Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Idea Behind Formulaic Prayer

In my last post, I discussed daily prayer, as presented by Rambam, until the time of Ezra. It was an entirely personal process that had a preset formula for content namely praise, supplication and thankful acknowledgment, however the exact wording was left to the individual. Although there was an obligation to pray on a daily basis, there was no limits set nor preset times for when this obligation was to be performed. When we returned from Bavel at the time of Ezra, a new reality had to be dealt with.

כיון שגלו ישראל בימי נבוכדנאצר הרשע, נתערבו בפרס ויוון
ושאר האומות, ונולדו להם בנים בארצות הגויים; ואותן הבנים נתבלבלה שפתם,
והייתה שפת כל אחד ואחד מעורבת מלשונות הרבה. וכיון שהיה מדבר, אינו יכול
לדבר כל צרכיו בלשון אחת אלא בשיבוש, שנאמר "ובניהם, חצי מדבר אשדודית,
ואינם מכירים, לדבר יהודית--וכלשון, עם ועם" (נחמיה יג,כד).
ומפני זה, כשהיה אחד מהן מתפלל, תקצר לשונו לשאול חפציו או
להגיד שבח הקדוש ברוך הוא בלשון הקודש, עד שיערב עימה לשונות אחרות.
וכיון שראה עזרא ובית דינו כך, עמדו ותיקנו להם שמונה עשרה ברכות על הסדר.

Once the Jewish people were exiled during the times of the evil Nebuchadnezzar, they mixed with the Persians, Greeks and other nationals, having children with them in the foreign lands. [Rambam is saying that intermarriage was common[1]]. Those children’s language became confused. The language of each of them became suffused with many idioms and when speaking, they would express themselves erroneously as it says, “Their children, half spoke the language of Ashdod and the language of those various people, not knowing how to speak Judean”. For that reason, when one of them would pray, his vocabulary was lacking and would not allow him to express himself to ask for his needs or to praise HKBH in the Holy Language (verbatim: Language that emanates from the Holy) without mixing in other idioms. When Ezra and his Beit Din saw this, they instituted for them the Eighteen Blessings in their proper order.

Rambam, in his Pirush Hamishna Sotah 7:1 on the Mishna that allows one to pray in any language, limits that latitude to public prayer. For private prayer, one should endeavor to use Hebrew[2]. He does not legislate this in Mishne Torah. The sense I get here is that the objection is for mixing languages. Be it as it may, the old process of spontaneous prayer became obsolete and a new way of performing the Mitzvah of Tefilah as Avodah had to be put in place. Clearly though, spontaneity is the preferred method and formulaic prayer was only instituted in reaction to circumstances.

It is important to always keep in mind that according to Rambam all Mitzvot that require action to perform them are concessions to our humanity. The preferred method of worship is intellectual without any physical expression. We as humans cannot reliably perform this type of worship and we need to have ways of expressing our intellectual apprehension and the resulting emotions and feelings that we experience. Leaving this to each one of us is dangerous as our imagination takes over and inevitably we will find ourselves worshipping in ways that will lead to idolatry and the belief in the supernatural. Practice has a way of reflecting back onto the intellect and misleading it. That is what happened to humanity historically and is the source of all the myths invented by early man. The Torah recognizes this human trait and strictly regulates how one can express these feelings. It however has to walk a fine line between regulation and the risk of killing off spontaneous worship. It is in this spirit that prayer was formulated as praise followed by supplication and finally acknowledgement. The wording however was left to the individual until that became problematic. Using languages other than Hebrew allows for nuances that compromise the proper way of thinking about God and may lead to erroneous theology. That is how Meiri[3] explains the Gemara Shabbat 12b that says that Mal’achei Hasharet, angels do not know Aramaic. Angels are a metaphor for the human intellect. Using an unknown language in worship distorts the meaning and eventually will reflect back onto the intellect. The Rabbis therefore felt that it was not enough to regulate the content in general terms but there was also a need to develop a formula that would address the praise section followed by a broad enough formula to cover many possibilities in the supplication section. This was done at the risk of dampening spontaneous expression. In fact deviating from the formula now is seen as an error. To be continued…

[1] Rav Kafieh in his notes on this Halacha disagrees. I find his argument apologetic.
[2] Based on the Gemara Sotah 33a.
[3] Chibur Hateshuvah page 510.


  1. When you say that other languages can dstort the meaning what do you mean? I always understood that all anthropomorphic language used in the torah have a dual meaning. For this reason anytime a person praises God in a foreign language he is at the risk of missing the duality in the meaning and therefore he will never develop true knowlege of God. Tell me if you agree with this explanation. Thank you!

  2. David,

    My friend, Yaakov, just posted on this topic on his blog: http://maimonides.info/. Since you're going through the sugya, a thought you'd appreciate the thoughts of a fellow talmid of the Rambam.

  3. Matt Thank you. I am not sure I agree with Yaakov but I see our friend RS is working on him :-)

    Anonymous, all languages can have dual meanings and I do not think that true knowledge of God is restricted to Hebrew speakers and thinkers.

  4. I am not merely saying that hebrew is the only language with homonyms. What I mean to say is that at times the deeper meaning of the word can only be found in the holy tongue. Take for example the word Yashav which denotes sitting, but further investigation brings about the true meaning in referance to G-d. The Rambam points out that the word also denotes permanence which in referance to G-d is the only appropiate tranlation. When it says,"The lord sitteth upon the flood" it is saying that even though the world went through a change, G-d stays the same. If this would be said in a different language, we will miss out in the true interpretation of this verse and therefore not get a true knowlege of G-d.

  5. Regarding what you term Rav Kafach's 'apologetic' arguments, I have to say that I find no textual reason to disagree with him. Nis'arvu means social mixing, and does not address marriage specifically.