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The Obligation of Tefilla

by Rabbi Dovid Bendory, 8 Tevet 5766 (January 2006)

It is a mitzvah d'oraisa1 to pray daily, as it is written, "And you shall worship Hashem your G-d." This "worship" is prayer, as it is written, "and worship Him with all your heart." The obligation is that a person must pray every day. First he must praise Hashem, and then he asks for his own needs, and then he gives further praise and thanks to Hashem for all His goodness. Each must pray according to his koach.2

Rambam, Hilchos Tefilla, 1:1-2

As a Torah Jew I praise Hashem throughout my day. Diligently I go to shul,3 make brachos,4 and daven.5 It can be both energizing and taxing, exhausting and inspiring. It can be emotional or empty. But it must always be.

When davening5 is inspiring I can't pray enough. I add all the extras: l'shem yichud,6 yehi ratzon,7 even my own prayers. There is always another pasuk8, a segulah9, a kabalistic incantation from the Arizal10. There is always something extra to pray for, to be thankful for.

Except for the times when there isn't. The times when I pray but don't know if Hashem is listening. I pray and am not transformed by the experience. I pray and, worst of all, I find myself alone or alone within the kahal.11 Hashem has hidden His Face12 and I cannot find Him. Empty words pour out only to remain empty. Brochos4 become a ritual mumbled before eating, the shmoneh esrei13 a dreamy stream of consciousness.

And then I get angry — angry that I have lost focus, angry that I'm not holding at the madreiga14 I thought I was, angry that Hashem has set such lofty standards for us, such difficult standards to hold to. He makes demands on my time and on my emotional energy, on my focus and concentration, on my neshoma.15 I try to use the anger as a source of inspiration, to let it drive kavana16 back into my tefilla.17

But ultimately I can't force myself to daven.5 Thanks must be genuine, requests real. Praise has to flow from within. It all comes back to praise, praise for Hashem. Regularity and praise; regular praise.

As a married man, I have a commitment to compliment my wife once a day. She needs to be complimented, though probably not quite so often. But I do it anyway because even if she doesn't need it, I do. Perhaps my compliments are tucked away somewhere for a later day, a day when I forget. I make no pretense of chiddush18 in my compliments. That, on a daily basis, would make my wife (or me) superhuman. I offer quite ordinary compliments, regular compliments. "Thank you for dinner, it was delicious." "I always like that skirt." "You look great."

The regularity of this once-daily praise has become an ingrained pattern for our relationship, a pattern that we can fall back on in more stressful times. These expressions of respect have become a part of us and our relationship; in the inevitable ups and downs of marriage, they are a part of what helps us find each other again.

There are days when it is difficult to find the place from where I can offer a compliment. But if G-d requires my praise three times daily, then my wife? All the more so! And so I center myself in the strength that develops out of the regularity of daily praise. Regular praise; ritualized praise.

And then I find myself focusing in the amidah13 again or closing my eyes to concentrate before making a brocha.4 I grant my wife spontaneous praise once daily; Hashem only asks that I follow the siddur.19

Indeed, all Hashem asks is that we use the siddur.19

And that we mean it.


  1. Mitzvah d'oraisa -- a Torah commandment.
  2. Koach -- literally power. Here it refers to one's spiritual potential.
  3. Shul -- yiddish for synagogue.
  4. Brachos, brocha -- a blessing.
  5. Daven, davening -- yiddish -- pray, praying, prayer.
  6. L'shem yichud -- literally, "for the unification of Hashem's name." These are brief mystical statements of intent that are available to be said prior to performing a mitzvah. They are generally skipped by most non-chasidic Jews.
  7. Yehi razton -- literally, "May it be Hashem's Will;" another from of short prayer, many of which are generally skipped.
  8. Pasuk -- verse.
  9. Segulah -- a prayer for protection.
  10. Arizal -- "the Lion, may his memory be for a blessing." The Arizal was one of the great mystics of 16th Century Tzefat.
  11. Kahal -- the community.
  12. See Deuteronomy 31:18
  13. Shmoneh Esrei -- literally, "The 18 Blessings." Amidah -- literally, "The Standing Prayer." This is the highest of all of our prayers. It consists of eighteen (really 7, 9, 19, or 20) blessings that are recited silently while standing.
  14. Madreiga -- stage or level.
  15. Neshoma -- soul.
  16. Kavana -- spiritual focus.
  17. Tefilla -- prayer.
  18. Chiddush -- innovation or creativity.
  19. Siddur -- the prayerbook.

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