April 22, 2009


The following essay was written by Rabbi Bezalel Naor, first published in “Tradition” and more recently included in his collected essays, “From a Kabbalist’s Diary” (Orot), pp. 59-73. We regret that the author’s carefully researched and interesting footnotes could not be included in this online version. However, we restored several source references to the text.

The “two types of prayer” discussed by Rabbi Naor actually reflect two broad viewpoints and contrasting spiritual approaches within Jewish tradition. These two “sides” of Judaism are still very much in evidence today, each category having its own internal diversity. Although most of the material on this website inevitably reflects Jewish mystical thought, with its greater concern with solitude and meditation, the other side of the coin so well presented here puts things in perspective and more clearly defines the parameters of the exoteric and esoteric in Judaism.


Most of us are familiar with only one form of prayer (that which, whether intended as such or not, constitutes the halakhic variety). The fact is, however, there exist two types of prayer, which (for lack of better terminology) we shall term “halakhic” versus “kabbalistic” or “hasidic,” roughly equivalent to “exoteric” and “esoteric.”

Though certainly much has already been written on the subject, I feel that at the present time we are in a unique position to sharpen the contrast between these different genres, thanks to the writings of two men: the Gaon Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Boston (1903-1993) and Moreinu Harav Yizhak Dov Schneersohn of Liady (1826-1910).

One of the abiding concerns of Rav Soloveitchik's philosophy of halakha is the centrality of prayer in Judaism. This is the spiritual legacy of his illustrious grandfather, R. Hayyim Soloveitchik (1853-1918), who deemed tefillah a subject worthy of rigorous Brisker analysis. The grandson's unique contribution to the discussion is the underscoring of bakasha or petition as the essence of Jewish prayer. Though indisputably within the mainstream of halakha, this particular nuance is in part an outgrowth of Rav Soloveitchik's existentialist view of man.

R. Yizhak Dov Schneersohn, author of the Perish Maharid, a kabbalistic commentary to the Alter Rebbe's Siddur (Berdichev, 1913), was raised in a very different milieu. His is the world of Habad hasidism in the wake of the Zemah Zedek, R. Menahem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), whose forte was the interpenetration of the exoteric and the esoteric, nigleh and nistar. The prodigious literary output of the Zemah Zedek is most eloquent testimony to this bold and daring attempt to achieve a coherent synthesis of the seemingly disparate disciplines of Halakha and Kabbalah. His grandson, R. Yizhak Dov (son of R. Hayyim Shneur Zalman of Liady), could not but have imbibed this spirit. Given his background, his analysis of the phenomenon of prayer must balance equally the halakhic and kabbalistic perspectives.

The departure point for any meaningful discussion of prayer must be the Maimonides-Nahmanides controversy. Maimonides had caused a minor revolution in Jewish law by categorizing prayer as a biblical commandment. Nahmanides refuted this claim in a most thoroughgoing manner, though in another passage conceded that perhaps ze’akah be’et zarah, outcrying in a time of communal catrastrophe, could be considered de-oraita (of Torah origin).

R. Hayyim Soloveitchik closed the gap between the two views by remarking that even according to those early authorities (Nahmanides, et al) for whom the hiyyuv, the obligation of prayer, is purely rabbinic in origin, nevertheless, the kiyyum, the fulfillment of prayer, is de-oraita, which is to say that the basic concept of prayer definitely exists in the Torah’s lexicon.

Rav Soloveitchik's own attempt at partial reconciliation is as follows: Both Maimonides and Nahmanides agree that prayer as defined by the Torah is man's response to crisis. The difference is, whereas according to Nahmanides, prayer is the response to a “surface crisis” of the community at large, a zarat ha-zibbur, according to Maimonides, the definition of tefillah (prayer) extends to a “depth crisis” of the individual, a zarat ha-yahid. Seen from Maimonides' perspective, life is an ongoing crisis. Rav Soloveitchik realizes full well that the halakhic conception of prayer as a statement of human needs is at odds with the vision of classical mysticism, and he minces no words pointing out this conflict:

"When we observe the formulae of the blessings, we see that the arrangers of the prayer were long on supplication and short on praise. Supplication is the backbone of “service of the heart.” When praying during the week, if one uttered less than nineteen prayers, he did not fulfill his duty, for he did not express as proper the needs of individual and community. On the other hand, if one recited on Shabbat the weekday prayer, he is exempt (provided he mentioned Shabbat). Even the special prayers for Shabbat and Yom Tov are not devoid of expressions of supplication. True, Shabbat and Yom Tov preclude outcry, but, nevertheless, we request during them purity of heart and sanctification of man, through performance of commandments and study of Torah, also bestowal of good and the joy of salvation and complete peace, free of sorrow. The Mussaf prayer is an outpouring of the soul on account of Israel's exile and a plea to God for speedy deliverance. A silent sorrow permeates the prayer “U-mipnei hata’einu.” There is no prayer without petition and supplication. The Halakha was opposed to all those views rooted in pantheistic mysticism which sought to delete supplication from prayer and to base worship solely on an esthetic-ecstatic foundation – the hymn.

'Of course (as explained previously), prayer requires praise and thanksgiving as well; however, the verve and vitality of prayer is petition. Halakha is interested in psychosomatic man, in his physical body. It does not take kindly to ecstatic divorce of soul from body at the time of prayer. The “service of the heart” proposes to offer up soul and body to the Lord. Furthermore, Halakha guarded vigilantly the exoteric character of prayer. The majority cannot extricate themselves from the shackles of mudane, petty needs, and any attempt to impose this upon them will backfire. Halakha is concerned with human beings who “dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,” and are driven to crime for a crust of bread. Such people inhabit a world of venal and ludicrous drives. Just such an ineloquent and confused lot, the Halakha taught to pray, placing in their mouths a clear formula. The common man is commanded to pray for the sick in his household, for his wine which soured and his crops which were ruined. The hymn, so rich in esthetic experience, is restricted to the realm of the elite and finds favor only in the eyes of antisocial mystics. Their existence is esoteric; they are delicate souls. Halakha cannot confine itself to lofty ascetics. Only supplication is capable of making prayer accessible to the masses." (“R’ayonot ha-Tefillah,” Ha-Darom, Tishri 5739, pp. 101-102).

It is apparent from this citation that Rav Soloveitchik is eminently familiar with the other approach to prayer. What is harder to glean is exactly how he would be disposed to its utterance by the recondite elite to which he alludes. Would he consider this alternative approach to prayer the privilege of the kabbalist, a right earned after years of preparation and study? Or would he consider the very striving for that which is beyond the real limits of man's existential condition, misguided and inauthentic? (In view of what Rav Soloveitchik's ancestor, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, wrote in his work Nefesh ha-Hayyim, one would suspect the former to be true.)

To be sure, in another piece (published almost concurrently), Rav Soloveitchik maintains the primacy of prayer qua plea, not as a concession to the masses, but rather as a matter of existential principle:

"Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person’s own need-awareness is dull, and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferro, ergo sum – I suffer, therefore I am – to paraphrase Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum. While the Cartesian Cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil knows suffering.

'Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about. Of the nineteen benedictions in our Amidah, thirteen are concerned with basic human needs, individual as well as social-national. [Vide Maimonides, Hil. Tefillah 1:4.] Even two of the last three benedictions (“Rezeh” and “Sim Shalom”) are of a petitional nature. The person in need is summoned to prayer. Prayer and zarah (trouble) are inseparably linked. Who prays? Only the sufferer prays. [Vide Nahmanides’ comments on Maimonides' Sefer ha-Mizvot, Positive Commandment 5.] If man does not find himself in narrow straits, if he is not troubled by anything, if he knows not what zarah is, then he need not pray. To a happy man, to contented man, the secret of prayer was not revealed. God needs neither thanks nor hymns. He wants to hear the outcry of man, confronted with a ruthless reality. He expects prayer to rise from a suffering world cognizant of its genuine needs. In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs" (“Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” Tradition, Spring 1978, pp. 65-66).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the teachings of the Maggid of Mezhirech, R. Dov Baer, disciple of R. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of modern hasidism. The most salient feature of the Maggid's teaching is the theory of self-annihilation (bitul ha-yesh). Needless to say, a philosophy which places breakdown of the ego at the top of its agenda, must envision prayer in a way diametrically opposed to that of Rav Soloveitchik. As the scholar Rivkah Schatz-Uffenheimer has already devoted the sixth chapter of her book Quietistic Elements in 18th Century Hasidic Thought (Jerusalem, 1968) to the theme “Prayer: In Its Simple Sense, and Its Place in Hasidism,” I shall not belabor the point. Here are some passages from Maggid Devarav le-Ya’akov, an authoritative collection of the Maggid's aphorisms:

"When one must ask something of the Creator, one should think that his soul is a limb of the Shekhinah, like a drop of the ocean. And he should ask for the Shekhinah which is lacking that thing...

'... a world as immense as this – one should be ashamed and not pray for that which his body lacks, but rather meditate that he is part and parcel of divinity, and since that part [of divinity] is lacking, he is praying. If he prays thus, though his petition might not be granted in the corporeal world, nevertheless, that aspect of divinity benefits on high. This is what is meant by “Seek not greatness for thy sake.” Not for yourself, for that is ulterior. This is pure motivation...

'Man must consider himself as naught, and forget himself completely, and throughout his prayer plea for the Shekhinah…

'When a man prays, let him not put his heart in that physical thing which he asks for, for there is no more ulterior motivation than this. Rather, let him consider that “More than the calf desires to suck, the cow desires to give suck” (TB Pesahim 112a), i.e., God desires to bestow even more than we desire to receive. God has great pleasure bestowing goodness on his creatures – more than the creatures who receive...

'The will of his fearers he does (Psalms 145:19). God makes (ya’aseh) the will of his fearers. Prayer is called “will,” and God longs for the prayer of zaddikim. God puts in the righteous man's mind to pray for something. A God-fearing man truly desires nothing, as he feels he lacks nothing, and is satisfied with whatever God gives him. Therefore, God must implant in his mind some end for which to pray, in order to receive his prayer."

In contradistinction to some truly antinomian movements, Hasidism would not even contemplate abridging the Siddur. Heaven forbid! Nevertheless, the reader senses that the given formulae of the prayers, so laden with wants and desires of an egoic nature, stuck in the Great Maggid's throat as a bone. The solution was to reify the many bakashot. The petitions were to be spiritualized. Man is not to ask for himself but for the suffering Shekhinah. Earthly wants are of no import, only heavenly goals. And if the ego’s craving cannot be put off, it being too permanent a fixture in human life, then it is to be indulged, with the intention that it, too, in the final analysis, is a divine desire. (One is reminded of the two schools of Mussar. One held that taste should be obliterated; its followers would salt their food so heavily that no enjoyment would be derived therefrom. The other school came to terms with taste, advocating that the only realistic solution to the problem would be to consecrate taste itself “for the sake of heaven.”)

Perhaps the chasm which lies between Rav Soloveitchik's conception of prayer and that of the Hasidic masters is not unbridgeable. The early Hasidim too recognized the validity of the prayer of the simple masses, while advocating altruistic prayer for the elite. R. Nahman of Kosov, companion to the Ba’al Shem Tov, said:

“Spiritual men benefit from the prayer of the common man. The masses pray for this world, while men of spirit pray only for the spiritual. Through the prayer of materialistic men, God bestows bounty on the men of spirit.” Also, not all early Hasidic masters were in accord with the Maggid. R. Pinehas of Korets was a dissenting voice: “He used to admonish to pray for a livelihood and other needs, and to believe that God will certainly fulfill his request, and it is a great mizvah, for through this the Shekhinah rises up.”

Yet no matter how one looks at it, hasidic prayer is certainly a far cry from halakhic prayer. Wading through the pages of material Schatz-Uffenheimer has assembled (much of it still in manuscript in Jerusalem), one receives the impression that the early teachers of Hasidism may not have been fully sensitive to the acuity of the problem (or at least they did not express their qualms in writing). While they realized that the prayers were replete with petitions, they did not address the crux of the problem, which is that halakhically speaking, bakasha (petition) is the very essence of prayer. This finely-honed statement of the problem would have to await Rav Schneersohn.

"SeMaG [SeMaK] and RaSHBaZ concluded that prayer on a daily basis and the wording of the prayer is a rabbinic command (mizvah de-rabbanan). However, mi-de-oraita (from the Torah) man is commanded to pray in times of need, for instance, in a time of trouble (as it says, “The Lord will answer you in a time of trouble,” Psalms 20:2). Then prayer is a positive commandment, for God commanded that man ask only Him for deliverance”... Each and every one is obligated to request in prayer the mundane and the spiritual, as it says, “When you are in tribulation and all these things have overtaken you” (Deuteronomy 4:30), etc. Then prayer is mi-de-oraita and proceeds according to Torah. If one requests nothing, and prays by rote, without innovation, the prayer is mi-de-rabbanan. However, “delicious to me are the precepts of Sages” (TB ‘Avodah Zara 35a) – this is prayer which exists only for the sake of communing with the Almighty (le-yahed elohut be-nafsho), devoid of all other desire, as it says, “Whom have I in heaven, and beside You I desire nothing upon earth” (Psalms 73:25). Such a prayer is most exalted."

The passage above requires considerable unpacking. To begin with, the author (who has excerpted Zemah Zedek) situates us within the tradition of Nahmanides, who, as stated earlier, viewed prayer as biblically mandated only in times of communal disaster, though upon closer examination, Zemah Zedek (somewhat reminiscent of R. Hayyim) is, so to speak, reading between the lines of Nahmanides. Not just the appeal at times of national emergency is to be reckoned as de-oraita, but the ongoing dialogue with God, born of life's everyday woes and challenges, constitutes a mizvat 'asseh min ha-torah (positive commandment). (I think it would be fair to say that Zemah Zedek construes Nahmanides’ doctrine much as Rav Soloveitchik portrayed Maimonides’.) What halakhic justification can there be then for the prayer of the lovesick acosmic mystic who, along with the Alter Rebbe (R. Shneur Zalman of Liady), calls out: “Mi li va-shamayim ve-‘imkha lo hafazti va-arez – Ich vill zhe gornisht / Ich vill nit dayn Gan Eden / Ich vill nit dayn Olam Habo / Ich vill nit mehr az dich alein! (I desire nothing / I don’t want Your Paradise / I don’t want Your World to Come / I want only YOU!)” (Psalms 73:25, followed by the Yiddish paraphrase of the Alter Rebbe)?

At this critical juncture, Rav Schneersohn conjures the passage in Tractate ‘Avodah Zarah: “What does it mean, For Your love is more delicious than wine (Song of Songs 1:2)? Said Israel before God: ‘The words of your beloved [sages] are more delicious to me than the wine of Torah [the Written Law] .’ “

One could argue ('a la R. Hayyim) that since in the case of tefillah, we are not dealing with a hiyyuv de-oraita (Torah obligation), but rather with an attempt to maximize one's kiyyum or performance, in a sense, Rav Schneersohn’s mystical option, invoking the saying of the rabbis in Tractate ‘Avodah Zarah, is every much as valid as the exoteric route which aims to achieve a kiyyum de-oraita. True, viewed parochially, the failure to achieve “need awareness” (to use Rav Soloveitchik’s phrase) deprives one's prayer of biblical tenor and reduces it to the level of a rabbinic injunction; nevertheless, in the overall scheme, the interests of prayer, and ultimately, even of Halakha itself, might best be served by just such a rabbinic rite.