The true meaning of prayer


Most people feel certain that the current understanding of prayer is the understanding of the concept in the Torah. This is not so.

 Prayer is defined as a worship service, a religious observance, a devout entreaty to God, a spiritual communion with the divine. The word is derived from the Greek precaria, to “beg.” It is a passive activity where worshipers rely on an Other and abandon their own responsibility, their own humanity. No such service is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Neither is the current practice in many religions today where people seek out holy individuals or clerics to pray for them thinking that the cleric’s prayers will be more effective, with no better result than if they prayed themselves, only exulting a cleric with no in-depth understanding of reality.

Many philosophers reject these concepts of prayer. They say that God has no need for prayer and does not hear them. The world functions according to the laws of nature and will not change no matter how passionately one requests God to alter nature. God is transcendent and it is impossible to join God. Using prayers to extoll God is also wrong. Describing God with certain attributes is actually insulting, for God cannot be understood and whatever we say about God falls far short of what God is.

The biblical concept of prayer is unlike these modern notions. Biblical people felt that God was near and they could talk to, question, and even argue with God, as Abraham did when he tried to persuade God to not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah or when Moses persuaded God not to destroy the Israelites who had worshipped the golden calf and said “if you do not do so, whip me out of your book.” Sometimes men and women in the Bible asked God to do something, as when Moses, who customarily talked with God, asked him to heal his sister whom God made leprous. Moses did not “pray.” He simply begged God to change and heal his sister. In Psalm 90:1 and Habakkuk 3:1, which calls what follows a tephilla, “prayer,” Moses and Habakkuk describe the greatness of God; they do not ask for anything. Just as a husband does not undergo a worship service when he talks with his wife, so the early Israelites felt that they have a close relationship with God who is ever present and they can talk to God.

The Hebrew word used today for “to pray” is lehitpaleil. The root is p-l-l, which means “judge.” The word is in the reflexive form, meaning it refers to the person making the statement, so the literal meaning of lehitpaleil is “to judge one’s self.” Understanding this, when people read the text of the siddur, the prayer book, literally “the compendium” or “collection,” they should pay attention to what is written, reflect upon their behavior, goals, successes, and failures, and “judge themselves” against the ideas mentioned in the text. The text should be a stimulant for improvement not a passive reliance on divine help. No proof exists that reciting the text results in divine intervention, but there is proof that when people act they can help themselves and others.

The biblical book of Jonah has this understanding of lehitpaleil. Jonah is greatly distressed and expresses his anguish in internal reflections. He does not “pray” to God to relieve his distress. The root of lehitpaleil, p-l-l, is used three times in the book and in none of them is it a petition.

In the first of the three instances, in 2:2, it describes Jonah’s thanksgiving hymn in 2:3-10. This fits the literal meaning of the word. Jonah was not “praying,” he was making an internal judgment of himself and his situation.

The second is in 2:8, within the Thanksgiving hymn. He states “tephillati (my prayer) came to you into your holy temple.” Commentators note that the book does not contain this “prayer” that Jonah mentions here. When we know that the word means “introspection,” we understand that Jonah is talking about his suffering, which he is describing in this hymn of thanksgiving.

The third occurrence of p-l-l is in 4:2. Jonah is displeased that Nineveh is not destroyed and becomes very angry, “and he ‘prayed’ to the Lord.” What follows are two arguments between Jonah and God. In both, God asks Jonah a question and he does not respond. Why doesn’t Jonah respond to God? In his argument, Jonah argues that he had said previously that he did not want the mission. The book does not indicate that he “said” this. We should understand that “said” here means “thought” and that “he prayed to the Lord” also means he thought about the divine mission. It was introspection, the meaning of p-l-l.

One might argue that this is a wrong interpretation for 4:3 contains Jonah’s “prayer” to God, that he prays “please God take my life from me.” But if Jonah really wanted to die, why did he need God to kill him, he could have committed suicide? It is more reasonable to understand that this was introspection. Jonah was not arguing with God but within himself: he was expressing his agony and anger, and he thought that perhaps he can relieve his pain by killing himself.    

We can understand Jonah by noting that the book of Jonah uses p-l-l to describe Jonah’s anguish in two chapters. In chapter two, in the hymn, Jonah wants to be saved from dying. In chapter four, he is overwhelmed and wants to die. He is introspecting, expressing his anguish in both.