Sunday 25 August 2019



In this article, we will analyse two very different approaches to the concept of prayer and the notion of influencing the Infinite One. 

The first, which is the popular approach, emphasizes much engagement in prayer and highlights the effectiveness of man’s ability to influence G-d. 

The second approach which is Rambam’s view, will come as a surprise to many as it counter-intuitively negates much of the ‘default setting’ of the typical religious personality.


We hear so much about how we can all engage in a personal relationship with G-d, and talk to Him in abundance about anything and the more often we do so the better. There is even a Psalm for everything.

Here are some sources which convey this idea:                                                                                                      
R. Nachman of Breslov writes that Hitbodedut, which is private, personal and informal prayer in any language one understands, is “the highest asset and greater than everything [else].”

Private prayer should be performed:   

 “...using words that evoke favor, placate and conciliate...

Everything that is in his heart he should express and tell to God...

[I]t is a practice that is accessible to all people, from the least to the greatest...and thereby [he will] come to a high level.[3]

When R. Nachman was ill, he asked his grandson to pray for him. The child asked first to have his grandfather’s pocket watch before he would pray for him. Only after he got what he wanted, did he cry out “Heal my grandfather” and then continued playing with the watch. The other Chassidim laughed at this but R. Nachman rebuked them pointing out that the most powerful prayers are carried out in such ways of absolute childlike simplicity.

R. Nachman continues:

“It is good to turn Torah into prayer. That is, when one studies...he should make it into a prayer...This manner of conversation rises to a very high place...which results in very great delight on high.

R. Nachman's student, R. Natan, composed 210 private prayers in a collection entitled Likutey Tefilot,  and readers are encouraged to use these inspirational texts as springboards for their personal prayers, and to: "express our personal needs and spiritual yearnings, whether at home, in the synagogue, in the office, in a quiet park or out in the countryside, etc."

Many have the practice today, with the ever-increasing popularity of the Challah Bake, to use the baking experience as an auspicious time to pray for healing, a marriage partner, happy and healthy children and so on, as the spiritual gates are considered to be open at that time. The baking of Challah becomes a conduit for all blessing to the home and different prayers are said with the addition of each of the seven ingredients; with the eighth ingredient - the soul of the baker - being the most effective to facilitate the blessing.

One Challah baking site suggests: 

“When kneading the challah dough with one’s hands, one can mention the names of each person in their family, sending personal prayers to G-d. It is also an opportune time to pray for others who are in need of blessings. From pouring the ingredients through braiding the dough, prayer can be whispered through each step, and the power of these prayers is strong and far-reaching”.


The following extract from Rambam’s Guide of the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim), screams deafeningly against all the above.

Rambam writes about the human condition in which man often considers it necessary to define and praise the Infinite One with, ironically, many finite descriptions and characterizations – such as G-d being Great, Kind, Loving etc.

However, the more one thinks one knows and understands G-d, the more one shows how little one understands the concept and nature of the Infinite, because an Infinite Essence cannot be described nor comprehended.
Thus, essentially, the deepest way to praise G-d is not even through prayer, but rather through silence.

[NOTE: Of course, Rambam is not negating the Halachic injunction to 'daven' (pray from a siddur) as he believes it is a Torah obligation to do so - as opposed to (ironically the mystical) Ramban, who says daily prayers are of rabbinic origin, and it is only a Torah obligation to pray during times of trouble.]


Rambam bases himself on a Talmudic source[4] which refers to an incident where someone led the prayer service before R. Chanina. This individual began praying with much flamboyant hyperbole and overstatement describing G-d with numerous and various adjectives such as:

“G-d the Great, the Mighty, the Awesome, the Powerful, the Indomitable, the Awe-Inspiring, the Strong, the Fearless, the Steadfast and the Honored...”

R. Chanina waits for him to finish and then asks the worshiper if he has concluded all his praises. Establishing that the prayer session is now over, he asks him why he went to such an exaggerated extent to praise G-d?

Before the worshipper can respond, R. Chanina says that he personally limits himself to just three adjectives to describe G-d – and he uses these expressions almost begrudgingly and only because he has to. This is because they were used by Moshe in the Torah, and thereafter, incorporated into the official (Shmonei Esrei) prayer by Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly.

Rashi explains that these three adjectives are “Gadol, Gibor and Norah’ (Great, Mighty and Awesome):

R. Chanina then makes the point that overstating one’s prayers is comparable to a king who has thousands of golden coins yet only gets praised for a few specific silver ones. The lesson being that man should not think that he appeases G-d even with very great platitudes.


Rambam obviously favoured this Talmudic source because he writes:

“Here ends the dictum of this perfect [rabbinic statement]...[It is perfect because had our prayers not been formulated by the Sages, we] should not have had recourse to them in our prayers.”[5]

In other words, were it not for the fact that our Sages obligated us to pray, we would have been even more minimalist in our prayers.

This ‘perfect and well-known’ statement of R. Chanina is Rambam’s favourite rabbinic statement, and he “wishes that all their other statements were like this”:

Rambam lived in a society that was, in his view, unsure where to draw the line between superstition and religion and the populace were dictating spiritual norms and standards to their leadership.

Rambam can’t help but continue:

Thus what we do is not like what is done by the truly ignorant who spoke at great length and spend great efforts on prayers that they composed and on sermons that they complied[6] and through which they, in their opinion, came nearer to God.[7]  

In Rambam’s own words, it is only the ‘truly ignorant’ that ‘spend great effort on prayer’.
By saying that these are not things that “we do”, Rambam is clearly differentiating his (and his followers) approach from that of the masses of the “truly ignorant” – an expression he is not averse to using when referring to the mainstream. [See here.]

“For they do not understand those sublime notions that are too strange for the intellects of the vulgar and accordingly took God...for an object of study for their tongues;

[T]hey predicated attributes of Him and addressed Him in all the terms that they thought permitted and expiated at such length in this way that in their thoughts they made Him move on account of an affection...”

Rambam maintains that the intellectually “vulgar” mainstream is unable to understand that they cannot comprehend the Infinite One, and instead they turn spirituality into “an object of study for their tongues” (but not their minds[8]). Thus they overstate their prayers and create and expound on a vast construct of ‘spiritual techniques and technicalities’ in an attempt to create a philosophy - “an object of study” - and try, almost, to bribe and manipulate G-d and “make Him move on account of an affection”.

Rambam, therefore, offers an alternative position:

“Accordingly if you are one who has regard for the honor of his Creator, you ought not to listen in any way to these utterances, let alone give expression to them [i.e. to these philosophies and injunctions to extra prayers][9] and still less make up others like them...and ought not go beyond that which has been inserted in the prayers...

[f]or this is sufficient from the point of view of [Halachic][10] necessity;

[I]n fact, as Rabbi Haninah said, it is amply sufficient...

Solomon...has rightly directed us...: For God is in heaven and thou upon the earth; therefore let thy words be few.[11]

Thus Rambam suggests that if one is looking for a more realistic G-dly experience as opposed to a formulated or what he considers to be a contrived spiritual one, then Less is More. When it comes to prayer, one should ‘give expression to them” but “not go beyond that which has been inserted in the prayers” and certainly not “make up others like them”.


Rambam even extends his objection to quoting verses of praise from the Prophets!

“They did this especially when they found the text of a prophet’s speech regarding these terms. Thereupon they had full license to bring forward texts that ought to be interpreted, and to take them according to their external meaning, to derive from them inferences and secondary conclusions...

This kind of license is frequently taken by poets and preachers or such as think that what they speak is poetry, so that the utterances of some of them constitute an absolute denial of faith, while other utterances contain such rubbish and such perverse imaginings as to make men laugh when they hear them...and to make them weep when they consider that these utterances are applied to God.

In Rambam’s system, when we must pray it should be minimalist and not exaggerated beyond that which is prescribed because essentially the deepest way to communicate with the Infinite is through silence.


We have looked at two very different if not extreme ways in which the concept of prayer is dealt with.

One system adopts a More is More approach while the other suggests that Less is More.

As this is not a competition, the intention is not to come up with a ‘winner’ but rather to show just how diverse and complex the various approaches to such a fundamental issue actually are.

Investigation into the sources reveals that these paradoxes surface time and time again - we truly are One Nation with Multiple Systems.

[1] A play on "One country, two systems" which refers to the constitutional principle formulated by Deng Xiaoping, the Paramount Leader of the People's Republic of China, for the reunification of China during the early 1980s.
[2] A ‘maximalist’ is also defined as ‘one who favors a radical and immediate approach to the achievement of a set of goals or the completion of a program.’
[3] Likutei Moharan II #25.
[4] Berachot 33b.
[5] Moreh Nevuchim 1:59.
[6] This is most likely a reference to ‘inspirational’ spiritual writings.
[7] Translation is from the Pines edition.
[8] In other words, they create a spiritual theology that ‘sounds right’ and ‘makes sense’ especially for the spiritual seeker, but in Rambam’s view, has no relevance in ‘reality’ because the ‘bridge’ from finite to Infinite is too sublime to attempt to articulate.
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Parenthesis mine.
[11] Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 5:2.


  1. A lesson vaguely remembered from my Mid-west Cheder classes;
    "and the holy challot would turn to the sheriff/saraph and say 'dough not forget me, Obediah'"

  2. המינות כשהיא נסקרת לרוח אמונה, מוכרחת היא להיות בונה אותו בעיקרו על יסוד הסכלות הרחבה המתפשטת בשדרות ההמוניות, ומפני קרני אור השכלה בהירה מוכרחת היא להתירא, אין לה מקום שאיבה של רוח אמונים מכל העולם אשר נתנכר אצלה מיוצרו, ובזה כבר מונח יסוד לכל און וחטאת, וההגזמה של ההתאמצות לברח מן העולם, אינה כ"א מוסיפה כח לרשעה להתפשט בעולם שהחליטתה לגורלה, לא כאלה חלק יעקב, כי יוצר הכל הוא וישראל שבט נחלתו ד' צבאות שמו.

  3. It seems that the Rambam is talking about the "praising" aspect of תפילה. I don't see howt would apply to the "requesting" aspect.

  4. Rambam's view is a very harsh view. The Medieval rationalists did not believe that man could change G-d's mind.

    The Kabbalistic view, however, turned prayer into a dialogue with G-d, and taught that man can change the fabric of reality through it.

    These are two views are very difficult to reconcile (as much as we would like to).

    The Zohar and the Ari gave us a path to try affect and fix reality through intercession of various means.

    While Rambam wrote things like: "There is, in truth, no relation in any respect between Him and any of his creatures." (MN 1:52)

  5. Interesting post, excellent points.
    A small correction: footnote 11 quote is from Kohelet, not Mishle.

  6. Thank you kindly. Amended accordingly.

  7. Fasincating post.
    1) where do you see the rambam favoring "silence"?
    2) side note, the follow by email feature doesn't work. I tried subscribing my email a few times

  8. Hi DrM,

    Rambam bases his comment on 'silence' on a verse in Tehillim (65:2) and its from the same section of Moreh Nevuchim (1:59).

    Thank you for pointing out the technical issue regarding the email feature. In the meantime, if you send your email to me at I will put you on.