Between Spontaneity and Structure: Two Models of Prayer

In a lengthy article highlighting distinctions between the religious worlds of biblical Judaism and modern observance, R. Yuval Cherlow expresses regret about how certain historical institutions have frozen prayer’s form, consequently dulling its vibrancy in the eyes of many Jews. The instances of prayers in Tanakh reflect an era in which individuals would spontaneously cry out to God with thanks for His salvation or with supplication from a state of despair, without a prescribed structure or text. Upon the Temple’s destruction, the newly-instituted association of prayer with the sacrificial service[i] introduced rigid requirements of who must pray and when, the format of prayer, and the constant and consistent language of prayer, all of which mirror standards in the sacrificial order. As the halakhic minutiae related to prayer advanced and crystallized (a process that R. Cherlow does not protest), prayer, in the eyes of many, became merely another formal obligation cast upon the individual, seemingly detached in its current form from the common experiences and passions of the everyman.[ii]

What was prayer supposed to be? What has it become? When attempting to establish the appropriate nature and role of tefillah, it is instructive to look at prominent approaches amongst earlier Jewish thinkers. A well-known reference in Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitsvot famously claims that daily prayer is a biblical commandment.[iii] Ramban rejects this opinion, insisting instead that “the entire matter of tefillah is not a [biblical] obligation at all,” and our daily prayers fulfill only a rabbinic obligation.[iv]

Beneath this surface disagreement about the halakhic origins of prayer lies crucial information about its purpose and meaning, which can be extracted by analyzing each side’s arguments and formulations.

Ramban writes that prayer is not an obligation, but a result of “the Creator’s attribute of kindness towards us, that He listens and responds whenever we call to Him.”  When faced with a comment of the Sifrei, which appears to derive tefillah from the verse, “To serve God,”[v] Ramban dismisses it as an asmakhta (non-literal textual reference), or, alternatively, explains:

[The goal of the Sifrei is] to tell that part of the avodah (service)… is that we should pray to Him in times of distress, and our eyes and hearts should be toward Him solely, like the eyes of slaves are toward the hand of their masters. This is the matter of the verse, “When you go to war in your land, against the enemy who oppresses you, you shall blast trumpets, and you will be remembered before Hashem, your God.”[vi] This is a commandment, in each and every distress that comes upon the public, to cry out before Him with prayer and [trumpet] blasts.[vii]

Ramban views prayer as a means of expressing one’s dependence on God and beseeching His assistance in times of need. It lacks a formal structure – it can be accomplished with but a trumpet blast – yet prayer signifies the open channel between any Jew in distress and his Creator.

In contrast, Rambam’s words reveal little about the nature of prayer:

The fifth commandment is that He commanded us to serve Him…  Even though this commandment is also one of the general commandments as we explained in the fourth principle,[viii] it is specifically [applied to mean] that He commanded us in prayer. In the words of the Sifrei: “‘To serve God’ – this is tefillah.”[ix]

In his summary of this commandment, Rambam employs the word “serve” ten times, but fails to define service or explain how it is accomplished through prayer. He does not elaborate upon the content of prayer, or the mindset of a person in prayer. In this brief introduction to the biblical obligation of tefillah, Rambam offers virtually no instructive or characteristic information.

Even Mishneh Torah, in which Rambam designates a full section of halakhot for the discussion of prayer, is surprisingly spare in identifying prayer’s fundamental nature. Rambam begins these halakhot by quoting the mitsvat aseh, “You shall serve Hashem, your God.”[x] In a parallel verse, “You shall serve Him with all your hearts,”[xi] Hazal interpreted “service of the heart” as prayer. Instead of elaborating on the philosophical implications of identifying prayer as “service of the heart,” Rambam launches into the specific details of the law: while the number of daily prayers, their texts, and their times are not biblically ordained, the core structure of prayer – the sequence in the Amidah of praise of God, then asking for one’s needs, and finally thanking God for His kindness – is biblically mandated.[xii] This is the first glimpse Rambam provides of the nature of prayer, though it is far from clear. Which of these three motifs is the pulse of prayer?  Do they all share exactly the same significance and centrality?  Can it be that the baseline obligation to pray imposes such a rigid and complex structure?

Comparison with Ramban’s earlier comments underscores the impenetrability of Rambam’s approach. Ramban clearly states that prayer’s most fundamental objective is to provide a way for man to contact God and request help with his struggles. The focus of tefillah, then, is petition in times of distress, to which God, in His kindness, listens and responds. The focus of Rambam’s prayer is ambiguous, and he does not state that God listens or responds to our prayers. Readers are left to wonder whether prayer is just a formal obligation, a debt to fulfill, without any apparent meaning or objective.

Surprisingly, Rambam elsewhere in Mishneh Torah casts tefillah in the very terms used by Ramban: “It is a mitsvah… to cry out before God in any time of great distress.” This wording appears not in Hilkhot Tefillah, but in the header to Hilkhot Ta’anit, laws related to public and private fast days.  In the main text, Rambam defines the mitsvah:

It is a positive biblical commandment to cry out and blast trumpets for every distress that comes upon the public, as it is said, “[When faced with] the enemy who oppresses you, you shall blast with trumpets.”[xiii] This is to say: for anything which oppresses you, like famine, pestilence, locust, and the like, cry out because of them, and blast [trumpets].[xiv]

Rambam, then, believes that a community is specially obligated to cry out to God in times of distress, in a manner very similar to how Ramban interprets prayer. There is neither a fixed text to read nor a predefined schedule for this prayer.[xv] It applies both to the community as a whole and to lone individuals, whenever they are found in dire straits.[xvi] Rambam explains that this outcry is a form of repentance and leads to the trouble’s removal, and that a congregation that prays in unity will not be unanswered.[xvii]

If Rambam’s Hilkhot Ta’anit appear to align with Ramban’s characterization of prayer, it is evident that Rambam’s Hilkhot Tefillah must refer to something else. If need-based prayer and communication has been allocated to a separate commandment and a separate set of laws, how can the commandment labeled tefillah be characterized? To address this problem, a deeper understanding of both Hilkhot Ta’anit and Hilkhot Tefillah must be developed.

Several commentaries on Rambam’s works note a striking inconsistency between Hilkhot Ta’anit and Rambam’s own Sefer ha-Mitsvot. The emotive, desperate form of prayer identified in Hilkhot Ta’anit is enumerated in a peculiar context in Rambam’s list of the 613 biblical commandments.

The fifty-ninth mitsvah is that He commanded us to blow trumpets in the Temple upon the offering of each sacrifice from the festival sacrifices, as He – may He be exalted – says, “And on the days of your happiness, and on your festivals, and on your new months, you shall blow the trumpets.”[xviii] … And we are also commanded to blow trumpets in times of need and distress, when we call out before Hashem – may He be exalted, as He says, “When you go to war in your land, against the enemy who oppresses you, [you shall blast trumpets].”[xix], [xx]

This passage poses several difficulties. Why does Rambam combine two separate uses of the trumpets – from two separate verses – into a single biblical commandment?[xxi] Furthermore, why does Rambam inconsistently portray this commandment? In Sefer ha-Mitsvot, it is defined as the purely physical act of blowing a trumpet; in the body of Hilkhot Ta’anit, the act of blowing is complemented with prayer; the header of Hilkhot Ta’anit refers exclusively to the prayer in times of need. What is Rambam’s real position, and why is his presentation so inconsistent?

The common thematic ground between trumpet blasts during festival sacrifices and those during situations of distress is an atmosphere of heightened emotions. The first half of mitsvah fifty-nine refers to a time of elation, when we rejoice on the days of our happiness and the festivals. The second half represents the opposite extreme: fear and apprehension as the enemy nears. The trumpets serve as a neutral canvas onto which either extreme of human emotion can be vividly projected. They stand for the inexpressible height of national celebration and the inexpressible depth of a community in despair.[xxii] This may explain Rambam’s unified presentation of the trumpets’ two purposes: the trumpets are to signify elevated levels of focus and concentration (kavvanah) during festive offerings and communal crisis.[xxiii]

Rambam attaches the emotion-laden trumpet blasts to his presentation of prayer in Hilkhot Ta’anit, but they are absent from Hilkhot Tefillah. As the texture of the prayer outlined in Hilkhot Ta’anit becomes revealed, the core of prayer as delineated in Hilkhot Tefillah still appears to lack the elements of emotion, thanksgiving, or desperation; it remains an enigma.

Perhaps a fuller understanding of Rambam’s conception of Hilkhot Tefillah-prayer can be gained through attention to a recurring theme in Sefer ha-Mitsvot and in the first chapter of Hilkhot Tefillah. Rambam’s tenfold mention of “avodah” in mitsvah 5, a word which commonly refers to korbanot, is complemented in Mishneh Torah by a series of laws derived from the sacrificial origin of Jewish prayer. The number of daily prayers reflects the number of required offerings in the Mikdash each day.[xxiv] The nighttime prayer corresponds to the burning of limbs on the mizbe’ah at night.[xxv] An individual can elect to pray an extra prayer just as he can volunteer to bring an extra offering, a korban todah.[xxvi] A congregation, though, cannot add a prayer, since a community as a whole cannot bring such an offering.[xxvii]

Rambam’s strong association of prayer to the avodah redirects the question of prayer’s nature to that of the korbanot. At the end of Sefer Avodah, in which many of the laws pertaining to the Temple offerings are developed, Rambam stresses that a Jew must express humility and submission when faced with a hok, a religious law which has no apparent logical rationale. Rambam discusses the challenge of a hok at the close of this particular book of Mishneh Torah because “all the sacrifices are in the category of hukkim.”[xxviii]

If tefillah is so tightly connected to the avodah, which Rambam labels a hok, perhaps we are pursuing an underlying motivation for prayer where no consistent direction is to be found. Neither sacrifices nor prayer are intrinsically logical or understandable, and every Jew is free to come up with his or her own associations for prayer.[xxix] Though the patriarchs established prayer to fulfill a purpose (and not, apparently, as a fulfillment of a not-yet-commanded irrational hok), the prayers as they are ultimately codified in Halakhah stand independently of their founders’ original motives. This is why Rambam leaves out the fundamental identity of prayer in Hilkhot Tefillah: like korbanot, the mitsvah of prayer lacks intrinsic logic.

The trumpets of mitsvah fifty-nine infuse these two hukkim with a human side. Though both sacrifices and prayer are rigidly standardized in time, person, and procedure, trumpet blasts allow for individual expression. They are simultaneously suited to both the passionate ecstasy of the festival service and also to the torturous distress of a national predicament.

Rambam, then, agrees with Ramban’s presentation of the commandment of prayer. The prayer of Hilkhot Ta’anit is an obligation specific to a time of distress, which lacks inherent structure and is aimed to prompt a divine salvation. Rambam’s real innovation is in counting a second mitsvah of prayer, of a rigid and axiomatic nature, to be fulfilled on a regular basis. A person who recites the given formula every day of his or her life accomplishes one level of prayer. In a time of despair, or whenever he feels compelled to cry out on his own terms, he fulfills the other.

R. Cherlow, in criticizing the modern perception of prayer, laments formal tefillah’s displacement of the passionate outcries of old. However, as we have seen, to this day Jewish prayer encompasses much more than the established texts and contexts. Opportunities and encouragement for individual initiatives underlie the mitsvah of prayer, according to both Rambam and Ramban. The rigidity of post-rabbinic prayer supplements, rather than replaces, the original spontaneous prayer. Though it is unfortunate that many people associate prayer with only its established form, who can say that the reflexive outcry model is practiced any less frequently or by any fewer people now than in biblical times? Though standardized prayer takes place thrice daily, spontaneous prayer does not.  It is not meant to be a daily ritual; it is not sustainable as a daily ritual. It remains a largely voluntary and impulsive act, and the hope to make it widespread and commonplace serves only to dilute it.


Gilad Barach is a third-year YC student majoring in Physics and Mathematics, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i]            See Berakhot 26b.

[ii]           R. Yuval Cherlow, “ha-Im ha-Tanakh Hayah?”  Megaddim 33 (2000-2001): 75-121.

[iii]           Rambam, Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Mitsvot Aseh, 5.

[iv]           Ramban to Sefer ha-Mitsvot, ad loc. This and all translations are mine.

[v]           Devarim 11:13.

[vi]           Bamidbar 10:9.

[vii]          Ramban, ad loc.

[viii]          Rambam here refers to the fourth shoresh from his introduction to Sefer ha-Mitzvot. There he writes that mitsvot which merely reinforce all other commandments should not be counted among the 613 biblical mitsvot. Thus, for example, the directive, “Be holy” (Vayikra 19:2), is excluded from Sefer ha-Mitzvot. An exception to this rule, which Rambam invokes in the context of prayer, is if the general exhortation applies especially to a particular commandment.

[ix]           Rambam, Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Mitsvot Aseh, 5.

[x]           Shemot 23:25.

[xi]           Devarim 11:13.

[xii]          Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah 1:1-2.

[xiii]          Bamidbar 10:9.

[xiv]          Rambam, Hilkhot Ta’anit 1:1.

[xv]          Although the Mishnah (Masekhet Ta’anit) and Rambam (Hilkhot Ta’anit) establish laws governing when fast days are declared during droughts and the appropriate format of prayer on these days, these are not inherent to the biblical commandment, as is the case for the structure of prayer (Hilkhot Tefillah 1:2).

[xvi]          Ibid., 1:9.

[xvii]         Rambam, Hilkhot Ta’anit 1:2; Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:6.

[xviii]         Bamidbar 10:10.

[xix]          Ibid., 10:9.

[xx]          Rambam, Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Mitsvot Aseh, 59.

[xxi]          This question is raised by Maggid Mishneh to Hilkhot Ta’anit 1:1. He is left without a sufficient answer.

[xxii]         These ideas are based on a lecture by the Rav: R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Bein Za’akah Ve-Hatsotserot,” in R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Divrei Hashkafah (Jerusalem: Aliner Books, 1994), 49-58.

[xxiii]         See Peri Megaddim, Mishbetsot Zahav, to Orah Hayyim 575:2.

[xxiv]         Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah 1:5.

[xxv]         Ibid., 1:6.

[xxvi]         Ibid., 1:9.

[xxvii]        Ibid., 1:10.

[xxviii]        Rambam, Hilkhot Me’ilah 8:8.

[xxix]         Rambam recommends that every Jew try to find meaning in every mitsvah, but respond with respectful resignation when he or she cannot comprehend a hok.