Beyond the Walls of the Synagogue: Prayer as a Virtue

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Natan Oliff


Generally, Jewish prayer is thought of as something bound to specific times—shaharit in the morning, minhah in the afternoon, and ma’ariv at night–and a specific location: the synagogue. But it need not necessarily be so. Jewish concepts expand throughout history, taking on greater meaning and a larger scope of influence as time progresses. For example, Rav Kook expands the concept of teshuvah by giving it not just individual and national significance, but also historical significance. Using the development of teshuvah as a blueprint, this essay attempts to expand prayer beyond its normal connotation. Prayer should be thought of as a virtue, an ideal character trait that both is developed through and influences action. In other words, as Jews, not only should we pray, but we should strive to be “prayerful.” This virtue of prayer is linked to other virtues—commitment, connection, protest, and meaning—which can be derived by examining the texts and halakhot of prayer. As a virtue, the concept of prayer expands to take on a more prominent role in a Jew’s life, for one must strive to develop it and act in accordance with it in all one does.

The Blueprint: Teshuvah’s Ideological Expansion
The historical development of teshuvah serves as a blueprint for understanding how prayer can be expanded. The biblical connotation of “teshuvah” differs from its modern meaning. In the Bible, teshuvah only appears eight times and means the collective act of returning and responding. However, in post-biblical literature, teshuvah expands into an “institution”—an abstract concept with its own rituals and associations.[1] The institution of teshuvah requires an individual to perform codified rituals: to regret their sin, resolve to never do it again, and confess it.[2] It also evokes crisp autumn days saturated with brown and golden leaves, the awkwardness of asking forgiveness for an incident months passed, and a sea of white kittels swaying in unison as the sun sets during Ne’eilah.

Yet, Rav Kook expands teshuvah to give it historical significance.[3] Teshuvah is the force that guides history. That is to say, history does not move in an indifferent, arbitrary fashion, but—on the contrary—teshuvah guides history towards morality and Godliness. All physical, moral, and religious developments throughout history are a form of teshuvah. Teshuvah is not just about one person’s or a nations’ own return to God at a certain moment, but rather also concerns the eternal process of working towards the redemption of all humankind.

Prayer’s Ideological Expansion
Like teshuvah, prayer appears in the Bible as an action. Biblical characters pray out of spontaneous desire, such as Abraham’s servant who prays for Isaac’s future wife (Genesis 24:12), and Hannah who prays for a child (Samuel I 1:10). Thus, to our biblical ancestors, prayer arose spontaneously from acute need. There is no biblical idea of fixed prayer, and it is therefore no wonder that Ramban views prayer as a biblical commandment only during times of crisis.[4] Fixed prayer was a later invention. It filled the void created by the destruction of the Temple and the sacrificial order. At this time, prayer became fixed in a temporal sense: occurring in a repetitive cycle three times a day (Berakhot 26b), and fixed in a textual sense: through the development of the Shemoneh Esrei (ibid. 33a). Later on, the additions of things like Pesukei de-Zimrah, Kabbalat Shabbat, different nuschaot, and tunes further expanded the institution of prayer.

Virtue Ethics as a Framework for Expanding the Concept of Prayer
To better understand prayer’s expansion, we need to briefly explain Virtue Ethics, a concept that emphasizes the importance of virtues in morality. A virtue is:

[A]n excellent trait of character. It is a disposition, well entrenched in its possessor—something that, as we say, goes all the way down, unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—to notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. A significant aspect of this mindset is the wholehearted acceptance of a distinctive range of considerations as reasons for action.

A good example is the virtue of honesty:

An honest person cannot be identified simply as one who, for example, practices honest dealing and does not cheat. If such actions are done merely because the agent thinks that honesty is the best policy, or because they fear being caught out, rather than through recognising “To do otherwise would be dishonest” as the relevant reason, they are not the actions of an honest person. An honest person cannot be identified simply as one who, for example, tells the truth because it is the truth, for one can have the virtue of honesty without being tactless or indiscreet.[5]

To fully understand Virtue Ethics, it is important to understand the interplay between virtuous action and virtue itself. In Virtue Ethics, internalizing a virtue is the peak of achievement, irrespective of the actions it breeds.[6] Nevertheless, one who obtains virtue will also find that virtuous acts follow as a matter of course. For example, someone who has internalized the trait of honesty will likely tell the truth. However, virtue is developed through virtuous acts. So, to continue the example, telling the truth internalizes and strengthens the virtue of honesty. This creates a positive feedback loop where virtuous actions inculcate virtue within the actor, which in turn generate virtuous actions.

Virtue ethics can be applied to prayer. This aforementioned positive feedback loop elevates prayer beyond the walls of the synagogue, for as an institution, prayer remains confined to a set of times, locations, and actions. Most critically, despite the fact that the person who prays may construct a relationship with prayer, it remains disjoint and external to them. However, as something essential—as a virtue—prayer transcends the limits faced by institutions. Prayer is not just what a person does but is an integral part of one’s identity and life outside the synagogue.

One can already see a hint of this in Rav Kook. In an introductory essay on the siddur, he writes: “Prayer comes in its perfected form only with the consciousness that the neshamah is always praying. ‘Does she not fly, and join to her beloved’ (Song of Songs 8:5) without any break at all? It is only that, in the time of active prayer, the soul’s ceaseless prayer is revealed in actuality.”[7] Seemingly, Rav Kook believes that prayer is not just an act or an institution but the natural state of the human soul. Ceaseless prayer means the soul is always praying, and that prayer is not limited to the confines of the synagogue.

In somewhat Soloveitchikian terms, we may call one who possesses the virtue of prayer “Prayerful Man.” He acts with a nexus of considerations related to prayer that come to the fore most prominently during the concrete act of prayer but also surface throughout his daily routine. While the act of prayer is the paradigmatic act that allows Prayerful Man to develop the virtue of prayer, it nonetheless gets nourished from actions that follow from a prayerful mindset. The question becomes: what is this nexus of considerations that composes the virtue of prayer? An examination of the texts and halakhot of prayer reveals four key considerations: commitment, connection, protest, and meaning.

The intertwining of prayer and commitment emerges from a midrash recorded in Ein Yaakov’s introduction, where three sages argue about what is the most important verse in the Torah. Ben Zoma argues for the opening line of Shema—the theological pillar of Judaism, and Ben-Nanas argues for “Love thy neighbor as thyself”—the ethical pillar of Judaism. In contrast, Ben Pazi points to the more humdrum command to bring the twice-daily sacrifice. A tangible act of devotion, the sacrificial order served as the building block of ancient Judaism. In Ben Pazi’s eyes, the sense of constancy and commitment that underlies the sacrificial order makes it the most important verse in the Torah. Following the destruction of the Temple, prayer replaced the sacrificial order. Thus, precise as the ticking of a clock, Prayerful Man prays three times a day. His schedule flows around the fixed times of prayer as river rapids swirl around a rooted tree, yet this sense of commitment flows beyond the floodgates of the synagogue walls. It can impact other areas of his life. Perhaps he spends time with his family—even after a long day at work—immediately washes the dishes upon finishing meals, and prioritizes his weekly havrutot.

Another consideration of Prayerful Man’s mindset is the connection one builds with God through prayer. Often, in human relationships, the goal of an interaction is to get requests fulfilled. Within such a worldview, the other party’s response proves that the request will be fulfilled. A worker rejoices when his request for a raise is fulfilled and finds the proof for this joy in the boss’ affirmative response. The human-Divine relationship reverses this trend. The Psalmist (116:1) confesses that: “I love the LORD for He hears my voice, my pleas; for He turns His ear to me whenever I call.” The Psalmist rejoices because God hears his voice. In other words, God responds, and the fulfillment of the request is merely the proof that God heard one’s voice. For Prayerful Man, the pinnacle of prayer is not about the fulfillment of requests, but the affirmation of connection. In the language of the Psalmist, it is the “turning of His ear” which confirms that there is Someone out there who listens to him, both his sorrows and joys, unconditionally.

This is not to say that Prayerful Man disregards the fulfillment of his request, but that his relationship with God does not depend solely on its utility. God is not a gumball machine to provide predictable responses. Furthermore, the Psalmist’s experience has a parallel in the human realm, as it affects how he views his relationships with others. Often, when Prayerful Man pours out his sorrows and troubles to a friend, he does so not because the other friend will solve his issue. Many times, the friend is powerless to help. Yet, the friend’s patience in listening to Prayerful Man’s problems and willingness to flesh them out indicates something deeper: the existence of a strong connection. Through his compassion, the friend affirms and strengthens this connection.

In its most essential form, prayer is a sign of protest towards heaven, an expression of unhappiness with the gap between the pristine ideal and the imperfect state of the world. Abraham prays to protest God’s decree against Sodom (Genesis 18:23), Moses prays to point out the futility of God’s plan to destroy the Israelites (Exodus 32:32), and Hannah prays to protest her barrenness (Samuel I 1:10). Prayerful Man is acutely aware of his needs and the needs of the world around him. He feels a duty to pray. To refrain from praying for the sick, for example, is a transgression of the commandment “Do not stand upon the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16).[8] Moreover, Prayerful Man does not limit his response against injustice to his requests during Shemoneh Esrei. He literally fights injustice in the outside world. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel exemplified this approach when he marched in the Selma Civil Rights Marches in 1965 alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to protest racial inequality. When reflecting upon his experience he remarked: “My legs were praying.”

Finally, to possess the virtue of prayer means that one asserts that life has meaning. In the beautiful words of Rabbi Sacks:[9]

Prayer is our intimate dialogue with Infinity, the profoundest expression of our faith that at the heart of reality is a Presence that cares, a God who listens, a creative Force that brought us into being in love. It is this belief more than any other that redeems life from solitude and fate from tragedy. The universe has a purpose. We have a purpose. However infinitesimal we are, however brief our stay on earth, we matter.

If so, Prayerful Man rejects any notion of nihilism. He believes that his choices—and the choices of others—carry immense weight and ultimate importance. He feels that his every decision possesses the power to tilt the scale—upon which the world is judged—towards merit or condemnation (Kiddushin 40b).

Conclusion: Beyond the Walls of the Synagogue
As a virtue, prayer serves as one’s companion throughout the entirety of their life. Getting up for minyan and meeting deadlines at work, rejoicing during Hallel and listening to a spouse’s struggles, praying for a sick cousin and standing up for a bullied friend, saying Modeh Ani and visiting the elderly all stem—albeit to different degrees of separation—from the same core virtue of prayer. In this manner, truly Prayerful Man establishes a symbiotic relationship between prayer and the rest of his life. By breaking down the walls between prayer-proper and his outside life, Prayerful Man fulfills what Rabbi Yohanan could only pine about: “If only a person would pray throughout the entire day” (Berakhot 21a).[10]

[1] Professor Steven Fraade of Yale notes a trend that many biblical verbs turn into nouns in the Mishnah. See Steven Fraade, “The Innovation of Nominalized Verbs in Mishnaic Hebrew as Marking an Innovation of Concept,” in Studies in Mishnaic Hebrew and Related Fields (Proceedings of the Yale Symposium on Mishnaic Hebrew), eds. Elitzur A. Bar-Asher Siegal and Aaron J. Koller (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2017), 129-148.

[2] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2.

[3] See Dr. Daniel Rynhold’s piece for an extensive treatment of Rav Kook’s revolutionary approach to teshuvah. Daniel Rynhold, “Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s Orot Hateshuva: Repentance as Cosmology,” in Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, ed. Stuart W. Halpern (New Milford, CT:  Maggid Books, 2017).

[4] Hasagot HaRamban on Sefer HaMitzvot, mitzvah 5.

[5] Rosalind Hursthouse and Glen Pettigrove, “Virtue Ethics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition). For a good, short explanation of Virtue Ethics, see Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy on Youtube.

[6] In a talk he gave at the University of Maryland Hillel, Rabbi Shai Held explained this as “If I opened up your soul, what would I find inside?”

[7] Olat Reiyah, Essays on Prayer, The Constant Prayer of the Soul. Translation by Rabbi Mike Feuer.

[8] Aharon Ziegler records this as Rav J. B. Soloveitchik’s position in Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1998), 45-46.

[9] From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Introduction to the Koren Siddur (Koren Publishers, 2009).

[10] I would like to thank Russell Charnoff and Shirah Isaacs for providing feedback on early versions of this essay and Yosef Lindell from the Lehrhaus for helping me clarify and organize my ideas.

Natan Oliff ( is a software development engineer at Amazon.