Skip to main content

The Need for Voice with Respect to the Amida Prayer (1b)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Yeshivat Har Etzion mourns the death of Yona Baumel, z"l. Mr. Baumol died on Friday, without fulfilling his heart's deepest desire: to discover  the fate of his son – and our talmid - Zecharia, last seen on the Sultan Yakoub battlefield in Lebanon 27 years ago. We continue to pray for Zecharia's return. HaMakom yenakhem etkhem be-tokh she'ar avelei Tzion veYerushalayim.


          Thus far regarding the prohibition falling upon a ba'al keri to speak words of Torah. Before we can apply our conclusions to the topic under discussion, the law governing a ba'al keri with respect to prayer, two issues must be considered: First, is this prohibition a separate law or does it fall under the prohibition regarding words of Torah? And second, if it is a separate law, what is the nature of that law? As for the first question, see Rashi at the end of tractate Yoma (88a), regarding what is stated there in the Baraita, that on Yom Kippur, "a ba'al keri immerses himself before the Mincha service." Rashi writes:

A ba'al keri - to whom words of Torah are forbidden, as we maintain (Bava Kama 82a): Ezra instituted immersion for a ba'al keri. Immerses himself before the Mincha service – if he had a seminal emission before that, he immerses himself so that he be able to pray the Mincha service.

          Rashi clearly implies that the prohibition regarding prayer falls under the prohibition regarding words of Torah, for a prayer text has the law of a cheftza of Torah. Even if we assume, as is reasonable, that a person does not fulfill the mitzva of Torah study when he recites such a text, unless he actually studies the words, such a text is nevertheless regarded as words of Torah. This is also the implication of what Rashi says in Berakhot (20b) regarding the prohibition devolving upon a ba'al keri to recite blessings, for there too he writes: "A ba'al keri – from the time of Ezra's enactment and on, for he instituted immersion for a ba'al keri to occupy himself in Torah, as is stated in Bava Kama in chapter Meruba (82b)." Rashi seems to maintain that the prohibition falling upon a ba'al keri to occupy himself in words of Torah is all-inclusive – actual words of Torah, prayer, and blessings. See, however, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefila 4:4), who writes:

We have already explained that Ezra instituted that a ba'al keri should not read Torah until he undergoes ritual immersion. A later court extended the enactment to prayer, that a ba'al keri should not recite prayers until he undergoes ritual immersion.

          The Kesef Mishneh asks:

It is puzzling to me for when Ezra instituted his rule regarding words of Torah, this included prayer. Why then was it necessary for a later court to issue a decree regarding prayer… It is possible that Ezra only decreed about words of Torah, but not about prayer, for it is a petition for mercy, and perhaps he won't find water, and he will be unable to pray.

          In any event the Rambam clearly maintains that the prohibitions regarding words of Torah and prayer are separate prohibitions, against Rashi. This question may be connected to the disagreement among the Geonim and Rishonim whether Ezra's enactment was cancelled only with respect to words of Torah or also with respect to prayer. For if the prohibition of prayer is included in the prohibition of words of Torah, we must say that even the prohibition regarding prayer was cancelled. Or, in the other direction, if we assume that the prohibition is still in force with respect to prayer, it stands to reason that from the outset there were two prohibitions, for it is difficult to say that there was one prohibition and that half of it was cancelled. It is, of course, possible to say that there were two enactments and that both of them were cancelled. This indeed is the position of the Rambam (Hilkhot Keri'at Shema 4:8 and Hilkhot Tefila 4:5-6).[1]

          We must now examine the nature of the prohibition regarding prayer, which seems to be fundamentally different than the prohibition regarding words of Torah. In the latter case, it is the cheftza of Torah that is forbidden to the ba'al keri, but in the former case, what is forbidden is the act and fulfillment of the mitzva of prayer. As for the reason for this difference, it may be suggested, as I heard from the Rav on countless occasions, that the essence of prayer is standing before the king, as is evident from various halakhot regarding which prayer is different than Shema: the requirement to stand, adjusting one's clothing, the prohibition to pray in a tree, the law that an intoxicated person may not pray, the obligation to cover one's heart (and not just the lower part of one's body, as in the case of Shema), and as is evident from the wording of the Rambam (Hilkhot Keri'at Shema 4:8):

All who are ritually impure are obligated to read the Shema, and, while still impure, they recite the blessings that precede and follow it… Ezra and his colleagues ordained that only a ba'al keri may not read the words of the Torah… All of Israel are accustomed to read the Torah and recite the Shema, even after having had an emission, for the words of the Torah are not susceptible to ritual impurity.

          Regarding prayer, the prohibition stems from the fact that a ba'al keri is forbidden to stand before the King of kings. Even if the reason for the enactment was so that Torah scholars "should not frequent their wives like roosters," its essence and nature is the law of "Prepare yourself to meet your God, O Israel."

          Accordingly, anyone who stands before God and engages in a conversation with Him without having properly prepared himself for the encounter violates the enactment. Thus, we understand why there is no room for the Magen Avraham's objection. For regarding Shema we can, in fact, say that if silent meditation is equivalent to actual speaking, a ba'al keri who meditates upon the Shema fulfills his obligation without violating the prohibition. For the prohibition regarding Shema is part of the prohibition regarding words of Torah, which requires a cheftza of Torah, "as we find it was done at Sinai," and silent meditation does not meet this requirement. But in the case of prayer, if prayer in the heart is regarded as prayer, the ba'al keri violates the prohibition, for by way of his prayer, he stands before the King, and there is no room here to speak about "as we find it was done at Sinai." Therefore, the fact that the Sages did not institute that a ba'al keri should pray in his heart does not prove that voicing one's prayer is an indispensable requirement for fulfilling one's obligation to pray. For such an enactment would have involved an internal contradiction, because whoever fulfills his obligation to pray also violates the prohibition falling on the ba'al keri, and therefore they did not institute silent meditation for the ba'al keri.

          This argument seems to be solid, but regarding the main question – must prayer be voiced and is this an indispensable element for fulfilling one's obligation – several points must still be considered.

  1. Fundamentally, it is possible to hang our question on the disagreement whether silent meditation is equivalent to actual speaking. This indeed is the position of the Agur who writes (no. 2) that "silent meditation is not equivalent to actual speech with respect to blessings, as is the case with respect to Shema and prayer which require pronunciation with the lips," and continues to prove that the law is in accordance with Rav Chisda. The Rambam, however, certainly disagrees. For regarding Shema he rules (Hilkhot Keri'at Shema 2:8): "A person should read the Shema so that the words are audible to himself. If he has not done so, he has nevertheless fulfilled his duty." The clear implication is that only if he failed to recite the words in such a way that they are audible to himself has he fulfilled his duty, but if he failed to pronounce them with his lips he has not fulfilled his duty. And even though Rav Mano'ach writes about this (in Sefer Menucha, ad loc., and cited by the Kesef Mishneh): "'Lehashmi'a le-ozno,' that he should pronounce what he reads with his lips, and not merely read it," and according to this, he fulfills his obligation bedi'eved even with silent meditation, the plain sense of the Rambam's words does not support such an understanding. At the same time, however, the Rambam does not require voiced prayer bedi'eved. Now the Magen Avraham tried to base this position – without mentioning the Rambam – on the nature of prayer as service of the heart. But this too does not explain the Rambam, for he rules that bedi'eved all blessings are valid in the heart, even though the law regarding "to serve Him with all your heart – which, according to the Magen Avraham, constitutes the scriptural decree that excludes prayer from the law that silent meditation is not like actual speech – relates only to prayer, but not to other blessings. According to the Rambam, we are forced to say that it is not prayer that is the exception, but rather Shema. Indeed, the Sha'agat Aryeh arrived at this conclusion, though he, too, relates only to the Rambam's ruling in Hilkhot Berakhot, and not to what he says in Hilkhot Tefila:

It seems to me that the Rambam maintains that Rav Chisda and Ravina only disagree whether or not silent meditation is equivalent to actual speech with respect to Shema, about which it says, "speech," as it says, "And you shall speak of them," which implies that speech is necessary. For the mishna which says that a ba'al keri meditates in his heart refers to Shema… But regarding all the other mitzvot, which do not mention "speech," even Rav Chisda concedes that silent meditation suffices.

          What this means is that in a place where the Torah requires speech, there is room to discuss whether or not silent meditation is equivalent to actual speaking, but wherever speech is not explicitly mentioned, silent meditation suffices, not because it is like actual speaking, but because speech is not necessary. What follows from this is that even the Rambam rules that silent meditation is not equivalent to actual speaking, only that in some cases silent meditation suffices, even though it is not regarded like speech. Hence, there is no room to raise an objection against the Rambam from his ruling regarding the prohibition of "ve-daber davar" on Shabbat (Hilkhot Shabbat 24:1): "Speech is forbidden; silent meditation is permitted" – which the Gemara (Shabbat 150a) explains is based on the rule that silent mediation is not like actual speech. For even the Rambam accepts this rule in principle (besides which, it is possible to distinguish between the prohibition of Shabbat and the fulfillment of mitzvot; note that the Gemara itself does not connect the two issues, but this is not the forum to expand upon the issue).

  1. The Magen Avraham proposes that prayer in the heart suffices because prayer is defined as service of the heart. According to him, it is possible that even the act of prayer be performed in the heart. On several occasions, however, I heard from my revered teacher, the Rav, that prayers falls into the category of mitzvot – a category that was especially developed by the Rav – which are fulfilled in the heart, but require a physical act. For example, regarding the mitzvot of joy on a festival or mourning, the Torah requires, as an indispensable element for fulfilling the mitzva, a well-defined external action – the eating of peace offerings or the removal of shoes – but this action is merely a means to achieve an internal emotional state. As long as the person does not reach this subjective state, whose attainment constitutes the fulfillment of the mitzva, he hasn't achieved anything. If a person eats of a peace offering on a festival while in a gloomy state, or if he overturns his bed while in a state of joy, he has not fulfilled his obligation. He is like a person who engages in marital relations with his wife and thus performs the act of the mitzva of procreation – the relations constitute a mitzva act, as is evidenced by the Tosafot (Bava Batra 13a, s.v. kofin) who speak of a positive mitzva setting aside a negative mitzva in its regard – but their union does not lead to the birth of children. Such a person has not fulfilled the mitzva of procreation. According to the Rav, the same is true about prayer: the act of the mitzva is the recitation, be it by way of the mouth or in the heart. But the fulfillment lies in the feeling of a certain relationship to God and the achievement of an emotional state in which the petitioner sees himself as God's servant. According to this, there is no proof from the idea of service of the heart to the matter under discussion, for this concept defines the fulfillment of the mitzva, and has no bearing on the act of the mitzva.
  2. Commenting on the words of the Magen Avraham that the poskim imply that the requirement of voice in prayer is indispensable, Rabbi Akiva Eiger writes:

In my humble opinion, there is a slight proof from what the Rashba writes in his novellae to Berakhot 15 that regarding silent meditation there is no distinction between one language and other languages. Surely there is an entire mishna in this chapter: These may be recited in every language: Shema and prayer. And see Rif at the beginning of the second chapter of Berakhot who distinguishes between an individual and a congregation. And if he fulfills his duty with silent meditation, it is obvious that he fulfills his duty in every language. Rather, you are forced to say that a person does not fulfill his duty with silent meditation.

          In truth, however, there is no proof from here, for certainly lekhatchila a person must pronounce the words with his lips, as we learn from Chana, and it is about that lekhatchila law that the Gemara discusses whether or not prayer can be recited in all languages. Also with respect to what the Rif says that an individual must recite prayer in Hebrew, it stands to reason that this is only lekhatchila, as is implied by his words, and so, even according to the Rashba, there is no proof from the Rif that voice is indispensable for prayer. (The Rashba's words require further study in and of themselves, for surely "hirhur" is not equivalent to thinking about the topic of Shema, but rather a recitation of the text of Shema in one's heart; why then must we say that there can be no distinctions between languages with respect to hirhur.[2])

  1. We read in the first chapter of Yoma (19b): "Our Rabbis have taught: 'And you shall speak of them' – of them, but not of prayer." And Rashi explains: "'Of them' – you must make audible what you utter with your mouth. 'But not of prayer' – for prayer is in a soft tone, as it says: 'But her voice could not be heard.' Thus I found in She'iltot de-Rav Achai Gaon." He understands that under discussion here is not the very need for voice, but rather a soft tone. The Netziv, however, raised an objection against this understanding:

How does "and you shall speak" imply a loud voice? Surely also regarding a soft tone it says: "Now Chana spoke in her heart." Therefore, it is unreasonable to interpret, "And you shall speak of them," but not of prayer, which is in soft tone. (Ha'amek She'eila, she'ilta 143, 5)

          The Netziv, therefore, proposes another explanation of the She'iltot and the talmudic passage. According to the Rambam, however, the Gemara in Yoma can be understood according to its plain sense, that Shema requires voice even bedi'eved, but one can fulfill one's duty regarding prayer even in one's heart. Only that then we are forced to understand, "but not of prayer," as an exclusion, that there is no need for speech – similar to what the Tosafot Yeshanim, s.v. ve-dibarta, explain that the derivation is that that we interrupt Torah study for Shema, but not for prayer – and not as it was understood by most Rishonim that we are dealing here with a prohibition regarding prayer – for example, according to the Tosafot, s.v. bam, one is permitted to interrupt the Shema because of fear or respect, but not prayer.[3]

          From the Gemara, then, there is no proof one way or the other regarding our question, whether or not voicing prayer is indispensable for fulfilling one's duty to pray. We see, however, that the Rishonim disagreed on this issue. As stated above, according to the Rambam, bedi'eved one fulfills one's duty regarding prayer through silent meditation. But several Rishonim disagree:

1)       Rabbenu Bachye, in his introduction to Chovot ha-Levavot, speaks of two components in the worship of God: "Manifest service, and hidden service. Manifest service – duties of the organs, e.g., prayer, fasting… mezuza, a railing on the roof, and the like, where the person's action is performed through his visible faculties."

2)       The Agur's (no. 2) explicit assertion on the matter was already cited above.

3)       According to Rashi, that the prohibition falling upon a ba'al keri with respect to prayer is included in the prohibition falling upon him with respect to words of Torah, it would seem that the Magen Avraham's proof from the fact that a ba'al keri does not meditate on prayer in his heart is decisive proof that one does not fulfill one's duty of prayer in one's heart, and it may be presumed that this was Rashi's position. And thus we understand why he explains the passage in Yoma 19b regarding a soft tone in prayer – despite the striking difficulty noted by the Netziv – and not regarding voice.

4)       The Rosh explains that when the Gemara says that a person who recited Birkat ha-Mazon in his heart has fulfilled his obligation (Berakhot 15a), it is dealing with someone who pronounced the words with his lips but they were not audible to his ears. The Magen Avraham comments: "If so, he maintains that there is a general rule that one does not fulfill one's duty of saying in one's heart." If we accept this proof – and it seems convincing – we should add to those who argue with the Rambam all those Rishonim who understood the Gemara in this fashion.

(To be continued.)

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] It should be noted, however, that in Hilkhot Keri'at Shema, the Rambam explains that the enactment was cancelled because it had never been universally adopted, and because the words of the Torah are not susceptible to ritual impurity, whereas in Hilkhot Tefila, he merely mentions that it had not been universally adopted. This accords with his position that prayer is not forbidden to a ba'al keri as words of Torah.

[2] See Sha'agat Aryeh, no. 7, who raises an objection against the words of the Rashba.

[3] Compare to Yerushalmi, Berakhot 2:1: "'And you shall speak of them' – from here you learn that you are permitted to speak of them." There is no mention there of prayer.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!