A detailed look at the nature and purpose of prayer from a Jewish prayerbook. A definition that sheds any superficiality and uncovers a deep and introspective rite that transforms the soul.
The ArtScroll Siddur contains one of the best definitions of prayer found anywhere. A siddur is a Jewish prayer book that outlines personal and communal prayers for almost any occasion; life, death, loss, birth, success, and everything in-between. It is written from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. The following is an excerpt.
Prayer, a Timeless Need
When we think of the word ‘prayer’ we think of our needs and requests, and the litany is endless: ‘Heal me.’ ‘Enlighten me.’ Enrich me.’ ‘Redeem me.’ ‘Glorify me.’ ‘Forgive me.’
Perhaps our concept of prayer has all been wrong. As children we would ask God to grant our wishes, just as we asked our parent to take us places and to buy us toys. ‘Please, Father take me to . . . !’ ‘Please, Mother, buy me that . . .!’ ‘Please God, give me this . . .!’ Rather than fall into the modern trap of insisting that man can control so much of his life and environment that he need not pray, let us examine what prayer really is, and always was. When we are done, we will realize that the commandment to pray is no less binding today than ever, and that our need for its benefits is perhaps greater than ever.
AS A SYNONYM for a human being the Mishhah (Baba Kamma 2a) uses the name מַבְעֶה [mav’eh], an unfamiliar word that the Talmud (ibid. 3b) derives from the root בעה, to pray. In other words, the Talmud defines man as ‘the creature that prays.’ Furthermore, the Talmud teaches that even נֶפֶשׁ, the life-sustaining soul, is synonymous with prayer (Berachos 5b). Strange. Such definitions appear fitting intensely spiritual observant people — but what of someone whose observance is casual, or a non-believer? The Talmud’s teaching applies even to such people. How, then, is prayer so central to their lives?
What is man but his soul, for his soul and intelligence are what make him ‘man’ rather than simply a higher order of beast. And what is man’s soul but his innermost longing, whatever matters to him most? As the Sages pithily expressed it, a burglar prays for God’s help as he prepares to enter the home of his victim (Berachos 63b in Ein Yaakov). Incongruous, is it not, that on the threshold of a sin that may result in violence, even murder, the thief asks for the help of the One Who commands him to desist? Yes, but because his most sincere desire is to commit his crime undetected, his soul cries out for success. Wherever one puts his faith is a form of prayer, whether or not that word is in his vocabulary (Michtav MeEliyahu).
Prayer, then, is not a list of requests. It is an introspective process, a clarifying, refining process of discovering what one is, what he should be, and how to achieve the transformation. Indeed, the commandment to pray is expressed by the Torah as a service of the heart, not of the mouth (Taanis 2a).
To the extent that we improve ourselves with prayer, we become capable of absorbing God’s blessing, but the blessings depend on each person’s mission. One man’s task may be to act as God’s treasurer, to amass wealth and distribute it for worthy causes, or to set an example of how to remain uncorrupted by riches. Another’s mission may call for modest or reduced circumstances. Meyer Amshel Rothschild became rich because his mission was to be the banker of monarchs and the patron of paupers, and Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli remained destitute because his mission was to subsist on a crust of bread and bowl of beans, and joyously say that he never experienced a bad day in his life! Each recited the prayer for prosperity in Shemoneh Esrei and each was answered — in the manner that was best for him. But the reasons for these differences between people and nations are not apparent to human intelligence. Nor do we discern the hand of God in the complexities of everyday life.
In this welter of contradictions, man needs all his inner strength as a Jew and bearer of the Torah to ward off the attacks on his faith. We may enter adulthood with the idealism of youth and faith ingrained by parents and teachers, but life chips away incessantly at them. In the eloquent words of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb): Life often robs you of the power and strength its circumstances make necessary, for it tends to remove truth from you and to offer falsehood; it forces you to surrender where your task is to conquer.
Modern society has learned that people ‘burn themselves out’ if they never withdraw to relax and regain perspective and inner strength. What makes us think we can fight the moral war demanded by God without removing ourselves from the trenches every now and then to regain our perspectives on the purpose and strategy of the battle?
ITS HEBREW NAME IS תְּפִלָּה, tefillah, a word that gives us an insight into the Torah’s concept of prayer. The root of tefillah isפלל, to judge, to differentiate, to clarify, to decide. In life, we constantly sort out evidence from rumor, valid options from wild speculations, fact from fancy. The exercise of such judgement is פְּלִילָה. Indeed, the word פְּלִילִים (from פלל) is used for a court of law (Exodus 21:22), and what is the function of a court if not to sift evidence and make a decision? A logical extension of פלל is the related root פלה, meaning a clear separation between two things. Thus, prayer is the soul’s yearning to define what truly matters and to ignore the trivialities that often masquerade as essential (Siddur Avodas HaLev).
People always question the need for prayer — does not God know our requirements without being reminded? Of course He does, He knows them better than we do. If prayer were intended only to inform God of our desires an deficiencies, it would be unnecessary. Its true purpose is to raise the level of the supplicants by helping them develop true perceptions of life so that they can become worthy of His blessing.
This is the function of the evaluating, decision-making process of תְּפִלָּה, prayer. The Hebrew verb for praying is מִתְפַּלֵּל; it is a reflexive word, meaning that the subject acts upon himself. Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgement; a process of removing oneself for the tumult of life to a little corner of truth and refastening the bonds that tie on to the purpose of life.■
Used with permission from Mesorah Publications, ltd. The Complete ArtScroll Siddur: a new translation and anthologized commentary, by Rabbi Nosson Scherman. New York: Mesorah Publications, ltd. 1985. Pg. XII-XIII
The ArtScroll Siddur continues to describe prayer in detail for a number more pages. To read the complete article, one can purchase an ArtScroll Siddur from the ArtScroll website, or visit a local Jewish library.
The grammar and punctuation in this reprint follows the ArtScroll Siddur print copy.