Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Purpose of Prayer

By Susan Esther Barnes

Ever since blogger Dov Bear posted about faith healing, I’ve been thinking about the purpose of prayer. I find it interesting that he chose to focus on the power, or lack thereof, of petitionary prayer, since asking God for things isn’t the main purpose of Jewish prayer.

I’m no linguist, but it is my understanding that words for prayer in several languages, such as Latin and English, have the same root as words for asking for things. For example, “pray,” “ask,” and “beg” in English can be used more or less interchangeably, albeit with different connotations.

According to the website Judaism 101, the Hebrew word for prayer, t’filah, comes from the same root as the word meaning “to judge oneself.” This root implies the purpose of Jewish prayer is not petitionary - to ask God for stuff - but to look at ourselves. The idea is to think about what we’re grateful for, what we wish we could change, how we’re presenting ourselves to the world around us.

As anyone who studies Judaism will discover, we Jews have a lot of prayers already written for us. This includes not only what we read in the prayer books during services, but prayers for all sorts of other occasions as well. There are specific prayers we’re supposed to say when we wake up in the morning, when we leave on a long trip, when we see a rainbow, when we see someone we haven’t seen in a long time, when we learn of a person’s death. There’s even a prayer for when we use the restroom (It’s called “Asher Yatzar” if you want to look it up).

Most of these prayers do not ask God for anything. Instead, they focus our attention on things like our gratitude, our covenant with God, and the complexities of our body.

Certainly, there are times when we do ask God for things. Every week at services I say the names of my father and my friend Mark when the time comes for the prayer for healing.

Even then, there are certain rules we follow. We are not allowed to ask God to change what already is. A common example is if a man is returning to his village and he sees smoke rising from it, he is not to pray, “Please don’t let it be my house that is on fire.” This is because whatever is causing the smoke is already on fire. It is futile to pray to God to suddenly move the fire from one house to another.

When I say the healing prayer I don’t pray for my father to not have diabetes or for my friend to not have cancer. I don’t even pray for God to cure them, since I don’t think such prayers would be realistic. Instead, I pray for the symptoms to be more bearable, for God to give them strength and comfort while they cope with their condition, for them to be given the opportunity to enjoy their lives, for them to know others love them.

Sometimes my prayers change based on what’s going on in my life. Until recently, every time we sang “Hashkivenu” and asked God to spread a shelter of peace over us, I pictured a shelter of peace spreading from me and others in the congregation to cover those among us who were in mourning or otherwise in pain or in need of support. In the days after Rose died, I changed the direction to picture the shelter of peace coming from others nearby to cover me. One could argue this makes the prayer less about asking for something than it is about assessing my state of mind.

We are now approaching the High Holy Days, the time when we are asked to look over the past year, to judge our actions, and to apologize for our sins. It is only appropriate for us to spend some time now to remind ourselves that our word for prayer is not about asking for things, but is about judging ourselves. What better time than now to pray?


  1. This is excellent! One of my favorite things about observing Judaism is the insistence that no moment doesn't count. Every second in the life of a Jew can and should be imbued with meaning.

    May your prayers for you father and for Mark be answered.

  2. I think that lehitpallel is more than just judging oneself. It is the search for that part of the divine which is part of ourselves, the eternal neshama elokit that Gd granted us when we were born-"Elokei neshama shenatata bi tehorah"(from birkot hashachar) Only prophets can have a conversation with Hashem, but if we look deep inside ourselves perhaps we can experience a connection with the divine.

  3. susan, this was lovely, informative and reflective. win, win and win. thanks much for your insightful teachings. i always know that i can count on *that* when i visit you!

  4. Thank you all three for your kind words and support.

    David -
    I don't agree only a prophet can have a conversation with God. It may be possible, however, that you and I are using different definitions for the word "conversation."

  5. Fascinating look at the word prayer. I had never thought about the shoresh of the word in both English and Hebrew.

  6. Eric -

    Thanks. Just another example of the kind of thing that gets lost in translation.

  7. Lovely, but you may pray for a refuah shleimah, complete recovery for people. The person's name son/daughter mother's name. Mothers have special healing power for G-d.

  8. We do say we're praying for a refuah shleimah. Although it is permitted to think of that as a "complete recovery," I don't believe that's realistic in some cases. So at those times I prefer to think of it as a "complete healing" in the spiritual sense instead.

    I don't think it's helpful to me to pray for things I don't think will happen. It doesn't feel authentic. And I don't want to be inauthentic with people, let alone with God.

    If it's helpful to others to think of it as a "complete recovery" when they pray, regardless of the circumstances, I have no problem with that.