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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:

3. [following the Halakhah that the Toraic obligation of T’fillah is to praise, request and thank God at least once a day…] If he was fluent, he would increase his supplication and request and if he was of uncircumcised lips he would speak according to his ability – at any time he wanted. Similarly, the number of T’fillot was according to his ability: Some would say T’fillah once a day and some people would say T’fillah many times [a day]. Everyone would say T’fillah facing the Mikdash – wherever it might be. This is how the matter was from the times of Moshe Rabbenu until Ezra.

The Role of Request in T’fillah

by Yitzchak Etshalom


In the previous shiur, we discussed the three-fold structure of T’fillah and suggested a Toraic source for this model – Moshe’s T’fillah. As much as the “praise-request-thanks” sequence is the formal structure of T’fillah, it seems clear that not all of these sections play equal roles in the T’fillah experience.

The praise and thanks components of T’fillah seem to suffer from two diamterically opposed Halakhic conditions – what we might term “Halakhic schizophrenia” (Rabbi Soloveitchik’s term for the status of T’fillin on Tish’a b’Av). Praise and thanks are constants; both Shabbat and Holiday T’fillot contain the exact same words of praise (at the beginning of T’fillah) and thanks (at the end of T’fillah). Indeed, the individual is not allowed to add individualized requests to these six B’rakhot (see MT T’fillah 6:3, Shulhan ‘Arukh Orach Hayyim 112:1). On the other hand, it is specifically these six B’rakhot which are most affected by “seasonal” changes. For instance, on Rosh Chodesh and Hol haMoed, we add *Ya’aleh v’Yavo* to the first blessing of “thanks” (Avodah); on Hannukah and Purim, we add *Al haNissim* to *Modim* – the focal B’rakhah of thanks; during the rainy season, we add *Mashiv haRuach…* during the second “praise” B’rakhah (G’vurot) and every daytime T’fillah is characterized by the Kedushah, which is recited during the third “praise” B’rakhah (Kedushah) – but which is only recited during the public repetition of the T’fillah (Hazarat haShaTZ). (There are other examples – such as the placement of Birkat Kohanim before *Birkat Shalom* at the end of T’fillah and the four secondary additions to T’fillah which are said during the ten days from Rosh haShanah through Yom Kippur).

In other words, although the first and last three B’rakhot seem static (from the Halakhah that the individual is not allowed to “tamper” with these B’rakhot), it is exactly these six B’rakhot where the greatest changes take place; although they remain “in place” from Shabbat to holiday to weekday, they have seasonal changes which do not touch the middle B’rakhot (with two exceptions – the request for rain and Havdalah after Shabbat and holidays; these will be dealt with independently at a later date.)

Exploring the relationship between praise/thanks, on the one hand and request, on the other, will help explain this seeming paradox and will enlighten us about two other oddities:

a) Why request disappears from T’fillah on Shabbat and Yom Tov – and
b) Why request seems to be (from our Halakhah) the focal point of T’fillah.

Each of these points is intriguing; taken together, they heighten the confusion about the role of request in T’fillah. If request is so central to T’fillah – as is evidenced in our Halakhah – how can it be so “disposable” on Shabbat and Yom Tov?


In the last shiur, I point to two different types of T’fillah found in T’nakh – formal and spontaneous. The example of formal T’fillah which was the focus of the shiur is Moshe’s T’fillah (va’Et’hanan), which follows the three-fold structure and bears the imprint of a “formulaic” approach. One example of spontaneous T’fillah is Moshe’s five word request of God to heal his sister. Even within “formalistic” T’fillah, there is room to distinguish between two sub-categories of T’fillah – we will call them Rinah (“singing”) and T’fillah (in this case, “beseeching”). (To a limited degree, these two correlate with private and public T’fillah. More on that later…much more.) The Gemara in Berakhot (6a) states:
“A person’s T’fillah is only heard in the synagogue, as it says: (Melakhim [Kings] I 8:28) ‘To hearken to the *Rinah* and to the *T’fillah*’; in the place of *Rinah*, that’s where there is *T’fillah* [heard]”.

Rashi (ibid. s.v. b’Makom Rinah) explains that *Rinah* refers to the songs of praise which the community sings to God in the synagogue. Rabbenu Tam (Tosafot Avodah Zarah 4b s.v. keivan) takes this one step further, reading “A person’s T’fillah is only heard with the community [i.e. when saying T’fillah along with the community, as opposed to saying it alone]”, rather than “…in the synagogue”.

I would like to build upon these two types of models to explain two types of T’fillah.



When someone is cognitively and emotionally aware of God’s Presence and His role in the world (whatever that may be; opinions among the Rishonim range widely on the question of Providence and this is not the forum for that discussion…), he integrates the aspects of his daily life into that scheme. Health, sustenance, personal and community salvation, national aspirations etcetera become focal points for the God-man relationship. The news that a friend is in the hospital not only moves me to call and visit – it also causes me to solicit his name and his mother’s name and to lead the Yeshivah in a chapter of T’hillim [Psalms] on his behalf. Seeing that the next *sugya* (section of Talmudic text) which I am about to teach presents some pedagogic and academic challenges leads me not only to the commentaries and to the education books – it also inspires a focus of T’fillah to God for His support.

The fundamental motivation for T’fillah is need. Awareness that we are missing something is not awareness of a failing – as humans, we automatically have needs. Not acknowledging that need is the failing. Whether we adopt the theo-philosophic position that those needs are met directly by God, and see T’fillah as the simple crying out for help – or take a more “sophisticated” position (again, many alternatives are presented among the Rishonim) “need” certainly comes to the forefront of our relationship with Him.

Therefore, there is a daily Mitzvah of T’fillah, from the Torah (according to Rambam), which is motivated by need – since we have needs every day. It is somewhat anthropocentric, as it is motivated by our needs and generates our own “list” of requests. In the Rinah/T’fillah dialectic, this is T’fillah.

As much as we may feel God “in our lives”, we are also aware – sometimes painfully so – of God’s ultimate transcendence. Much as we would like to grasp God and “bring Him in”; He is ungraspable, untouchable and unfathomable. Sometimes the motivation to say T’fillah is simply a desire to draw closer to God – to commune with Him. This is not typified by our self-associated needs and requests; rather by our praise for God and declarations and reminders of His Greatness and Lovingkindness. Note that there is no Mitzvah, as such, of T’fillah from the Torah which is focussed on this desire; it may reflect a higher level of awareness and a more sublime personality which is beyond “commandedness” – I’ll leave that for our Haverim to mull over. Within the Rinah/T’fillah scheme, this is Rinah.


Since the Rinah component is “theo-centered”, we could most easily identify it with the first and last three B’rakhot of the T’fillah. Praising and thanking God put all of the focus on Him; we are not asking for anything nor are these praises motivated by any change in our lives – we stand and praise as do the angels. This section, however, must change – based not on changes in our lives, but on changes in the world around us. Since we are praising God through our own perception of Him, the prism through which this perception is splashed shifts, ever so slightly, from season to season. When He is relating to us in a regal fashion, the praise shifts to HaMelekh Hakadosh (The Holy King), as opposed to Ha’El Hakadosh (The Holy God). When His laws of nature have moved us (miraculously-predictably) into the season for rain, that must be reflected as well. This is as true about our calendar (Hannukah, Purim, Rosh Chodesh etc.) as well -these are all “God-changes” – not “man-changes” and must be reflected in our Rinah.

Rinah remains a constant in all T’fillot, as the desire for closeness to God is an impossible one to quench, yet a laudable one to encourage. Nevertheless, the terms of that praise shift to reflect the way in which we perceive God during that particular time – however, those terms are “fixed” and not given to individualization – since that closeness and praise is not something which is focussed on the individual, rather on God. The individual embellishment will do nothing if not highlight the separation of man from God (“my poetry! my praise!”) – which is the direct opposite of the intention here.

The T’fillah component, on the other hand, does highlight the individual. As some siddurim note, these middle “request” B’rakhot are “flexible” and allow for individual additions. So – to our earlier question: Why does request disappear from T’fillah on Shabbat and Yom Tov?

There are two ways to answer this – each of which is a piece of the same pie.

It is possible that the Rabbis exempted us from “request” on Shabbat and Yom Tov in order to enhance the feeling that we are, indeed, without needs on those days. The requests we normally make highlight our weaknesses and remind us of what we do not have; these are helpful, humbling reminders, but they do not lead to the elevated spirit of these festive, holy days.

On the other hand, it is possible that we do maintain request on Shabbat and Yom Tov. (I have left the T’fillot of Rosh HaShanah and Yom haKippurim aside – they will be addressed in a later shiur.) The middle section of each of the T’fillot said on these days contains a request for God to be pleased with our rest (Shabbat), to sanctify us with His Mitzvot, to purify our hearts to worship Him in truth etc. There are requests – but they move us much more to the “Rinah” – as they speak not of things we need as a result of being human – but things we need in order to be closer to God. Thus, even request becomes metamorphosed into Rinah and the spirit of the day, through the T’fillah experience, becomes an elevated and noble one.
now, to the questions:

– Q1: Why does the fluent person increase supplication and request – but not praise or thanks?

JHJoseph Harrar ([email protected]): The fluent person is at first fluent in hebrew. He is not *’aral sefatayim* (!). So he is able to increase supplication, request and praise BUT the structure of the Tefilla (Shemone Essre) is : first three berakhot : praise last three berakhot : thanks and we are not allowed to modify these six berakhot (add to or modify the content). Moreover as we have seen in last shiur, we can only praise God by using *haEl haGadol haGibbor vehaNora* because Moshe used it. We can add to the intermediate barakhot, so the fluent person can increase supplication or request. In the siddur I use, provision is made to add personal requests at the level of : birkat hateshuva, birkat harefua, birkat kabbalat hatefilla.

YE Yitz Etshalom ([email protected]): In addition to the reason suggested by Mr. Harrar, it may be that the entire raison d’etre of T’fillah is request – and that the “praise” before and “praise/thanks” afterwards are only there for one of several ancillary reasons. See shiur above.

– Q2: What is the meaning of “uncircumcised lips”?

JH: ‘uncircumcised lips’, in hebrew *’aral sefatayim*. *’Aral sefatayim* occurs twice in the Tanakh : Shemot 6:12 and Shemot 6:30. The expression is used by Moshe, speaking to God and telling Him *vaani ‘aral sefatayim* (v. 12) and *hen ani ‘aral sefatayim* (v. 30). Rashi commenting on 6:12 says : *’aral sefatayim : atum sefatayim (one whose lips are blocked). Likewise, I (Rashi) say that all instances of the term *’orla* mean blocked”. Rashi gives 6 examples (Yirmiyahu, Habakuk…). Rambam uses *’aral sefatayim* as opposed to *ragil*. An *’aral sefatayim* is not learned and is unable to say Tefilla (la’arokh Tefilla) and praises. In some way his lips are “blocked”.

YE: Picking up on this explanation, Rambam may be alluding here to his understanding of Moshe’s protest in Shemot 6: Rather than the conventional understanding that Moshe felt that he would stutter, Rambam may feel that Moshe was claiming that he wasn’t fluent in diplomatic speech.

– Q3: Why was the amount of T’fillot determined by ability – rather than need or desire?

JH: Here the ability is the ability to express oneself in Hebrew. As we see from the following Halakhah (4), after the exile due to Nevukhadnetsar, most of the people forgot Hebrew and were perhaps just able to say one Tefilla.

YE: See shiur above.

– Q4: Why is T’fillah said facing the Mikdash?

JH: ‘Avodah took place in the Beit haMikdash. So one who says Tefillah which has replaced ‘Avodah should direct his heart toward the place the Beit haMikdash stood as it is said : *vehitpallelu el habayit haze* (II Divre haYamim [Chronicles] 6:32) “and they should pray toward this House”. The issue is discussed in Berakhot 30a : someone out of Eretz Yisrael should stand to say Tefillah toward Eretz Yisrael…

YE: See my shiur on Sefirat ha’Omer.