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Is Prayer Normal?

Is Prayer Normal?

Is Jewish prayer inherently paradoxical?


1. On the Absurdity of Prayer

Anybody who has watched the standard morning minyan knows that Jewish prayer is not normal. It is not normal to wrap yourself in a white woolen sheet, strap leather boxes containing ancient scrolls on your arm and head, sway back and forth with your cohorts chanting Hebrew incantations and reading from a parchment scroll. It is not normal to stand before a wall and appear to be speaking to it. It is not normal in this day and age and may never have been normal in any era.

Many questions can be asked: Why do we spend so much time praising G‑d? Doesn't He know how great He is? Why do we gather together to talk to Him—shouldn't this be a more personal interaction? Why do we say the same words, day in and day out?

We will be dealing with these questions and many more in this and ensuing articles. But first, let's deal with the most puzzling aspect of prayer, the very concept itself. You see, by praying to G‑d, we are putting ourselves in a rather absurd position. By praying to Him, we are acknowledging that He is:

  • Beneficent
    —He wants to do nice things for us.
  • Omnipotent
    —He can do anything. Reality is up to His imagination.
  • Omniscient
    —He knows our needs better than we do. And not only does He hear our prayers, He hears our thoughts as well. (After all, if they come from Him, He knows about them, right?)1
  • All-encompassing
    —He doesn't delegate responsibility and has no need to ask anyone permission. There is only Him.

…and by doing so, we seem to have obviated the need for any prayer:

  • If He is beneficent and all that He does is good…
    …then why would you ask Him to change anything?
  • If He is omnipotent and can do things however He desires…
    …why are things not the way He desires?
  • If He is omniscient, knows what we need and wants to do nice things for us…
    …why does He wait for us to ask Him?
  • If He is the All-Encompassing Absolute Authority…
    Dear Omniscient, Omnipotent, Beneficent G‑d: I have a complaint… …why does He allow Himself to be swayed by our petitions?

In short: If we believe in an Omniscient, Omnipotent and Beneficent G‑d, why pray? Does an Infinite Being really need us telling Him what to do?

2. The Philosopher's Answer

Maybe He doesn't need our prayers. Maybe the whole point of prayer is to elevate us. Many authors have interpreted that this is precisely Maimonides' point in this passage from the Guide of the Perplexed:

Prayer, the Reciting of the Shema, Grace after Meals and all the blessings, the Priestly Blessings, Tefillin, Mezuzah, Tzitzit, acquiring a Torah Scroll and reading in it at appointed times— the purpose of all of these mitzvahs is for us to remember G‑d continually, come to love and be in awe of Him, and to have faith in Him and accept all of His mitzvahs.2

With this passage and other similar such statements, Maimonides makes it clear that G‑d could run the universe perfectly well without our prayers. The implication is that we are the ones who need prayer—in order to connect Him to our lives.

In fact, we may be using the wrong word altogether. The English word, prayer, means to beseech, to implore, to plead for something.


There is another word, bakashah בקשה, that certainly does mean all those things. But that's not the word we use. We use tefillah. Does tefillah really mean "prayer"?

Tefillah is etymologically related to the root word tofel—meaning reconnect or bond.


When you stick a patch of clay onto a clay pot, you are tofel the clay. When Rachel's maid, Bilhah, had a child Genesis 30:8), she called him "Naftali", meaning "I have been connected"—from the same etymology. Similarly, when we plug ourselves back in to our Original Source above three times a day (or whenever necessary), we call that tefillah—reconnecting.3

If so, there is an essential difference between tefillah and prayer: Prayer means one lower being beseeching a higher, separate being to take care of its needs. Tefillah means bonding those two entities into one. You connect yourself and your world with the One Above, so that divine energy can enter to heal the sick, cause the rain to fall and correct whatever else may be out of synch down here.4

Much more sensible. Indeed, a very rational answer—since the philosopher certainly does not want to be caught performing the irrational and absurd.

3. Back to the Drawing Board

Very rational, and yet, utterly inconsistent with the simple meaning of our daily prayers:

We do not suffice with standing there and acknowledging, "Yes, you are the Omnipotent King and we owe everything to you." We continue by petitioning, pleading and begging that He change the situation. We repeat again and again, "Let it be Your will…"—directly implying that what we are requesting is not currently His will and we are out to change that.

We are quite frankly creating a revolution: Those at the bottom are dictating to the One Above. Our prayers are definitively not passive—we are taking a real nudnik, back-seat driver role.

And this is a mitzvah—He told us to do this! In the words of the very same Maimonides who wrote the quite sensible words above:

It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as the verse states, "and you shall serve the L‑rd your G‑d." Tradition teaches us that this refers to prayer.

…this commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications;5 and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability.6

The question returns: Why would the Ultimate Driver of the Universe want a nudnik, back seat driver?

I'll leave you for a week to ponder all of this. In the meantime, here's a delicious story straight from the Talmud that illustrates well all that we've been discussing:

It happened once that Adar, the fifth month of the rainy season, had almost passed and the rains had not yet come. They came to Choni the Circle-Maker and asked him to pray for rain. He told them, "Go out and bring your mud ovens in from the courtyards so they will not dissolve in the rain."

Then he began to pray, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He traced a circle in the ground and stood within it as Habakkuk the prophet had once done.7 Then he spoke to G‑d, saying, "Master of the Universe! Your children have turned to me because they consider me as a member of Your household. I swear in Your great name that I will not move from here until You have compassion on Your children."

Rain began to drizzle. Choni's students told him "Our master! We see what you did, but we don't wish to die! It seems the rain falls only that you should be free of your oath!"

So he said, "This is not what I asked for! Rather, we need rain to fill the cisterns, the ditches and the caverns!"

The rain began to fall with fury. His students told him, "Master! We have seen what you did, but we don't wish to die! It seems the rain is falling only to destroy the world!"

So he said, "This is not what I requested! Rather, we need rains of good will, of blessing and of beneficence!"

Then the rain fell appropriately. It fell until Jerusalem was inundated and people had to ascend to the Temple Mount to escape the waters. They came to Choni and told him, "Just as you prayed that rain should fall, now pray that it should cease!"

He told them, "I have received by tradition that one should not pray to be saved from too much good. Nevertheless, bring me an ox for a thanksgiving offering."

They brought him the thanksgiving ox. He rested his hands upon it and said to G‑d, "Master of the Universe! Your people, Israel, that You have brought up from Egypt, they cannot live with too much good nor with too much affliction. You were angry with them, they could not withstand it. You showered them with goodness, they could not take it. May a will come forth from within You that the rain will stop and there will be respite in the world!"

Immediately, the wind blew, the clouds parted and the sun shone. The people went out to the fields and brought back mushrooms to eat.

Shimon ben Shatach sent a message to Choni, as follows: "If you were not Choni, I would have you excommunicated … But what can I do that you nudge the Omnipresent and He does whatever you want, like a child that nudges his father and gets whatever he wants. He says, 'Father, take me to bathe in warm water! Wash me in cool water! Give me nuts! Almonds! Apricots! Pomegranates!' And the father gives him whatever he asks! Concerning you is the verse, 'May your father and mother rejoice and may the one who bore you celebrate8!'"9

The standard silent prayer (the “Amidah”) ends with the verse from Psalms (19:15), “May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, G‑d, my rock and my redeemer.”
Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim) 3:44
We will expand upon this relationship in upcoming articles, G‑d willing.
See Likkutei Sichot v. 2, p. 410; Rashi on Genesis 30:8; Ohr HaTorah of the Tzemach Tzedek, v. 2, 380a.
Emphasis is my own
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 1:1
Tractate Ta'anit 23a
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Ron Lineberry Virginia USA January 20, 2014

God why is God always spelled G-d in all the articles Reply

Sandra Johnson highland, IN January 9, 2012

Preparing the ground I see so many excuses not to spiritually discipline ourselves . When catastrophic Illness , death disaster mayhem arrive in our lives. The first thing we cry is how could God let that happen ? We blame him for the bad and give him no credit for the good.We make it so important to go to the hairdresser, doctor get our nails done but preparing to receive God is such and imposition on our time why?It is true he does not need us . We need him and Torah directives for a good long life.I have made the bad decisions and the excitement left me hollow and empty.Prayer cleans me to be aware of Gods presence by making see what he has done for me .He forgave me for my mistakes ,protected me and provided for me.This is why I pray so I can learn to be grateful to him for every blessing. Reply

Anonymous January 6, 2012

Respnse to Rebel prayer Jan 5 , 2012 Loved it !

Yasher koach. Good Shabbos ! Hey light some Shabbat candles. I don't but i figure that it is a very comforting and spiritual activity, for those that do. Reply

Mrs. Joan Spehr Clark January 5, 2012

Rebellious Pray - er I have to fess up to the fact that I find it difficult to repeat a prayer daily...not trouble being Godly or liking that value system...but more "fear" no one might be listening. So I was extra happy to learn it should be used more to evaluate ourselves; and still lol - I have trouble praying.

But I enjoyed reading the part that talks about...finding comfort in it. I find outside of spirituality, there is so much upset. Hmm - wrapping yourself in a woolen sheet - now that sounds good. In fact, the next time the world upsets me, I think I'll try to find the softest, warmest material to wrap around me and think about God. I enjoy music - the Jewish songs and I'm hoping to get some CDs in the future to just start singing..till all the upset goes away....

and I liked the part that said "It is not normal". But I agree, it is definatly needed - something to restore an emotionally charged moment back to peace. Maybe a rocking chair would help?? Reply

Miss Judith Witten February 23, 2011

Confused Me This morning... I am getting very confused by statements made in this article that create challenges in the mind about my feelings about G-d. Instead of being challenged, I am sad- a stumbling block is developed-I'll take one statment:He (G-d) doesn't delegate responsibility and has no need to ask anyone permission. There is onlyHim....and by doing so,we seem to have obviated the need for any prayer.--That's the quote from your artice and I'd like to talk about how G-d forces us to walk in the shoes of those who are in a lass advantageous situation than ourselves..and how this lession that G-d teaches us makes us mature adults and well rounded individuals and that is why G-d teaches us that---there are other resposibilities that G-d teaches usthat makes it the circle of life where we keep coming back for more-meaning we come back to pray --like volunteer to help the sick--Give to the poor--all this helps you to pray and be closer to G-d- Thank you for reading this Reply

Reb Yehonatan Chicago/Tel Aviv, US/Israel February 23, 2011

balance...? a teeter totter is not a good example of balance, for two reasons 1. actually there is constant movement, though unseen, in the two sides through the fulcrum of a teeter-totter, yet its just opposing force & doesn't constitute an actual balance, becuz balance is movement therefore the concept of stasis is maintaining equilibrium, due to stagnation and/or inactivity or opposing forces - this is an illusion of balance becuz true balance (see Mishle) allows & enhances movement. 2. equilibrium is not based upon movement yet upon passive control which produces stagnation which equates to death; while balance is active & life oriented (see Bereshith).
Not all seek safety - fact. U assume that ur cultural ideals are universal; dispassionate rule and active involvement do not constitute a true dichotomy. Life is not hard, circumstances r yet not life; What kind of Q is "what is G_d?" G_d is nothing. simple. So where is ur "level of discomfort"? who informed u of ur discomfort lvl? ttyl :) Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma February 19, 2011

balance Perfect balance as in that achieved on a child's teeter totter is stasis, Neither side moves, so I would say in metaphor we all need to be a little off center to allow for movement in life.

We all seek safety, meaning we venture forth but generally do need that anchor to feel secure somewhere, and for many the anchor is family, relationship, a faith in a loving or personal G_d. There is meaning that comes from this but also intense and ongoing questioning because life is hard, and what happens is so often provocative of questions concerning love itself and the presence of either a dispassionate Prime Ruler or One very active in our lives, or both, and this does create paradox and turns on the question of What Is G_d.

Here is a level of discomfort for all who wrestle with such issues. Reply

Reb Yehonatan Chicago/Tel Aviv, US/Israel February 18, 2011

safe.... Too much of anything is dangerous... that's why they are boundaries... balance is not a static position, you can't balance by standing still... balance is an illusion... it requires paradox. Its not about getting the answer, its about knowing how and why and when to ask the Q... what does "safe" have to do with anything other than comfort?
why do we fear paradox? its rhetorical...
we fear it because it means we don't have an answer... simple
and not having the answer, well, that's the essence of emunah/faith... Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, MA February 17, 2011

the "SAFE" in SAFED, mysticism Such a beautiful comment above.

Why do we fear paradox?

It seems the universe is based on paradox, and it is deeply within words themselves, perhaps because the universe was first created, out of the potentials of the letters, a story that is about what is wound, as in a ball, tightly, and how we are also wound ded. Yes, paradox. But could we know anything without, its opposite. What moves us is E Motion. And we grow. And we grow. Spiritually. And in all ways of learning.

It's hard to conceive of infinity, so we seek the finite, within, and to be de finite, and some are deaf to issues of free will and determinism, two halves that do and must fold together. Because it is scary. Because it was said that to delve too deeply into Jewish mysticism is dangerous.

As surely it is, unless one can handle the depth of this. Because it goes, very deep, and one needs to be completely grounded to handle certain insights. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman (author) February 17, 2011

The next step Many readers didn't realize that this is the first in a series, and that the next two installments have long been published. I've added navigation arrows to assist you. Please add your comments to the next two installments! Reply

Reb Yehonatan Chicago/Tel Aviv, US/Israel February 17, 2011

G_d, Prayer, Listening Have you ever listened to your self pray?
Why is it that we fear paradoxes so much?
What is it about our own condition that makes being actual so intimidating? What is about us that makes being vulnerable so frightening? What is it about fear that makes it so attractive that we seek it out (sometimes sub-consciously)? What is so difficult about 'being human'? that we must invent for ourselves ways to deal with others differently than we deal with ourselves and visa versa..........? Nu? what's the problem? we r... nu? prayer is simply acknowledging the reality that we r-not in control yet we want to be; & that we want everything our way for ourselves yet we are not the only thing that exists. Prayer is normal if u consider that we are less than what we should be, yet more than what we often try to be. Prayer is more than asking, worshiping, or pleading. Prayer is as natural as a baby crying, because we have need, just like a babe to b loved & cared for, & that we see others do to... Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 16, 2011

a major conundrum Who drives us? is it us, or is it G_d, and if there is divinity within us, here is a major paradox that does involve us all. To co-create the universe. What this means!

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Tikkun olam: the motive force in the universe. The Grand Reunion. To see that all is, is ONE. To perceive the Unity. To feel merger when we are also separate but to know of it. To embrace the paradox as embers are to sparks.

Since it seems many feel, God is not inseparable from Creation, but manifesting throughout, then perhaps the voice within that speaks for truth and justice, for mercy, that weights ethical issues, then that is the voice of the Divine from within, and these other voices, also coming from the same Divine Source, --the voices we need to work hard at denying.

The mission: Peace. Within a Divine frame, a Divine Frame "Work".

to join, enjoin, and to enjoy, to perceive that unity, a journey of soul, of sole, back to the garden. Gan Eden To LOVE itself Reply

Anonymous anywhere, earth February 16, 2011

I suspect that prayers do nothing for G-d, but prayers do wonders for us. Just the fact that we do pray means 'aware' on our part. It is in awareness that we begin our ascent to ever higher consciousness.
The L-rd hears every last single thought in our head. But He is not alone in that. Do not be surprised when you 'step over' that others hear as well. At first it was very upsetting, but there is an upside to it.
That kind of awareness is the finest training available for 'training' one's thoughts properly. Nothing else is as effective. This pesudo-privacy we have here on the earth has limitations that make mind training more difficult. But it can be done for those who really desire it. Reply

Miss Judith L Witten Brockton, Ma/USA February 15, 2011

About G-d knowing our Prayers The statement made is that G-d hears our prayers as well as knows our needs better than we do-since those needs come from him. Also our thoughts-and this is the part that concerns me-our thoughts our very thoughts are known by G-d and he knows all struggles to formulate ideas and explain different problems along the way. Even if it gets extremely hard along the way...G-d is there..watching you struggle and he knows you are struggling to reach an idea -lets say-in Judaism. Who drives you to go on? Is it you or is it G-d because I feel it is G-d who drives you to keep going to say prayers to G-d and that leads to questions about G-d which lead to more ideas and more questions-but the whole thing stems from G-d knowing about our prayers ,our thoughts and even our actions. Reply

Richard London, England February 14, 2011

To Judith from Brockton Ma/USA I keep the symbolic meaning of tefilin in mind when I put them on and keep that meaning in my mind all way through my morning prayers. A reminder to govern and dedicate your thoughts, heart and actions to G-d's commnadments Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 12, 2011

on the wings of prayer, we soar! Prayer clears the mist and brings back peace to the soul RUMI

there must be a reason Rumi was the best selling poet in America. The Sufi poets drew from the same mystical stream as the Kabbalists. It's all one, truly. We are all drawing from that same spring.

He wrote many beautiful words. I look to inspirational words around the world, that are in all faiths, in the deepest of spiritual writings, and I see the same basic core, that is, LOVE.

it's all, deeply, One.

If we only celebrated our differences, and made that the "difference" between us, and not all these other spurious things, that do split us apart.

Since we all know this, maybe we could all decide to act this way? And then we would have the peace we all declare we want, around the world. There are jobs to be done, so why don't we divide and conquer in so doing, something for everyone, instead of dividing and conquering, which has been the historical way, for too long. Reply

Thomas Karp New Haven, Ct. February 12, 2011

To dov, i.e 'nudniks'. It's not G-d who needs nudniks per se, but G-d who sent nudniks amongst you.

Not all offensive speech and criticisms are lashon hara.

Sometimes it's allowable before G-d to risk being offensive to deliver a criticism that promises to be constructive.

Observant Jews tend to be some of the most insular people on earth. You have good reason to be that way, but the problem is sometimes that you lose perspective on how what you do and say effects others, and even the extent of your own mistakes and errors.

The flipside of being a 'light to the nations' is that Jews are also capable having the opposite, detrimental, effect, and even the righteous amongst you (tzaddiks) can lose sight of that.

Nudniks are capable of working amongst you like the ass did for Balaam.

Another reference for the nudnik in Torah is Parsha Yitro:

Remember, Moshe (Moses) at first was offended by what Yitro told him, and thought he was a troublemaker, but G-d sent Yitro to tell him just the same. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 11, 2011

a question about prayer A long time ago a rabbi said to a group that all prayer must be vocal, not silent. I objected to this statement, thinking thought can surely be, prayer, as meditative, too. And also, what about people who cannot talk. There are many with physical issues that do prevent this.

Certainly in a synagogue many Orthodox men are heard to articulate their prayers and readings aloud.

I don't know why he said this, but this began for me, a profound journey that does involve listening carefully to words themselves. So what he said was a catalyst,

I do hear the word AIR within prayer, and there are, of course, other sound reverbs.
And allowed and aloud are aurally synonymous.

If anyone knows why he said this, please let me know, because it seemed wrong. Why not pray any way one can, even in silence, as in the Amidah?

This might be one, for a Rabbi. Reply

mordi February 11, 2011

second that notion - feb 10 2011 is a phenomenal place to learn and share.

Have a great Shabbos ! Reply

Miss Judith L Witten Brockton, Ma/USA February 11, 2011

Is prayer Normal? Tonight I'd like to discuss the philosopher's Answer and about praying and how extremely important it is-Maimonides' point from the Guide of the Perplexed has said that the whole point of prayer is to elevate us that all the prayers and the mitzvahs is for us to remember G-d continually,to love him continually. I'd like to talk personally about that. I never stop thinking about G-d and he has kept me intact through a very very hard time-to be homest with you-prayer is very normal and sane-to me every part of prayer is normal and sane-IMy mind is always immersed in some kind of prayer or getting ready to pray. What is said here is that praying is to plead-it is a definition. I know that is true. I have pleaded to G-d and heve gotten my way. Probably it was a small job to him. Thank you for reading this Reply

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