A Taste of Torah in Honor of Shabbat
by Rabbi Avi Weiss
June 12 1998, Sivan 18, 5758
Basing himself on the biblical verse "and you shall serve the Lord your God"
(Exodus 23:25) Rambam (Maimonides) argues that one is biblically obligated to
pray once a day.
Rambam's rationale may be that prayer is fundamentally a function of praising God, wherein
the limited and finite person acknowledges the gifts of life bestowed upon him/her by the
unlimited and infinite source of all creation.
Its mode is intellectual, and its motif makes it incumbent to exress gratitude to God
Nachmanides, (Ramban) differs. For Ramban, the biblical source for prayer is a verse found
in this week's portion, "And when you go to war in your land against the adversary
that oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets: and you shall be
remembered before the Lord your God, and you shall be saved before your enemies."
Here Ramban states: "It is a mitzvah to plead fervently with God through prayer and
teru'ah (shofar blasts) whenever the community is faced with great distress...for it is a
mitzvah to affirm in moments of distress our belief
that the Holy One listens to prayers and intervenes to grant aid." (Ramban's
commentary to Rambam's Book of Commandments, positive commandment 5.)
In Ramban's view, biblical prayer is petitional and is offered in times of distress.
It is essentially a supplicatory cry, wherein the finite and frightened human being
seeks out God's help in his hour of need. There is, according to Ramban, no biblical
obligation to pray every day, as one may not feel compelled to petition God every day.
Rather one approaches God, using one's own format, only when personally motivated
to do so. Prayer, for Ramban, is a function of rahamim in which one asks God to be
merciful and supportive during moments of concern and necessity.
In time, the rabbis instituted prayer thrice daily. Still, Rambam and Ramban seem to
approach prayer differently. Maimonidean prayer (Rambam) is essentially the praising
of God; Nachmanidean (Ramban) is essentially petitioning God. In the end, both views
stand in the spirit of "eilu va-'eilu divrei Elohim hayyim, these and these are
the words of the living God."
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