Prayer and Sacrifice


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Talmud Brachos 26b records a dispute between Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Joshua. Rabbi Yossi claimed that our prayers today (Shmoneh Essray) were established based on the prayers of our three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rabbi Joshua claims that prayer was established based on sacrifice. Each Rabbi explained his reasoning: Rabbi Yossi cited three verses:


“Abraham established morning prayers, as it says, ‘And Abraham arose in the morning to the place where he stood’, and ‘standing’ refers only to the act of prayer. Isaac established afternoon prayers as it says, ‘And Isaac went out to converse in the filed, at evening’, and ‘speaking’ refers only to prayer. Jacob established evening prayer, as it says, ‘And he reached the place, and he slept there’, and ‘reaching’ only refers to prayer.


It was also taught in accordance with Rabbi Joshua; ‘for what reason is the Morning Prayer said only until midday? It is because the morning sacrifice was offered only until then. For what reason is the afternoon prayer said only until evening? It is because the afternoon sacrifice was brought only until the evening. Why does the evening prayer have no limit? It is because the (sacrificial) limbs were brought throughout the entire night.”


We must understand what these two rabbis were disputing. On the surface, it appears obvious that we pray based on the identical activity performed by the forefathers. Is it not a stretch according to Rabbi Joshua, to suggest that one activity, prayer, is derived from a completely different activity, from sacrifice? Our forefathers offered sacrifice in addition to praying. Is Rabbi Joshua saying that our act of prayer today, is not a repetition of our forefather’s prayers? Is this truly what Rabbi Joshua holds, that were it not for sacrifice, we would not pray, as our forefathers?


There are a few other questions that occurred to me as I pondered this Talmudic section. I wish you to also have the opportunity to detect additional issues, so pause here. Think about the quotes above, or better yet, study this page in the Talmud itself. See what questions arise in your mind, and then continue. To advance in learning, simply reading what someone else writes eliminates your act of analysis, and removes another opportunity to train your mind.


I will now continue with my questions.


1) Why did Abraham not establish all three prayers? Why did he - apparently - pray just once each day, in the morning? And do we say that Jacob most certainly observed his father and grandfather, praying all three prayers…or, did Jacob pray only once, i.e., the nighttime prayer, which he instituted? In this case, why would he omit what his father and grandfather instituted?

2) What is significant about the fact that each of our forefathers established a new, succeeding prayer? May we derive anything from the opening words in our prayer, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob”?

3) How does Rabbi Joshua claim that prayer is modeled after sacrifice, when he knew Jewish history quite well, and he knew these verses quoted above teaching of the prayer of the patriarchs?

4) Furthermore, what may we derive from each of the verses above in connection with each patriarch’s blessing? Are three, distinct ideas in prayer being conveyed in each of these verses?

5) And why did the forefathers stop at three blessings a day? Why no more than three: simply because there were only three forefathers? That seems quite arbitrary.

6) Why did our forefathers both pray, and sacrifice? What does each not accomplish, in that the other is required as an additional and essential act of perfection?


Sacrifice Defined

To commence, we must first define our terms: sacrifice and prayer. We learn that the very first sacrifice was Adam’s, offered immediately upon his creation. Thereby Adam taught that our existence – Creation – demands recognition of the Creator. And this recognition is in terms of our “life”. Meaning, we recognize that our very lives are due to God. We therefore sacrifice “life”, so as to underline this sentiment. Such an act of kindness by God, to create us, demands not simply an intellectual acknowledgement, but real action. Activity is the barometer through which man’s convictions and perfection are measured. This is our nature, to act out what we are convinced of. And if one does not act, then he displays a lack of conviction in whatever the matter is which he refrains from performing. If Adam had not sacrificed, he would have displayed a disregard for his very life. If man does not recognize the good bestowed upon him by another, then he lacks a true recognition of that good, or, he has a sever character flaw where he does not show his thanks to that other person.



Prayer Defined

What is prayer? This is the act of praising God for His works, His kindness, His marvels and wisdom, and all the good we see emanating from His will. A major theme of this praise is that act of beseeching Him alone for our needs. For as we recognize and praise Him as the sole source of everything, it follows that it is to Him alone that we make requests, and before Whom we judge ourselves and arrive at what we need.


We may then state that sacrifice is offered to recognize that our very “existence” is due to God, whereas prayer addresses what comes subsequent to our existence, i.e., our “continued life”, as we approach God to praise Him, having acknowledged His magnificence. And we continue to reach out to Him for the assistance, which only He can provide. Sacrifice recognizes God’s creation of our very beings, and prayer is our initiation of a continued relationship subsequent to our creation.


According to Rabbi Yossi, we pray today as the forefathers had shown this act to be a perfection. Rabbi Joshua does not deny history. He too acknowledges the forefathers’ prayers. But he says our prayer today also borrows from sacrifice. In truth, there is no argument: Rabbi Joshua states that our “timeframe” for prayer is derived from sacrifices in the Temple. He does not suggest that prayer is originated in sacrifice. Prayer is taken from prayer, of the patriarchs. These two Rabbis are addressing two separate points in prayer: Rabbi Yossi says prayer is “derived” from the prayer of the forefathers, while Rabbi Joshua only addresses prayer’s “timeframe” as restricted to the same parameters as were the Temple’s sacrifices.



Combining Sacrifice with Prayer

We must now ask why Rabbi Joshua felt sacrifice had to be incorporated into our performance of prayer. Why must our prayers embody the timeframe of Temple sacrifice, according to Rabbi Joshua? We are forced to say that prayer and sacrifice have a common quality. Otherwise, it makes no sense to mix two separate actions. This quality is man’s “approach to God.” In these two actions alone, man is either offering something “before God”, or man is “addressing God”. A dialogue of sorts exists also in sacrifice. Prayer is not the only action possessing a “verbal” character. My friend Rabbi Howard Burstein reminded me of the verse in Hosea (14:3), “…and we shall repay sacrifices [with] our lips.” This means that sacrifice is somewhat replaced by verbal prayers. There is a relationship. Perhaps the Men of the Great Assembly who made this institution desired that as Temple sacrifice was no longer, and since sacrifice is essential to man’s existence, that we should have some representation of sacrifice. Thus, the timeframe of the sacrifices now guides our prayers. This translates as prayer having sacrifice as its “guide”. Prayer is to be guided towards the objective of sacrifice: recognition of God as our Creator. While it is true that we have needs, and prayer addresses them, these needs serve a higher goal: to enable us the life where we may remove our attention from needs, and ponder God and His works. The greatest mitzvah – command – is Torah study. The greatest objective in our lives is to be involved in recognizing new truths. Thus, Rabbi Joshua wished that prayer be not bereft of this ultimate objective. Let us now return to our questions.



The Patriarchs

Why did Abraham not establish all three prayers? Perhaps Abraham’s perfection included his idea that prayer, as an institution, should form part of man’s day. This is achieved with a single, daily prayer. Abraham made prayer the first part of his day, the morning, as it states, “And Abraham arose in the morning to the place where he stood”. This verse teaches that prayer was on his mind as soon as he awoke. Perhaps, it even teaches that Abraham’s purpose in awaking was to come close to God, as is expressed with prayer.


Isaac and Jacob were also unique individuals in their own rights. They did not simply follow the God of Abraham because they were taught to do so, but because they both arrived that the truth of God’s existence and reign independent of Abraham. This is what the Rabbis mean with their formulation: “The God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.” The Rabbis could have simply written in our opening prayer, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” But they did not, to display that God was the God of “each” of the patriarchs: each patriarch made God his God through their own efforts in their study of reality, and finally realized with their own minds that God is God. And as they came to this realization independently, each one used this independent thought to arrive at new truths. Thus, Isaac saw that afternoon time deserved a prayer, and Jacob saw something about nighttime, which too deserved prayer.


I would suggest that there are in fact only three parts of the day to which man relates: its beginning, its end, and the psychological phenomenon experienced as the day ebbs away into night. Abraham instituted the Morning Prayer, teaching that man’s first thoughts should be those about God. Jacob prayed at night, teaching that again, the last thing on our minds is God. Both Abraham and Jacob demonstrated the central focus God had in their lives, as the first and last things on our minds are representative of what matters to us most. Why did Isaac pray towards the evening? Perhaps this indicates another phenomena in our psyches. As we turn from our daily activities, we remove our thoughts from the day’s sufficient accomplishments. But when we remove our thoughts from one area, to where do we redirect them: to another involvement, or to God? Perhaps Isaac’s afternoon prayer teaches that whenever man removes his energies from an area, if he turns back to God, he is living properly. But if he turns from one involvement to another, this means God is not in the back of his mind throughout the day. For Isaac to have prayed in the afternoon, we learn that when he removed his energies form herding for example, his energies went right back to pondering God. There are, therefore, only three main prayers, as there are only three relationships to reality: when men reenters waking life in the morning, when he leaves it just prior to sleep, and when during waking life, man’s thoughts turn from one area to another. If man is cognizant of God in all three phases of the day, then man has achieved certain perfection.


I cannot answer why Abraham or any of the patriarchs did not pray at all three intervals. It may simply be that Abraham did not see the idea that Jacob saw, and therefore did not pray at evening. No one man sees all of God’s knowledge. However, as Rabbi Reuven Mann stated, we learn from Maimonides Laws of Kings 1:1, that each succeeding patriarch added to the previous one. Therefore, Isaac prayed twice, and Jacob did in fact pray three times.


We end up with a deep appreciation for the structure of the Talmud. Through patient and an unabashed analysis, we may be fortunate to uncover new ideas in Talmudic thought, Jewish law, Scripture, and Torah philosophy. It is not a study to be sped through with the goal of amassing facts, but of realizing new truths, however few they may be. As Rava said, “The reward [objective] of study is the concepts”. Rashi says on this, “One should weary, labor, think, and understand the reasons for a matter.” (Talmud Brachos 6b)