Tefila On Demand

by Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen

As to whether Tefila is a request or a demand, the following related article published this month in my latest book, Jewish Prayer: The Right Way, Resolving Halachic Dilemmas (Urim Publications) suggests at times it may be a demand. (See pp.21-22)

Different Approaches To Prayer

Question: Are there different mindsets and approaches to prayer?

Response: Yes.The following response was culled from a taped shiur of HaRav HaGoan R. Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik,(ZL) Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva University which was recorded over fifty years ago at Congregation Moriah in Manhattan, NY.

The Talmud (Berachot 34b) reports the following:

Rav Gamliel’s son was ill. To pray for his son’s recovery, Rav Gamliel sent two Torah scholars to Rav Chanina ben Dosa. Upon viewing the scholars approach, Rav Chanina went up to his attic and solely prayed for recovery. When they came before Rav Chanina, he informed them that the sick person was already cured. Subsequently, the scholars were able to substantiate not only the cure but also the time the cure took place.

Some issues of concern. Why did Rav Gamliel send two students? Why not one? Why the necessity to send Torah scholars? Also, why did not Rav Chanina wait for the scholars to formally make the request?

Subequently, Rav Chanina ben Dosa became a student of Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai. Once Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai’s son was ill and Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his student, Rav Chanina to pray for his ill son. Rav Chanina ben Dosa put his head down by his knees and prayed and cured the illness.

At issue is the rationale for Rav Chanina’s bizarre mode of prayer.Why did he put his head down by his legs? What message did such a prayer impart?

HaRav Soloveitchik (ZL) gave the following analysis of these Talmudic incidents. Rav Chanina’s mode of prayer expressed a unique orientation towards requests or petitions made to the Rebono Shel Olam. Who walks with his head down near his feet? Not humans. Humans walk with their head held high. The posture of a head hanging near one’s feet is symtomatic of animals. Rav Chanina’s mindset was to plead with G-d to sustain his creations with health as he sustains the animals in the field. He gave life to the person who is ill, therefore, He owes them health. As it is written “Umasbia l’chol chai- and He sustains all life”. Animals are given life and health regardless of their nature to do good or otherwise. The prayer for the ill has nothing to do with the character, personality, Torah knowledge or religious observances of the person. Rav Chanina felt that all humans due to the fact that G-d gave them life deserve to be granted health comparable to the health given to the animals of the field. To emphasize this quality, Rav Chanina put his head between his legs to manifest the animal aspect of all mankind. In other words, care should be given to human creations at least in the same format that it is provided to the animal world.

Rav Gamliel had a radically different approach to prayer. His position was that people of merit had a right to demand considerations from G-d. For this reason he sent to Rav Chanina not one but two students who were Talmedai Chachamim, Torah Scholars. He believed that a request to heal his son should be through the process of a Bet Din. Serving as the leader of the Torah world he felt that he deserved some consideration in return.The prayer for recovery was to be a P’sak of a Bet Din ruling that he, Rav Gamliel merited compassion from G-d for his son.

Rav Chanina understood Rav Gamliel’s intention when he noted that two scholars were coming to his home. Consequently, he prayed for the recovery of Rav Gamliel’s son by himself; for his approach to prayer was one of great modesty and not a religious demand for payment due to the performance of Mitzvot.

(Any error or misstatement should be attributed to my understanding of the Sheur and not to HaGoan HaRav Soloveitchik (ZL).)

The original post appeared on NishmaBlog and can be viewed here.


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