Rabbi Mayer Twersky
Rabbi Mayer Twersky

The Heart of Prayer


These are days of intensive tefillah for Klal Yisrael. Perhaps bs"d these reflections can help us in our davening.


Rambam enumerates two distinct mitzvos of tefillah - daily, and, Rachmana litzlan, in times of trouble. In the latter case trumpets accompany prayer.

מצות עשה להתפלל בכל יום...חיוב מצוה זו כך הוא שיהא אדם מתחנן ומתפלל בכל יום
It is a positive commandment to thoughtfully pray daily...the obligation engendered by this commandment is to thoughtfully pray and supplicate daily.[1]
מצות עשה מן התורה לזעוק ולהריע בחצוצרות על כל צרה שתבא על הצבור
It is a positive commandment to cry out and sound the trumpets when any trouble besets the community.[2]

Note the change in verbs. The daily mitzvah is le-hispalel u-le-hischanen, to thoughtfully pray[3] and supplicate[4]. The mitzvah at times of trouble, R"l, is lizok, to cry out in anguish. Rambam delineates different modalities of prayer. Daily tefillah entails focusing our thoughts upon and humbly petitioning HKBH. Times of trouble, R"l, however, call for existentially charged prayer. An anguished cry for help from the depths of our being (ze'akah) reflects a sense of vital and urgent need.

The current heart-wrenching situation in Eretz Yisrael, with mounting casualties and ongoing danger, warrants ze'akah.


הנכנס לכרך מתפלל שתים, אחת בכניסתו ואחת ביציאתו; בן עזאי אומר: ארבע, שתים בכניסתו ושתים ביציאתו, נותן הודאה על שעבר וצועק על העתיד.
[A traveler] who enters a roguish city davens two prayers, one upon entering and one upon leaving. Ben Azai says [he davens] four prayers, two upon entering and two upon leaving. He gives thanks for the past, and cries out for the future.[5]

According to the Tanna Kama, having entered a roguish municipality, the traveler prays for protection. Having safely departed, he thanks HKBH. Ben Azai, however, requires that upon entering the traveler also give thanks that he entered safely. And upon safely departing the city, he must also pray to arrive home safely. The halacha follows Ben Azai.

The crux of Ben Azai's position is the mutualism of bakasha and hodaah, future and past, within prayer.[6] If we thank HKBH for past blessings without asking for the future, it is as if, R"l, moving forward, we feel self sufficient. Hodaah necessitates bakasha. But bakasha also necessitates hodaah. It is presumptuous to ask for future blessings without thanking for those of the past.

We are beseeching HKBH to miraculously protect our soldiers and civilian population. But we also have to thank Him for all the past miraculous protection - most immediately, these past three weeks. More broadly, we need to be cognizant and profoundly grateful for the miracles of the past sixty six years, and, indeed, throughout our history.


אבל צבור כל זמן שעושים תשובה וצועקין בלב שלם הם נענין
Whenever the community repents and cries out with a complete "lev" they are answered[7]

The guarantee of our tefillah being answered is extraordinary. But the guarantee hinges upon our davening b'lev shalem. Generally we translate b'lev shalem as wholeheartedly. But that conventional translation is inadequate.

Lev has multiple meanings - heart, thought, opinion, will and mind. This last meaning is most significant in context of prayer.[8] Speaking of kavana, the essence of tefillah, Rambam clearly uses lev to denote mind.

כוונת הלב כיצד...כיצד היא הכוונה שיפנה את לבו מכל המחשבות
What is to be understood as concentration of the "lev"? He should empty his "lev" of all thoughts.[9]
אין עומדין להתפלל ...מתוך דין הלכה אף על פי שהם דברי תורה כדי שלא יהא לבו טרוד בהלכה
One should not stand up to pray...after studying a complex law; even though he was [engaged in studying] Torah, so that his "lev" will not be preoccupied.[10]

In both of these passages lev clearly denotes mind. In fact, Rambam interprets the core definition of Tefillah- avoda she'balev – to mean service of HKBH accomplished primarily through the mind, by focusing one's thoughts on Him.[11]

Thus tzoakin b'lev shalem translates, they cry out wholemindedly, i.e., they pray with complete focus and unadulterated concentration.


The conventional translation, wholeheartedly, however, is also correct. As mentioned, lev also denotes will. The phrase b'lev shalem arguably is a double entendre. It means with complete mind (i.e., focus). But is also means with complete will. Davening with complete will means davening with a profound feeling of need. Even if the adverbial phrase b'lev shalem does not express this idea, the verb tzo'a'kin (similar to zo'a'kin) does.

Thus Rambam stipulates that we daven wholemindedly and wholeheartedly.


There is yet a third and crucial element to b'lev shalem. In truth, it is a sine qua non for wholemindedness and wholeheartedness. We have to believe with firm conviction that HKBH can, and potentially will, answer our tefillos.

By way of explanation, consider the following analogy. A person is in dire straits. He needs a million dollar loan. He is advised to approach a certain kind, wealthy individual. Desperate for the loan, he does so. Focusing carefully on each word, he appeals to the philanthropist. In his heart of hearts, however, he thinks that the philanthropist will never advance so much money to an individual.

On one level, he appealed b'lev shalem. But, on another level, he was neither wholeminded nor wholehearted. He was not entirely serious about his request because he did not believe that the philanthropist would fully respond.

The analogue: to daven b'lev shalem, we have to steadfastly believe that HKBH can, and potentially will, fully fulfill our requests.


In the current war context, what can we request b'lev shalem? Are any requests too presumptuous, ambitious or unrealistic to expect HKBH to fully, affirmatively respond? Our only constraint is natural law. Although HKBH obviously can and does suspend natural law as He wishes, it represents retzon Hashem. As such we cannot pray for its suspension.[12] Thus, by way of illustration, we cannot pray for miracles akin to the ten plagues.

Being spared any further casualties, both military and civilian, would certainly be very miraculous. But it does not involve suspension of natural law. And thus b'lev shalem we pray that complete and decisive victory come quickly to the IDF. We pray that every soldier, barring none, return home safely. And we pray that all civilians, barring none, remain safe.

יה"ר שימלאו משאלות לבנו לטובה

[1] רמב"ם הל' תפילה א:א-ב

[2] שם תעניות א:א

[3] כן נראה לתרגם לפי רבינו. ע' מורה נבוכים ג:נ"א, תרגום אונקלוס בראשית מ"ח:א

[4] כן נראה לתרגם. ע' דברי חז"ל שהובאו ברש"י דברים ג:כ"ג

[5] מתני' ברכות נ"ד.

[6] I have seen at least part of this idea, but I do not recall the source

[7] רמב"ם הל' תשובה ב:ו

[8] שם מורה נבוכים א:ל"ט, רמב"ן בראשית כ"ז:מ"א

[9] שם תפילה ד:ט"ו-ז

[10] שם ד: י"ח

[11] הבנה זו בוקעת ועולה מתוך דברי רבינו. עי' במיוחד מורה נבוכים ג:ל"ב,נ"א

[12] עי' כף החיים סימן ר"ל סעי' א', שנות אליהו למתני' ברכות נ"ד, עינים למשפט ברכות ס. [שני מקורות האחרונים ציינו בהערה לתרגום החדש של פיה"מ להרמב"ם, פרק הרואה, הוצאת מכון המאור] According to one of the approaches suggested by the Bechor Shor, for the sake of the community, one can daven for a miracle which suspends natural law. See also Praying for a Miracle by Rav Schachter shlit"a, TorahWeb.org 1999.

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