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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

What Can the Hebrew Word for “Prayer” Teach You?

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By: Mendel Kalmenson and Zalman Abraham

Prayer is one of the most visible expressions of religious life. Prayers are said at public events, around dinner tables, and at all manner of life cycle events. And yet, prayer is also simultaneously one of the least understood spiritual practices. To many, it can feel mechanical, scripted, inauthentic, or unfocused.

Addressing the gap that can emerge between prescribed and habitual prayer, and authentic, experiential prayer is therefore essential.

To do so, one must first ask: What is prayer?

The English word prayer comes from the Old French preiere—“obtained by entreaty.” Prayer is thus most commonly associated with asking for the fulfillment of our needs.

The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, however, has a multitude of meanings and associations, each contributing to the rich tapestry of prayer’s spiritual significance. Whether we seek to reach out to something greater than ourselves or reclaim our essential self, prayer, as understood and practiced in Judaism, is one of the most potent paths of spiritual development.

On the most essential level, tefillah means bonding and connection.1 For instance, in the Mishnah we find that the etymological root t-f-l means to attach or bind together.2 Tefillah is therefore not a transactional exchange but an expression of intimacy.

Whereas asking for what we need is a humbling experience that highlights the great divide between petitioner and provider, tefillah is a declaration of love and an expression of spiritual longing.

Its intended outcome is the development of an authentic emotional attachment to G‑d. This occurs through the inner cultivation of a sense of nearness during tefillah that dissolves the psychic “space” that separates one from G‑d.

This inner process of softening and opening the heart pertains to another translation of the word tefillah, to struggle. In Genesis, the Torah tells of a rivalry between Rachel and Leah to bear Jacob’s children. When Rachel’s handmaid gave birth to Jacob’s child for the second time, Rachel said:3 A fateful struggle [naftulei] I waged [niftalti] with my sister… So she named him Naphtali.

The dynamic of “struggle” is an essential—and potentially productive—part of all relationships.

Since we are naturally self-centered beings, in order to engage in a meaningful relationship with another, we each need to work to diminish our natural self-orientation and sense of self-entitlement.

Tefillah is the opportunity to step out of ourselves and our self-absorption and into the awareness and service of our most significant other—G‑d. This is the struggle of love.

In any real relationship, a natural dissonance of views and experience exists between the two parties. In the case of the Divine, this perspectival distance is even greater. In G‑d’s view, we were created to fulfill a Divine mission, whereas, from the human perspective, we are naturally inclined to live life solely for our own benefit and pleasure.

Tefillah is the time we take each day to realign our perspective with that of the Divine—to see the world through G‑d’s eyes. In that timeless moment of union with the Infinite One, we shift from being profit-minded to prophet-minded. In prayer, we attune ourselves to the still, small voice4 of the Divine, which reminds us that life is so much more than a laundry list of demands and desires, and that we are each here on a sacred mission to better our world.


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