Monday, February 09, 2009

Prayer As Worship - Yearning.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Rambam places the Mitzvah of daily prayer in Sefer Ahavah, the Book of Love. True love can flourish only when there is an intimate knowledge and understanding between two loving people. It develops when both parties get a sense of the other and like what they see, giving rise to a steady urge and yearning to get to know each other better. As they get a better sense of each other and still like what they see, that yearning grows in magnitude and turns into a strong urge to merge and become one with the loved one. The book preceding Ahavah, Sefer Hamada, the Book of Knowledge, the first book of Mishne Torah, ends (Hil Teshuvah 10:3 and 6) with a highly charged description of this great yearning and urge.

וכיצד היא האהבה הראויה: הוא שיאהוב את ה' אהבה גדולה יתרה רבה, עזה עד
מאוד, עד שתהא נפשו קשורה באהבת ה', ונמצא שוגה בה תמיד--כאלו חולי האהבה,
שאין דעתם פנויה מאהבת אותה אישה שהוא שוגה בה תמיד, בין בשוכבו בין
בקומו, בין בשעה שהוא אוכל ושותה

What is proper love? One should feel such an extreme, great and strong love for God to the point that one’s mind [soul] is tied up and dwells upon it at all times. It is similar to one who is lovesick and whose mind [soul] cannot stray from the love he feels for a particular woman; he dwells on it at all times, whether it is when he goes to sleep, when he awakens or when he eats and drinks.

ו] דבר ידוע וברור שאין אהבת הקדוש ברוך הוא נקשרת בליבו של אדם, עד
שישגה בה תמיד כראוי ויעזוב כל שבעולם חוץ ממנה כמו שציווה ואמר "בכל לבבך
ובכל נפשך";
אלא בדעה שיידעהו. ועל פי הדעה--על פי האהבה--אם מעט מעט, ואם הרבה הרבה.

It is well known and clear that the love of God does not bind in man’s heart unless he dwells on it properly at all times. He must leave behind all worldly cares other than the need to know Him as it is commanded, “with all your heart and your soul [mind]”. Love is commensurate with knowledge; little knowledge - little love, much knowledge - much love[1].

When we look at the structure of Mishne Torah, the first Sefer, the book of Knowledge, describes the end point of all of religion, the end goal of our existence. That ultimate goal is Madah, knowledge of God’s world, through it God and His ways so that we can emulate them. The other books deal with the different tools that we as humans need, to allow us to reach that ultimate goal. Rambam ends the Book of Knowledge by describing the state of mind necessary to achieve this goal; an almost obsessive immersion into God and His ways. That can be accomplished through following the actions prescribed in the following book, the Book of Love. Indeed as I noted earlier, that book is introduced with the verse –

מה אהבתי, תורתך
: כל היום, היא שיחתי

O how love I Thy Torah! It is my meditation all day.

The Mitzvot in this book are thus tools that help us reach this goal of immersion in matters that deal with God and His ways. Rambam in MN 3:51 describes that goal, using Moshe Rabbeinu as the paradigm for human perfection –-

When we have acquired a true knowledge of God, and rejoice in that knowledge in such a manner, that whilst speaking with others, or attending to our bodily wants, our mind is all that time with God; when we are with our heart constantly near God, even whilst our body is in the society of men; when we are in that state which the Song on the relation between God and man poetically describes in the following words: "I sleep, but my heart wakes: it is the voice of my beloved that knocks" (Song v. 2):--then we have attained not only the height of ordinary prophets, but of Moses, our Teacher, of whom Scripture relates: "And Moses alone shall come near before the Lord" (ibid. xxxiv. 28); "But as for thee, stand thou here by me" (Deut. V. 28).”

Daily prayer, the subject of the second group of Halachot in Sefer Ahavah, is meant to train us into this mode of thinking. It requires us to stop what we are doing and take stock to make sure that we are not losing sight of what should be the ultimate goal of everything we do – fulfilling our role in God’s universe by understanding His ways and emulating them. Here is how Rambam explains how this process works –

“I will now commence to show you the way how to educate and train yourselves in order to attain that great perfection. The first thing you must do is this: Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read Shema or during the Tefilah, and do not content yourself with being intent when you read the first verse of Shema, or the first paragraph of the prayer. When you have successfully practiced this for many years, try in reading the Law or listening to it, to have all your heart and all your thought occupied with understanding what you read or hear…” (MN3:51)

One starts with concentrating and meditating about HKBH for short periods of time daily when praying. These times are slowly extended throughout the whole time we pray. Eventually it is carried over into the times we learn Torah and eventually it becomes the underlying theme while we go about our daily chores as described earlier, with Moshe Rabbeinu as the paradigm. Prayer is thus described as a time for meditation and a stepping-stone towards the ideal; total immersion in HKBH and His ways.

Clearly, this type of prayer is quite different then the one described in the earlier posts. There the prayer was focused on our actions and the effect they had on our lives. We are looking back and trying to see how we can change things so that the calamity that befell us does not repeat itself. Here we are dealing with the future. We are trying to develop an understanding of how to do things right from the start, how to act responsibly and fulfill our intended role in existence. We are involved in a process of worship of and immersion in God and His ways. Ultimately, however, the goal of both types of prayer is the same, as is that of all Mitzvot. It is through knowledge of God and his ways that we know how to emulate Him in our own actions.

This brings us to the content of prayer – the Tefilah we say daily – which will be the subject of upcoming posts.

[1] I translated the word Nefesh as “mind” rather than “soul”, which is the traditional translation, based on Rambam’s description of that term at the beginning of his Shemona Perakim. He defines there Nefesh as the totality of an entity’s cognitive ability which in man includes the intellect, urges and emotions.


  1. this is off topic, but based on your link to machon moshe and the general current of your thoughts on this blog, i thought you might appreciate this (perhaps you've already seen it).

  2. Thank you for the reference and I look forward to reading. I am acquainted with the Mesorah site and I think it is a very valuable resource for rational Judaism. I am however not affiliated with any organization other than Hakirah where I am a member of the editorial board. I am vaguely acquainted with machon Moshe but know little about them other than a source of sefarim of rav Kafieh who I think is probably one of most knowledgeable people in the last generation about rambam and his work. He has been instrumental in reintroducing the work of Rambam but also other great Rishonim such as Rav Sa'adyah Gaon, Chovot Halevavot, Kuzari and Ra'avad to contemporary Torah study. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

  3. I just skimmed through the article and I agree with the gist of it.

  4. are you saying we are deluding ourselves?

  5. I am not sure what you are asking? Where is the illusion?

  6. I really meant your most recent post on human concession.

  7. What Rambam is saying is quite the opposite. The real worship is meditation while expressing the devotion through prayer is a concession to human needs. Where do you see in that an illusion?