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Preferable Prayer


In this week’s article we will focus on different aspects of prayer. Which prayer is preferable – that of a person for himself, or that of a tzaddik? When is the prayer of a tzaddik whose father was a tzaddik necessary? And when should a person pray for himself regardless of his spiritual stature? Many people feel dejected when their prayers go unanswered. Does G-d hear my prayers? Are they desirable to Him? Are famous segulos preferable to plain heartfelt prayer in simple words? Why were Rivka’s prayers not answered while Yishmael’s were, despite his wickedness? When is the saying “a prisoner cannot free himself” relevant and when should one pray for himself? Of this and more in the coming article.

Yitzchak and Rivka’s Prayer

In the beginning of this week’s parasha we learn that both Yitzchak and Rivka stood in prayer to merit bearing children. The Torah describes their prayer: “And Yitzchak prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren, and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rivka his wife conceived” (Bereshis 25:21). Careful reading of the pasuk gives rise to two questions: Why did Yitzchak pray for Rivka and not for himself? And why didn’t Rivka pray herself – why do the psukim only refer to Yitzchak’s prayers?

The Gemara (Yevamos 64a) learns from the words of the pasuk that Yitzchak himself was sterile. Nevertheless, he only prayed for his wife. Hashem heard his prayers because his were prayers of a tzaddik, son of a tzaddik.

This Gemara is difficult to understand – if Yitzchak was also sterile, why doesn’t the pasuk mention that his prayer helped to cure him? Why does the pasuk only refer to Rivka’s salvation and not to Yitzchak’s?

The Zohar (Toldos 137b) writes that Yitzchak prayed for his wife and not for himself because he knew from prophecy that the Twelve Tribes would descend from him, and he prayed to ensure they would be born of Rivka, not of another woman.

Similarly, the Rishonim (Chizkuni; Riva; Rabbenu Chaim Paltiel; Seforno; Hadar Zkeinim) write that Yitzchak knew that the problem was not his because there was a promise that Yitzchak would bear Avraham’s seed, therefor he prayed that it would be realized through Rivka.

Seemingly, both Yitzchak and Rivka’s main focus in prayer was for Rivka’s fertility, but it was Yitzchak’s prayer that was accepted because his was the prayer of a tzaddik son of a tzaddik which carried sufficient power. Rivka, although being the subject of the prayer, didn’t have sufficient power because of her father’s wickedness.

Yishmael’s Prayer

When Hagar and Yishmael were wandering in the desert of Be’er Sheva, Yishmael was deathly ill.  In the throes of death, the pasuk tells us: “And she sat from afar, and she raised her voice and wept” (Bereshis 21:16) — Hagar prayed for her son. But: “And G-d heard the lad’s voice” (Bereshis 21:17) — the Torah tells us that it was Yishmael’s prayer that was accepted. Here, the Midrash (Bereshis Raba Vayera 53: 14) learns that the prayer of the ill person for himself is accepted faster than other’s prayers.

So which prayer is better – prayer one prays for himself, or others’ prayers for him? And whose prayer is more powerful – that of a righteous person whose father is also righteous, or that of the person needing salvation?

A Prisoner Cannot Free Himself

The question becomes more pointed when learning the following Gemara (Brachos 5b):

Rabbi Yochanan went up to visit Rabbi Chiya bar Abba who had fallen ill. Rabbi Yochanan asked him, “Do you prefer the suffering of illness?” Rabbi Chiya answered that he prefers neither the suffering nor the reward he will get in its merit. Rabbi Yochanan offered him his hand and Rabbi Chiya bar Abba arose from his bed, cured. Rabbi Yochanan cured another student – Rabbi Elazar — in a similar manner.

When Rabbi Yochanan was ill, Rabbi Chanina came to visit him and asked him the same question. When Rabbi Yochanan gave him the same answer, Rabbi Chanina stretched out his hand and Rabbi Yochanan arose, cured.

The Gemara asks: If Rabbi Yochanan could cure others with his outstretched hand, why couldn’t he cure himself? And the Gemara answers with the well-known adage: “A prisoner cannot free himself from prison.” Just as one cannot set himself free but needs others to do so for him, so too, the ill cannot cure themselves but need others to pray for their salvation.

Other’s Prayers or One’s Own

The Mizrachi and Bartenura understand from these stories that while one’s own prayers are always preferable, at times, due to the situation, one cannot concentrate properly, and he technically needs someone else to pray for him because he cannot do so himself. Nevertheless, one who is able to detach himself from his pain and concentrate on prayer is certainly preferable.

This explanation can be understood from the above mentioned Gemara: in all three situations, the Amoraim asked the ill person if they prefer the illness and suffering, and in all three they answered that they prefer neither the suffering nor its reward. What did they mean?

Every form of pain has a purpose — to elevate the sufferer to a higher spiritual place than he was before. Suffering, however, also carries a dangerous downside – one may become so preoccupied in the pain that the loses his mental capability to concentrate on his spiritual growth. Then, he is in danger of losing even that which he has already acquired.

The Amoraim in the Gemara, when they said they preferred neither the pain nor the reward didn’t say so because they feared the physical suffering – they were beyond that. They were referring to the spiritual growth suffering offered them. They declined it because it was disturbing them from reaching the higher level of spirituality they hoped to reach. Despite the opportunity for growth, in reality it was distancing them from their goal. As such, they preferred neither the pain nor its reward.

The Maharal’s Approach

The Maharal (Gur Aryeh 21:17) disagrees with the Mizrachi. In his opinion, while one’s own prayer for himself is always preferrable, the rule that a prisoner cannot free himself is unrelated because in prayer one does not cure himself – it is Hashem who hears his prayer and cures him. He explains that the Amoraim who stretched out their hand were indicating to the ill person that he himself needed to strengthen himself. One who is in pain cannot strengthen himself — he needs someone to come and encourage him. Then, he discovers his own inner strength, gains access to Hashem’s assistance, prays, his prayer is accepted, and he is cured.

The Ari’s Approach

The Chida (Chomat Anach, Ester 6:1, 22) quotes the Ari in saying that the rule of “a prisoner cannot free himself” refers to cases where a tzaddik performs a miracle through use of Divine Powers as in the cases described by the Gemara. Then, the tzaddik’s prayer is more powerful than the prayer of the ill person for himself. But when it comes to simple heartfelt prayer, the ill person’s prayer is certainly preferable. This was the form of prayer that Yishmael utilized, which was accepted despite the heavenly prosecution that opposed his cure (his descendants would kill the Jewish people when they went into exile).

A Wise Man’s Prayer

When is a tzaddik’s prayer necessary? The Gemara writes (Bave Basre 116a): “Rabbi Pincḥas bar Chama stated: Anyone who has a sick person in his home should go to a sage, and the sage will ask for mercy on the sick person’s behalf, as it is stated: ‘The wrath of a king is as messengers of death; but a wise man will pacify it’ (Mishlei 16:14).” The Rashbam explains that when one has a sickness which is a result of the King’s wrath, so much that he is about to die (‘messengers of death’) he must go to a wise man to pray for him. While in general one should pray for his own cure, where it seems that the worst has been decreed, and the ill is about to die, the prayer of a Torah scholar has the power (stemming from his Torah), to annul the decree and change G-d’s wrath to mercy.


According to the Mizrachi and Bartenura an ill person’s prayer is always preferable over any other prayer. However, when he cannot concentrate, he needs others’ prayers. Here, the rule of ‘a prisoner cannot free himself’ is applicable.

According to the Maharal the ill person’s prayers are always necessary but, at times, he may need others’ encouragement. Then he finds in himself the ability to pray and merit his own salvation. Here too, the rule of ‘a prisoner cannot free himself’ is applicable.

According to the Arizal, there are two kinds of prayer, and each helps on a different level. Deep heartfelt prayer is more effective when it comes from the ill person himself. However, prayer intended to invoke higher spiritual forces is better if coming from a holy person. And here, the rule of ‘a prisoner cannot free himself is applicable – even a righteous, holy person needs another’s prayers when it comes to this form of salvation.

Seemingly, all approaches agree that every painful situation has a purpose – to bring the person in need of salvation to pray for himself. And when he does so, the main reason for the pain is realized and his prayer works more than anything else. At times, illness cannot achieve its purpose – either because the ill person is so preoccupied; he needs external empowerment; or he has a decree that his prayers will go unanswered. In these cases, the prayer of a tzaddik is necessary to help him regain his spiritual abilities to resume his spiritual work in the world. At times, there is need for the prayers of a tzaddik, son of a tzaddik, who can invoke the power of his and his forefathers’ Torah in order to annul the decree.

Rivka’s Prayer

In light of the above, it is clear now why Rivka needed Yitzchak’s prayer. The Gemara (Yevamos 64a) explains the Torah’s choice of words “vaye’etar”: “Rabbi Yitzchak said: Why are the prayers of the righteous compared to a pitchfork [eter], as in the verse: ‘And He let Himself be entreated [vaye’ater]’? This indicates that just as this pitchfork turns over produce from one place to another, so the prayer of the righteous turns over the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, from the attribute of rage to the attribute of mercy.” Seemingly, there was a decree against Rivka that she should not bear children (see Yalkut Shimoni, Chaye Sara 109 for the reason). In order to annul this decree, special prayers were necessary. In this case, one’s own prayers are insufficient (as in the Ari’s approach,) and the prayers of a tzaddik, son of a tzaddik, were necessary so the promise of descendants should come specifically from Rivka and not from another woman.

Practically Speaking

When in need of salvation, our first obligation is to pray. One’s own prayers are always more powerful as we see from Yishamel, who although having behaved badly and being dismissed from Avraham’s home, merited a special miracle as a result of his prayers. The purpose of painful situations is to cause us to pray to Hashem and no segula, blessing, or tzaddik’s prayer can bring us to where Hashem intended for us to reach. Hashem specifically wants to hear from us.

Despite that, there are times in which the decree has been passed, and the ill person is about to die because of G-d’s wrath. In this case, the prayer of a talmid chacham or tzaddik, son of a tzaddik, can have the power to change what regular prayer cannot. Here, also actions that carry the power to annul decrees can be helpful, such as tzedakah that saves from death. Then, one is able to pray for himself and be saved.

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