July 14, 2024
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The Nature of the Power of Prayer

By Binyamin Benji

With Korach and his crew continuing to press Moshe about Aharon’s appointment as Kohen Gadol, Moshe finally tells Korach that it’s time for Hashem to determine who is chosen to be the Kohen Gadol. Moshe prescribes a formula, where Korach and his crew would offer ketoret, through which Hashem would then determine who is (or was already) the chosen one. In anticipation for this upcoming test, Moshe beseeched Hashem, saying, “Do not turn to their gift-offering!” Interestingly, the Ramban comments that Moshe’s plea also included a request that Hashem not accept their prayers, as well turn away from their offerings.

It, perhaps, seems from the Ramban that Korach and his crew would potentially pray to Hashem that He accept their offering, and Moshe was so concerned that their tefillot would be answered that he beseeched Hashem not to accept their prayers. The implication of this would, perhaps, be that had Moshe not beseeched Hashem such, then their prayers could have been effective and could have succeeded in granting them victory over Moshe! How could this be? Rav Yaakov Neiman (Darkei Mussar, Korach) quotes Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm who derived from here the tremendous power that tefillah carries.

To put things in perspective: These were people who started up with Moshe Rabbeinu himself! They were involved in a terrible act of machloket, and it was against Moshe, which would seem to mean they were threatening the legitimacy of Moshe and—by extension—the veracity of the Torah itself. For if Moshe was mistaken, then maybe he was mistaken in all of the Torah that he delivered to Bnei Yisrael. Furthermore, this tefillah of theirs, in essence, would seemingly be a prayer for Hashem to help them continue and be victorious in their evil ways!

Yet, according to Rav Simcha Zissel, it seems that tefillah is so powerful that it can work, even in such a situation, regarding such people and effecting such results! We can learn from here that if tefillah could be effective in this context, then how much more so is tefillah effective when one prays for that which is proper, and truly meaningful and beneficial for himself and others.

Yet, one could nevertheless ask, if the truth is that Moshe is the right one, then how could their tefillah grant them victory over Moshe? It seems totally illogical and unjust! Granted tefillah is exceptionally powerful, but where’s the justice? Furthermore, the creation of the opening of the earth destined to swallow up Korach and his followers was created during the process of the creation of the world (Mishna in Avot, chp. 5). How could their prayers prevent what seems to be an embedded destiny from occurring?

This question can be similarly raised in several other contexts:

  1. Since an unintentional murderer must stay in the city of refuge until the Kohen Gadol dies, the Mishna (Makot, 2:6) states that because of this, the mothers of the Kohanim Gedolim would supply the killers with food and clothing [in order to appease them] so that they [the killers] would not pray for their sons (i.e. the Kohanim Gedolim) to die. The implication is that these prayers could have been effective in this regard.
  2. The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah, 20:1) states that on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol was leaving the Kodesh Kodashim, he would pray that Hashem not turn to (i.e. listen and answer) the prayer of travelers (who would pray that it should not rain). The implication seemingly is that although the prayers of these few travelers could have brought a tremendous deficiency to the greater majority of people caused by lack of rain, it still could have worked.
  3. The Gemara explains that the term of the unintentional murderer’s exile is contingent upon the Kohen Gadol’s death because the Kohen Gadol should have prayed for Hashem’s mercy that there be no unintentional deaths (Makkot 11b). Now, Hashem decrees who dies and who doesn’t, but yet, it’s perhaps evident that the Kohen Gadol’s prayer could have overridden and thus prevented what seems to be a preordained decree of Hashem from occurring.
  4. The Gemara (Brachot 10a) relates that there was a certain group of people who would cause Rebbi Meir considerable distress, and he began praying that they should die. His wife, Beruria, advised him that rather than pray that they die, he should instead pray that they should do teshuva and repent of their wickedness. Rebbi Meir heeded her advice; he prayed, and they indeed repented. The Maharsha, however, questions this incident on the basis of the dictum brought by the Gemara that, “All is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven” (which seemingly would preclude this case of requesting Hashem’s involvement in the area of another persons doing of teshuva which hinges on the exercising of one’s own bechira—free will)! Rabbi Yissocher Frand brings in the name of Rav Meir Bergman who explained that tefilla trumps bechira.

In all these cases, one can ask that as powerful as tefillah can be, it nevertheless seems illogical and unjust that, a) a murderer’s prayers could be so effective to cause an outstanding person like a Kohen Gadol to die; b) that tefillah could be so effective to the point that its needed that the Kohen Gadol himself, on the holy day of Yom Kippur, in the Holy of Holies, to pray that the prayers of travelers not get accepted when the results of those prayers would be against the greater good; c) that it could override a decree from Hashem that a person should die; d) that it could override the system of humanity—bechira, which is an imprinted “rule” in the way humanity operates.

Rav Shimon Moshe Diskin expresses an idea which can shed light onto the understanding behind the power of tefillah.

Rav Diskin is also bothered by the fact that Moshe felt it necessary to daven that Korach and his crew’s tefillot not be accepted. He explains that we see from here that tefillah’s efficacy functions as if it’s a rule in nature. It’s like cause and effect: Hashem created a “system” that if a person prays, he gets answered. This is a natural phenomenon that if a person prays, he must be answered. Thus, tefillah works even when it’s against Hashem’s wishes. We also see this in Parshat Va’etchanan where Moshe pleads to enter Eretz Yisrael and Hashem instructs him to cease this request. Even though Hashem didn’t want Moshe entering Eretz Yisrael, the fact that Hashem had to specifically instruct him to stop requesting indicates that Moshe’s prayers—in theory—could have triumphed over Hashem’s Will. (Masat HaMelech, Korach).

With this conceptual understanding into the efficacy of tefillah, perhaps this can explain all the above: If the nature of the efficacy of tefillah is that it works like cause and effect, then it may not be bound to other systems like justice, logic, free will and even preordained decrees from Hashem.

This is the power of prayer.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, and of Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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