Prolonging Prayer

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

I. INTRODUCTION

This week's lecture will deal with Chazal's attitude towards prolonging prayer. We shall also touch upon some of the ramifications of this issue in our day.

The Sifrei on Parashat Beha'alotekha discusses the issue of drawing out and cutting short one's prayers:

Rabbi Eliezer was asked by his disciples: To what extent should a person draw out his prayer? He said to them: He should not draw out his prayer more than did Moshe, as it is stated: "And I fell down before the Lord, as at the first, forty days and forty nights" (Devarim 9:18). And to what extent should he cut his prayer short? He said to them: He should not shorten it more than did Moshe, as it is stated: "Heal her now, O God, I pray you" (Bamidbar 12:13). There is a time to cut [prayer] short and a time to draw it out.

The difference in length between a long prayer and a short one according to Sifrei is enormous, between a prayer of five words and a prayer that extended forty days and forty nights. We find a similar discussion in the Mekhilta on the parting of the Red Sea:

"Why do you cry to me" (Shemot 14:15) - for the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: "Moshe, there is a time to draw out [prayer] and a time to cut it short. "Heal her now, O God, I pray you" (Bamidbar 12:13) - this is [a time] to cut [prayer] short. "And I fell down before the Lord" (Devarim 9:18) - this is [a time] to draw it out.

Another passage that is also relevant to our contemporary situation is found in Berakhot 34a:

Our Rabbis taught: Once a certain disciple went down before the ark in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, and he span out the prayer to a great length. His disciples said to him: "Master, how longwinded this fellow is!" He replied to them: "Is he drawing it out any more than Moshe Rabbenu, of whom it is written: 'The forty days and the forty nights [that I fell down]'?" Another time it happened that a certain disciple went down before the ark in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, and he cut the prayer very short. His disciples said to him: "How concise this fellow is!" He replied to them: "Is he any more concise than Moshe Rabbenu, [who prayed,] as it is written: 'Heal her now, O God, I pray You'?"

This last passage deals with the issue both on the individual level as well as from the perspective of the tension between the individual and the congregation surrounding him. The message rising from this Gemara is that one must find a middle path, that is, one must offer prayers that are neither excessively long nor unduly short.

In any event, these passages raise a question that is very relevant in our day. We may deal with the issue from two different perspectives - the relationship between man and God and the relationship between man and his fellow. Moreover, any discussion regarding the drawing out of prayer must address two situations: the situation in which additional prayers or psalms are added to the regular service, and the situation in which the content of the prayer service remains the same, but is drawn out.

II. MAN'S RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

Let us begin our discussion within the context of man's relationship with God. The Gemara in Berakhot 61a states:

Rav Huna said in the name of Rabbi Meir: A man's words should always be few in addressing the Holy One, blessed be He. As it says: "Be not rash with you mouth and let not your heart be hasty to utter a word before God. For God is in heaven and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few" (Kohelet 5:1).

A person must be conscious of the great distance separating between him and his Creator. Therefore, he cannot approach God whenever he so desires, and when he does approach Him, he must do so in a circumscribed manner. This restriction is intended to ensure that a person conduct himself with a certain restraint before his Creator. Obviously, this is relevant not only to prayer, but also to man's entire standing before God.

Another problematic aspect of drawn-out prayer is discussed by the Gemara in Sota 13b:

"Let it suffice you" (Devarim 3:26) - that people should not say: "How severe the Master is and how persistent the pupil is."

The problem here is not lengthy prayer in and of itself, but how such prayer will be judged by those standing on the outside.

Alongside these sources, there are other sources that view the prolongation of prayer in a positive light. The Yerushalmi Talmud at the beginning of the fourth chapter of Berakhot introduces a new variable:

From where do we derive the ne'ila prayer? Rabbi Levi said: "Even when you make many prayers" (Yeshaya 1:15) - from here [we learn] that whoever offers many prayers is answered. Rabbi Levi's position is reversed. There Rabbi Abba the son of Rav Pappi [and] Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin in the name of Rabbi Levi said: "In all labor there is profit; but the talk of the lips tends only to penury" (Mishlei 14:23) - [this refers to] Chana, who because she offered many prayers shortened the days of Shemuel... And here he said this? If he said it, here regarding an individual, and here regarding the community.

The Yerushalmi views the prolonging of prayer as positive, but it distinguishes between the prayer of an individual and the prayer of the community.

Another Gemara that explicitly discusses this issue is found in Berakhot 32b:

Rabbi Chanin said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. From where do we know this? From Moshe Rabbenu, as it is said: "And I prayed unto the Lord" (Devarim 9:26), and it is written afterwards: "And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also" (ibid., 10:10). But is that so? Surely Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: If one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart... There is no contradiction: here where he prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, and here where he prays long without looking for the fulfillment of his prayer.

What is meant by "looks for the fulfillment of his prayer"? Rashi explains (ad loc.):

He expects that his prayer will be fulfilled because he had prayed long. [But] in the end when it is not fulfilled, it turns out that his prayers had been drawn out in vain. The heart is vexed when a person expects something and his desire is not realized.

Tosafot (ad loc., s.v., kol) raise an objection:

There is a question. Here the implication is that iyyun tefila [here translated as "looking for the fulfillment of one's prayer"] is not a good thing... But this is not the implication... And it counts "iyyun tefila," implying that it is something good!... It may be suggested that there are two types of iyyun tefila. Here it refers to one who expects that his prayers will be fulfilled, whereas there it refers to one who concentrates in his prayer.

Tosafot understand that there is a positive type of iyyun tefila, i.e., intense concentration during prayer. This stands in contrast to the negative type of iyyun tefila, which refers to one who expects that his prayers will be answered, as explained by Rashi.

The Gemara in Berakhot 55a engages in a similar discussion and distinguishes between one who concentrates in his prayer and one who does not. Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his article "Ra'ayanot al ha-Tefila," cites this Gemara, and explains it as part of a whole system of thought that argues that we should not accept the idea of prayer as self-evident, for how does man dare turn to God and present Him with a list of requests? It should be noted that this Gemara implies that if a person concentrates well on his prayers, he should indeed draw them out.

To summarize, we have seen that there are diverse opinions about drawing out one's prayers. The Rishonim discuss several variables, for example, individual prayer vs. communal prayer, as well asattitude of the individual himself to his drawn-out prayers. Sifrei suggests an additional variable, the specific circumstances of the particular prayer.

There is yet another point that relates not so much to the essence of prayer, but to the wider context, i.e., the overall balance that must be maintained in man's service of God. Rava and Rav Hamnuna disagreed about this matter in Shabbat 10a:

Rava saw Rav Hamnuna prolonging his prayers. He said: "They forsake eternal life and occupy themselves with temporal life." But he [Rav Hamnuna] held: The times for prayer and [study of] Torah are distinct from each other.

According to the simple understanding of this Gemara, "eternal life" refers to Torah study and "temporal life" refers to man's material needs, as in the Gemara in Betza. Prayer is classified as "temporal life" because the essence of prayer consists of requests related to man's material needs. The focus here is upon the side effects of prolonging prayer in that it leads to a neglect of Torah study. Obviously, this consideration only applies to a person who, were he to pray more quickly, would take advantage of the time saved for additional Torah study, and not to a person who would just waste the extra time on vanities.

III. MAN'S INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIP

1. Chesed

As for the interpersonal aspect of prolonging one's prayers, one can discuss the matter on two levels. On the one hand, a person who engages in lengthy prayer will have less time to occupy himself in acts of kindness. This leads us to the more general question regarding the allocation of time between various worthy missions, and is similar to the question discussed above concerning the balance that must be maintained in one's service of God. The second level, and this is our primary concern, is the effect that prolonged prayers have on other people.

2. Prayer in Unison

The Gemara in Berakahot 31a describes Rabbi Akiva's prayers as follows:

It has been taught [in a Baraita]: Rabbi Yehuda said: Such was the custom of Rabbi Akiva; when he prayed with the congregation, he used to cut it short and finish in order not to inconvenience the congregation, but when he prayed by himself, a man would leave him in one corner and find him later in another, on account of his many genuflections and prostrations.

This Gemara is open to various interpretations, as to whether we are dealing with the Amida service or with miscellaneous additions, but this is not our present concern. In any event, the Rambam rules in Hilkhot Tefila 6:2:

One who recites his prayers with a congregation should not unduly protract its recital. But when he is alone, it is left to his discretion.

The Rambam may not understand the Gemara in accordance with its plain meaning. Most Rishonim (e.g., the Ri Migash in a responsum, the Rashba in a responsum, and others) understand that would Rabbi Akiva have prolonged his prayers, he would have caused the congregation a disturbance, and therefore he shortened his prayers when praying with a congregation. Rambam does not mention that we are dealing with a situation in which other people are being disturbed. Rambam implies that if a person prays together with a congregation, but unduly protracts his prayers, he effectively distances himself from the congregation, even if his prolongation contributes to his concentration. According to this, this law does not fall into the category of injuries caused to others, but rather it is part of the obligation falling upon the individual to pray together with a congregation. Elsewhere, the Rambam follows the approach of the Ri Migash. The Rambam, in responsum 261, was asked about various types of psalms and prayers. After explaining that these may be recited, he says that this is fitting for an individual, but not for a congregation, for this causes an inconvenience to the congregation, even if only to particular individuals in that congregation. Here the Rambam addresses the problem of prolonged prayer from the perspective of the imposition it imposes upon the congregation, rather than from the perspective of the individual cutting oneself off from the congregation.

3. Imposition

"Imposition upon the congregation" is generally applied in the case of a sick person who finds it difficult to stand for a long period of time, or in the case of a person who for a variety of possible reasons is in a rush. There is, however, another type of imposition. A person may have a problem with prolonged prayer, even though he is not sick or in a hurry. In such a situation, there is a built-in problem, part of the congregation wishing to cut the prayer short, and another part wishing to draw it out.

When we come to decide the law in such situations, several other considerations must be taken into account. What is the law in the case of an educational institution? The Gemara in Berakhot 32b states:

The pious men of old used to wait for an hour and pray for an hour and then wait again for an hour. But seeing that they spend nine hours a day over prayer, how is their knowledge of Torah preserved and how is their work done? [The answer is] that because they are pious, their Torah is preserved and their work is blessed.

This Gemara implies that there are circumstances relating not only to the time, but also to the place. Thus, there is room to say that in a place where we want to educate the congregation and raise its level of piety, consideration must be given to the question regarding the nature of the service to which we want it to become accustomed to. Returning to the Rambam's responsum mentioned above, there he speaks of the importance of not rushing through prayer, and so a person is obligated to make sure that the community becomes accustomed to a slower service, and he who does not rebuke the chazanim is a sinner.

Another aspect of the issue on the interpersonal level comes from the opposite direction, that is to say, the congregation must be tolerant of a prayer leader who draws out his prayers. The Or Zaru'a mentions that a prayer leader must experience the congregation as standing behind him, and the congregation must experience the prayer leader as their representative standing before them.

In our circumstances, the variation in the length of the service does not span the wide expanse between forty days and five words. It is generally limited to a much shorter interval of time, usually no longer than a few minutes. Every person should, therefore, demonstrate tolerance and be ready to waive on a few minutes.

In conclusion, let us cite the words of the Rambam regarding the manner in which a person must recite the Shema. Rambam in Hilkhot Keri'at Shema 2:8-9 rules:

He should enunciate the letters distinctly... How should care be exercised in enunciation? One should take heed not to sound a letter with a strong dagesh as if it were without such a dagesh, or a letter without a strong dagesh as though it had such a dagesh; nor sound a letter with a sheva mobile as if it were immobile, nor, vice versa, sound a letter with a sheva immobile as if it were mobile. Hence, also, a pause should be made between two words, where the first of the two words ends with the letter with which the one immediately following it begins. For example, in reading the words bekhol levavcha... and similarly in the case of va-avadtem mehera...

In most synagogues, the average time allotted to the recitation of Shema does not suffice to fulfill these criteria. It, therefore, falls upon the individual to adjust the speed of his prayer so that it accords with what the Rambam says here.

This lecture was not reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.

(Translated by David Strauss)