Prayers and Requests

Yaaqov avinu lying on his deathbed, tells his son Yoseif:

וַֽאֲנִ֞י נָתַ֧תִּֽי לְךָ֛ שְׁכֶ֥ם אַחַ֖ד עַל־אַחֶ֑יךָ אֲשֶׁ֤ר לָקַ֨חְתִּי֙ מִיַּ֣ד הָֽאֱמֹרִ֔י בְּחַרְבִּ֖י וּבְקַשְׁתִּֽי׃

Also, I gave you one portion (or perhaps, “one thing, [the city of] Shechem”) beyond that of your brothers, which I took from the control of the Emori — becharbi uvqashti — with my sword and with my bow.

Bereishis 48:22

The Targum Yonasan renders “becharbi uvqashti” as “betzelosi uva’us-hi — with my prayers and my requests”. This is also in Bava Basra 123, “‘Charbi‘ — this is tefillah,qashti‘ – this is baqashah [request].”

Based on this, R’ YB Soloveitchik explains the Targum’s “tzelosana” to refer to our immediate requests — sword-like, in comparison to the longer reach of the bow and arrow. Tzelosana are our requests for health, income, peace in our homes, etc… Whereas the arrows of “ba’us-hon” are for things like the coming of mashiach, the restoration of justice, etc…

Personally, I don’t follow. Shemonah Esrei is such an archetype for the form of prayer, Chazal simply refer to it as tefillah or tzelosana (depending on the language). Shemoneh Esrei, even in its immediate requests speaks in the plural, referring to the Jewish people as a whole, not my own immediate needs, and the majority of its requests are a progression describing the ultimate redemption. We have the list of prayers in the gemara (Berakhos 16b) that various tannaim, “after tzelosana — his Shemoneh Esrei — he would say like this”. In contrast, E-lokai Netzor, the post-Shemoneh Esrei petition that made it into our liturgy, is written in the first person, about my own religious needs and protection from those who want ill for me personally.

So, in contrast with what Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests, it would seem from usage that tzelosana actually denotes the longer term, less immediate, requests.

If the notion that I am contradicting Rav Soloveitchik didn’t make me insecure in my position, I would think that the similarity driving the parable isn’t immediacy, but something else.

The Vilna Gaon characterizes two kinds of prayer: tefillah and tachanunim. As RYBS himself notes, as does Rav Hirsch, lehit-pallel is in the reflective; something we do to ourselves. Teaching ourselves to turn to Hashem, and what things ought to be our priorities. Our primary tefillah was therefore organized by Anshei Keneses haGdolah in the sunset of the prophetic period, as a means of impressing us with the art of dialogue with the A-lmighty.

Turning to our Father with the needs actually on our mind is called tachanunim. An ideal time for tachanunim is immediately after tefillah, as we find in the above-mentioned list of tannaim‘s requests. As well as tachanun. Tefillah is always in the plural, placing ourselves in the context of the community. Tachanunim, like E-lokai Netzor, can also be in the singular. Because E-lokai Netzor exists as a framework for what should essentially be spontaneous, we have a long tradition of adding various requests to it, rather than preserving the tanna‘s coinage untouched.

Just as the tachanunim we say as part of regular davening has this element of a pre-written framework, of tefillah, we allso do not call for pure tefillah with no element of personal outpouring. We ask for the health of a sick friend with an insertion in “Refa’einu“, or Hashem’s help showing our children how to embrace the Torah’s wisdom in “Atah Chonein“, etc… “Whomever makes their tefillos fixed has not made their tefillos into tachanunim.”

This inseparability of these two types of worship might be an implication of the opening words of Mesilas Yesharim. The Ramchal begins, “יסוד החסידות ושורש העבודה – the foundation of piety and the root of work/worship…” The words’ initials are an acronym spelling out the name of G-d. However, three of the letters are prefixes. The Ramchal could have equally written “יסוד העבודה ושורש החסידות” and still have had the same acronym. Why did he choose to associate the more artificial “foundation” with piety, and the image of the more natural “root” when it comes to avodah, which means work? It would seem to me he is intentionally showing that the two are inherently mixed. That conscious work on our relationships with Hashem and with other people must flow from natural growth from the root, and our free emotional expression can’t be divorced from consciously building a foundation. This is AishDas — the inseparable fusion of fiery passion and precise ritual.

Returning to the Vilna Gaon’s distinction, the core difference between tefillah and tachanunim is that tachanunim are a raw primeval reaching out to the A-lmighty, and tefillah is an exercise in how we are supposed to reach out to Him.

In this light, the core of the metaphor in the verse is not distance, but usability. A sword in the hands of an expert is formidable, but even in the hands of a klutz, a sword is dangerous. Arrows shot by someone with no experience at marksmanship are pretty much useless. Thus, tefillah, like those pre-composed by Anshei Keneses haGdolah or Chazal, is more like a sword — of utility to anyone. The art of techinah, of personally composed baqashos — that requires greater skill and for the person to already feel that connection to the A-lmighty that their reflexive response is to cry out to Him, to be of any value.

(The Maharsha on this gemara in Bava Basra comments as follows: “Becharbi” is in response to Esav’s “al charbekha yichyeh — you will live by your sword”, as Yitzchaq described his destiny. “Beqashti” is his defense against the Torah’s description of Yishma’el, “vayhi roveh qashas — and he became great with a bow”. Yaaqov described two tools against two kinds of threat.)


I found some notes in which I referred to the Malbim, who identifies vidui, confession, as a third mode of liturgy.

וְע֨וֹד אֲנִ֤י מְדַבֵּר֙ וּמִתְפַּלֵּ֔ל וּמִתְוַדֶּה֙ חַטָּאתִ֔י וְחַטַּ֖את עַמִּ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וּמַפִּ֣יל תְּחִנָּתִ֗י לִפְנֵי֙ יְ-הוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהַ֔י עַ֖ל הַר־קֹ֥דֶשׁ אֱ-לֹהָֽי׃ וְע֛וֹד אֲנִ֥י מְדַבֵּ֖ר בַּתְּפִלָּ֑ה…

And I am still speaking, and mispallel and confessing my sins and the sins of my nation Israel, and putting my techinos down before Hashem my G-d on the holy mountain of G-d. And I am still speaking in prayer…

Daniel 9:20-21

כפל מבואר: ועוד אני מדבר, תפלות אחרות שלא נזכר פה, והיה בתפלתו ג’ סדרים,
א] תפלה שגדרו שפיכת הנפש והדבקה באלהים, ועז”א מדבר ומתפלל,
ב] ווידוי ומתודה,
ג] תחנה שהיא בקשה פרטית, עז”א ומפיל תחנתי שהיא התחנה הפרטית בעבור הר קדש של א-להי שזה היה עקר תחנתו:

The doubling is explainable: “And still I speak”, other prayers which aren’t mentioned here. And there were three orders (sedarim) in [Daniel’s] prayer:

  1. The tefilah whose limits are the pouring out of the soul and deveiqus (attaching oneself) to G-d. And about this [the verse] says, “speaking umispallel — and praying”;
  2. Confessing — “and confessing [my sins…]”
  3. Techunah which is personal requests. About this [it says] “and put my techinos down” for this is the personal techinah which was for “the holy mountain” of “my G-d”, for this was the essence of [Daniel’s] techinah.

– Malbim ad loc.

Once the Malbim adds a third category, it makes me wonder about Shema, which is not request, praise or thanks, nor confession, but a reminder to commit ourselves to Divine Reign and Mitzvos, and is in fact a separate biblical mitzvah. (Perhaps. It’s actually a machloqes in the gemara on Berakhos 21a whether Shema or Emes veYatziv is deOraisa, but everybody today seems to assume as much.) Is Shema a fourth category?

Related to this question may be what a Berakhah is. According to Rav Hisch, a berakhah is also a declaration of commitment. For more discussion, see “What is a Berakhah?”. To quote:

The basic problem when trying to explain the concept of making a berakhah is that the root /brk/ deals with increase, which makes the idea of making a berakhah with G-d as the subject difficult. How can we say “Barukh Atah Hashem“?

3a- “May Your presence in this world be increased” — through my efforts (R’ SR Hirsch). A declaration of commitment. Since HQBH restrains Himself (so-to-speak) to allow for free will, by choosing to act according to His Will, we can increase His influence.

I would surmise that this understanding is implied by R’ YB Soloveitchik in his monograph “Qol Dodi Dofeiq”. The Rav uses the rabbinic dictum “just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so too for the bad” to give the appropriate response to tragedy. (This quote is why one says “Barukh Dayan ha’emes” (blessed be the True Judge / the Judge of truth) upon hearing that someone died.) He says the Jewish question of tragedy is not “Why?” but “What should I do?” The Rav therefore implicitly identifies “blessing for the bad” with my doing Hashem’s Will.

If so, berakhos are not separated off this way, I guess neither should Shema.

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  1. Shimon says:

    The latter peirush is basically in line with the peirush of Rabbi YB Soloveitchik’s uncle.

  2. Ariel says:

    In the realm of drash, it is perfectly possible for two people (you, RYBS) to hold opposite positions and for neither to be wrong.

  3. micha says:

    The problem is in relating conflicting ideas to Targum Yonasan. So, while both could be correct, I have a harder time saying both correctly represent R’ Yonasan ben Uziel’s (RYbU) point.

    You can’t really say that he intended both when he identified a bow with one and a sword with the other. Perhaps one could say that RYbU meant one, and with siyata diShmaya he phrased it ambiguously because Hashem wanted to keep both ideas alive. RYbU perhaps saying more than he realized. But still, the lesson he was teaching was only one of the two.

    And so, if only one of our ideas merited a tanna’s attention and endorsement, I think it’s far more likely RYBS hit upon the right answer than I did. Since Shimon tells me I was zokheh to guess at the understanding of the Brisker Rav, I’m less concerned that I misunderstood the Targum.


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