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Kuzari Shiur #31: Prayer (Part II)

By: Rav Itamar Eldar

The gemara in Berakhot discusses the source of the prayers:

It was stated: Rabbi Yose b. Rabbi Chanina said: The prayers were instituted by the patriarchs. Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi said: The prayers were instituted in correspondence to the daily offerings. (Berakhot 26b)


Many explanations have been proposed for this talmudic passage and for the relationship between the two positions.


One of the accepted explanations relates to the personal nature of the prayers offered by the patriarchs as opposed to the communal nature of the daily offerings. The patriarchs prayed to God as individuals petitioning for their needs; they prayed that God should redeem their wives from barrenness, deliver them from their enemies, and bless their efforts with success. The daily offerings brought in the Temple reflected Israel's collective standing as a nation before God. These offerings were brought every day by the people of Israel to atone for Israel as a community and to purify them of their sins.


These two Tannaim disagree about a question relating to the essential nature of prayer. As pointed out by Rav Kook in his commentary to this passage:


The perfect service is achieved after a person first attains individual perfection, in accordance with the nature of his soul to cleave to the living God with all his heart soul… But the ultimate objective of service is achieved when afterwards it goes back to be the service of all of Israel, and in the end of days to the repair the world with the establishment of the kingdom of God. Prayer is comprised of the natural feelings of the heart, which the soul of each individual pours out before his Creator. But it is mostly comprised of national issues that relate to the perfection of the entirety of the people of God: redemption, restoration of the judges of Israel, restoration of the Davidic monarchy, rebuilding Jerusalem, and returning the sacrificial order to Zion.


Serious thought must be give to the question upon which focus is prayer established: is it founded on the outpouring of the individual soul, and the national consequences arrive on their own, or is its essence the perfection of national service, that is assembled from the purity of the heart of each individual. Now, the patriarchs worshipped God before the nation of Israel existed, and the essence of their prayer was individual service of God without a national connection. The daily offerings, on the other hand, constitute the Divine service of the collective composed of all of Israel. Therefore, the one Sage said that the patriarchs instituted prayer, corresponding to the noble individual spirit that each individual requires for the perfection of his service. And the other Sage said that the prayers were instituted in correspondence to the daily offerings, the objective being collective worship of God. (Rav Kook, Ayin AyaBerakhot 1, p. 109)


Rav Kook explains that the two positions are not polar opposites, and that the Tannaim only disagree about the question of what is the center and basis of prayer. The personal element reflected in the petitions of the individual and in the very outpouring of his soul before his Creator is not absent from communal prayer, and the petitions relating to the fate and future of the people of Israel and the world are not absent from individual prayer.[1] The disagreement relates to the foundation upon which prayer is constructed, the motivation and the driving force that brings a person to pray. Like the gemara, Rav Kook refrains from deciding the matter.


Rihal addresses this issue and his remarks on the topic are very resolute:


After this, the worshipper begins to pray for the wants of the whole of Israel, and it is not permissible to insert other prayers except in the place of voluntary supplications. A prayer, in order to be heard, must be recited for a multitude, or in a multitude or for an individual who could take the place of a multitude. None such, however, is to be found in our age. (III, 17)


These words are based on a talmudic passage that served other thinkers as well when they voiced an opinion on this matter:


Rabbi Ami said: A man's prayer is not heard unless he puts his soul in his hand, as it is said: "Let us lift up our  heart with our hands" (Eikha 3:4). Is that so? But surely Shmuel appointed an interpreter for himself and he expounded: "But they flattered Him with their mouth, and with their tongue they lied to Him, and their heart was not steadfast with Him, and they were not faithful to His covenant"(Tehillim 78:36-37). But even so, "He is merciful, He forgives sins, etc." (ibid. v. 38). There is no difficulty, Here [it refers] to an individual. Here [it refers] to a community. (Ta'anit 8a)


And Rashi explains (ad loc.):


But even so – it is written immediately following: "He is merciful, He forgives sin" and hears their prayer. How, then, could you say that his prayer is not heard unless he puts his soul in his hand, that is to say, his soul [his innermost thoughts] is sincerely in his hand [his external words].

To a community – their prayer is heard, even if all of their hearts are not perfect. As it is written: "But they flattered him with their mouth," with words, in the plural.

To an individual – Only if his heart is sincere.[2]


First of all, it should be noted that the gemara is not dealing with the content of prayer, but rather with the framework in which it is offered. Chazal'sclear preference for congregational prayer touches upon the most basic question regarding the act of prayer. Is it fitting for a person to stand before the Creator and petition and entreat Him? Standing before God in prayer demands coverage on the part of man, both from the perspective of his actions and lifestyle, and from the perspective of his sincerity and his cleaving to God through his very request. Chazal referred to this sincerity by the term, "putting his soul in his hand."


The advantage of congregational prayer is that the individual does not stand before his Creator alone. It is not his isolated actions that must be weighed before the heavenly court decides how to relate to the prayer and whether to bring it before God, but rather the actions of the entire community, into which the individual is swallowed up. The individual who stands before God is pushed out of the sanctuary by the heavenly court, but his grabbing hold of the community as a whole allows him to remain where he is even though he is not worthy of that station.[3]


In this context, it is interesting to note the view of Rabbi Yosef Gikitila in his book, Sha'arei Ora (end of part II).


In his picturesque kabbalistic language, Rabbi Gikitila writes that the heavenly guards examine an individual's prayer to see whether or not it is fitting. If it is found fitting, it goes up before the Throne of Glory, but in the event that it is deemed unfitting, it is rejected and placed in a certain palace that was created by God. When the person later offers a fitting prayer, it gathers up all of his prayers that had been rejected and they go up with it to God.


A congregational prayer, in contrast, always goes up to God without prior screening.


R. Yosef Gikitila also speaks about the prayers of individuals who offer their prayers before the rest of the congregation. He asserts that the congregational prayer also gathers to it the prayers that had earlier been offered by individuals.


Thus, R. Yosef Gikitila clears the way for a person to pray as an individual, provided that he offers his prayer prior to the congregational service.


It seems to me that the gathering of unworthy prayers by those that are more worthy, whether an individual prayer or that of the congregation, can be understood as follows. A connection can exist between an individual and a congregation, as well as between the time that an individual can rise to the level of worthy prayer and the time that he is unable to do so - even when the two appear to be detached from one another.


The individual who offers his prayer before the rest of the congregation does not mean to cut himself off from the congregation, but rather to accept upon himself additional obligations. A person who gets up early before the rest of the congregation wishes, to a certain degree, to serve as an advance guard that goes before the rest of the camp. The vanguard's strength does not come to him from within himself, but from the strength of the camp standing behind him. The same applies to the individual, who turns to God in prayer in advance of the rest of the congregation. When he encounters the opposition of his accusers, he is gathered up by the rest of the congregation and together they overcome the accusers. This is also the way to understand how an individual's prayer can be gathered by a more worthy prayer that he himself offers.


This is an idea similar to that of "unintentional transgressions turning into merits." The efforts of an individual do not go to waste even when they fail. When the individual succeeds in breaching the barriers, all of his efforts, longings, and desires that had thus far been frustrated and that failed to find expression breach those barriers with him.


The gemara, as stated earlier, deals with the framework of prayer, and not with its contents or with the level of the individual engaged in prayer in relation to that of the congregation.


In the aforementioned passage, Rihal expands what the gemara says beyond the framework to the contents themselves: "It is not permissible to insert other prayers except in the place of voluntary supplications. A prayer, in order to be heard, must be recited for a multitude, or in a multitude or, for an individual who could take the place of a multitude."


This expansion requires additional explanation. This is the way that Rihal explains the matter:


The Khazar king: Why is this? If everyone read his prayers for himself, would not his soul be purer and his mind less abstracted?


The Rabbi: Common prayer has many advantages. In the first instance a community will never pray for a thing which is hurtful for the individual, while the latter sometimes prays for something [to the disadvantage of other individuals, or some of them may pray for something] that is to his disadvantage. One of the conditions of prayer, craving to be heard, is that its object be profitable to the world, and not hurtful in any way. Another is that an individual rarely accomplishes his prayer without slips and errors. It has been laid down, therefore, that the individual recite the prayers of a community, and if possible in a community of not less than ten persons, so that one makes up for the forgetfulness or error of the other. In this way [a complete prayer is gained, read with unalloyed devotion. Its blessing rests on everyone] each receiving his portion. For the Divine Influence is as the rain which waters an area (if deserving of it), and includes some smaller portion which does not deserve it, but shares the general abundance…


A person who prays but for himself is like one who retires alone into his house, refusing to assist his fellow-citizens in the repair of their walls. His expenditure is as great as his risk. He, however, who joins the majority spends little, yet remains in safety, because one replaces the defects of the other. The city is in the best possible condition, all its inhabitants enjoying its prosperity with but little expenditure, which all share alike.


In a similar manner, Plato styles that which is expended on behalf of the law, "the portion of the whole." If the individual, however, neglects this "portion of the whole" which is the basis of the welfare of the commonwealth of which he forms a part, in the belief that he does better in spending it on himself, he sins against the commonwealth, and more against himself. For the relation of the individual is as the relation of the single limb to the body. Should the arm, in case bleeding is required, refuse its blood, the whole body, the arm included, would suffer. It is, however, the duty of the individual to bear hardships, or even death, for the sake of the welfare of the commonwealth. He must particularly be careful to contribute his "portion of the whole," without fail. (III, 18-19)


            According to Rihal, congregational prayer enjoys two advantages:


1)         Rihal is aware of the existence of conflicts of interest between two individuals. The world is such that there are times that one person gains from a loss suffered by his fellow. Many people earn their livings from other people's problems, ranging from plumbers to doctors. Thus, the prayer of an individual is liable to be, indirectly and unintentionally, a prayer for the downfall of another person. This, however, is not true about congregational prayer, which strives to bring benefit to the entire community. How is this done? God will work that out, but congregational prayer from the very outset sets its eyes on the welfare of the entire congregation. Regarding such prayer we do not say that praying for the gains of one implies praying for the loss of another.


2)         The second advantage relates to what we saw above. Rihal cites the obligation upon the individual to pray together with a congregation, and explains the idea that the baseness and defects of the individual are obliterated by the merits of the congregation; thus, the individual can stand before his Maker, despite his lowly level. Moreover – and this is what Rihal primarily focuses upon – the individual can benefit from God's response to the congregation, even though he himself is not worthy of the good that comes to the world in the wake of congregational prayer.


It seems to me that Rihal's emphasis on God's response to the prayer, rather than on the question of the right to stand before God in prayer, opens the door to the issue of the contents of the prayer, and not only the framework in which it is offered. When an individual prays for his livelihood, he must be ready to have his merits weighed against his demerits, "and who comes out righteous before You." When, however, he channels his own prayer to the congregation's petition regarding rain, relief, and livelihood for the world, he, on the one hand, puts on the scale the merits of the entire congregation, and on the other hand, the desired result relates to him as well. In many cases, the good that will reach the individual from the gains of the congregation is immeasurably greater than the good reserved for him because of his personal petition.


There is no comparing a well-fortified house in a poorly-fortified city to a house that is left open in a walled city that does not allow any harm doers to enter the city. Through this analogy, Rihal teaches us that a person who prays for the welfare of the community abandons himself and ignores, as it were, all of his needs, but this is only in order to achieve the genuine good from which the individual will benefit even more.


This is not merely "practical advice" regarding how a person should achieve greatest benefit for himself and what way has the greatest chances of eliciting a response from God. Rihal wishes to teach us how a person must look at himself – as he puts it, "as the relation of the single limb to the body." This finds expression, as Rihal immediately notes, in the mitzvot of terumot,ma'asrot and charity. We are not dealing merely with a pragmatic program, but with an attempt to shape a worthy spiritual outlook. From this perspective, as we saw in the previous lecture, prayer has an educational function.


According to Rihal, a person who fails to identify with the contents of the prayers, as is the case with many of our generation,[4] suffers from egocentricity and maintains an erroneous world view, which does not allow him to see beyond himself and to view himself as part of the collective and as part of a process.


Prayer is meant to bring a person to feel the pain of all the sick people in Israel, to share the worries of farmers asking for rain and a good crop, to rejoice and pray that the waves of Aliya will not stop, to grieve over the fact that Torah law does not guide our generation in perfect and absolute manner and that the leadership of the house of David and his descendants has yet to reappear.


Without a doubt, the good that all these things will bring the individual is far greater than all the good that the individual could ask for himself. But even before that good arrives, a person who views himself and society that surrounds him in this manner brings himself to the highest human level, where the individual is supposed to focus his aspirations and desires on improving society and matters of state. As Rihal himself states in his discussion of man's superiority over the animal kingdom, this is the highest natural level.




            With this we conclude this year's lecture series on the Kuzari. I have tried to deal with the most important issues discussed by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi.


            Rihal, perhaps more than any other thinker, has become a foundation stone in Jewish faith. The Kuzari does not surpass other works, such as Moreh Nevukhim or Emunot ve-De'ot, in philosophical analysis or linguistic beauty, but as it was noted in the first lecture, Rihal directs his words not only to the reader's intellect, but to his heart, his soul, and his emotions.


            As such, the Kuzari has achieved immortality, and when the reader manages to pave the way from his culture and language to the world of the Khazar king and the Rabbi, he will find the vigorous religious spirit that has beaten and continues to beat in the heart of every believer throughout the generations.


            I hope that these lectures have contributed to the paving of this path.



(Translated by David Strauss)




[1] So, too, writes Rav Yosef Soloveitchik: "On the one hand, prayer reflects the needs of the individual, and on the other, the fact that he belongs to the collective, as is the case with the essence of man. Therefore, there is a portion of the prayer that is fixed and a portion that is not fixed" (Al ha-Teshuva, p. 249).

[2] The Rambam formulates this idea in a most radical manner: "Congregational prayer is always heard [by God]. Even if there are sinners among them, the Holy One, blessed be He, does not reject the prayer of a multitude. Hence, a person should associate himself with the congregation, and never recite his prayers in private when he is able to pray with the congregation. One should always attend synagogue, morning and evening; for only if recited in a synagogue, are one's prayers heard at all times. Whoever has a synagogue in his town and does not worship there is called a bad neighbor" (Hilkhot Tefilla8:1).

[3] This is the way that Rav Nachman of Bretzlav explains the gemara about the ministering angels who cried out, "What is the son of a woman doing among us" when they saw Moshe ascend to heaven to receive the Torah. Moshe, as the gemara says, held fast to the Throne of Glory. Rav Nachman explains: "That is to say, God, blessed be He, advised him to hold and connect with the roots of the souls, which constitute the Throne of Glory… for thereby he will be saved from the jealousy of the angels" (Likkutei Moharan Tanina, 1).

[4] I am not referring to difficulties connected to the text of the prayer, but to those who have difficulty identifying with its contents.