The Essential Structure of Tefilla

Tefilla – Moments of Deep Connection vs. Constant Messages to Ourselves

Have you ever seen a person truly immersed in Tefilla? Take a moment and recall the times you have. What did you see? Were they crying or pouring their souls out? Were their eyes closed and hands outstretched or simply standing tall in a state of complete balance? Have you yourself had a moment you can recall when you turned to Tefilla? Was it during a formal Tefilla session in school or synagogue, or when you were in a dire situation in your life (such as the Ramban claims is Tefilla’s origin)?

People of all ages turn to Tefilla in time of personal need, communal or national crisis, or expressing their deepest emotions in times of transition. Regardless of the results of one’s Tefilla (And because those are Divine calculations, beyond the grasp of the human mind), those times in our lives where we experience true, direct connection through Tefilla are powerful and have a lasting impression. But what about the mundane? What is the role of Tefilla in our day-to-day routine?

Rambam vs. Ramban: Structure vs. Spontaneous Design

When we examine the Torah’s origin (De’oraita/Biblical) of the obligation to recite Tefilla, there is an intriguing machloket between the Ramban (Nachmonodies) and Rambam (Maimonides). According to the Ramban, there is no true Biblical obligation to recite Tefilla regularly, only at a “time of dire straits” (עת צרה). Tefilla is a cry out to God when we are in our deepest despair, whether it be objective or subjective. One has an obligation to turn to God when they are in life danger or if they feel in a compromised state, such as extreme financial hardship, etc. Other than that, the Torah has no requirement of Tefilla. Tefilla is by design spontaneous. The Rambam argues that there is a Biblical obligation to recite Tefilla at least once a day (men and women), regardless of one’s well being. Tefilla is an essential part of every day by the Torah’s original design of the mitzvot. Tefilla is by design structured.

The Halachic consensus in the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 106:1) is to side with the Rambam, that Tefilla is, in fact, a structured Biblical obligation for both men and women at least once daily. At this point, before exploring the current model of Tefilla, we have established that Tefilla is structured by design according to the Halachic consensus. What is the true benefit of creating a structured model for Tefilla and not a spontaneous one?

Rabbinic Design – Three Times a Day

According to both opinions above, one is required Rabbinically to recite Tefilla (at least) three times daily.

There was a reason that the Rabbinical establishment endorsed Tefilla as a consistent requirement of everyday life. There are a few historical and spiritual references to saying Tefilla three times a day. One reference is the Tefillot said by our Avot. Each Tefilla is attributed to the Avot in a chronological order – Avraham (shacharit), Itzchak (mincha) and Ya’akov (ma’ariv) and there are explicit sources in Bereishit referring to each Av’s Tefilla. The second reference is the daily cycle of the korbanot (sacrifices). At dawn the Kohen would sacrifice the korban tamid (shacharit), and another in the late evening before dusk (mincha). In the evening the Kohen would burn the remaining limbs and organs of the animals throughout the night (ma’ariv). Despite those solid references – the fact remains that Torah’s obligation of saying Tefilla is either spontaneously in times of danger, or at most once daily. It was much later, during the Tannaic period, that Tefilla became a regular staple in everyday Jewish life. What was the purpose for Chazal to establish Tefilla as a fixed daily ritual?

The brilliance of Chazal was creating a series of messages throughout the day that help ground oneself, focus on one’s values and spiritual priorities and create a platform for self growth within our mundane schedule. Tefilla is more than an opportunity to cry out and express our deepest emotions in times of extreme sadness or joy. Even Biblically Tefilla is structured into our daily routine and is not reserved for when we are in dire straits. Our Rabbis understood that when the Torah describes the Tefillot of Avraham, Itzchak and Ya’akov it was not a one time occurance, rather a glimpse into their daily routines. The more concrete example of the structure of Tefilla is the sacrifices – the korban tamid, literally meaning the “everlasting offering”, was offered every morning and every evening, 365 days a year (or more during a Jewish leap year).  The korban tamid, offered by the Kohen every day of the year at the same time each day, is the symbol of consistency in Judaism. And as the Talmud teaches us, the obligation to recite Tefilla comes in place of the sacrifices, the epitome of consistency and routine in Judaism.

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