Prayer by Rote: Is Prayer Really That Simple?

by Rabbi Yaakov KlassJewishPrayerWeb1

The Rambam, in his opening chapter to the laws of tefillah (Hilchot Tefillah 1:1), states the following: “It is a positive command to pray every day, as it states in Exodus 23:25: ‘Va’avadetem eit Hashem Elokeichem… – You shall serve Hashem your G-d…’ ” We have learned, as transmitted by tradition, that this avodah is prayer, as it states in Deuteronomy 11:13: “U’le’avdo b’chol levavchem… – to serve Him with all your heart…” Our sages (Ta’anit 2a) offer this explanation: “What is [meant by] service of the heart? This is prayer. And the number of [daily] prayers is not Biblically commanded, nor is their form [text]. And [lastly] prayer has no Biblically-set time.”

Rambam sets forth no less than 15 chapters specifically devoted to the topic of prayer. He includes its laws in numerous other chapters in his magnum opus work, the Yad Hachazakah. The Tur, the Mechaber and the Rema devote no less than 45 simanim to this topic. Notwithstanding, many of our present day practices will not be found in their works. Yet, as these are ingrained in our prayer service, we question why and where. That is, many of these practices seem to have no reason and no obvious source.

Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen is an erudite scholar and long-serving pulpit rabbi in numerous positions in the U.S. and Australia, a prolific author of seven books on halacha, and a longtime halacha columnist for The Jewish Press. He set about to resolve these dilemmas with the publication of his most recent work, Jewish Prayer: The Right Way, Resolving Halachic Dilemmas.

In this volume Rabbi Cohen navigates the many written Responsa, as well as oral sources, in his quest to bring clarity to some of these dilemmas.

In one of his chapters, whereby he delves into a practice we do almost by rote, he addresses the issue of standing up during the last segment of Shacharit’s pesukei d’zimrah section: the prayer, Vayevarech David. He cites the Rema (Orach Chaim 51:7) as the source for our standing; however, no rationale is presented. Being a congregational rabbi, his astuteness is not exclusive to seeking the counsel of fellow scholars but he looks for halacha from any possible source. Thus a chance conversation with a lay member of his congregation can also prove to be a valuable source for halachic practice.

The following is what he culled from one such conversation. The individual had attended a parlor meeting where he heard HaGaon Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, provide the following reason for this custom: since a gabbai tzedakah usually circulates the synagogue at this juncture (see Be’er Heiteiv, Orach Chaim 51:7) with the pushka, it is customary to stand as a matter of deference to the gabbai and his role.

The source appears to be a Talmudic citation (Kiddushin 33a) that contends that the artisans of Jerusalem used to stand in order to extend kavod to the Jews who brought bikkurim (first fruits) to Jerusalem. This is to say they stood before those who were performing the mitzvah of bikkurim.

Rabbi Cohen makes note of the Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 51:19) that states that upon uttering the words (in this prayer) “v’atah mosheil bakol – and You will rule over all,” the Ari HaKadosh would stand and give charity. Thus he notes that the custom to stand is based on three interrelated mitzvot: 1) a person is giving charity, and therefore stands for the performance of his personal mitzvah; 2) he gives kavod to the gabbai tzedakah who collects charity, and 3) he gives kavod to others who give charity. Accordingly, the custom to stand relates to the mitzvah of charity rather than to the significance of the Vayevarech David recitation itself.

Yet Rabbi Cohen adds that he posed this question to his father-in-law, HaGaon Rabbi Yaakov Nayman, zt”l, a noted disciple of the Brisker Rav, who without hesitation responded that we stand out of respect for a prayer whose subset is King David’s blessing of Hashem and Klal Yisrael. A berachah of such significance, in which the entirety of the Jewish people are blessed, merits an act of special kavod. Jews stand to emphasize the importance of such a blessing as well as to demonstrate their appreciation and acceptance of this royal berachah.

Surely one who reads this chapter will not only find meaning for this practice, but his approach to this prayer will be forever changed. Indeed, this is a volume to be cherished by scholar and layman alike. It is a valuable addition to everyone’s Torah library.

This review originally appeared in The Jewish Press


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