Patriarchs and Sacrifices: The Philosophical Backing to Prayer

Prayer is a core foundation to Jewish existence. Thrice daily, individual Jews bind into a community, praying for the most basic, profound, and dear aspects of life. But why is Jewish law so particularistic about when prayer can be said? Why are the laws pertaining to prayer so rigid, even dictating the acceptable time-frame for the tefillot? How does institutionalized prayer allow for individuality?

A disagreement between R. Yosi the son of R. Hanina and R. Yehoshua ben Levi regarding the establishment of prayer offers fertile ground to answer all of these questions.[i] R. Yosi argues, “tefillot avot tiknum,” that prayer was established by the Patriarchs. R. Yehoshua ben Levi argues, “tefillot ke-neged temidin tiknum,” that the prayers correspond to the sacrifices offered in the Temple. The Gemara then brings a Beraita to support each opinion.

R. Yosi, who holds “avot tiknum,” is supported by pesukim that hint to a point in each of the Patriarchs’ careers when they prayed. Following the destruction of Sodom, Abraham returned to his usual place and “stood (amad)”.[ii] Considering other uses of the word “stood,” Abraham’s standing must have been a form of prayer. Next, Isaac went to the field “to converse (la-suah)” before nightfall as Rebecca was arriving.[iii] The Gemara explains that “to converse” refers to prayer. Last, Jacob “encountered (va-yifga)” the place where he spent the night while journeying to Haran.[iv] The Gemara explains that “encountered” also refers to prayer. These correlations prove that the Patriarchs each engaged in prayer during different portions of the day.

The Gemara also offers support for R. Yehoshua ben Levi’s opinion of “ke-neged temidin tiknum” — that the Men of the Great Assembly[v] instituted times for verbal prayer to correspond to the times for the daily sacrificial offerings in the Temple. Because the morning sacrifice could be offered until midday, our morning prayers can be said until midday. Because the afternoon sacrifice could be offered until evening, our afternoon prayer can be said until evening. Because the remaining limbs and intestines from sacrifices were burned all night, our evening prayer can be said all night. Thus, according to R. Yehoshua ben Levi, Jews pray thrice daily within these time constraints to mirror the sequence of communal sacrifices offered in the Temple.

Thus, the Gemara seems to set a sharp dichotomy. Each opinion is bolstered by a teaching, thereby supporting both the notion that our prayers are a reflection of our Patriarch’s relationship with the Almighty and that they are a replacement for Temple sacrifices.

At first glance, the debate seems to be over fact. Either the source of prayer stems from the Patriarchs or from the sacrifices. However, I would like to argue that the source of contention is a sharp philosophical debate about the nature of prayer itself – whether prayer is best accomplished through an individual’s idiosyncratic style like the Patriarchs or through a structured ritualistic model like the sacrifices.

R. Yosi’s “avot” perspective suggests that prayer should be idiosyncratic, inspired and shaped by the one praying. The Patriarchs each prayed, albeit in a different way. Abraham “stood,” Isaac “conversed,” and Jacob “encountered.” While each word connotes a mode of prayer, the key is that each Patriarch prayed in accordance with his personality.

Abraham was a maverick, the champion of monotheism and morality in a world of immoral dysfunction. Merely “standing” was a sign of his life work; the fact that he stood alone indicates strong self-confidence. Abraham “stood”[vi] in debate with God over the future of Sodom; Abraham’s audacity to fight on behalf of those who deserved a defense attorney is an exemplification of Abraham’s sharp moral compass. Perhaps Abraham’s mere “standing” presence not only refers to Abraham’s mode of prayer, but also to his lifestyle.

Isaac lived a quiet life. While his existence ensured the continuity of the Jewish people, Isaac failed to proactively dictate his own life path. During the Binding of Isaac, Abraham intended to sacrifice him, seemingly with his full consent.[vii] He was not involved in finding his wife Rebecca – his father’s servant went on that mission. In fact, Isaac’s travels were limited to the boundaries of Erets Yisrael. Unlike his father who forever changed the makeup of humanity through active engagement with the world around him,[viii] Isaac’s most critical moments occurred in quiet one-on-one conversations within his nuclear family, such as when he gave blessings to his twin sons.[ix] Thus, defining his prayer in terms of his “conversation” seems appropriate.

Jacob’s life was turbulent. Jacob was cajoled into stealing his brother Esau’s blessing.[x] Jacob was then forced to flee from Esau.[xi] He was tricked into marrying his intended wife’s sister.[xii] Then, in order to wed the love of his life, he was forced to work for another seven years.[xiii] With four wives and eleven children, Jacob was forced to flee yet again.[xiv] Worse, his sons treated each other with shocking disrespect, even throwing Joseph into a pit, hoping he would passively die alone.[xv] Thus, Jacob had every reason to seek help in the striking, moving, and profound fashion of “encountering.” The intensity of his prayer was proportional to the intensity of his life upheavals.

On the flipside, R. Yehoshua ben Levi champions the “temidin” approach — that prayer is best accomplished through set ritual.

There are many advantages to this approach. Although set prayer could easily become a rote bore, the “temidin” approach ensures that individuals will pray on a regular basis. Even the word “temidin” stems from the Hebrew word “tamid,” meaning “always.” While most people will encounter points in their lives that demand heartfelt prayer, inspiration is inconsistent. The “temidin” approach asks all Jews to have a consistent conversation with the Almighty, regardless of whether they are in the mood to pray.

Further, the “temidin” form gives a set structure to encounter the Almighty. Jews are meant to pray three times a day with a set text mandated by the Men of the Great Assembly. Instead of relying on every person’s dreams and desires to come to the fore, the prayer text explicitly tells Jews what deserves a prayer – like the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstitution of the Rabbinical Courts. Thus, the pre-set text for prayer leads to a more thorough relationship with the Almighty.

In sum, the requirement to pray can be accomplished like the avot’s prayer – a time to cathartically pour out one’s deepest life desires to the Almighty, an opportunity to search one’s innermost core, to ask for one’s deepest desires. However, the form of prayer could more easily mimic the sacrifices – the predetermined ritual, the communal obligation, the constant demand.

The Gemara concludes, “avot tiknum vi-asmikhinhu rabbanan a-korbanot,” meaning that the concept of prayer stems from the Patriarchs but the structure reflects the sacrifices. This is a spectacular harmonization of the two views. Instead of valuing one opinion over the other, the Gemara’s arbitration proves that both are necessary for the fulfillment of Jewish prayer – somehow, Jewish prayer would be incomplete without the ability to purge the individual’s thoughts within the set structure. Thus, this melding of the two halves of the dichotomy represents the ideal philosophy of Jewish prayer: an idiosyncratic though structured supplication to the Almighty.


Sarah Robinson is a junior at SCW majoring in Jewish Studies and English Literature.


[i] Berakhot 26b. All translations are my own.

[ii] Genesis 19:27.

[iii] Genesis 24:63.

[iv] Genesis 28:11.

[v] Rashi to Berakhot 26b, s.v. ke-neged temidin tiknum.

[vi] In proving that Abraham prayed in the morning, the Gemara references Genesis19:27. The Bible recounts the same word, “stood,” in the preceding chapter when Abraham “stood” in debate with God over the future of Sodom. In this paragraph, I am referring to 18:22.

[vii] Genesis 22 records the Binding of Isaac. Strikingly, Abraham is the protagonist of the story with Isaac speaking only in 22:7, asking, “Here is the fire and the wood, and where is the sheep to offer?” Isaac is otherwise silent throughout the encounter, even when his father Abraham binds him to the altar. Isaac’s silence and compliance imply his consent.

[viii] Genesis 12:5. The verse notes that Abraham took Lot and Sarah and their property and “the souls they made in Haran.” Rashi (ad loc., s.v. asher asu bi-Haran) explains that Abraham and Sarah converted the men and women of Haran to Judaism. These converts joined Abraham in his travel to Israel.

[ix]Genesis 27:1-27:40.

[x] Genesis 27. In this chapter, Rebecca overhears that Isaac plans to give Esau a blessing. In order to ensure that Jacob would receive the blessing instead, Rebecca initially asked Jacob to “please go” (27:9) and gather two goats. After Jacob raised a pragmatic issue – that Isaac would discern that Jacob tricked him – Rebecca firmly dismisses his concern. Rebecca retorts, “walk and go” (27:12), without the “please.” Thus, Jacob was cajoled into usurping the elder blessing from his twin brother.

[xi] Genesis 27:40.

[xii] Genesis 29:25.

[xiii] Genesis 29:27.

[xiv] Genesis 31:2.

[xv] Genesis 37:20.