with time, every Jew would pray only for the things close to her heart while remaining disconnected from the table of collective aspirations. The Sages therefore instituted eighteen berakhot, which incorporate all of the Jewish people’s material and spiritual aspiration. Thus, three times a day, everyone who prays balances and unifies her personal ambitions with the general needs of the nation.  

In addition to whatever we understand of the fixed prayers, there are innumerable profound allusions, some of which are explained within the Jewish mystical tradition. As R. Ĥayim of Volozhin writes (Nefesh Ha-Ĥayim 2:10):

The enlightened will understand on their own why 120 sages, among them prophets, were needed to formulate a small plea or short prayer. Through Divine inspiration and supreme prophecy they grasped the order of creation and the deep mysteries of divine chariot (“the merkava”). This is why they enacted and formulated the berakhot and the prayers using these specific words – for they observed and apprehended how the light of each individual word refracts, and how each word is quite necessary to properly rectify the multiplicity of supernal worlds and powers and to bring harmony to the merkava. 

He further writes (ibid. 2:13) that all the profound meanings revealed by Arizal and other saintly figures are only a drop in the sea compared to the profound innermost meaning of the Men of the Great Assembly, who instituted the prayers. Through the prophecy and divine inspiration that manifested itself upon them when they formulated the prayers and berakhot, they successfully encapsulated the rectification (tikun) of all worlds in such a way that every day new tikunim are drawn forth each day.

07. Instituting Three Prayers

In addition to the special prayers that our forefathers said in times of trouble, they also set times in which they prayed to God (Berakhot 26b). Avraham established Shaĥarit. It was he who first illuminated the world with his faith, and accordingly he established a prayer said while the sun rises. Yitzĥak established Minĥa. He continued on the path of his father Avraham. Sometimes it is easier forge a new path than it is to stay on the same one. Yitzĥak’s strength was that he remained on the path of faith. This corresponds to Minĥa, which expresses continuity, for the whole day is sustained by the power of faith. Yaakov established Ma’ariv because he endured many hardships and vicissitudes, emerging stronger from each and every one. He therefore established the nighttime prayer, since even in the dark, when reality is obscured, it is possible to connect to God and to reveal the supreme eternal light. 

Once the patriarchs invented these prayers, there were devout and righteous people who followed in their path and prayed Shaĥarit, Minĥa, and Ma’ariv. As King David said (Tehilim 55:1718), “As for me, I call out to God, and the Lord saves me. Evening, morning, and noon, I express my grief and moan aloud, and He hears my voice.”

Following the custom of our forefathers, the Men of the Great Assembly established the three prayers, Shaĥarit and Minĥa as obligatory, and Ma’ariv as voluntary. They were instituted to correspond to the communal offerings, since their purpose was to express the inner significance of the sacrifices. Since the morning and afternoon Tamid sacrifices were obligatory, Shaĥarit and Minĥa are obligatory prayers. Ma’ariv corresponds to the burning of the fats and organs on the altar at night. Since failure to bring the latter did not prevent the fulfillment of the mitzva, so too Ma’ariv was also deemed voluntary. However, as time passed, men took upon themselves to recite Ma’ariv as an obligation. On Shabbat, festivals, and Rosh Ĥodesh, we were commanded to bring a musaf sacrifice; hence, the Sages established the recitation of the Musaf prayer to represent it. Women are exempt from praying Musaf (according to most poskim, as detailed below, 2:9).

Since the prayers were instituted to correspond to the sacrifices, the times of the prayers were set according to the times of the offerings (as explained below, 8:1 and 18:1). In the next chapter we will learn which prayers are obligatory for women and which are optional.

08. Kavana and Those Who Find it Difficult to Concentrate

Prayer is considered avoda she-ba-lev (worship of the heart); therefore its essence is dependent upon kavana.

This is what the pious and people of deeds would do: They would meditate and concentrate on their prayers until all physicality fell away and the power of the mind would gain strength, to the point that they were on the verge of prophecy. If another thought would intrude on their prayer, they would be still until that thought passes” (SA 98:1).

There are two kinds of kavana in prayer: One is a general kavana, where the person praying stands before the Supreme King of kings filled with awe and love; the second is a specific kavana – concentrating on the words she utters.

People are innately different from one another. Some can focus effortlessly, and though they repeat the same words every day, it is easy for them to follow each word and mean them. Others naturally find it difficult to concentrate, and the more familiar a subject is to them, the harder it is for them to focus on it. Try as they might to have kavana, their thoughts wander from one matter to the next. Despite great effort to have kavana while reciting Avot (the first berakha of Shemoneh Esrei), their minds are flying away, and suddenly they find themselves saying Selaĥ Lanu (the seventh berakha). They attempt to refocus, but their minds wander off again. Before they know it, they are already bowing for Modim (the seventeenth berakha).

Even in the time of the Talmud there were Amora’im who lamented the difficulty of focusing during prayer. Y. Berakhot 2:4 records that R. Ĥiya says that he was never able to have kavana throughout his entire prayer. Once, when he tried to concentrate for the duration of his prayer, he began wondering, right in the middle, whether Minister A or Minister B is more important in the king’s eyes. Shmuel said, “I counted newly hatched chicks while I was praying.” R. Bon bar Ĥiya said: “While I was praying I counted the rows of the building.” R. Matania said, “I am grateful for my head, for even when I am not paying attention to what I am saying, it knows by itself to bow at Modim.” The statements of these leading Amora’im teach us that it is difficult to have kavana from the beginning of the prayer service until the end. Even though we must try as hard as we can to concentrate, one should not lose heart when she does not focus properly. Even one who daydreamt throughout most of her prayer should not despair; rather, she should strive to have kavana while reciting the remaining berakhot.

One should not say, “If I do not have kavana, perhaps it is better not to pray.” Rather, the very fact that she stood before God in prayer expresses something very profound – her sincere desire to connect to God and to pray before Him. Every person is measured according to her nature, and at times, someone who finds it difficult to concentrate, yet struggles and succeeds in having kavana for a number of blessings, is more praiseworthy than someone for whom focus comes easily through the entire prayer service. Moreover, people who find it easy to concentrate on the routine prayers generally pray without any particular passion, even on special occasions, or when a tragedy befalls them. However, those individuals who find it difficult to concentrate on the routine words usually succeed in attaining higher levels of kavana in exceptional circumstances.

It is said in the name of Arizal that kavana is like the wings upon which prayer soars heavenward and is accepted. When one prays without kavana, her prayer lacks the wings with which to ascend, and so it waits until she utters one prayer with kavana, whereupon all the prayers that she recited without kavana ascend to God together with the prayer that achieved kavana. The reason for this is clear: The very fact that she chose to pray demonstrates that she wants to connect to God, to praise Him, and ask Him for her needs. She simply failed to have kavana. However, the moment she succeeds in having kavana, she opens the gate for all her prayers to ascend.

In practice, one who has kavana during the first berakha of the Shemoneh Esrei fulfills her obligation, even if she did not have kavana for the rest of the prayer (SA 63:4, 101:1; below, 12:8).