Torah and Tefillah

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Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

Both Torah study and Tefillah [prayer] rank high in the annals of our religious faith and tradition. As a matter of fact Moshe Rabbeinu points to these two factors as the pivotal aspects of our greatness and uniqueness. In Parashat Va’et’chanan [Devarim 4:7-8] Moshe states: “Which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is close to it, as HaShem, our G-d, whenever we call to Him” [That’s Tefillah]. “And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as the entire torah that I place before you this day?” [That’s Torah]”. They are both important, but they are not the same.

Rav Soloveitchik beautifully explains the difference between these two of our most fundamental Mitzvot. One can truly pray only with the heart of a child. Prayer requires that we surrender ourselves to G-d with complete trust in the only true Provider. One must be willing to bare his soul to cry out to G-d. Faced with needs, we beseech G-d to provide for us. The sophisticated adult, with defense mechanism in full force cannot do so. Our amazing accomplishments delude us to believe that we are completely in control of the world, instead of understanding that nothing happens without HaShem.

On the other hand, only an adult can truly learn Torah. Those qualities that make Tefillah so effective would render our learning as meaningless. True Torah learning requires intellectual sophistication, in-depth analysis, creative thinking, and the ability to search deeply for truth. Real Torah learning does not focus on Midrashic stories about Avraham smashing idols, number games, gimatri’ot, or merely entertaining Divrei Torah.

The Rav was fond of saying that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, saved Torah in nineteenth century Europe by demonstrating that Talmudic learning could compete with-and surpass-the intellectual vigor offered by the best of the scientific world. The Lithuanian yeshiva world emphasized the depth and complexity of Torah, and many Jews who no longer observed Jewish law continued the most enjoyable of intellectual pursuits- the study of Torah.

It is most interesting that, while the Lithuanian world focused on Torah study, the Chassidic world focused on prayer; it seems as if the two are mutually exclusive. It is truly the rare individual who can follow in the footsteps of Sarah Immeinu, praying like a child, learning as an adult, with the energy of youth. May we be Zocheh to be such a person.

About Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Aharon Ziegler is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Agudath Achim of Boro Park and the Dean and Rosh Kollel of Kollel Agudath Achim. He is the author of six volumes of Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.


  1. I fail to see how one can reconcile what R. Soloveichik said about tefillah with the following:

    which is from R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Bereishis 20

    7 Now, therefore, restore the wife of the man, because he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you and you will remain alive. But if you
    will not restore her, know that you will surely die, you and all that are yours.

    V’yispalal ba’adcha — from the root palal (to judge), related to balal As we have
    already seen in the account of the dor haflaga (above, 11:7), the bolel does
    not mix materials together; rather, he introduces a foreign element into
    a substance and integrates some of the new into every particle of the
    old, thus creating a new substance. According to the Jewish conception,
    this is the task of the judge. Lies and injustice cause division, create
    conflict and dispute. A judge introduces justice, the Divine truth of
    things, into the disputed matter, creating harmonious unity where lies
    and injustice had caused conflict and division.

    Hispalal means: to perform this task (palal ) upon oneself, to infuse every
    aspect of one’s being and existence with God’s truth, and thus attain for
    oneself harmonious integrity of all of life by the light of God’s Countenance.

    Jewish tefila , then, is antithetical to the common conception of
    “prayer.” Tefila is not an outpouring from within, an expression of what
    the heart already feels – for that we have other terms: t’china , si’ach , and the
    like. Rather, tefila means infusing the heart with truths that come from
    outside oneself.

    Tefila is avodah sheb’lev; mispallel means to work on refining one’s inner self,
    to elevate one’s mind and heart to the lofty heights of recognition of
    truth and desire for serving God.

    If this were not the case, if tefila were but an outpouring of our
    emotions, it would make no sense to have fixed times and fixed texts
    for our prayers. How could we assume that all the members of the
    community would be imbued with the same thoughts and the same
    emotions at certain predetermined times?

    Moreover, prayer that is merely an expression of feeling is superfluous.
    Thoughts and emotions that are already alive within us do not
    require expression, least of all expression in set phrases formulated by
    others than ourselves. Deep inner experience always finds its own way
    of self-expression; and where the inner experience is exceedingly grand
    and profound, it is beyond all expression, and the most appropriate
    expression is silence.

    It follows, then, that the whole purpose of our fixed prayers is to
    awaken the heart and to revive within it those timeless values that still
    require reinforcement and special care. One can truly say that the less
    we feel in the mood for prayer, the greater is our need to pray, and
    the greater is the redeeming power and sublime value of the work
    upon ourselves that we perform through tefila . The absence of the
    mood for prayer is in itself the surest sign of the obscurement and
    dimming of that spirit that is not the basis for tefila but its goal and exalted purpose.

    I do not believe that what RSRH wrote about prayer is something that fits with approaching prayer like a child.

    • I agree that Rav Hirsch and Rav Soloveitchik had very different conceptions of prayer.

      • RSRH’s concept is based on a careful reading of the Chumash.
        No justification is given for R. Soloveitchik’s remarks. What are his comments based upon?

        • I do not see a reading of the Chumash at all. I see Rav Hirsch’s beautiful drush based on his understanding of the grammatical construct of one word. As Micha notes, a book has been published with Rav Soloveitchik’s thoughts on prayer, as well as a siddur commentary. This is just a brief essay.

          There is not anything halakhic about this specific essay. R. Ziegler’s column began years ago and already encompasses six published books. He has proven his halakhic weight and is certainly allowed to deviate from the straight “Halakhic Positions”.

      • Although the Rav has other conceptions of prayer as well. He writes of the launching of the siddur, liturgical prayer, as the last of the prophets continuing the dialog with HQBH after the end of prophecy.

        Then there’s “[Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” (Tradition, Spring 1978, pp. 70-71):
        Yet there is another aspect to prayer: prayer is an act of giving away. Prayer means sacrifice, unrestricted offering of the whole self, the returning to God of body and soul, everything one possesses and cherishes. There is an altar in heaven upon which the archangel Michael offers the souls of the righteous. Thrice daily we petition God to accept our prayers, as well as the fires – the self-sacrifices of Israel – on that altar (“ve-ishei Yisrael u-tefillatam be-ahava tekabbel be-ratzon”). Prayer is rooted in the idea that man belongs, not to himself, but that God claims man, and that His claim to man is not partial but total. God the Almighty, sometimes wills man to place himself, like Isaac of old, on the altar, to light the fire and to be consumed as a burnt offering.

        There are his many references to humility before the Infinite.

        His picture is complex, and I am not sure that the Rav ignores the reflexive form “lehitpallel”. Prof Levine, you ask, “What are his comments based upon?” That question would fill books, starting with “Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer”, the Rav’s essays, edited Shalom Carmy. (I found a review by Dr Joshua Amaru on It summarizes many of the main points.) I already pointed to an 18 pg essay, you might wish to start there.

        • The title of the post by R. Ziegler is “Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik.” In light of this, I find it strange that R. Ziegler’s article does not refer to one source in Halacha.

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