In ancient times, worship of God often took the form of bringing a sacrifice. However, after the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70 CE, Jews could no longer bring sacrificial offerings, and therefore the rabbis decreed that prayers would substitute for the sacrifices. They set the times of the morning and afternoon prayers (Shacharit and Mincha) to correspond to the daily sacrifices of the morning (Tamid shel Shachar) and afternoon (Tamid shel Beyn Ha’arbayim) that used to be brought in the Temple.
But prayer must not be considered only as a substitute for sacrifices. Prayer existed in the Jewish tradition long before the Torah was given. The Talmud, basing itself on various Biblical verses, states that Abraham instituted the morning prayer, that Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer, and that Jacob instituted the evening prayer. Thus verbal prayer, as distinct from sacrificial offerings, has an independent source in Jewish tradition.
Nevertheless, even though the patriarchs initiated the three daily prayers, their practice is not necessarily the basis for the halachic requirement of prayer. We may theorize that in ancient times, when the Temple existed, prayer independent of sacrifice was practiced only sporadically, when the spirit moved a person to pray. In that case, the current halachic requirement of prayer is a rabbinic law that was enacted to substitute for the Temple sacrifice. But, on the other hand, we may argue that even in ancient times there was a requirement for verbal prayer and that this requirement is de’orayta, i.e. based on Biblical law.
The question of whether the requirement of prayer is based on Biblical or rabbinic law was hotly debated among the poskim, with many – perhaps most – authorities favoring a rabbinic origin. Others, most notably Moses Maimonides (Rambam, 1135-1204 CE) believe that prayer is a mitzvah de’orayta – a Biblical precept. But Maimonides does not attribute the halachic basis merely to the patriarchs’ practice: that alone would not have sufficed to establish prayer as a Biblical law. Rather, Maimonides cites a verse in Ekev as the Biblical source for the mitzvah of prayer: “. . . and to worship the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12). For after all, says Maimonides, what is worship of the heart? It is prayer.
Note that the Maimonidean view has practical consequences, of which I will cite one. If the basis for the halachic requirement of prayer is the above-cited verse, then it is a Biblical law that is not time-dependent, for that verse does not specify any times for prayer. The times of prayer, then, may be considered rabbinic law made to correspond to the times of the Temple sacrifices, but prayer itself is not time-dependent. Women are exempt from almost all time-dependent positive commandments, but if the Biblical precept of prayer is not time-dependent, then a woman may suffice with praying once daily and at any time of her choosing, but prayer is an obligation for women just as it is for men.
© Copyright 2009 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.