What is Teffila?- The Essence of Prayer

chassidut Jun 20, 2018

By Rabbi Amichai Cohen

The Mishna says “Upon three pillars the world stands; upon the pillar of Torah, Teffila and charitable deeds”.

The Talmud asks “what is something that mortals take lightly and don't know the immense power of?- Teffila- prayer”.

The Alter Rebbe said “When I had, with the help of G-d, established myself in the knowledge of the Torah, I sought havanah (understanding). In those days two places were talked about — Vilna and Mezritch. In Vilna one learned how to study, and in Mezritch one learned how to pray. I was in search of the understanding which resides in the heart. So I went to Mezritch and there, thank G-d, I found what I was seeking, and in generous measure.” (Likutei Dibburim III page 483)


Let us be clear that the Alter Rebbe was already one of the greatest geniuses of Torah in his generation and was completely proficient in the Kabbalistic writing of the Zohar, Arizal etc. His entire work of the Tanya and the works of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his students was to come to the essence of prayer. Let’s jump right in!


  1. To Bind

The word Teffila comes from the root word תפל, which means to bind. We find in the Mishnah “one who תפל-binds earthenware vessels”.

What does Binding have to do with prayer?

The answer is that via prayer we bind ourselves with the creator and form a relationship with him.

A relationship by definition is 2 sided, therefor in order to develop any relationship both sides need to be heard and tended to.

At the beginning of creation the verse says “there was no rain because there was no man..” The Midrash explains that G-d waited before showering rain, in order so that man - Adam would pray for rain. Why? because G-d desires a relationship with man and wants him to know that he is the source of all of his sustenance and life.

At the same time the primordial snake was cursed for having to crawl on it’s belly and have food everywhere it goes. This seems like a blessing, why is this a curse? The answer is because snake lost it’s opportunity to not have and thereby pray and realize the source of all of his sustenance.

The Midrash says that all of the Matriarchs were barren and in some cases did not even have a womb (Rachel), “because he desired their prayers”. They all had to tap deeper and go into the world of prayer and come face to face with the creator and “illicit mercy from on high”.

We find by the Matriarch Leah that she called her son Naftali from the word connection and binding. She felt that she became bound with the creator via her personal relationship.

And we have the awesome imagery of Moses raising his hands in “emunah” and prayer in the battle against Amalek.

The Talmud learns many lessons about prayer rom Chana the mother of Samuel. As a barren woman, she stormed into the Tabernacle in Shilo and appeared drunk in the fervor she prayed for a child. She called her son Shmuel because “I have asked שאילתיהו for him” and received a reply. On a closer reading שאילתיהו means borrowed, which is the reason that Chana gave her son over to G-d as a Nazir.

King David says about himself “I am prayer”, he felt that his entire being prayer.

The Zohar recounts that Rav Hemnunah Sabba would pray for his food even when it was in front of him, explaining that for him to really earn the food he had to pray for it and experience the relationship with his maker.

Prayer actualizes the purpose of creation. Kabbalah explains that G-d created the world to become known and expressed in the lower dimensions. Prayer is connected to emunah- belief and bitachon- trust (see our class on emunahy bitachon). The more one believes that there is a creator who seeks a relationship with us and that no prayer goes unheard, the more we know the power of prayer as it forms a relationship and binds the human with his creator.

2. Working Out The Heart

“You shall (worship) work your creator with all of your heart..” The Talmud says “what is the work of the heart? this is prayer”. The word work עבודה is found in the Mishnah to mean עבוד עורות, softening leather.

Softening leather is an analogy of our job to soften our coarseness and become spiritually sensitized to our higher selves and to bind our selves with our creator.

The word תפל has an additional meaning - secondary. During the process of Teffila, the person recognizes the most important things of life and puts aside his coarseness and ego as secondary.

Just as softening leather takes many steps until we have a soft and usable leather, so too personal refinement takes times and requires active engagement from the individual.

While Torah study is mainly about the mind’s grasping of intellectual concepts, prayer is the heart’s ability to feel awe and love the creator.

The Rebbe Rayatz says that when we study Torah we are like a student in front of his teacher, when we pray we are like a son in front of his father.

The Zohar says “no thought can grasp him, but the feeling of the heart known to each individual”.

And in a different place Zohar says on the verse “Her husband is known in the gates”- “In the gates of each person’s estimation, what they are able to know him”.

King David writes “Now I know that G-d is great”. Rebbe Nachman asked did only King David know the greatness of G-d? Rather this means that King David felt the greatness of G-d so much so that HE knew it in the way of feeling it.

On the verse “this is my G-d and I will praise him, the G-d of my father and I will exalt him. The Shela (Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz 17th Century Sage) says when G-d is “my father’s G-d” then he is exalted and distant, while if he is MY G-d then I will praise him אנוהו- which is a make up of ani, vhu- me and him, complete unity and inner knowing.

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