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Can we bewitch God with sacrifices and prayers?
The biblical book Leviticus describes elaborate ceremonies of sacrifices. Although the rabbis maintained that the sacrifices were accompanied by prayers, most people do not realize that prayer is not explicitly mentioned in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. The first biblical person who is explicitly said to have prayed was a woman, Hannah the mother of Samuel, in the book of I Samuel 1 and 2. She prayed for the birth of a child. Her silent prayer surprised the pious high priest Eli. He thought she was drunk.
Although the Pentateuch certainly describes many incidences of people speaking or calling to God, they are not specifically praying. A careful examination of their words reveals that these biblical figures felt that they could “speak” to God. Rather than praying to God, as people do today, they felt that their connection to God was so close, they could have a conversation with God.
Whether Hannah was the first or not, what are some opinions about prayer?
The Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 B.C.E.) addressed the question in his Laws. Despite being religiously-minded and mystical, he insisted that God has no need for sacrifices, prayers and incantations. God is “most wise and both willing and able to care [for the world]” without human help or reminders. Plato insisted that God is not like the Persian officials of his day who demanded bribes and who made decisions based on the size of these gifts.
Jews differ on the subject of prayer, as they do on many other subjects. Maimonides (1138–1204), Nachmanides (1194–1270), and the book Zohar (composed around 1290), for example, took opposite positions. And, there are other opinions on the subject.
Maimonides’ view can be summarized briefly. In his Guide of the Perplexed, in sections such as 3:16, 32 and 46, he writes:
1. God is one, all powerful, and can do whatever God desires. God needs nothing from anyone or anything.
2. God knows everything. There is nothing that a human can tell God that God does not know.
3. God is good. Everything God does is good. There is no evil associated with God.
4. God created the world to function according to the laws of nature. There is no need to change these laws since God considered everything that will happen before instituting them. The laws of nature are good.
5. While it is true that people suffer evil, evil does not come from God. There are three sources of evil: (1) Since all people are different from each other, no law, human or divine, can be created that will benefit everyone alike. In fact many laws that are extremely beneficial for most humans will be harmful to some people. Thus, the laws of nature are good for the world as a whole, but some people will be hurt by natural events. An example is hurricanes that benefit the earth but whose force can hurt and even kill people. (2) Evil can also come from other people, as when one individual hurts another. (3) One can also do evil to himself, as when he overeats or fails to exercise.
Paying close attention to Maimonides’ views shows that his arguments are logical. Since God has no needs, God does not require sacrifices or prayers. Also, since God knows everything, God already considered whatever a human could think of and has already decided to do what is good. Additionally, since God knowingly created a world that functions according to the laws of nature in a manner that is good for the world, God has no need or intention of altering these laws, and no human attempt by prayer, sacrifice, magic, or incantation will change anything. Any attempt to change matters by prayer, sacrifice, magic and incantations is arrogant. The person doing so is implying that God acted unwisely and in an evil fashion. It also implies that he, the human, is wiser than God and knows better than God how the world should be managed.
Maimonides states that although God has no need for sacrifices and prayers, God allows humans to sacrifice and pray because people feel that they need them. These activities help many people feel closer to God.
Although Maimonides does not use these terms, he would probably agree that the benefit of sacrifices and prayers are suggested by the Hebrew words for these activities. The Hebrew for sacrifices is karban, which means drawing near: sacrifices and prayers, although of no use to God, help people feel that they are closer to God. The Hebrew for prayer is tefillah, from the root pll, which means “judging”: prayer and sacrifices could encourage people to judge themselves. They could use the “prayer” activities as periods of self reflection.
The mystic Nachmanides’ reasoning and the result of his thinking is opposite that of his predecessor Maimonides. It can be summarized as follows:
1. God is one, yet God is composed of ten parts called Sephirot, each of which has a different function. God is not all-powerful because God needs humans to help align the divine parts properly and get them to function in the best fashion.
2. God knows everything, but can be persuaded to see things in a different way.
3. God is good, but the world is full of demons and other bad beings that need to be combated. A person can turn to God for help in overcoming these evil beings.
4. The world does not function according to the laws of nature. God is involved every moment in everything that happens in this world. No leaf, for example, falls unless God wills it to do so. Thus there are opportunities at every moment to persuade God to do something different than God may have intended.
In his commentary to Leviticus 1:9, Nachmanides mentions that the true purpose of sacrifices is explained by mysticism: “By way of the truth, there is a hidden secret in the offerings.” The super commentator Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (died around 1310 explains that Nachmanides is saying that God needs sacrifices for “the sake of yichud,” to unify the ten divine components. This is the meaning of karban, “bring near,” to bring God’s ten parts near, in proper order. Once humans do this, God functions properly and peace is brought to earth.
Many, if not most, people today accept items 2-4 of the Nachmanidean stance that prayers persuade God to change divine decrees without realizing that this idea is grounded in a mystic notion.
Interestingly, the mystical book Zohar (1, 143b), which modern biblical scholars contend was composed around the end of the thirteenth century, about the time of Nachmanides death, maintains that humans should not expect that their prayers will be fulfilled. Commenting on the prayers/blessings that Isaac gave to his son Jacob, the Zohar admits that the prayer/blessings were never fulfilled. Isaac prayed/blessed Jacob in Genesis 27:37 that he would be the master of Esau his brother and that Jacob would be sustained with grain and wine. Jacob, the Zohar admits, never ruled over Esau. Furthermore, he was a shepherd and never worked as a farmer who harvested grain and wine.
Most people consider prayer and sacrifices as proper forms of worship. However, some ancient non-Jewish scholars questioned whether the practices affected God. Similarly, some Jewish scholars, such as Maimonides and Zohar, admitted that people should not expect that their prayers will be fulfilled. Nevertheless, all agree that prayers can affect humans in one way: it can remind people to think about their lives and about God.
 This is a version of an essay I wrote in A Rational Pproach to Judaism and Torah Commentary, published by Urim Publications.