Pray as You Go

There is a well known Talmudic passage, prompted partly by events recorded in this week’s portion of Chayei Sarah, that asserts that ; Berachot 26b;

…תְּפִלּוֹת אָבוֹת תִּקְּנוּם

The three daily prayers were instituted by the Patriarchs. 

The Talmud then brings striking proof texts to substantiate this claim. Whilst they depict the occasions, it is curious that for all three, we never learn what they actually said. This becomes all the more intriguing  when encountering the staggering prayers that feature in the extensive account of Eliezer, Avraham’s PA, carrying out his mission to find a wife for Isaac. Even Lavan gets in on the act in an almost Shtisel like moment of declaring Baruch Hashem (24:31) to entice Eliezer to come in and feel at home. 

On seeing the fulfillment of his appeal outlining the criteria he seeks for the future wife of Isaac, Eliezer declares 24:12 an exquisite prayer of gratitude, evoking the “nusach”- the text of his earlier appeal ;

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בָּר֤וּךְ יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲ֠שֶׁ֠ר לֹֽא־עָזַ֥ב חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ מֵעִ֣ם אֲדֹנִ֑י אָנֹכִ֗י בַּדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ נָחַ֣נִי יְהֹוָ֔ה בֵּ֖ית אֲחֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי׃

and said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld His steadfast faithfulness from my master. For I have been guided on my errand by the LORD, to the house of my master’s kinsmen.”

Musically and thematically a striking resemblance to the opening of the Amida. Later in sharing his project and prayers with the family of Rebecca, Eliezer employs another phrase that for Ba’alei Tefila, Prayer leaders over the High Holy days will also strike a dramatic if not heart wrenching minor chord. He describes the events 24:42; 

וָאָבֹ֥א הַיּ֖וֹם אֶל־הָעָ֑יִן וָאֹמַ֗ר יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם אִם־יֶשְׁךָ־נָּא֙ מַצְלִ֣יחַ דַּרְכִּ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י הֹלֵ֥ךְ עָלֶֽיהָ׃

“I came today to the spring, and I said: O LORD, God of my master Abraham, if You would please help grant success to the mission in which I am engaged!

This very phrase features in the iconic Hineni prayer of the Chazan before Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur;

שַׁדַּי אָיוֹם וְנוֹרָא, הֱיֵה נָא מַצְלִֽיחַ דַּרְכִּי אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי הוֹלֵךְ לַעֲמֹד וּלְבַקֵּשׁ רַחֲמִים עָלַי וְעַל שׁוֹלְחָי

Shaddai, Eminent and Awesome, please, help me succeed in the mission which I have undertaken to stand [before You] and to seek mercy for myself and for those who have appointed me. 

Why do we hear these stunning prayers and not those of the Patriarchs. Why does the Talmud almost tease us by accentuating the occasion for, but not the content of their prayers? And most pivotal, why link the prayers to the Patriarchs, when it appears that many now familiar scripts were clearly composed by others?

An additional paradox is that it is in this week’s portion that Yitzchak, so uninvolved in what involves him, nonetheless has a moment on center stage as he famously 24:43;

…וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב

And Isaac went out to converse (Understood by the Talmud quoted above as Pray) in the field as evening approached.

The imagery conjures the beauty and romance of being outside as the sun sets, in radical amazement. Was he too praying for a wife, or rather… Mincha? The silence or lack of text at this juncture is exasperating. 

The stunning examples of prayer continue to be weaved in the unusually lengthy and repetitive account describing the tension and success of Eliezer’s mission. One is ultimately left to imagine the scripts of the prayers instituted by the Matriarchs and Patriarchs. Perhaps it is these sounds of silence that (with apologies to Paul Simon) have;

People praying without speaking, 

People writing prayers that voices never share…

The prayers in the Biblical texts are essentially individual, spontaneous and profoundly moving. Our forefathers and mothers provided the momentous concept but not the content of prayer, enabling it to become what it surely is, intimate, heartfelt and as unique as those reciting them.

Shabbat shalom 

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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