By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:

1. It is a Mitzvat ‘Aseh [Mitzvah of commission] to say T’fillah every day, as it says: “And you shall worship YHVH your God” (Shemot [Exodus] 23:25). From oral tradition we learn that this *Avodah* (worship) is T’fillah, as it says “…and to worship Him with all of your hearts…” (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 11:13), the Rabbis said (BT Ta’anit 2a): What sort of *Avodah* is there with the heart? – T’fillah. The number of [daily] T’fillot is not mandated by the Torah, nor is the liturgy of T’fillah mandated by the Torah, nor does T’fillah have a set time from the Torah.

Defining T’fillah: Some Considerations

by Yitzchak Etshalom



Following the convention I outlined in the introductory shiur, instead of translating “T’fillah” with the conventional “prayer”, the word has been left transliterated and untranslated.

There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the “technical” usage of the term in Halakhah. Within the context of Hilkhot T’fillah, the word usually refers to the silent “prayer” said standing up at least three times a day. In other words, whereas “praying” is an activity in which anyone may engage in nearly any situation and following no specific model, T’fillah in this context refers to a specific series of blessings – which are to be said at specific times with specific body stature and movement etc.

In addition to the “technical” concern, the general Hebrew word *T’fillah* is not necessarily “prayer” – as we shall see.



A prefatory note to those of our Haverim less familiar with the nuances of Hebrew grammar. Hebrew verbs are built on (usually) three-letter roots (called *shorashim*). A shoresh is then vocalized, with various prefixes, suffixes and infixes, to modify the meaning. It is modified by person, gender, number, tense – and “intensity”. In other words, the shoresh *L*B*Sh (to dress) can be used in the “simple form” – meaning “to dress”, it can be used in the causative form (*hif’il*) and then means “to dress another” (i.e. to put clothes on another person) – it can also be used in the reflexive form (*hitpa’el*) and would mean “to dress oneself”. Not all shorashim are used in all forms – in fact, many are used in no more than 2 forms. The following table, using the example of *Q *D *Sh (sanctify), will illustrate the various forms – known as *binyanim* – of the verb. For this example, I will use the third person male singular, past tense.

I. QaDaSh – he was sanctified (e.g. Shemot [Exodus] 29:21)

II. QiDeSh – he declared holy (e.g. Vayyikra [Leviticus] 16:19)

III. hiQDiSh – he conferred holiness on…(e.g. Vayyikra 27:14)

IV. hitQaDeSh – he sanctified/purified himself (e.g. II Sh’muel [Samuel II] 11:4)



The verb associated with the word *T’fillah* is *l’hitPaLeL* – the shoresh *P*L*L in the reflexive form.

The use of this shoresh in its simpler forms is generally associated with “judgement”. For instance, in Shemot 21:22 – the case is to be ruled *…v’natan biPh’LiLim* – “…paying as much as the judges determine.” BDB (p. 813), however, suggest an earlier usage of the shoresh – which evolves into “judgement”. They render *P*L*L as “intervene, interpose”. Since the arbitrators/judges intervene (on behalf of the wronged party), they are fulfilling an act of *P’LiLah*; thus, judges (or the court) are rendered *P’LiLim*.

A solid proof for this approach is found in T’hillim [Psalms] 106:30. In recounting the many kindnesses of God during our history (focused on the desert experience after leaving Egypt), the Psalmist recalls the plague which God brought on the Jewish people as a result of their idolatrous (and disgusting) P’or-worship (see Bamidbar [Numbers] 25:1-9). As we read in the Torah’s account (vv. 7-8), Pinchas stood up, took action and stopped the plague. The Psalmist states: *vaya’amod Pinchas vay’PhaLeL…* – “Pinchas stood up and…?” What did Pinchas do? True, he “judged” – but, most accurately and simply put, he intervened. He stepped in and prevented the plague (and its cause) from continuing. Here we see a clear usage for the root *P*L*L as intervention.

Now, why would the word for “prayer” be the reflexive form of “intervention”? How would we translate the word, philosophical considerations aside?

We could render it “to intervene against one’s self” but that seems to make no sense. [Although the first instance of the verb *l’hitpalel* appears in a context which strongly supports the meaning “intervention” (see Beresheet [Genesis] 20:7,17), the reflexive form still demands explanation.]

I would like to suggest an explanation – which requires an introduction to the nature and goals of T’fillah.



At the outset, we must make one thing clear – T’fillah is not something “needed” by God nor does He “benefit” in any way from T’fillah. (This is, above all, based on some basic postulates about God which are beyond the scope of this shiur.) If so, even though T’fillah is focused on God, there must be a man-oriented goal. In other words, even though we focus on God, T’fillah is somewhat “aimed” at man.

Which man is the “target” of such an action? Although there are other people who we may think of or even mention in our T’fillah (e.g. sick people), the clearest “target” for T’fillah is the person saying that T’fillah – the *Mitpalel*.

What is the effect of (proper, wholehearted and deliberate) T’fillah on the Mitpalel?

There are two general approaches – a cognitive, declarative effect and an affective, attitudinal effect.



When we stand before God and declare Him to be the One (and the only One) who grants knowledge, heals the sick etc. we are also making a statement about ourselves. The illusion of power and control over own lives and destinies can be healthy in moderate doses when we are in our “master the world” (Beresheet 1:28) mode. However, when unchecked, it is a mortal mental wound (see e.g. Devarim 8:11-18) which leads to apostasy and, ultimately, our own undoing. T’fillah is a thrice-daily declaration of who we are, how much we need and Who is the source of those gifts which make up our daily lives.

Based on this notion of T’fillah, when we bare ourselves to God and to ourselves and openly admit our vulnerability, we can understand the reflexive form *l’hitpalel*. We are indeed judging ourselves, stating the ultimate truths about ourselves – in the most comforting way possible.



When we come before God and say T’fillah, we are asking for God’s intercession on our behalf. We ask for His compassion, patience, willingness to accept us back – lovingly – into His Presence and so forth. Who can honestly stand before God and beg His forgiveness – and then be anything but forgiving to his fellow? That which we ask of God reflects back to us – for it is the ultimate “hutzpah” to ask that of God which we are not willing to give. T’fillah is indeed a form of self-intervention. We use T’fillah to break in on our own slipshod ways and remind ourselves of what we need – and, thereby, what everyone else (including our friends, family members, neighbors etc.) most probably need.

Just as T’fillah is self-judgement, it is self-intervention. Judaism understands that Man is pulled in various directions – not only by social and environmental pulls, but also by inner drives. When we stand and say T’fillah, we are effectively acting against our own lesser, meaner nature and intervening on behalf of our higher, nobler side. We judge ourselves – and we intervene with ourselves. T’fillah, if said carefully and thoughtfully, is a great builder of character and a road to truth.

now, to the questions:

Q1: Since Rambam defines the Mitzvah as *Avodah* in the header (see previous shiur), why does he define it here as *l’hitpallel* (“to say T’fillah”)? Why the apparent inconsistency in definition?

JH (Joseph Harrar ):

‘va’Avad’tem et YHVH Eloheikhem (Shemot 23:25) : for Rambam, this is one of the Torah sources of Avodat Hachem (worship of God). Avodah took place in the Beit haMikdache (animals and grain offerings). After the Hourban (destruction) of the Beit haMikdash, one could have thought that there would be no more Avodah. The Rabbis created a new type of Avodah which could be (as shown in the previous shiur) either Tefilla (the Avodah of the overwhelming majority) or Talmoud Torah. The link between the former type of Avodah and the new one is given in Ta’anit 2a. So I think that Rambam uses Avodah in the header because it is under this name that it appears in the Torah, and uses Tefilla in the first paragraph to tell everybody: It is not because the Beit haMikdash was destroyed that there is no more Avodah. It has changed in nature and name, and now it is Tefilla. Avodah and Tefilla are two facets of the same thing. There is no inconsistency.

YE: (Yitz Etshalom ):

As Rabbi Soloveitchik zt”l points out (see, e.g. Al haT’shuvah pp. 39-44) , there are several sections in the Mishneh Torah where Rambam defines a Mitzvah in one way in his “header” and defines it differently in the text of the Halakhot. He explains that there are two categories of Mitzvot.

Most Mitzvot contain the *pe’ulah* (activity) of the Mitzvah and the *kiyyum* (fulfillment) of the Mitzvah in one action. For example, picking up the Lulav on Sukkot is the “activity” of the Mitzvah – it’s what we DO; it is also the *kiyyum* of the Mitzvah.

There are, however, a few Mitzvot which are emotionally-oriented but which have external actions associated with them. For instance, the *pe’ulah* associated with Teshuvah (repentance/return to God) is confession (*Vidui*). However, Vidui is not the *kiyyum* of the Mitzvah of Teshuva – it is only fulfilled when the person has “returned” to God (however that may be defined). Significantly, the Rambam defines the Mitzvah of Teshuvah as exactly that – Teshuvah – in the header of Hilkhot Teshuvah. Yet in the text of the Halakhot, he defines it along the lines of the *pe’ulah* – confession. In other words, where a Mitzvah has a “split nature”, Rambam defines it in the header in terms of its *kiyyum*; but in the text, he defines it in terms of its *pe’ulah*.

In the same manner, the Rav zt”l points out that T’fillah has an “action” associated – saying specific words in a specific manner etc. – but that is not the desired *kiyyum*. The entire focus of T’fillah is *Avodah shebaLev* – worshipping God with our hearts. In line with that, Rambam defines the Mitzvah as *Avodah* in the header, but in the text (our Halakhah), he defines at in practical terms – *l’hitpalel* – to say T’fillah.

Q2: Why does Rambam cite two verses – why doesn’t he just quote the verse from Devarim along with the Rabbinic interpretation?

JH: ‘Vaavadtem et Hashem Eloheikhem’ : for Rambam, this is the primary obligation of Avodat Hashem. ‘ul’Ovdo bekhol levavkhem’ – this is _how_ to worship God.

YE: In addition to Joseph’s comments, I would like share another angle on this question. As I proposed in a previous shiur, T’fillah inheres two attitudinal statements. First of all, I am NOT turning to another source for help – whether that source be other people, governments or other gods. Second – I am actively turning to YHVH, our God, in times of trouble and to establish regular communion.

If we look at the context of the first verse cited, we see the first attitude expressed. “Do not bow down to their gods and do not worship them (*lo ta’ovdem*)…you shall serve/worship YHVH your God…” (Shemot 23:24-25). Do not serve their gods – RATHER serve God. This does not necessarily imply a positive Mitzvah – rather a focus, that whenever we “need” to worship, that need should only be fulfilled through worship of the one God. The verse in Devarim presents Avodat Hashem – T’fillah in a non-contrasted light. It does not appear against the backdrop of avoiding idolatry. Rambam cites both verses to build a step-by-step process of attitudinal focus regarding T’fillah.

First of all, we recognize that every person needs to reach out to something greater than himself/herself. The first verse warns against turning to any entity but God. Once we have established that God is the only appropriate object of worship, we then see (from the second verse) that this worship should not be done just to fulfill this need – rather it should be done “with all your hearts” – wholeheartedly and proactively.

Q3: Why is “heart-worship” assumed to mean T’fillah?

JH: Avodat haLev is a worship of God in a non physical method (not external physical – shiur 1.00). Tefilla is a worship of God through communion with Him. There is no external act exemplifying Tefilla. So “heart worship” can be assumed to mean Tefilla.

YE: See shiur above.

Q4: Why does Rambam list all three details – number, wording and time – as those components which are not mandated by the Torah?

JH: For Rambam, the Tefilla is a mitzva deOrayta. The Torah says

‘vaavadtem et Hashem Eloheikhem’ (‘and you will worship the Lord your God’) and gives no more details on the mitzva.

To fulfill a mitzva you have to know :

* How many times you are mandated to fulfill it (e.g. once a year -Yom haKippurim,twice a day -K’riat Sh’ma’-, every time you have a meal-Birkat haMazon-),

* its content (what to do, to say)

* when (every morning and evening -K’riat Sh’ma’-, once a month -Birkat haLevana).

Rambam says that there are no such details in the Torah ; he lists them because they are the basic structure. He will detail them in 1:5.

YE: Another possibility – T’fillah here stands in contrast to K’riat Sh’ma (see Tosefta Brakhot 3:1). There are three d’Orayta components to K’riat Sh’ma: the amount of times during the day (twice), the text (see Introductory Shiur of Hilkhot K’riat Sh’ma for a summary of the opinions regarding this) and the time it is to be read (early morning and nighttime). In direct contrast, Rambam teaches us that although the basic Mitzvah of T’fillah is d’Orayta like K’riat Sh’ma, those same components which are explicitly mentioned in the Torah regarding K’riat Sh’ma are not mandated by the Torah regarding T’fillah.

Q5: A general question: Why is “prayer” called *T’fillah* – and what is the meaning and import of the verb *l’hitpallel*?

JH: Tefilla and Lehitpallel have the common root Pillel.

Pillel has 3 meanings :

– chashav, heemin (he thought, he believed)

– hitchanen, bikkesh, ‘amad biTfilla (he implored, he asked, he stood for Tefilla)

– shafat, dan (he judged)

We are concerned with the last two meanings. In Tefilla and in leHitpallel, we are asking, imploring (for our needs) but also to be judged by God with rachamim (mercy).

I think that the meaning of judgement does not appear at first sight when we speak of Tefilla.

YE: See the shiur above.