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