Mitzvos, Prayer & Religion

1) How Does Law Relate to Morality? Much of Judaism Seems Outdated - e.g. Shabbat and Kosher Laws

2) Does G-d Need My Prayer? Doesn’t He Know What We Need Without Our Asking?

3) Why Do I Have to Pray In Hebrew?

4) Why Can’t I Just Say My Own Prayers?

5) Is There Any Room in Judaism for Spontaneous Prayer and Communication With G-d?

6) Why Are There Fixed Times for Prayers?

7) I Do Not Find Going to Synagogue a Spiritual Experience.


1. How does Law relate to Morality?  Much of Judaism seems outdated - e.g.  Shabbat and Kosher Laws.



It would seem to be just the opposite. As civilization goes forward, Judaism seems to becoming more, not less, relevant to our lives. In an era when the weekday is becoming more pressurized, when our leisure time is taken up primarily by TV, the Internet and other inanimate non-spiritual undertakings, Shabbat is increasingly the key to sanity.

Kosher Laws:

  The reason for keeping kosher is not related to health, (though we imagine that if G-d told us to eat some things and not others this would also be good for our health). Keeping kosher is a part of the group of commandments called (chokeem)  חוקים, which have to do with our sensitivity to the physical environment, starting with our own bodies [1] . The prohibition for not eating meat and milk is considered by some commentators, for example, as an act of sensitivity or mercy, the opposite of cruelty [2] . This seems surprising because neither the meat nor the milk is alive when we eat it.

    However, the understanding of this is as follows. The Hebrew word for cruelty, to be אכזר, comes from the words אך זר - to be only a stranger, to be totally estranged from something. Estrangement from something leads to the type of insensitivity that ultimately allows for cruelty, just as the Nazis had to first dehumanize their victims to facilitate their destruction. The Torah prevents our alienation from the world by giving us a whole lot of commandments (שעטנז, כלאים, אותו ואת בנו, שילוח הקן וגו’) that heighten our awareness and appreciation of the plant and animal world around us, and that urge us to preserve the natural order of things. This in turn heightens our compassion for these things.

    Now, meat is the part of the animal used for its own self-sustenance and therefore represents the more self-centered aspects of the animal whereas milk is used for nurturing, reflecting the giving, outer directed part of the animal [3] . By not mixing the two we show our alertness and sensitivity to all these differences in nature, ultimately impacting on our own personalities. Surely in the 20th – 21st centuries, with its unprecedented onslaught of the environment, this idea is more needed than ever.

(See also But how could the Torah know about the challenges we have today? How can Judaism of the past answer questions of the future?)

2. Does G-d need my prayer? Doesn’t He know what we need without our asking?


    Sure He does. But He needs us to ask for it, for our sakes not His. This ensures that we have a relationship with Him, that we realize that everything comes from Him, and that we grow by turning to Him [4] .

3. Why do I have to pray in Hebrew?


    The truth is that you can pray in any language you understand [5] , but there is a tremendous advantage to praying in Hebrew.

    Firstly, if you can pray in Hebrew, you can walk into any synagogue around the world and feel at home. This gives a tremendous unity to the Jewish people.

    Secondly, Hebrew has a certain potency which other languages do not have. It is like the difference between a sword on the one hand and a bow and arrow on the other. A sword is sharp; it is dangerous even if not wielded. Should someone accidentally fall on it, it will still cause great damage. A bow and arrow on the other hand only has potency if careful aim is taken, the bow is taut, and the arrow is shot. The Hebrew language is like a sharp sword - even without perfect intention and depth of feeling on our part, the very use of the language achieves a certain effect [6] . (This is because the Hebrew language is the reality of the world at a higher level). Other languages can be used, but they need to be used much more accurately - with greater intention and feeling.

To understand this issue more deeply see note [7] .

4. Why can’t I just say my own prayers?


    It is beautiful if you feel inspired to say your own prayers. But, most of us are only inspired occasionally, and we need something more structured to help us through all those other times.

    The sages were conscious of the fact that they were enacting prayers for all times; they knew that people are different, feel differently at different times, have their ups and downs. That is why, one hundred and twenty of them, at least seven prophets amongst them, spent many decades, weighing each word, each sentence and each paragraph. They so structured the prayers that someone looking for compassion and hope will be able to find it in the prayers; someone feeling joyous, will be able to pray from that angle; someone depressed or in pain or under stress - all will find what they are looking for in what is actually the deepest of all the Oral works which we have received from the sages [8] .

Dena Heller, in a Moreshet essay, put it this way:

I’m not very adept at prayer because, being a writer, I’m overly cautious of my language. So, not wanting to bore whomever or whatever is on the receiving end…and yet wondering at the same time whether ornamentation and witticism would be inappropriate… I’m a little inhibited…”

    —Tom Robbins [9]

    Having a set prayer service saves us from such worries. It can be compared to going to visit the royal family at Buckingham Palace. Before one meets the Queen, he must be taught what type of speech and manners are expected of him, and only then can he approach her.  It is no different with the King of Kings: one can only pray in his own words once he is familiar with the proper way of addressing prayers.  We only achieve the “proper etiquette” of prayer by using the format of the Men of the Great Assembly, and only then are we encouraged to add our personal prayers in any form and any language we like. [10]

    Set prayer is not restrictive.  Quite the contrary, it actually compliments spontaneity.  When I use a siddur, a prayer book, I know that I am covering all the bases. Someone who
was wiser and more discerning than myself made sure of that. Everything I could possibly want to pray for was included, such as health, unity, justice, wealth, understanding, wisdom, and peace. Then within the structure of the (18 blessings) שמונה עשרה there are special insertions for personal prayers such as healing, business, forgiveness, and general requests. The structure adds many levels of meaning that we wouldn’t have if our prayers were unstructured. When we are focused, we can see the beauty and relevance of these time-tested prayers, and hopefully we will be able to convert obligatory, directed prayer into spontaneous prayer.

5. Is there any room in Judaism for spontaneous prayer and communication with G-d?


  There certainly is. Besides the times when we pray, we can pray to G-d any time we like, using any words, in any language. Every time we feel joy or sadness, every time we feel gratitude or a need, we have an opportunity to reconnect to G-d.

6. Why are there fixed times for prayers?


    We talked above (Why can’t I say my own prayers) about the fact that, left to our own devices, we would very rarely turn to G-d. But the Sages did not just fix prayers at certain intervals. They tuned into the different cycles of the day, each with its own spiritual energy and potential [11] .

    The morning has the longest prayer, it is a preparation for the whole day. But it must be said by a certain time – this ensures we get up, put our headspace right with the morning prayers and get out into the world to fulfill our potential. The afternoon prayer is the toughest, coming in the middle of things. However, it is also the shortest. For, having given ourselves a long prayer in the morning, we only need a short booster to get us back on track. The night is a time of withdrawal and meditation – therefore Maariv (night prayer) can be said the whole night [12] .

    The wording of the prayers reflect these differences. For example, in the morning we say, just after the Shma, the words אמת ויציב, that these words are true and firm. However, in the evening, the words are אמת ואמונה, true and faithful. We change the words from firm to faithful. Firm is the word for the clarity of the day, faithful is the word for the darkness of night. Saying these prayers connects us to cycles which, in our harried and busy days, we might otherwise miss.

7. I do not find going to Synagogue a spiritual experience.


    Many people tend to think that expressing their Jewishness means going to Shul (Temple) to pray. Actually עבודת הלב (service of the heart / prayer) is a difficult process for us all, and is often not the best place to start a relationship with Torah and Mitzvahs. This is especially so because ignorance of how to pray can make someone feel intensely uncomfortable, and often one lands out in a Temple which is cold and unfriendly. If need be, such a person can be reassured that praying is only a small part of Jewish spirituality and that they should focus on other things for the time being. It may be that the services are too long for the person, in which case they shouldn’t feel that they have to sit through the whole thing. Ideally they should be sent to an adults’ ‘beginners minyan’ or ‘explorers minyan’ as they are called in England.

    Many are bothered by the talking in Temple (Shul). Though talking in shul is wrong, it can be pointed out that it does reflect a certain feeling at home by the people who are there. It is wonderful that shul inspires such warmth and familiarity!

    Yet, despite these problems, much can be added to a person’s richness of experience by understanding not only what the prayer services are all about but by getting an appreciation of the symbolism of the synagogue and the prayer service.


A synagogue is like the Temple. It has an Aaron with a Ner Tamid. It has a Bimah, and a Paroches [13] . In fact a synagogue derives its holiness from the same verses which tell us that the Temple is holy [14] .

    The Synagogue is a place where we come to make a public demonstration of our belief in G-d and His Hashgacha (looking over us) [15] .

    Prayer should not be a casual act that is done in a different place every day.  That’s all right for eating or a shmooze (talk) between pals.  But when we pray, we have a specific place of worship, the shul (temple).  We are tremendously privileged to have a meeting scheduled with God, and we honor Him by showing up on time, at the right place.  We should go to God, and not have Him come to us. [16]


[1] This is the definition of R. SR Hirsch in the Horeb.

[2] Ibn Ezra

[3] Based on R. SR Hirsch on שמות כג יט (משפטים): לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמ

[4] Rav Yosef Albo in the ספר העקרים , asks, amongst others, the following question: If prayer is a request for the fulfillment of needs then we need to question the whole undertaking. For, either we deserve the situation we are in or we do not. If we deserve the situation we are in, then who are we to question G-d’s wisdom . We should accept our situation as perfect for what we need . And if we are not supposed to be in our current situation,  G-d will change our circumstances without our having to pray .

The ספר העקרים (book of essentials) answers by saying that we truly do deserve any situation which we are in. This is not because of reward and punishment, which is in the World to Come. But because, if we are not worthy receptacles of )G-d’s blessing) השם’s ברכה, then we are actually preventing ourselves from receiving the good He wishes to bestow upon us . But by praying we change ourselves so that we now deserve a different situation. A similar approach is taken by the Maharal  מהר”ל, who suggests that the difference is that we now, by preparing ourselves for (perfection) שלימות, have a relationship, a connection with G-d . This allows us to receive from him.

Sometimes G-d puts us into a situation of need for the very purpose of getting us to pray.  (Reb Tzadok HaKohein) ר’ צדוק הכהן  tells us sometimes a person has an anxiety-provoking premonition that something bad is going to happen to him, and this motivates him to pray to G-d. In the end, that same thing which would have been bad, turns into something positive . Prayer, says Rav Dessler, is the פתחו של מחט which allows us to be ראוי לסיעתא  דשמיא

[5] שמונה עשרה:      ותפלה בכל לשון (סוטה לג ע”א)

ברכת המזון:        וברכת – בכל לשון שאתה מברך (סוטה לג ע”א)

שמע:                שמע – בכל לשון שאתה שומע (ברכות יג ע”א)

However, this does not mean that prayer in all languages is equally good.  A person is allowed to pray in a language other than Hebrew, if he will then understand every word, presuming that he does not understand Hebrew.  But, we are allowed to pray in Hebrew, even if we don’t understand every word.  Hebrew, is a very holy language, the language the world was created with, the language that the prophets spoke in, and has effects far beyond what we can understand.

[6]משך חכמה - בראשית פרק מח כב ד”ה בחרבי  (דף 46(  (תפילה קבועה פועלת אפילו בלי כוונה משא”כ תפילה נדבה):

צלותי הוא  סדר תפלה הקבוע כמוש”א השבח והתפלה וההודאה מעכבין (תוספתא מנחות) ובעתי הוא בקשה אשר אמרו אם רצה אדם לחדש בתפלתו מעין כל ברכה שואל אדם צרכיו …  כי סדר תפלה שזו עבודה קבועה אין הכוונה מעכב ואם כוון לבבו באבות סגי ובכוונה מועטת סגי לא כן בחידוש שמבקש האדם צרכיו ומחדש בעי כוונה יתירה … והנה  חרב הוא בעצמו רק כח המורה … ולכך אמר ברכות דף ה כל הקורא ק”ש על מטתו כאלו אוחז חרבו על שתי פיות כו’ כי על מטתו איננה בכוונה מרובה 

[7] Man is the only creation with a Godly soul, and the unique expression of the human soul is speech. Speech is the ability to take an abstract idea, to convert it into a physical sound, to make a physical impact on someone else’s ear, who in turn turns it back into an abstract idea . Therefore speech is the point at which we convey our inner spirituality into the physical world around us. Every word we say carries power because it emanates from the soul, which is a part of God.  Without the power of speech, nothing differentiates me from the animals.  When I pray with this gift of speech, I pray with my full status as a human being: a human being with human lacks, and then I become a receptor for God’s blessing .

There is a very high level of speech, i.e. the use of the Hebrew language. The complexity and wisdom of the Hebrew language is such that it could not have been invented by human beings. The internal logic and interconnectedness of the letters and the words are vastly superior to any other language on earth. The fact that we were given and still have the Torah in it’s original Hebrew (loshon HaKodesh - the Holy Tongue) is further proof of the Divine origins of the Torah.

The Hebrew language is the vehicle through which all הקב”ה‘s השפעות (G-d’s eminence) are filtered. Therefore it is called (the Hold Tongue)  לשון הקודש.

Other languages are languages by convention, i.e. by the common decision of a group of people to agree to use certain sounds (words) to represent certain things. Hebrew however, is intrinsic, i.e. the words actually reflect the reality of a particular object at a certain level. Since the world was created by G-d using Hebrew words, were we to trace any object back up its spiritual trajectory (השתלשלות), we would, at some stage (עולם הבריאה), get to the word. The word then, is the reality of the object at a higher level. This is how (the first Man)  אדם הראשון knew what the names of the animals were. He did not name them, rather,

בראשית ב יט
וכל אשר יקרא לו האדם נפש חיה הוא שמו.

And whatever Man understood to be each animal’s name, that was indeed its name.

(The name of something is its thereness - שם (name) ness - Rav SR Hirsch).

The word, therefore, actually sustains the physical reality it produced . Man, who is an עולם קטן (small world) is made up of all 22 letters (name) (שם).

The kabbalistic, work which deals with how words are the building blocks of the world is ספר היצירה which, according to the (כוזרי מאמר ד ס’ נה), was written by אברהם אבינו. The letters are considered the bricks, the words the rows of bricks which comprise the buildings.

The Men of the Great Assembly understood that on a spiritual level, God is constantly transmitting His life force to man. The Almighty gave them the wisdom to compose an order of worship necessary to transmit this life force at all times by using The Hebrew language. It is as if the “Infinite Essence is bound to this person’s breath and life force,” as if God’s spirit is modulated and constricted within man’s words.  God breathes His life force into us every morning, we return it to Him through prayer.  This forms a cycle of daily renewal and continuous blessing .

[8] עלי שור ח”א

[9] King, Larry , and Katsof, Rabbi Irwin Powerful Prayers, Renaissance Books, Los Angeles, 1998;  pg. 50

[10] Amsel, Nachum, The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, Jason Aronson, Inc., NY 1996; pg. 133

[11] בראשית רבה ס”ח ט: אמר רב שמואל בר נחמן:  [התקינו שלש תפילות] כנגד  שלש פעמים שהיום משתנה. בערבית צריך אדם לומר: יהי רצון מלפניך ד’ אלוקי שתוציאני מאפילה לאורה. בשחרית צריך לומר:  מודה אני לפניך ד’ אלוקי  שהוצאתני מאפלה לאורה.  במנחה צריך אדם לומר: יהי רצון מלפניך ד’ אלוקי  שכשם שזכיתני לראות חמה בזריחתה כך תזכני לראות בשקיעתה. (מובא ג”כ בירושלמי ריש פ”ד דברכות בשינוים)

[12] In ברכות כו:, the Sages are in dispute as to whether the three prayer times are derived from the time of Korbanos or were implemented by the Avos:

ברכות כו:
אמר רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא תפלות אבות תקנום, ר’ יהושע בן לוי אמר תפלות כנגד תמידים תקנום  (שנאמר ונשלמה פרים שפתינו – הושע יד: ג) . תניא כוותיה דרבי יוסי ברבי חנינא:

אברהם תקן תפלת שחרית שנאמר וישכם אברהם בבוקר אל המקום אשר עמד שם את פני ד’ ואין עמידה אלא תפלה שנאמר ויעמוד פנחס ויתפלל ותעצור המגפה ,

יצחק תקן תפלת המנחה שנאמר ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב ואין שיחה אלא תפלה שנאמר תפלה לעני כי יעטוף ולפני ד’ ישפוך שיחו,

יעקב תקן תפלת ערבית שנאמר ויפגע במקום וילן שם כי בא השמש ואין פגיעה אלא תפלה שנאמר ואל תשא בעדם רנה ,

תניא כוותיה דריב”ל מפני מה אמרו תפלת השחר עד חצות שהרי תמיד של שחר קרב והולך עד חצות

נפש החיים שער ב:
ועבודת התפלה כנגד תמידים תקנוה שהיו ג”כ בשעת הקבוע להם עיקר המזון …

שם: —

ותפלות נגד תמידין תקנום שהיו עולות כליל לאישים כולה לגבוה סלקא ולא היה בהם חלק הדיוט כלל…

The מהר”ל brings a third reason behind the three daily prayers, i.e. that they complete all the dimensions of man.

וביאר המהר”ל (נתיב העבודה פ”ג)

ששלשת התפלות הם כנגד גופו, נפשו וממונו:

שחרית    כנגד גופו שאז צריך להתגבר על שינתו

מנחה    כנגד ממונו – שאז הוא באמצע העסקים שלו

מעריב    כנגד נפשו – שאז מבקשת הנפש מנוחה

ובא ללמדינו שצריך לשעבד את כל אלו להקב”ה שנאמר ואהבת את ד’ אלוקיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך

Shacharis – “I thank G-d for having brought me from darkness to light.” – The essence of Shacharis, the morning prayer, is a realization of Hashem as the Creator.  We wake up, are newly amazed at the magnificence of creation, and turn to the Creator to thank Him. Recognizing this leads us to acknowledge that we are His creations, and that we owe everything to Him.  This establishes within us the notion that our day is meant to be spent in service of Him.

משנה ברורה א:א:
מודה אני לפניך ה’ או”א שהוצאתי מאפלה לאורה.

Mincha – “I thank G-d that as I was worthy to see the sun in the east, I was worthy to see it in the west.” During the day, we become very involved in mundane matters, and our appreciation of life is stifled by more urgent matters.  We remind ourselves of the purpose of it all, by taking time out of our day in order to refocus our lives.  And again, we remind ourselves to appreciate life itself.

משנה ברורה א:א:
מודה אני לפניך ה’ או”א שכשם שזכיתי לראות כשהחמה במזרח כך זכיתי לראותה במערב.

Ma’ariv – “May it be Your will, that as I was in darkness and You showed me light, may You again take me from darkness to light.”  At night, before we go to sleep, we are suddenly cognizant of our vulnerability.  We are about to go to sleep and again surrender our souls to Hashem (G-d), and so we thank Him for the gift of life today, and request that He renew the gift tomorrow.

משנה ברורה א:א:
יה”ר מלפניך ה’ או”א כשם שהייתי באפלה והוצאתני לאורה, כן תוציאני מאפלה לאורה.

[13] Because the Shul (Temple) derives its Kedusha (holiness) from the same verses that teach us to build a Beis Hamikdash (Temple in Jersulem), the structure of the Shul is based on the structure of the Beis HaMikdash. In fact a shul is called a מקדש מעט. In an era where our own prayer is all we have, where we have lost our Kohanim, prophets and kings, the Beis Knesses is the direct continuation of the Beis HaMikdash. In both there is an Aaron HaKodesh with a Paroches as the focal point, in both there is a Ner Tamid (of the Menorah), a Bimah. This is not just a symbolic parallel. In an era where our own prayer is all we have, where we have lost our Kohanim, prophets and kings, the Beis Knesses is the direct continuation of the Beis HaMikdash. The Zohar in בשלח learns that the obligation to build a Beis Knesses comes from the obligation to build the Beis HaMikdash.

Both are supposed to be built on the high ground of the city (Har HaBayis in the case of the Beis HaMikdash.) (תוספתא מגילה ג יד). Each Beis Knesses, in fact, faces the Beis HaMikdash. (ברכות ל)

The Tur (ס’ צ) writes that a Beis Knesses should have two gates at its entrance, similar to the Beis Hamikdash.

[14] משנה ברורה קנא ס”ק א: כי הם נקראים מקדש מעט כמו דכתיב ואהי למקדש מעט וגו’  וכתב נמהרש”א ברכות ח ע”א ד”ה המצויינים בהלכה של בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות מקבלים את השכינה במקום המשכן ובמשנה ברורה שם ובמקדש כתיב ואת מקדשי תיראו שיהא מוראו של השוכן בה עליו וגו’

[15] רמב”ן סוף פרשת בא (שמות יג טז):

… וכוונת רוממות הקול בתפלות וכוונת בתי  הכנסיות וזכות תפלת הרבים, זהו שיהיה לבני אדם מקום יתקבצו ויודו לאל שבראם והמציאם ויפרסמו זה …

[16] Kaplan, Rabbi Aryeh, A Call to the Infinite, Moznaim Publishing Co., NY 1986 quoting the Maharal of Prague; pg. 93.

Posted in: Jewish Beliefs & Philosophy