Jewish Thought and History

Continuing the Trajectory: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on King David’s Request 

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Lawrence Kaplan

In his recent essay in The Lehrhaus, “Trajectories of Tradition: Skin Lesions and Tent Impurities,”[1] Professor AJ Berkovitz examines the exegetical career in early modern and modern times of a midrash found in Midrash Tehillim, an early medieval anthology of rabbinic Psalm commentary.[2] In this midrash, King David asks God to let those who read and recite Psalms “receive reward as if [they studied the topics of] skin lesions and tent impurities.” Berkovitz, taking note of the differing and conflicting interpretation of this midrash offered by a variety of early modern and modern rabbis, argues that this rabbinic debate “lay[s] bare the mechanics that push tradition to grow and change.” Or, as he states more elaborately and eloquently in his essay’s conclusion, what these interpretations really provide is

a microcosm of the way that tradition works—how a single, seemingly simple line of text can stimulate conversation, stir controversy, be turned over and over, and be analogized and explained in 49 ways. For ultimately, the life of tradition does not merely rest in single moments of exalted interpretation, but rather in its ability to retain its staying power while engendering further creativity and fostering change.          

While Berkovitz canvasses a wide spectrum of rabbinic scholars who commented on this midrash, and covers an equally wide number of issues the midrash raises, at the heart of his examination is a debate between two towering rabbinic figures—the great German rabbi and mystic, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (ca. 1555-1630), better known as Shelah, an acronym based on Horowitz’s encyclopedic compilation of ritual, ethics, and mysticism called the Shnei Luhot Ha-Brit (Two Tablets of the Covenant) and the great Lithuanian talmudist and kabbalist, Reb Hayyim of Volozhin (1749-1821), the leading student of the Gaon of Vilna and founder of the Volozhin Yeshivah—regarding the question the midrash leaves unanswered: Did God grant David’s plea?  

Shelah, Berkovitz notes, as part of his “champion[ship of] popular piety as a valid and validating expression of religious life,” in a comment on Yoma,

brings David’s demand back into the active consciousness of Jewish discourse. The line is rarely quoted before his time, and it proliferates after. And it serves a particular purpose. It raises the religious status of reciting chapters and verses from the Psalms by equating pious psalmody with (and, in some sense, claiming that it combines the best of) other enduring and indisputable Jewish values: prayer and Torah study. In the words of Shelah, David assures that “one who chants Psalms—it is as if he prayed, and it is also as if he studied Torah.”[3]

On the other hand, Berkovitz indicates, Reb Hayyim of Volozhin,

an ardent advocate for Torah study as Judaism’s apex value…in his magnum opus, Nefesh Ha-Hayyim…reshapes the idea of Torah Lishmah (engaging with the Torah for its own sake) into the pursuit of talmudic intellectualism that still reigns supreme in many Jewish circles. Yet prior to his time, as Reb Hayyim admits, “Most of the world until now explained its meaning as attachment [to the divine (devekut)].” And they cited David’s dictum as proof. Reb Hayyim, in turn, rebuts. He acknowledges that those who recite Psalms every day attach themselves to God. But he also argues that “anyone who studies the laws of Talmud in depth and with toil, it is a thing greater and more loved before God than saying Psalms.” Attachment, the aim of Psalm piety, does not equal the deep study of Torah—the true essence of Torah Lishmah. To buttress this idea, Reb Hayyim acknowledges David’s words, but only to countermand them: “Who knows if God agreed to this [i.e., to David’s request], since we do not find in their words, of blessed memory, what answer God answered him for his request.” In the eyes of Reb Hayyim, the psalmist failed in his petition to equate Psalm piety with Torah study.

Despite Berkovitz’s reference to Reb Hayyim of Volozhin’s “pursuit of talmudic intellectualism that still reigns supreme in many Jewish circles” [emphasis added], he does not refer to any contemporary readings of this midrash that support that of Reb Hayyim. Instead, he refers to a late nineteenth century hasidic Psalm commentary by R. Mordecai Rothstein that supports Shelah’s reading and critiques Reb Hayyim for shortchanging David. Contrary to Reb Hayyim’s assumption that God turned down David’s request, R. Rothstein affirms that God obviously heeded the prayers of His pious psalmist.[4] Berkovitz then sets this issue to the side and turns to other aspects of this midrash dealt with by commentators.

Yet the trajectory Berkovitz outlines continues in our own day. Surprisingly, Berkovitz passes over what is by far the best known recent discussion of this midrash, a discussion that as part of its powerful espousal of Talmudic intellectualism unequivocally affirms Reb Hayyim’s reading.  I refer, of course, to the discussion of this midrash found in R. Joseph Soloveitchik’s classic essay, Halakhic Man.[5] Moreover, his discussion in Halakhic Man turns out not to be R. Soloveitchik’s final word on this midrash.

In Halakhic Man (section XIV, part one), R. Soloveitchik develops the theme that “[t]he approach to God is… made possible by the Halakhah,”[6] by which he means not so much halakhic practice as halakhic cognition. As he states:    

Primarily, halakhic man cognizes God via His Torah, via the truth of halakhic cognition. There is truth in the Halakhah, there is a halakhic epistemology, there is a halakhic thinking [that] “the measure thereof is broader than the earth” (Job 11:9). There is a Torah wisdom “that is broader than the sea” (ibid.). And all of these are rooted in the will of the Holy One, blessed be He, the revealer of the Law. This approach is…a theoretical-normative one… To be sure, we can also find in the Halakhah a practical approach to God, an approach to God through the performance of the commandments… But this approach only follows in the wake of the first approach. The primary approach to God is the ideal-normative-theoretical relationship that prevails between God and halakhic man.[7]

R. Soloveitchik continues to develop this idea until he arrives at the issue of the relative values of the study of halakhah and the recitation of Psalms and hymns:

Halakhic man…is very sparing in his recitation of the piyyutim…because he serves his Maker with pure halakhic thought, precise cognition, and clear logic. He does not waste his time reciting songs and hymns. The cognition of the Torah—this is the holiest and most exalted type of service. He serves the Creator by uncovering the truth in the Halakhah, by solving difficulties and resolving problems.[8] 

At this point, R. Soloveitchik illustrates the superiority of the study of halakhah over the recitation of Psalms and hymns through relating some personal incidents:

Once my father entered the synagogue on Rosh Ha-Shanah, late in the afternoon, after the regular prayers were over, and found me reciting Psalms with the congregation. He took away my Psalm book and handed me a copy of the tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah. “If you wish to serve the Creator at this moment, better [to] study the laws pertaining to the festival.” While the congregation would recite piyyutim on the Days of Awe, [my grandfather] R. Hayyim  [Soloveitchik] would study Torah. On Rosh Ha-Shanah he would study the laws of shofar, on the Day of Atonement the laws pertaining to the sacrificial order of the day.[9]

R. Soloveitchik concludes his own discussion with the ringing declaration:

God Himself sits and studies the Torah and “God only has in His world the four cubits of the Halakhah” [Berakhot 8a]. The study of the Torah is not a means to another end, but is the end point of all desires. It is the most fundamental principle of all.[10]

This declaration leads directly, without any introductory material, into a lengthy quote from Reb Hayyim’s Ruah Hayyim, his Commentary on Avot, where one finds his fullest use of the midrash about King David’s request and God’s alleged rejection (according to Reb Hayyim) of that request, which Reb Hayyim  uses  to support his view that Torah lishmah does not mean Torah for the sake of cleaving to God, but rather Torah for the sake of Torah, that is, “to comprehend, through the Torah, the commandments and laws, and to know each and every matter clearly, both its general principles and its particulars.”[11] While Berkovitz quotes sparingly from Reb Hayyim’s discussion, as found in his famous systematic work, Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, paraphrasing and condensing his argument, R. Soloveitchik presents a lengthy extract from Reb Hayyim’s discussion that extends for more than a page in length.[12] The extract ends with Reb Hayyim’s citing the rabbinic statement that “God only has in His world the four cubits of the Halakhah,” the very statement R. Soloveitchik cited in his declaration introducing this lengthy extract from Ruah Hayyim. Lest there be any doubt as to R. Soloveitchik’s complete identification with Reb Hayyim’s view, R. Soloveitchik ends this section with this brief but unequivocal comment:

The above is the declaration of R. Hayyim Volozhin, the outstanding student of the Gaon of Vilna and the founder of the Yeshivah of Volozhin; and it would appear to me that it needs no comment.[13]

In a word, this lengthy extract from Ruah Hayyim, containing Reb  Hayyim’s reading of the midrash where King David asked God to let those who read and recite Psalms “receive reward as if [they studied the topics of] skin lesions and tent impurities,” in which God, according to Reb Hayyim’s understanding, rejected his request, serves as the capstone of R. Soloveitchik’s powerful exposition of talmudic intellectualism in Halakhic Man.

The above is well known and, indeed, had R. Soloveitchik followed his own advice and not commented further on this passage from Ruah Hayyim and more generally on the midrash about David’s request, his use of Ruah Hayyim as the capstone of his exposition of talmudic intellectualism in Halakhic Man would have provided an interesting appendix to Berkovitz’s essay, but perhaps would not have merited an essay of its own. But, as already alluded to, R. Soloveitchik does return to this midrash in a later essay, his halakhic discourse “Birkhot Ha-Torah” in Shi’urim Le-Zekher Abba Mari, Z”L, Vol. 2;[14] and while he refers there briefly to Reb Hayyim’s  discussion in Ruah Hayyim—and only in a footnote at that!—his main analysis of the midrash in this discourse differs sharply from that of Reb Hayyim, and comes closer to that of Shelah. 

In this discourse, we see R. Soloveitchik’s distinctive blend of rigorous “Brisker” halakhic analysis and broad hashkafic reflection characteristic of many of the essays in Shiurim Le-Zekher Abba Mari. R. Soloveitchik begins the discourse in classical fashion by noting an apparent difficulty in a passage from Mishneh Torah—a “shverer Rambam”—in this case an instance where Rambam appears to repeat himself. Rambam, in Hilkhot Tefillah 7:10-11, in connection with the morning blessings, states: “A person who rises in the morning to read the Torah…, whether he reads the Written Torah or the Oral Torah, must first wash his hands and recite three blessings and then read.”  After listing the three blessings, Rambam concludes, “Every day a person is obligated to recite these three blessings and afterwards read some words of Torah.”

As R. Soloveitchik notes, Rambam appears to repeat himself. Did he not state at the beginning of the halakhah that a person who rises in the morning to study Torah must first recite three blessings? Why then make what seems to be the same point at the end that “Every day a person is obligated to recite these three blessings and afterwards read some words of Torah?”[15]

R. Soloveitchik answers that these two statements represent two separate and fundamentally different halakhot:

The first rule, that it is forbidden to study Torah without a blessing, corresponds in its nature and status to that same prohibition hanging over benefitting from the world without a blessing or the performance of commandments without blessings… The second rule, “Every day a person is obligated to recite these three blessings” is rooted in a different nature altogether, in the commandment of Torah study. In its context, there is special fulfillment and particular obligation devolving on each and every person to read the written Torah or oral Torah and to bless the revered and awesome Name of the Lord Who gave us His Torah… This is a unified fulfillment: Torah study together with its blessings.[16]

Thus, this second halakhah relates to “the nature…of the commandment of Torah study,” and is not a law concerning the nature of blessings and when they are required. This second halakhah, requiring the joining together of Torah study and praise of God, a joining which applies both on a communal and individual level, is further seen by R. Soloveitchik as part of a broader union of Torah and tefillah. In support of this broader union, he points to the talmudic ruling (Berakhot 31a) that “we do not stand up to pray…except after a conclusive halakhic decision,” and the similar ruling in the Palestinian Talmud (Berakhot Chapter 5, Halakhah 1) that “a person should not stand up and pray…except after words of Torah.”[17]

The rationale for the unity of Torah and tefillah can be found, in R. Soloveitchik’s view,[18] in Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Positive Commandment 5, where he lists prayer as a biblical commandment based on the verses “And you shall serve the Lord your God” (Exod.  23:25) and “to serve Him with all your heart” (Deut. 11:13). Rambam there explains that, though the commandment to serve God is a general commandment, and such commandments, as he points out in Shoresh 4, are not included in the list of the 613 commandments, this commandment is included inasmuch as it entails the specific duty of prayer, in support of which he cites the Sifre: “‘And to serve Him’ (Deut. 11:13): This refers to prayer.”[19] What is significant for our purposes, as R. Soloveitchik emphasizes here and elsewhere,[20] is that Rambam goes on to cite the continuation of the Sifre. “‘And to serve Him’ (Deut. 11:13): This refers to study.” Rambam further cites a late halakhic midrash which states “‘And [sic] Him shall you serve’ (Deut. 10:20).[21] Serve Him through [the study of] His Torah; and serve him through His sanctuary,” of which the latter phrase Rambam understands to mean “to go there and pray.” From this, R. Soloveitchik goes on to say, “a wonderful thing is explicit in the words of our Master [Rambam], that service in the heart refers to two things, to prayer and to Torah. Through the study of the Torah, a person fulfills service in the heart as he does through prayer.”[22] (It should be noted, however, that in this passage from Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, unlike Hilkhot Tefillah 1:1, Rambam does not explicitly refer to prayer as service of the heart.) It follows, R. Soloveitchik concludes, returning to his point of departure, “that Torah and prayer blend to form a single unit and the fulfillment of a unified commandment of service in the heart.”[23]

In this discourse, R. Soloveitchik offers a number of suggestive points of resemblance between prayer and Torah study, explaining in which ways they constitute service of the heart. It appears to me, however, that we can gain a deeper and more precise understanding regarding the sense in which R. Soloveitchik considers prayer to be service of the heart from an observation in another halakhic discourse, “Semikhat Ge’ulah Le-Tefillah.”[24] And even though R. Soloveitchik does not discuss Torah study there, his observation will bring to light perhaps the deepest resemblance between prayer and Torah study and (what appears to me to be) the key way in which both constitute service of the heart. In that discourse, R. Soloveitchik makes the following penetrating and radical point:

Fundamentally, with regard to the relationship between the commandment and that which gives rise to the obligation to perform it, prayer differs from all commandments of the Torah that a person is obligated to perform. With reference to all other commandments, to begin with, the obligation of performance devolves on the individual, and this obligation transforms the person’s act into a mitzvah-performance… For example, with reference to grace after meals, the individual is obligated to recite blessings after he has eaten, and this obligation gives rise to the halakhic entity of grace after meals… However, with reference to prayer, which is an entity of rahamim [an appeal for (divine) mercy]…the order is reversed. The blessings of prayer do not obtain the rank of being halakhic entities of blessing in every sense of the term through obligation of the individual, but on their own. There exists a halakhic entity of tefillah arranged in its blessings, that does not depend at all on an individual’s obligations. It derives from [prayer] being intrinsically an appeal for [divine] mercy… To the contrary, the individual’s obligation [to pray] derives from the fact that it exists as a halakhic entity of tefillah [prior to the obligation].[25] 

R. Soloveitchik brings many proofs for this contention, which I cannot discuss here. The point I wish to make in this context is that although R. Soloveitchik does not make this point explicitly, this idea that tefillah is an entity of rahamim, an appeal for [divine] mercy, independent of and prior to a person’s obligation to pray, and its consequence that one does not pray “in order to discharge one’s obligation,”[26] constitutes, for R. Soloveitchik, the deepest meaning of prayer as service of the heart. [27]

Moreover, in light of this idea, the resemblance between Torah study and prayer is almost obvious. Just as the existence of the halakhic entity of tefillah “does not depend at all on an individual’s obligation” to pray, but “derives from [prayer] being intrinsically an appeal for [divine] mercy,” so too the existence of the halakhic entity of Torah does not depend on a person’s obligation to study, but derives from the Torah being intrinsically devar Hashem, the word of God. And just as ‘an individual’s obligation [to pray] derives from the fact that it exists as a halakhic entity of tefillah [prior to the obligation],” so too a person’s obligation to study derives from the fact that a halakhic entity of Torah exists [prior to that obligation].”[28] What this entails is that, from a purely halakhic point of view, the dialogical relationship between God and man, as expressed in God’s word to man (Torah) and man’s word to God (tefillah), though it gives rise to the obligations to pray and study, both precedes and is independent of those obligations. And this, I would contend, is the deepest meaning of R. Soloveitchik’s contention in Birkhot Ha-Torah, that both prayer and study are service of the heart!

It is in light of his contention in his discourse on Birkhot Ha-Torah about the fundamental unity of Torah and tefillah, deriving from their both being service of the heart, that R. Soloveitchik, immediately afterwards in the discourse, argues that we can understand “the request of King David that the recitation of the songs and praises found in the Book of Psalms be accounted as significant as the study [of the topics of] skin lesions and tent impurities.”[29] At first glance, R. Soloveitchik notes, this request of King David is difficult to understand.  He asks:

Why didn’t [King David] request that the merit of reciting the songs of Psalms be accounted as significant as some other commandment—such as charity, performing deeds of loving-kindness, offering sacrifices, putting on tefillin, wrapping one’s self in tzitzit, or similar commandments? Why did [David] desire that an arrangement like this be equal specifically to occupying oneself with Torah?[30]

R. Soloveitchik replies:

The question does not require great exertion. This equation was based on the foundation of service in the heart which is fulfilled  both in Torah study and in the recitation of praise and thanksgiving, and David requested that the value of service in the heart through the recitation of the songs of Psalms be equal to Torah study.[31]

In his explanation of the midrash in this discourse, then, R. Soloveitchik moves away from the extreme intellectualism of Halakhic Man, his view there being that Torah study, inasmuch as it is not “a means to another end, but is the end point of all desires…the most fundamental principle of all,”[32] possesses unique value, a view which led him to follow Reb Hayyim of Volozhin in emphasizing that, given this unique value of Torah study, God rejected David’s request that the recitation of Psalms be accounted as equal to such study. To the contrary, in this discourse he emphasizes the fundamental commonality of Torah study and prayer, inasmuch as both are forms of service of the heart, thereby coming closer to the view of Shelah who underlines the appropriateness and justice of David’s request.

To be sure, in a footnote to this discourse, R. Soloveitchik, as already indicated, refers briefly to Reb Hayyim’s discussion of this midrash in Ruah Hayyim and Reb Hayyim’s conclusion that God rejected David’s request, but it is not at all clear from the note whether or not R. Soloveitchik agrees here with that conclusion.[33] R. Menachem Genack, a leading student of R. Soloveitchik, in his essay, Inyenei Birkhot Ha-Torah in Shi’urei HaRav—Tefillah and Keriat Shema, a very learned presentation and discussion of R. Soloveitchik’s discourse Birkhot Ha-Torah in Shi’urim Le-Zekher Abba Mari, as well as other of his presentations on the subject of birkhot ha-Torah, suggests that, though both Torah study and prayer are forms of service of the heart, nevertheless “the primary form of service of the heart and knowledge of God takes place through Torah study more than prayer.”[34] R. Soloveitchik himself, further on in his discourse, suggests that Torah study is superior to prayer, for while the commandment of prayer exhausts itself in being service of the heart, Torah study, in addition to being service of the heart, is also a fulfillment of the independent commandment of study.[35]

Still, whatever residual superiority Torah study may possess over prayer in R.  Soloveitchik’s view, the main thrust of his discussion in the text of the discourse of birkhot ha-Torah is to stress, as noted above, the common nature of Torah study and prayer as service of the heart. Similarly, though R. Soloveitchik may hedge in the footnote of the discourse as to whether or not he agrees with Reb Hayyim of Volozhin that God rejected David’s request, again the main thrust of his discussion in the text of the discourse is to explain and justify the propriety of that request, precisely in light of the similarity between Torah study and prayer arising out their shared nature as service of the heart. 

The move, then, from R. Soloveitchik’s  explanation of the midrash about King David’s request in Halakhic Man to his explanation in his halakhic discourse, Birkhot Ha-Torah, illustrates his general move away from the intellectualism of Halakhic Man to his more existentialist mode of analysis,  with its emphasis on in-depth religious experience and the personal dialogue between man and God found in such  essays as “The Lonely Man of Faith,” “ Majesty  and Humility,”  “Catharsis,” and “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah.”[36] Note the extended and carefully worked out parallels  between prayer and talmud Torah in “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” if somewhat different from the ones in Birkhot Ha-Torah. But since in this  essay R. Soloveitchik does not cite the midrash about King David’s request, we will have to leave an analysis of it to the side. But I trust my essay has served to strengthen a key theme emerging from Professor Berkovitz’s essay, namely, the inextricable link between the history of midrashic interpretation, its twists and turns, and the twists and turns of the history of Jewish thought.[37]

[1] AJ Berkovitz, “Trajectories of Tradition: Skin Lesions and Tent Impurities,” The Lehrhaus (May 10, 2023),

[2] Midrash Tehillim 1:5.

[3] Shelah, Asseret Ha-Dibberot, Yoma, Ner Mitzvah, 1:53. Actually, Berkovitz is not quite exact when he states that “in the words of Shelah, David assures that one who chants Psalms—it is as if he prayed, and it is also as if he studied Torah.” What Shelah writes is that “one who says Psalms, it is as if he prays, and it is also as if he occupies himself with Torah, for King David of blessed memory already requested that those who recite Psalms receive a reward as if they occupy themselves with the depths of the Torah, [namely,] skin lesions and tent impurities.” Thus, King David only assures the people that “one who says Psalms—it is as if he occupies himself with Torah.” The assurance that “one who says Psalms—it is as if he prays” is one that Shelah makes on his own authority, evidently being an obvious point not requiring any special request on King David’s part. Incidentally, Shelah’s paraphrase of the midrash as “receive a reward as if they occupy themselves with the depths of the Torah [“omek ha-Torah”], [namely,] skin lesions and tent impurities,” serves to answer a question that, as Berkovitz notes, was raised by such later giants as Hida and  Rabbi Zadok of Lublin, namely, why did King David, in making his request that those who recite Psalms “receive a reward as if [they studied the topics of] skin lesions and tent impurities,” specifically single out “skin lesions and tent impurities?” As opposed to the suggestions of Hida and Rabbi Zadok, which rather fancifully seek to find some symbolic significance possessed by the topics of skin lesions and tent impurities that would explain why King David had singled out those topics, Shelah’s formulation, “as if they occupy themselves with the depths of the Torah [“omek ha-Torah”],” seems to suggest that the topics of skin lesions and tent impurities were singled out precisely on account of their difficult and challenging nature. Thus, what King David was requesting was that those who recite Psalms, even though such recitation does not require any great intellectual effort, should receive a reward as if they occupied themselves with the most difficult and demanding topics of Talmud study. Note also that Reb Hayyim of Volozhin refers, as we shall see below, to “anyone who studies the laws of Talmud in depth and with toil.”

[4] Mordecai Rothstein, Sefer Tehillim: Sha’arei Parnassah Tovah, 261a.

[5] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983). A fortieth anniversary edition of Halakhic Man, with a new preface, introduction, annotations, and a glossary by the translator, to be published by the Jewish Publication Society, will be appearing in September 2023.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ibid., 85-86.

[8] Ibid., 87.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Ibid., 87.

[11]  Ruah Hayyim, 6:1, quoted in Halakhic Man, 88.

[12]  Halakhic Man, 87-89.

[13] Ibid., 89.

[14]Birkhot Ha-Torah,” Shi’urim Le-Zekher Abba Mari, Z”L (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 2002), 2:7-22. 

[15]Birkhot Ha-Torah,” 7.

[16] Ibid., 7-8.

[17] Ibid., 12-13.

[18] Ibid., 13-14.

[19] Ibid.

[20] See Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” Tradition 17:2 (Spring 1978), 70.

[21] Birkhot Ha-Torah,” 13.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 14.

[24]Semikhat Ge’ulah Le-Tefillah,” Shiurim Le-Zekher Abba Mari, Z”L, 2:42-66.

[25]Semikhat Ge’ulah Le-Tefillah,” 47. I discuss this view of R. Soloveitchik at greater  length in my review essay of his book Worship of the  Heart. See Lawrence J. Kaplan, “Review Essay: Worship of the Heart,” Hakirah 5 (Fall 2007), 89-93. For a strikingly similar analysis of the unique nature of prayer, see R. Yitzhak Hutner, Essay #5, Pahad Yitzhak: Rosh ha-Shanah (New York: Gur Aryeh, 1986), 58-59.

[26]Semikhat Ge’ulah Le-Tefillah,” 46.

[27] The striking differences between Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s views on prayer and those of R. Soloveitchik, as expressed here, leap to mind. For Leibowitz, contrary to R. Soloveitchik, prayer is exactly like all other commandments, and consequently it is only the obligation to pray devolving on the individual that transforms the act of prayer into a mitzvah-performance. Similarly, again contrary to R. Soloveitchik, for Leibowitz, one prays precisely in order to discharge one’s obligation. See Yeshayahu Leibowitz, ‘‘On Prayer,’’ Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, edited by Eliezer Goldman (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University, 1992),  31.

[28] This idea, I believe, underlies the famous view expressed both in Minhat Hinukh, commandment 430, s.v. “U-mevu’ar Sham be-Shulhan Arukh;; and Hiddushei Maran Griz Ha-Levi al Ha-Rambam: Hilkhot Berakhot 11:16, s.v. “Ve-hinneh,” that the blessings over the Torah are  birkhot ha-shevah (blessings of praise) and not birkhot ha-mitzvah. Note, as well, that Professor Abraham Feintuch in his study, Ve-Zot Li-Yehudah: Iyyunim al Hilkhot Berakhot le-ha-Rambam (Jerusalem:Ma’aliyyot, 2003),159-163, discusses the blessings over the Torah in the chapter devoted to birkhot ha-shevah and not in the one devoted to birkhot ha-mitzvah. Of particular relevance is the well-known explanation offered by Gri”z (R. Yitzhak Zev Soloveitchik) in the immediately above-mentioned discussion in the name of his father (R. Hayyim Soloveitchik) as to why women recite the blessing over the study of the Torah: “The blessing over the study of the Torah is not a blessing over the fulfillment of the commandment of study of the Torah, but is a separate law that Torah requires a blessing… And women are exempt only from the commandment to study the Torah, but this does not mean that they have no connection with the act of studying the Torah. Therefore, their study is considered an act of study of the Torah, and it is entirely fitting that they recite the blessing over its study.’’ This explanation of Gri”z strikingly calls to mind Professor Leibowitz’s understanding of the significance of Torah study, if formulated slightly differently, and, as in this insight of Gri”z, expressed in connection with women. With respect to Torah study, unlike prayer, he acknowledges that its importance extends beyond its existence as a positive commandment. Consider the following, in “The Status of Women: Halakhah and Meta-Halakhah” (

For besides its significance as the performance of a Mitzvah, Talmud Torah enables the Jewish person to share the Jewish cultural heritage and its spiritual content. One might almost say that it makes the student party to the presence of the Shekhinah in Israel. Keeping women away from Talmud Torah is not to exempt them from a duty (as is the case with some other Mitzvoth) but is rather to deprive them of a basic Jewish right.

In sum, while with reference to the religious significance of tefillah, Leibowitz and the Soloveitchik family are at opposite poles, with reference to the religious significance of Torah study they espouse the same basic view. I think it is unfortunate that Leibowitz did not extend his insight regarding Torah study to tefillah and abandon his positivist view of prayer, a move called for both on halakhic and phenomenological grounds.  

[29] Birkhot Ha-Torah, 15.


[31] Ibid.

[32] Halakhic Man, 87.

[33]Birkhot Ha-Torah,” 15, n.7.

[34]Inyenei Birkhot Ha-Torah,” Shi’urei HaRav—Tefillah and Keriat Shema, edited by Menachem Genack (New York: OU Press, 2010), 28. Note how R. Genack, by referring to “knowledge of God” in addition to “service of the heart,” introduces into the “Birkhot ha-Torah” discourse a note of intellectualism typical of Halakhic Man, thereby blurring the lines between the two works.

[35]Birkhot Ha-Torah,” 15.

[36] See Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2006); Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility,” Tradition 17:2 (Spring 1978), 25; Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Catharsis,” Tradition 17:2 (Spring 1978), 38; Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” Tradition 17:2 (Spring 1978), 70.

[37] I would like to thank Chesky Kopel for his very careful and precise reading of my essay and his many helpful suggestions, both large and small, which contributed significantly to its improvement. 

Lawrence J. Kaplan is Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Philosophy in the Department of Jewish Studies of McGill University, Montreal Quebec. He received his B.A. from Yeshiva College, his M.A. and PhD. from Harvard University, and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elkhanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He was a Tikvah Fellow at the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization of New York University Law School, a Polonsky Fellow at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and a Research Fellow at the Maimonides Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Hamburg.