Man Praying for Man


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Jessie: The Mishna in Talmud Brachos 34b states the following:


“If one erred in his prayers (Shemoneh Esreh) it is a bad sign for him. If the leader (Shali’ach Tzibur) erred in his Shemoneh Esreh, it is a bad sign for the congregation, for a person’s agent (Shali’ach) is like himself. R. Chanina Ben Dosa used to pray for sick people; he would say which would live and which would not. His students inquired, “How do you know who will live?” R. Chanina responded, “If my prayer flows smoothly, I know that it is accepted; if not, I know that it is not accepted.”

The Talmud cites a case (Beraisa):

“A case occurred, R. Gamliel’s son fell sick; he sent two wise men to R. Chanina Ben Dosa to ask him to pray for him. When R. Chanina saw them coming, he went to the upper story and prayed; he came down and told them that the fever had abated. The wise men asked, “Are you a prophet?” R. Chanina responded, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet; I have a tradition, if my prayer flows smoothly, it was accepted; if not, not. The wise men wrote down what time it was; they returned to R. Gamliel, who said that this was exactly when the fever abated.”


I assume this section of Talmud is recorded, so as to teach some lesson regarding prayer. What do we learn about prayer from the parallel between Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa’s prayer and the health of those for whom he prayed? It does not seem to be referring to a ‘causal’ relationship, i.e., if I have proper intent and state of mind in prayer, this intent (kavanna) “causes” me to be answered.

Thank you, Jess



Mesora: Jessie, we must first clarify a few statements, and then place this section of Talmud in the context of the Talmud’s subsequent elucidation. We must examine the many cases where prayer effectuated change, and also did not. Only then, may we arrive at a system of rules regarding God’s justice. A rule cannot be assessed based in one or few cases. Regarding how one’s intent might alter God’s response, we learned that both Eliyahu and Elisha lay upon the unconscious children to focus their prayers. Isaac too prayed “facing” his barren wife Rebecca for the same reason. Therefore, kavanna (intent) certainly plays a role. This is stated in the portion you quoted: the Talmud’s first question was, “In which prayer is poor enunciation a sign that one’s prayer was not accepted? In the first blessing of Avos.” Rashi comments that this error in speech displays that from the outset (Avos is the first prayer) the person does not desire to pray. And if this is so, God will not respond. The person s not convinced of the effectiveness of prayer, and this why it is a burden to him. As such, he lacks the proper attention to his words and errs in his speech. The Talmud also says elsewhere that “One who makes his prayers a burden (he rushes), it is not supplication before God.” And if a quorum promotes someone to lead, and this person errs in his prayers, why is this a bad sign for the quorum? Perhaps, since the quorum selected this person, it reflects poorly on them, as this Talmudic portion says, “A messenger is akin to those who sent him.” This means that one selects as a messenger whom he values. Thus, those who select a poor messenger share his flaws, as their estimation of the messenger is based on their own values.

Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa’s prayers were of a great level, as Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and the Talmud itself attest to later in this section. When the latter’s son fell ill, he asked Rabbi Chanina to pray for him, and he was healed. His reasoning was that Rabbi Chanina might approach God more readily and more favorably than he.

The greatest prophets, such as Eliyahu and Elisha did not revive man: they prayed to God, and God alone healed the sick children. The Torah teaches God’s perfect justice, “Each man in his own sin will be killed.” This general rule means that “my” actions and views are what cause my fate, and what another person does or says does not affect my perfection or corruption. My merits and flaws cannot be affected at all by another, without his educating me. This is just, but there are mitigating factors outside the realm of my personal merit, where God might yet alter my fate for good, such as the cases where great individuals prayed on behalf of others and altered their fate. The Talmud states in connection with the prayers of the righteous, that “God loves them”, that “they change God’s wrath to mercy”. (Yevamos, 64a) Hence, prayers for others can be effective.

God alters the condition of those prayed for, as their sickness was no longer needed. Why was it no longer needed? Perhaps through the awareness of the sickened state of those individuals, the great person praying for them will also help direct them to see their flaws, so they might repent. This is seen in the case of Eliyahu when the child fell ill, when his mother said, “My sins have been recalled”. Meaning, she viewed her son’s illness properly, as a means to awaken her to her sins. Perhaps this is why God responded favorably to Eliyahu. We might also suggest that God related to this woman, as she was on a high level: she gave of her miniscule sustenance to Eliyahu. This act of self-sacrifice earned her greater Divine providence, and perhaps the illness of her son was to increase her awareness, to elevate herself even further. “For those who God loves does He rebuke.” (Proverbs, 3:12)

Prayer is an institution where one may judge himself, and determine his flaws: if one’s prayer goes unanswered, he learns that his request is not in line with God’s will, or perhaps, he is not perfected enough that God will relate to him in this matter, although God hears all prayers of all peoples.

Moses prayed for his sister Miriam when she was smitten with leprosy, and God said she must remain in her state for seven days. One commentary suggests Miriam deserved a longer punitive measure, but it was shortened due to Moses’ prayer. Moses’ prayer for the Jews after the Golden Calf sin received an apparent stay of execution, as also occurred after the spies incited their rebellion.

Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa stated, “If my prayer is accepted, then I know the person will be healed.”  Did he conclude this the very first or second time he prayed, when his words flowed with no error, and the person recovered? No. He said that he has a “tradition”: meaning after many instances, he saw a repeating phenomenon; smoothly flowing prayers were followed by a positive response. And when his words did not exit his lips with ease, he witnessed a negative occurrence. We might also suggest that Rabbi Chanina would receive communication from God, in his prayer, in the form of either perfect or imperfect speech as an indication. Why did God desire Rabbi Chanina to obtain this knowledge? Perhaps to remove his further prayers, as in such a case, no remedy existed for the person. Or perhaps, God wished to inform Rabbi Chanina that the flaw of the person was quite severe. This might induce Rabbi Chanina to alert the ailing individual, to help their reflection and subsequent recovery. This idea requires further research, and I only suggest it as a possibility.

Additional cases of prayers include: Isaac’s prayer for Rebecca’s conception, and God’s positive response to Isaac, not Rebecca, granting them children (Gen. 25:21); Abraham’s prayer for Avimelech’s healing which was received (Gen. 20:17); Eliyahu’s and Elisha’s prayers for the “dead” children, who were both revived (Kings I, 17:21,22, Kings II, 4:33-35), and King David’s prayer for Batsheva’s son, who nonetheless died. Perhaps King David’s son was not healed and died, as the verse states, (paraphrased) “You sinned privately, but you will be punished publicly.” (Samuel II, 12:12) Perhaps something exists in some sins performed in private, where its punishment cannot be averted. Nonetheless, King David did not abandon hope, and fasted and prayed for his son. He attested to human ignorance of God’s justice, “…for who knows, God might show me mercy and revive the child.” (Samuel II, 12:22) This is an important lesson: man cannot know God’s thoughts, and therefore, he should never abandon hope of God’s mercy.

Some prayers meet with success, others do not. Wherein lies the distinction among these cases? Note that Radak did not hold that the child for whom Eliyahu prayed was actually dead. As proof for this theory, Radak cites the Targum who says that Eliyahu prayed that the child “not die”: he must have still been alive to suggest this.

Regarding the Spies’ Rebellion (Num. 14:10) Sforno says God’s words “I have forgiven as your words” mean that God never intended the Jews to be killed suddenly, rather, over a period of 40 years in the desert. It only appeared as forgiveness, in Moses’ estimation.

Regarding the Golden Calf, God told Moses, “And now, leave Me and My anger will consume them and I will destroy them and I will make you (Moses) into a great nation.” Immediately, Moses began to pray. Rashi states that until God said, “Leave Me”, Moses did not know that he should pray for the Jews. (Rashi, Exod. 32:10) That catches your attention. Moses did not know he should pray, until God hinted, with His words, “And now, leave Me, and My anger will burn in them, and I will destroy them and I will make from you a great nation.” Rashi says Moses now understood that God gave him an opening. The Jews’ salvation depended on Moses’ prayer. This is what God meant, “Leave Me, and I will destroy, but remain and pray, and I will not.” But this is not always the case. However, in this isolated instance, God informed Moses that he might salvage the nation by his merit. Perhaps this is true here, as all depended on Moses’ relationship with the people. However, it is essential to note that Moses, the greatest prophet, felt that in this case, prayer was inappropriate, until God advised him otherwise. Why did Moses feel prayer inappropriate in this case? Perhaps it was due to the sin being one of idolatry, the worst violation of God and Torah. I am not certain.

To elaborate on the Jews’ sin, they had miscalculated Moses’ scheduled 40th day of descent from Sinai. Upon the Jews’ flawed count, they said, “and the man Moses, we know not what happened to him.” They thought Moses died. They immediately created the Golden Calf, as they desperately required some tangible figure in which they would follow. Moses the “man”, they said, was gone. Of course he is a man! However, the verse records their word “man” to convey the human over-attachment forged by the Jews in the physical person of Moses. Perhaps, all relied on Moses: only Moses could address this flawed attachment, so the Jews could be spared. God therefore tells Moses, “Leave Me and I will destroy them.” Meaning, “If you remain and pray – reflecting – you may arrive at a solution, and the Jews need not be destroyed.” This was the sense of God’s words to Moses. God instructed Moses that this sin was generated from their strong attachment to Moses, the “man”. Herein lay the area that can be addressed, and Moses took this instruction and deployed his solution. Thus, the Jews were not destroyed. Perhaps this is why Moses broke the Tablets: to teach the Jews that just as they attached themselves to the “man” Moses, they would also do so with the Tablets. His act of breaking them “in front of their eyes” (Deut. 9:17) might have been a lesson to the Jews to break their attachment to physical objects, like Moses. Breaking one physical object “in front of their eyes” was meant to break their attachment to other objects, i.e., Moses the “man”. (As heard from a Rabbi)

One must note Ibn Ezra’s emphasis, “God was not consoled”. Meaning, God does not change His mind. For God’s omniscience rejects the possibility that a “new” consideration must now be entertained, in response to which, God would change His mind. Ibn Ezra states that the Torah speaks in the language of man. Therefore, “And God was consoled regarding the evil that he spoke to perform to His people” must be interpreted as no change in Him. As a matter of precision, note that the verse says God’s ‘intended’ punishment, something He merely “spoke to do” and not that He will “certainly do”. This implies a threat, and not an irreversible decree, if some recourse is not taken. However, God knew that Moses would respond as he did, as God knows all future events. God meant to suggest the gravity of the Jews’ sin, and not that He truly intended to destroy them at this point.


Answering the Questions

We understand that through prayer, one might reflect on his situation, learn a new insight or flaw, and act to correct the matter. In this same manner, one’s prayer for others may offer him greater knowledge, and with that knowledge, the person who prayed might educate the ill individual. The Talmud states, “One who is sick should consult with a wise individual”: this wise person can inform you of your failings, and you might correct yourself. (Baba Basra 116a)

It is clear: if God gave an illness to someone, it was intended to direct him to reflect. Either with his own knowledge, or someone else who imparts insights, the ailing person might learn his sin, repent, and deserve God’s healings. The Matriarchs were all barren, as “God desires the prayers of the righteous”. This means that God wished that the Matriarchs perfected themselves with regards to their relationships with their children, so as to raise them in line with God’s will, and not in their current views. God desires the Matriarchs to relate to children, as God deems proper, not as their predispositions might dictate. For this reason, Chana had no child until she prayed and dedicated him (Samuel) to Temple service. In prayer itself, Chana elevated her thinking, realized a new purpose for her child, and was heard. And when the Matriarchs perfected themselves, they too were given children. When Job perfected his flawed thinking concerning God’s justice, he too was given children, health, and wealth. Moses’ prayer was effective, as it raised his level to the point that he could address the Jews’ sin. But we must note: if someone stricken by God does not improve himself, what would be the justice in his release from his sickness? If it was in accord with justice that he receives his condition, and this justice is based on his flaw, then until the flaw is removed, the sickness should also remain. (This does not mean that every sickness is due to God’s will. For example, people may eat poorly and destroy their health independent of God’s actions.)

This same reasoning applies to a child, although not yet culpable for sins, is killed as punishment to the parent. This was the case regarding King David’s son from Batsheva. King David sinned with the death of Uriah, so his child from his union with Uriah’s “wife” met with death. God creates life, and does as He pleases with life…until one earns his or her own merit, demanding that justice enter the equation for the child who turned adult. But until obligated in Mitzva, a child has no claim to God, as he or she has no righteousness as of yet. Through death of an infant, the parent might reflect on some sin. King David’s prayers for his infant son did not save the child. But he prayed, and I repeat, “For who knows, perhaps God will show me mercy, and the infant will live.” (Samuel II, 12:22) King David thereby attested to our ignorance of God’s workings of justice, but his hope was not vanquished. “Even if the sword is at your neck, do not despair from God’s mercy.”

King David said further, after the child was dead, that there was no longer reason to mourn: “Can I return him to life?” Having mentioned this, we wonder at the acts of Eliyahu and Elisha, who according to the plain reading of the Prophets revived “dead” children. If they could revive the dead, why was King David convinced that his prayers could not? We might explain this in accordance with Radak’s view, as we mentioned: the child was not dead. Targum says, Eliyahu asked of God that the child “not die”. He was still alive, albeit in a minimal sense. There is no conflict between the story of King David’s son, and the prayers of Eliyahu. Additionally, if Eliyahu performed resurrection, what further significance exists in God’s resurrection of the dead in the future?



God might save a person if another person is negatively affected by his predicted demise, and prays for an alternative outcome: the effects it may have on another might mitigate God’s justice for one person. But as seen with King David, this is not always the case. God will also reverse His decree, of some remedy is at hand, as seen with Moses and the Golden Calf. We also learn this in God’s words to Abraham, that He would not destroy Sodom had ten righteous people been found. For through these ten, others might be influenced back towards a life of proper morality and justice. If someone perfects him/herself through prayer, a new result may be delivered. Chana’s prayer and oath to dedicate her son Samuel to Temple worship, and the Matriarch’s prayers teach this principle. And prayer might offer another party the knowledge to impart to the sick individual, so through his own increased knowledge, he will recover. King David taught us “for who knows” concerning God’s justice. Man has little understanding of the Creator.

As we see, there is a myriad of cases – each one diverse in elements from the next. Each case must be studied to learn why God responds one way or the other. With our understanding of God’s choice words in our Torah, we may be fortunate to unravel more of God’s justice. In His perfect words, lie the answers.