We recently studied the following passage (Brachos12b):
“And Rabba bar Hinnana Sava said in the name of Rav: Anyone who can ask (kol she’efshar) for mercy on the behalf of another and does not ask is called a sinner…”
I have studied this passage many times over the years, but this year, for the first time, I was struck by the language “Anyone who can ask…” I found myself asking, “Is there anyone who cannot ask for mercy on behalf of another?” Can’t we all ask the Almighty for anything at any time in any language, using any choice of words? Do we not believe that we can all call upon the Almighty and that He is present to us whenever we call upon Him?
One of my mentors was Rav Yitzchok Sternhell, zt”l, the Rabbi of the shtiebel I would frequent in my early days in Baltimore. He taught us that if we asked a question and could not find that question in an earlier source, it probably was not a good question. “There is nothing new under the sun,” he would say, and he did not permit us to convince ourselves that we were erudite enough to ask original questions.
After a brief search, I discovered that the question has indeed been asked before. I refer you to the commentary Iyun Yaakov on Ein Yaakov for one approach.
Another approach is offered by HaRav Avraham Yitzchok HaCohen Kook, zt”l, whose yahrzeit coincides with the day that I write these words, 3 Elul. Rav Kook wonders, “How can we speak of efshar and lo efshar when it comes to prayer?” Is it possible for a person to be in such circumstances that he is unable to pray?
Rav Kook begins by referring to the opinion of the Maharil, who rules that one cannot pray for a sick person if that sick person is far away. In the Maharil’s time it was impossible to know the condition of the sick person if he was far away. Since the patient may no longer need the prayers, having been healed or having died, the prayer would be considered a prayer in vain, a tefilas shav.
Thus, it is not efshar to pray if one is ignorant of the condition of the sick person. Rav Kook notes that the Nachalas Shiva disagrees with the Maharil.
Rav Kook then embarks upon a discussion of the concept of chidush davar, of introducing a new element into a voluntary prayer. We will encounter this concept later in our study of this maseches, and the Bais Yosef elaborates upon it at length in siman 107 of Orach Chaim. In the Shulchan Aruch, the Mechaber concludes this siman with the following beautiful statement:
“One who wishes to pray a voluntary prayer (tefilas nedava) must be confident that he is enthusiastic and scrupulous, and must be able to judge himself able to fully concentrate upon his prayer from beginning to end. But he if he cannot concentrate perfectly we apply to him the verse ‘Why do I need your superfluous offerings?’ ”
Rav Kook suggests that this level of spiritual focus is a prerequisite for all forms of prayer. Therefore, most of us would probably be in the category of lo efshar, of persons who are not able; that is, not spiritually capable of praying for another. Hence, our failure to pray for another would not be reprehensible.
Rav Kook concludes his comment, which can be found in the anthology of his writings on the Talmud known as Tov Ro’i, with this suggestion:
“It is quite possible that it is a matter of acquiring the efsharus; i.e., achieving the ability, to beg for mercy for another person.”
Those of us who had the privilege to hear lectures by HaRav Soloveitchik are familiar with his statement that it is a chutzpa, an act of brazenness, to approach God in prayer without a matir, a previous spiritual process through which one gains permission to pray. Without that matir, it is in fact not efshar to call upon the Almighty, even for the healing of another human being.