Monday, September 10, 2007

Petitionary Prayer - What does it mean?

Nachum brought to my attention that in May I had promised to discuss petitionary prayer and that so far have not done so. As Rosh Hashana is nearing and prayer is going to take up a large part of our days, it is time that I get back to it.

To me understanding the meaning of petitionary prayer has always been one of the most difficult problems in our daily praxis. I could understand prayer as a way of thinking about God, focusing our minds on the philosophical/theological/existential issues that face us constantly but what does it mean to ask for something, for help? It certainly cannot be to bring it to God’s attention or to expect that He will change something in the natural order to help. Does He need to be told that I have a problem? Is He not omniscient? Even more difficult is the daily repetition, thrice daily, of requests that may not apply to the individual at the time he prays. If I am not sick at that moment why say Refa’einu?

I am convinced that prayer is a very complicated and multifaceted praxis that is also very individualized. In other words, it takes on different meanings with different people and at different times with the same person. After all Rambam tells us, in the beginning of Hil Tefilah, that originally, prayer did not have a formulaic presentation and each individual composed his own on a daily basis.

What follows is where my current understanding is. It probably will change as I think about it more. I know that it is different then what it was in May though I cannot remember what it was then. (A man from last generation, Rav Shlomo Shapiro ZL, who influenced me a lot in my teenage years used to tell me that a person has to constantly change. Once you stop changing, you are dead!)

I suggest that before you read on, see my posts

To summarize the above posts:

One aspect of prayer is a time for refocusing and connecting with our constant search for God. It stops our daily routine, our involvement in the minutiae of day-to-day life and reminds us that we need to find answers to the pressing question of what is this all about? God, the First Cause for everything, the non-contingent Entity, is at the crux of the discussion. One part of prayer does address this aspect, as we will see, but what about the rest, the petitionary part? Is it just a formula that we mouth while thinking of loftier things? Is it for the masses who do not understand the more abstract ways of thinking? I used to think so. I believe otherwise now.

In my second post, I explained that as humans we are always racked with doubts. Even when we act in concert with what our intellect tells us is correct, based on its understanding of our environment, viewed through the lenses we are taught by our Torah and search for God, and the resulting understanding of what is correct, we still question our actions. We only know if we were right when the outcome is as we hoped. Unfortunately, sometimes we are not able to be present to know if the outcome is good. We have to operate on faith that doing what we believe is right will have the intended outcome.

In addition to the two points above, we have to define what is right. How exactly do we know how to act? First, we have to set ourselves a goal. As I have written many times, quoting MN 3:51, the paradigm of establishing a long-term goal are the Avot and Moshe whose wish was to establish a nation that worships God. All their actions were directed towards that end, even their day-to-day interactions. They established that goal as a result of their contemplation of their environment, its First Cause, and deducing from that, using the human ability to prophesize, the direction things were evolving and how they could partake and do their part in it. Then every action has to be weighed if it works towards the goal we establish. I understand this to be Rambam’s Hashgacha or Divine Providence. (For detailed discussion, see my article in the forthcoming Hakirah volume 5).

Looking at the structure of our prayers, before each Tefilah (in this context the Shemona Esreh – the 18 (19) blessings we say thrice daily) we always say a chapter or chapters of Tehilim (Pessukei De’zimrah) which include Ashrei (except at Ma’ariv where we rely on the Birchot Kryat Shema). Those are meant to place us in a contemplative mood regarding our immediate environment and how a religious person looks at it, seeing God’s actions in it. (For a fascinating explanation of the composition of prayer, see Shiurim Lezecher Aba Mari by RYBS Volume II the article on Pessukei De’zimrah). The Birchot Shema at Shacharit and Ma’ariv take us to the next level, touching on the metaphysical aspects of our existence. They also bring an historical perspective starting with the Exodus and a short exposition of our tribulations as a nation through time, ending with the proclamation that we are still around thanks to HKBH. The deeper meaning of that last statement in my mind is that we, as a group, as a nation, are still on the path set out by our founders, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe.

All this is a build up to the climax of prayer which is the Tefilah – the Shemona Esreh. The first Bracha, which is referred to in Halacha as Avot, introduces the concept that the patriarchs had a goal, as the Rav says they took possession of God by finding Him abandoned in the gutters thus “the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov”. Their goal was to keep this find forever and build a nation around it, a nation that will slowly bring this insight, this understanding of how man can partake in creation, to the whole of humanity. When we invoke our patriarchs in our prayers, when we say Vezocher Chasdei Avot – He remembers the loving-kindness of the patriarchs – we are saying that our very existence, our continued existence in the face of all the attempts to destroy us, proves that the Avot had it right. We are recommitting ourselves to continue their path towards the goal they set out thousands of years ago. (I have struggled all my life with the centrality of the patriarchs in our prayers, the emphasis on Zchut Avot, the merit of our predecessors in our prayers, the Zichronot in the Tefilah of Rosh Hashana. I never understood why it is relevant to a contemporary Jew, other than an emotional trigger, until recently as I was working on my article on Providence and I had this insight.)The next Bracha reminds us that we see God as the First Cause, but more than that, a God that willed everything and is omnipotent. The following Bracha reinforces that although we are searching for God, He is unknowable, the ultimate transcendent Entity.

In this context, petitionary prayer takes on a very different perspective. The first thing that strikes us is that we pray as a community. The prayers are all in plural, teach “us”, bring “us” back, forgive “us” and so on, and never is there a “me” in those formulas. Our physical well being as a community and as individuals who make up this community, is committed towards the goal set for us by our founders and ancestors. When I as an individual say Refa’einu- heal us – I am saying that the efforts that I put into healing myself as a component of this community, is for the purpose of surviving so that we continue the path and fulfill the goal we took on ourselves at the start of our existence as a community. To me I see it as standing in front of God and reminding me that I have to work towards subsuming my own personal selfish and narcissistic urge to survive to the communal goal of spreading the knowledge of God throughout humanity. It reminds me that my day-to-day activities for survival have meaning only as a means to accomplish the goals set out by our understanding of God. Thus petitionary prayer is a method of bringing perspective to our daily struggles, putting them in the context of our goals. (I will discuss the middle Berachot in a separate post, as this one is getting out of hand).

The last three Berachot are the closing statements. We acknowledge and thank God for our survival. We are saying that by the mere fact that we are still here we have proven that our paths is correct. The last prayer, Sim Shalom, is to me very poignant and appropriate as an ending. It acknowledges that the human mind has the capacity for abstract thinking necessary to understand the existential questions facing us. The “light of God’s face” is the ability of man to apprehend, to a certain extent, the existence of a transcendental Entity. It tells us that Man has the ability to acquire prophecy and thus set long-term goals. Thus, not all our efforts are for naught. We can be confident that we are on the right path.

Note: For a comprehensive and insightful understanding of communal versus individual prayer, I highly recommend the article of the Rav on Pessukei De’zimrah I referred to earlier. I hope to post on it more in the future.

To be continued.

I wish a Shana Tova and Ketiva Vechatima Tova to all my friends and readers.


  1. what about maariv-shalom rav-"the light of G-ds face" is not mentioned.

    The communal language of prayer together with our having in mind the mission and interests of the nation vs our own selfish interests may explain the importance chazal placed on davening with a minyan or at the same time as a minyan

  2. >what about maariv-shalom rav-"the light of G-ds face" is not mentioned.

    Good point. Rambam does not have shalom Rav in his siddur (at end of Ahava).I should research the source of the minhag for shalom rav and why ma'ariv.

    Re communal prayer, you are right. The Rav discusses tefilat hatzibur and this understanding works with his approach.

  3. Shana Tova! K'tiva v'chatima tova.

  4. Shalom,
    I am a relatively new reader of your blog, so forgive me if my comment reveals too much unawareness of your previous posts.
    I have reached a similar, but less developped, conclusion regarding the meaning of petitionary prayer.
    However, I heard from a great Rabbi that although the meaning of petitionary prayer is impossible to explain in a naive way (of course one cannot bring anything to G-d's attention or expect that He will change something...etc), there is a guarantee/tradition that our tefilot are sometimes answered (of course, what "answered" actually means is itself unclear).
    Now, I have perhaps misunderstood the Rabbi I mentioned. But it may be that there is an aspect to petitionary prayer that we simply do not understand, period.
    The question "What does it mean" would remain nevertheless just as valid.

  5. >But it may be that there is an aspect to petitionary prayer that we simply do not understand, period.

    So why would be commanded to do something we don't understand? There is a strand in Judaism that buys that idea. I do not belong to it and it would turn me off. I believe that all commandments have reasons even hukim (which BTW tefila is not among them)some are explicit others are upto each individual to discover. I have written,I think, about it and will do more as I get into the reason for mitzvot.

    Welcome and Shana Tova.

  6. I did not say we were commanded to daven because it works in some kind of mystical way.
    What I meant is: we should question the meaning of petitionary prayer, and this meaning is the only thing that should matter to us as "spiritual adults". Nothing else should be important. Nevertheless, as a side-effect, it may be that petitionary prayer actually does have an effect we do not understand. By Ockham's razor, this is utterly irrelevant, but could there be, perhaps, a special tradition in Judaism regarding tefilah?
    The only reason why I posted this comment is precisely because I know this is close to (or belongs to) a strand of Judaism that would turn you off, and which turns me off too. But I was very surprised to hear this from a Rabbi who is known to me to be a complete "rambamist" (which is why I still fear I have misunderstood him), so I was interested in your reaction.
    I might add: there are other things we do not understand. For example, how can Israel have survived as a people to this day? It is not irrational, but we do not have any explanation for it. What meaning does this have? None.