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The Right Way to Pray

One Talmudic rabbi’s prayers work, while others’ fall on deaf ears. Is humility more pleasing to God than pomp?

Adam Kirsch
September 11, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Mario Tama/Getty Images.)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Mario Tama/Getty Images.)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world. His next column will publish September 25, after a week off for Rosh Hashanah.

Reading tractate Berachot over the last six weeks, I have been introduced to dozens of requirements for the right way to pray, some of them so subtle that I keep wondering how they could possibly have worked in practice. Did the average Jew of the fifth century CE know the Talmud’s intricate rules about what to do when he made a mistake in the beginning, or the middle, or the end of the Amidah? Did non-Talmud scholars—who must, then as now, have made up the majority of the Jewish population—know just at what point during prayer to bow and how deeply, or count the hours when it was permitted to say the evening prayer? These are just some of the questions that Daf Yomi has raised for me.

This week, however, the Talmud touched on a question that to me, perhaps to most modern Jews, is the first one that comes to mind regarding prayer, a question that you cannot pray without asking yourself: How do you know if God will hear your prayer?

The way the Talmud approaches this question is not directly theological but rather oblique and anecdotal. It comes up in Berachot 34b, in a story about Rabbi Chanina, a sage whose prayers were uniquely effective. Once, when Rabban Gamliel’s son fell ill, he sent two of his students to Rabbi Chanina, asking him to pray for the sick man. “As soon as [Chanina] saw them,” the Gemara relates, “he went up to his attic and sought mercy for him. On coming down he said to them: Go back to Rabban Gamliel, for the fever has left him.”

Clearly the students wondered how Chanina could be so sure about the immediate power of his prayer: “They asked him, are you then a prophet?” But while Chanina admitted, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet,” he was nonetheless certain: “I have a tradition that if my prayer is fluent in my mouth then I know that it has been well received. But if not, then I know that my prayer has been rejected.” When the students returned to Rabban Gamliel, they found that his sick son had recovered just at the moment when Chanina said his prayer.

This story raises some serious questions about the nature of prayer and about the seeming favoritism or even fickleness of a God who chooses to heed one man’s prayer and disregard another’s. Whenever a hurricane or earthquake destroys a city, the newspapers are sure to quote a survivor who credits God for saving him—without reflecting that, by this logic, God must have chosen everyone else for destruction. So too with Chanina: Why is his prayer so powerful, when we must assume that Gamliel had prayed for his own son with no results? And why should the “fluency” with which a prayer is said have anything to do with its effectiveness? We have seen from the Talmud itself that it was predictable, even common, for people to make mistakes in prayer and have to start over; were these flawed prayers then less acceptable to God than Chanina’s eloquent one?

The Talmud is silent on these questions, which are perhaps modern questions, not rabbinical ones. The conception of prayer that dominates in Berachot does not see it as a personal petition to God but as the carrying out of a ritual duty. Concentration and reverence are required to pray correctly, but the heartfeltness of a prayer does not free the Jew from the obligation to pray the right words in the right order. That is one reason why the Chanina episode is so striking: It is the rare moment when the Talmud speaks not of the duty to pray but of the results of prayer.

Clearly, however, the cosmic unfairness of Chanina’s gift must have troubled some of the rabbis, as the next story about him makes clear. Just like Rabban Gamliel, Yochanan ben Zakkai once had a son who fell ill, and he too asked Chanina to intercede with prayer; Chanina “lay his head between his knees and sought mercy for him and he lived.” Whereupon Yochanan ben Zakkai said, perhaps a little resentfully: “Had ben Zakkai stuck his head between his knees all day long, they would not have paid any attention to him in the heavenly court.” “Is Chanina then greater than you,” asked his wife? Her question made sense: After all, ben Zakkai was the Torah leader of his generation, credited with saving Jewish practice from oblivion after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.

“No,” he replied, “rather, Chanina is like a servant before the King, while I am like an officer before the King.” That is, Chanina had the right to enter into God’s intimate presence and gain favors from Him, while ben Zakkai was God’s representative and spokesman, who had to maintain a certain dignity and distance. If there is a moral lesson to be drawn from this, it may be that humility is more pleasing to God than pomp—a moral that can be found throughout rabbinic history, for instance in the elevation of the proselyte’s son Akiva, or in the story discussed last week of the deposition of the haughty Gamliel. Perhaps one can deduce from these warnings against pride that pride was a constant temptation to the rabbis of the Talmud, who after all were the intellectual elite of their time.


There were many other fascinating moments in this week’s Talmud reading, including culinary ones. In the course of a discussion of which benediction to say over which food, the rabbis give a remarkably detailed list of the kinds of things Jews in Babylonia ate, and I wonder if anyone has ever tried to prepare a meal, or a cookbook, based on the dishes in Berachot 35 and 36: anigaron, a beet soup made with olive oil that was used to soothe sore throats; bread and porridge made from orez, rice, and dochan, millet; dates, palm shoots, radishes, and pumpkin.

The most striking passage, however, came almost offhandedly in Berachot 34b, which is as momentous as the food-related discussions are mundane. The status of the messiah is one of the most complex issues in Jewish history and theology, with millennia of thought and debate devoted to it—from Isaiah to Maimonides to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Ordinarily, when we talk about the messianic age, we think of it as being the end of the world as we know it, a time when the earth will be transformed into an unimaginable paradise. But Rabbi Shmuel is quoted in very different terms: “There is no difference between this world and the messianic era,” he insists, “except for Jewish independence from the dominion of foreign kingdoms.” This unenchanted and emphatically political definition suggests the heretical thought that perhaps the messiah has already come, and his name was Theodor Herzl.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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