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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:

This shiur P’tichah on Hilkhot Tefillah is lovingly dedicated to the memory of our neighbor and friend Mendy Weiss at the conclusion of Shiv’ah. May his memory be a blessing to us all and may the legacy of his dedication to Torah, the warmth of his heart and his home and the many people he touched serve as a source of comfort and inspiration to all who mourn his loss. We wish a special measure of comfort to Lisa, Yanki and Rena along with his parents, sisters and family members. May Hashem grant you all comfort and consolation among the mourners for Tziyyon and Yerushalayim.

Following our lead from Hilkhot K’riat Sh’ma, we will introduce Hilkhot T’fillah by clarifying several matters of an “overview” nature:

(a) Is T’fillah a *Mitzvah d’Orayta* (Mitzvah from the Torah)?

(b) If T’fillah is d’Orayta, what is it’s d’Orayta “form” – i.e. how different is our T’fillah from that mandated by the Torah?

(c) If T’fillah is d’Rabanan (mandated by the Rabbis) – what is the basis for its structure? (This question may also be asked if T’fillah is d’Orayta – as long as the entire structure is Rabbinic.)

(d) What is the relationship – if any – between T’fillah and other Mitzvot?

Note: This shiur will introduce some of the basic sources in the Torah for T’fillah; some of the issues raised in these questions will be addressed in later shiurim.

[In this course, “T’fillah” will not be translated – and certainly not as “prayer”. “L’hitpallel” (the associated verb) will be rendered: “to say T’fillah”. The reason for this is not merely semantic, but is driven by concerns which arise from the semantic. “Prayer” in English is derived from the Latin “precari”, which means to beg – or to obtain by begging. In a subtle way, this orientation drives much of western thought about prayer – it almost carries a sense of negotiation with God. Witness “my prayer wasn’t answered” as if a prayer is something which demands a [favorable] response. As we will [hopefully] clarify throughout our course of learning Hilkhot T’fillah, the Halakhic approach to T’fillah is much more than – and different from – this type of “prayer”. For lack of a better English equivalent, we will just use “T’fillah”. ]


You shall worship YHVH your God (*va’Avad’tem et YHVH Eloheikhem*), and I will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from among you. (Shemot [Exodus] 23:25);

From there you will seek YHVH your God, and you will find Him if you search after Him with all your heart and soul. (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 4:29);

YHVH your God you shall fear; Him you shall serve, (*v’oto ta’Avod*) and by His name alone you shall swear. (ibid. 6:13)

So now, O Israel, what does YHVH your God require of you? Only to fear YHVH your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve YHVH your God (*v’la’Avod et YHVH Elohekha*) with all your heart and with all your soul… (ibid. 10:12)

You shall fear YHVH your God; Him alone you shall worship (*oto ta’Avod*); to Him you shall hold fast, and by His name you shall swear. (ibid. 10:20)

If you will only heed His every commandment that I am commanding you today Ñ loving YHVH your God, and serving Him with all your heart and with all your soul (*ul’Ovdo b’khol l’vav’khem uv’khol naf’sh’khem)… (ibid. 11:13)

YHVH your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, (*v’oto ta’Avodu*) and to him you shall hold fast. (ibid. 13:5)




There is no doubt that the institution of T’fillah can be found in the Torah – Kayin, Avraham, Yitzchak, Rivkah and Yaakov said T’fillot, as did Mosheh and Pinchas (see Tehillim 106:30). Later on in T’nakh, some of the most beautiful and well-known passages are T’fillot – Hannah’s request for a son, and her thanksgiving song afterwards (see I Sh’muel 1:11-12 and 2:1-10); Eliyahu’s plea (I M’lakhim 18:36-37) and so on. In spite of our ability to identity the existence of T’fillah as far back as Kayyin (Beresheet [Genesis] 4:13-14) (and, Midrashically, dating back to Adam) – this does not inform us about the status of T’fillah in those days. Was T’fillah a fulfillment of a Mitzvah? or was it the voluntary act of individuals, reacting to various types of life-experiences (barrenness, childbirth, war, disease, etc.)?

Although the Torah never explicitly commands us to pray, we are commanded – quite a number of time – to “worship/serve” God – the Hebrew verb is *’Avod* and the noun is *’Avodah*. How is this Mitzvah to be understood? There are (at least) four possible approaches to this command:

a) As an exclusive statement – to wit, rather than serving foreign gods, when you have a desire to serve, serve only the One True God (see the context in Shemot 23:25 and the Ibn Ezra there; Devarim 6:13 and 13:5). In that case, there is no Mitzvah, per se, of Avodat Hashem – rather the negation of Avodah Zarah (foreign worship – i.e. idolatry).

b) As a general statement – indicating that our lives should be dedicated, wholly or partially to Avodat Hashem. If this is the case, then it implies no particular acts or behaviors, but an all-encompassing orientation towards our lives.

c) The Mitzvah of Avodah implies a general command to engage in specific acts of Avodat Hashem – acts which are unspecified by the Torah. If so, T’fillah, along with other Avodah experiences – although mandated by the Rabbis, provide the structure within which we can fulfill this Mitzvah.

d) Finally, we must consider the possibility that the Torah is referring to one explicit worship-act -which may or may not be T’fillah.



Although the first possibility has certain advantages – it relieves us of the demand to pinpoint a method of fulfilling “‘Avodah” and explains the contextual backdrop for several of the occurrences of the command to serve/worship God, it is difficult to resolve every instance of the command of ‘Avodah as one of negation. Although several of them are contextually related to idolatry, some of the others stand quite independent of that abomination. In addition, it would be philosophically frustrating to define our relationship with God as purely one of negation – when we have reason to “reach out”, we should reserve that communion for God alone.

The second possibility – that Avodat Hashem is a general type of command which has far-reaching implications for every aspect of our lives but stops short of directing specific actions – would fall under a category described by Rambam as “Mitzvah Kolelet”.

[When Rambam composed his Sefer haMitzvot (which is printed in many editions of the Mishneh Torah at the beginning of the first volume), he was challenging the Mitzvah-enumeration of earlier sages – notably the author of the Halakhot G’dolot (see Ginzburg, Geonica I, 100 and Hildesheimer’s introduction to Halakhot G’dolot in reference to the author of that work). As we noted in an earlier shiur (K’riat Sh’ma 3:04), the Talmudic tradition (Makkot 23b-24a) only informed us that there were 248 Mitzvot of commission and 365 Mitzvot of omission – totalling 613 Mitzvot in the Torah – but not which Mitzvot made up those lists. In order to justify his enumeration – and bolster his challenge against Halakhot G’dolot – Rambam prefaced his Sefer haMitzvot with fourteen “Shorashim” (lit. “roots” – principles) which formed the basis of his reasoning in his enumeration.]

In Shoresh #4, Rambam writes: “It is inappropriate to reckon those commands which include all of Torah. In the Torah there are commands and warnings which are not about a particular thing, rather they include all Mitzvot, as if to say: ‘Do all that I command you and take care regarding all of the things which I warned you about’…as in when He says: ‘Be attentive to all that I have said to you…’ (Shemot 23:13)…and many [verses] like that. Others were mistaken about this principle and reckoned ‘You shall be holy’ (Vayyikra [Leviticus] 19:2) as a Mitzvah among the Mitzvot ‘Aseh…”

If we read Avodat Hashem as a general Mitzvah which impacts upon the rest of our actions but does not command a [new] specific action – or actions – it would then be a perfect candidate for Rambam’s category of Mitzvah Kolelet. As we will see later on, however, Rambam seems to be undecided as to whether Avodah is a Mitzvah Kolelet. However, we do find Rishonim who take this position more definitively. Ibn Ezra (Devarim 6:13, 10:20, 13:5) consistently interprets “Avodah” as generally applying to Mitzvot. Ramban (Devarim 6:13 in the second half of his comment) takes this even further and favors the understanding that “‘Avodah” is a constant state of being in relationship with God – as a servant to the Master. In his critique to Sefer haMitzvot (Mitzvah ‘Aseh #5 – see below), Ramban explains it a bit differently – that all Mitzvot which we perform should be done whole-heartedly (thus “with all your heart”).

The third approach is seen most clearly in the Sifri (#41): ” ‘*ul’ovdo*’ – this refers to study…another meaning: ‘*ul’ovdo*’ refers to T’fillah…” In other words, the Sifri sees ‘Avodah as a general statement which has specific methods of fulfillment. We are commanded to serve God – and that is all that the Torah has to say on the matter. However, there are other Mitzvot/activities which, when we engage in them, are considered a fulfillment of ‘Avodah.

A model for this approach is found in MT Evel 14:1. Rambam there lists a number of “social” Mitzvot – e.g. visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, elating a bride and groom etc. which are Rabbinically mandated. Nevertheless, concludes Rambam, one who fulfills any of these Rabbinically ordained acts fulfills a Mitzvah d’Orayta – “Love your fellow as yourself” – i.e. that which you would want your fellow to do for you, do for him. In other words – the Torah commands a general Mitzvah without defining those actions which we must do to fulfill it. The Rabbis create a structure through which we can fulfill this command of the Torah. By mandating that we visit the sick, for example, the Rabbis have given us a vehicle for fulfilling the Torah’s command of “Love your fellow as yourself”.

In the same way, the Torah commands us to worship/serve God – but says no more. The Torah does, however, command us to study – and that becomes a method of ‘Avodah. Either the Torah (see below) or the Rabbis command us to say T’fillah – but, when we do, we fulfill ‘Avodah.

Of course, according to this approach, there are other options available for fulfilling the Mitzvah of ‘Avodah – T’fillah and Torah study are just two examples.

(Parenthetically, why did the Sifri pick these two acts? If we posit that the definition of ‘Avodah is driven by the ultimate command in that series found in Devarim 13:5 – to “cleave to Him” – then any act which is a form of communion with God may be considered ‘Avodah. Hence, T’fillah, in which Man reaches out to God and attempts to bridge the impossible gap separating them – and Torah, in which Man opens his ears to the word of God – are the archetypes of experiences of communion. Man speaks to God (T’fillah) and God speaks to Man (Torah). )

As we will see, Rambam seems to adopt this approach.

The fourth possibility can be maintained only if we accept one of two routes: Either the direct definition of ‘Avodah is T’fillah – which seems to be borne out by the Gemara in Ta’anit (and, to a lesser degree, the Gemara in Bava Metzia’ 107b), or, in addition to the Mitzvah of ‘Avodah, the Torah mandates T’fillah from another source.



We have already seen that the Sifri offers options as to the meaning of ‘Avodah.

The Gemara in Ta’anit (2a), on the other hand, sees a direct link between ‘Avodah and T’fillah: ” ‘*ul’ovdo b’khol l’vav’khem uv’khol naf’sh’khem*’ (to serve/worship Him with all your heart and all your soul) -which type of ‘Avodah is in the heart? T’fillah.” The Gemara (like one of the options in the Sifri) is starting from the point of reference of ‘Avodah in the context of sacrifical offerings. ‘Avodah is generally understood to be associated with the Mishkan (Sanctuary) (see Bamidbar [Numbers] 18:7). However, since all of the worship-acts in the Mishkan are external acts (e.g.sprinkling the blood, raising the meal offering etc.), how can the Torah refer to “heart-based ‘Avodah”? The Gemara understands that this ‘Avodah must be internal – hence T’fillah.

(by the way, this may be the source for understanding other verses about ‘Avodah as referring to T’fillah – since the Torah refers to “‘Avodah shebalev” – worship of the heart – that allows us to understand other references to ‘Avodah in that light. See also Midrash T’hillim 67 – “what is the ‘Avodah of the Holy One, who is Blessed? – T’fillah.”)

The Gemara in Bava Metzia’ which infers T’fillah and K’riat Sh’ma (!!) from the verse in Shemot – “you shall worship/serve YHVH your God” – is either relying on our verse (“…with all your heart…”) or reads that since that verse is directed at everyone – not just at the Kohanim (and was also said before the command to build a Mishkan) – it must also refer to “heart-worship.”

In any case, we find several statements in the Gemara and Sifri which point to T’fillah as a Mitzvah d’Orayta – yet, it many places in the Gemara, T’fillah is described as “d’Rabanan”. For instance, in Berakhot 21a, the Gemara explains why a Ba’al Keri reads K’riat Sh’ma and Birkat haMazon but not T’fillah, based on the fact that K’riat Sh’ma and Birkat haMazon are d’Orayta unlike T’fillah, which is d’Rabanan. We will look at these sources in the next shiur and attempt to reconcile them.



Rambam (Sefer haMitzvot, Mitzvat ‘Aseh #5) states:

The fifth Mitzvah is that He commanded us to serve Him; this command was repeated several times, saying: “You shall serve YHVH your God” (Shemot 23:25) and saying: “You shall serve Him”(Devarim 13:5). Even though this command is general, as we explained in Shoresh #4, it has a unique application -that He commanded regarding T’fillah. The wording in the Sifri is: ” ‘And to serve Him’ – this refers to T’fillah.” They also said: ” ‘And to serve Him’ – this refers to Torah study.” In the teaching of R. Eliezer the son of R. Yossi haG’lili, they said: “Where is the source for T’fillah as a Mitzvah? from here: ‘YHVH your God you shall fear; Him you shall serve…(Devarim 6:13)'” and they said: “Serve Him via His Torah, serve Him via His Mikdash (Sanctuary)” – i.e. face towards there (the Mikdash) to pray there, as Shlomo, may he rest in peace, explained. (See I M’lakhim 8:22-53, esp. vv. 29, 33,35,38,42,48).

As I mentioned before, Rambam’s position on the “Mitzvah Kolelet” problem is unclear – although he explicitly calls ‘Avodah a Mitzvah Kolelet, he also defines T’fillah as the specific fulfillment of ‘Avodah. He even cites two statements from Sifri which point to alternative forms of Avodah – Talmud Torah and “Mikdash”. (Even though Rambam himself interprets this statement as an expansion on T’fillah as Avodah, directing us to face towards the Mikdash when praying, the simple reading of that phrase is a reference to the Avodah actually done in the Mikdash; cf. Ramban’s critique here.)



In his critique of Sefer HaMitzvot, Ramban raises several challenges to Rambam’s definition of the d’Orayta level of T’fillah:

1) The various statements in the Gemara which aver that T’fillah is d’Rabanan;

2) Rambam, in the introductory caption of Hilkhot T’fillah, defines the d’Orayta Mitzvah of T’fillah as once a day – Ramban questions this parameter – why not once a month, once a year or once in a life? In addition, how could the Gemara exempt a Ba’al Keri from T’fillah (which exemption may last for several days) if he is obligated from the Torah (see above)? I will address Ramban’s challenges in the next shiur. For now, let’s look at Ramban’s approach to T’fillah. He offers two possibilities:

a) T’fillah is in no wise a Mitzvah – it is simply a great kindness, that God allows us to address Him and to pour our hearts out to Him in T’fillah.

b) We are commanded to pray to God when in need – based on Shlomo’s inauguration of the Beit haMikdash (see I M’lakhim 8). In other words, T’fillah is generally a Rabbinically mandated Mitzvah, except that when in need (specifically public need), it is a Mitzvah d’Orayta. In other words, the Torah commands us to call out to God when in dire straits. (As mentioned above, Ramban interprets “with all your heart” as a general statement about Mitzvot – that we should do all Mitzvot with complete focus and devotion.)



Among the Ba’alei haTosafot, several sages compiled codes based on the 613 Mitzvot. The Sefer Mitzvot Katan (R. Yitzchak of Corveille) #11, points to a different source for T’fillah in the Torah:

“To say T’fillah with focus (*Kavvanah*) every day…even though basic T’fillot are d’Rabanan, nevertheless, there is a T’fillah from the Torah, as it says: ‘From there you will seek YHVH your God, and you will find Him if you search after Him with all your heart and soul.’ (Devarim 4:29);”

In other words, even though the SMA”K also cites the Gemara in Ta’anit, he defines T’fillah (in its d’Orayta mode) not as an extension or expression of ‘Avodah, rather as a purely heartfelt reaching out to God – seeking and searching after Him. This approach makes Kavannah (focus) part of the most fundamental definition of T’fillah.

In upcoming shiurim, we will discuss the ramifications of these different approaches, as well as engage in further analysis of Rambam’s orientation and a defense against Ramban’s critique.