July 11, 2024
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The Root Essence of Tefillah

We translate the word tefillah as prayer, beseeching, pleading, begging. Some translate the word as “judging oneself.” But what does the word tefillah mean? What does it derive from?

We often see what is on the surface, but there are often deeper, more profound meanings to words and names. When we look for the meaning of a word, we look to the first place it is mentioned in the Torah. The first time we have this word or concept of tefillah is in Bereishit 20:6. Avraham and Sarah had gone south to Gerar because there was a famine. Avraham feared for his life and told Sarah to say she was his sister rather than his wife to avoid being killed. Avimelech, innocently, had taken Sarah, as wife. God instructs Avimelech to go to Avraham and return Sarah to him, and so that Avraham should pray on Avimelech’s behalf. וְעַתָּ֗ה הָשֵׁ֤ב אֵֽשֶׁת־הָאִישׁ֙ כִּֽי־נָבִ֣יא ה֔וּא וְיִתְפַּלֵּ֥ל בַּֽעַדְךָ֖ וֶֽחְיֵ֑ה—And now return the man’s wife, because he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live.

The second time we have the word tefillah is several pesukim (verses) later, in Bereishit 20:17

וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֥ל אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹקים וַיִּרְפָּ֨א אֱלֹקים אֶת־אֲבִימֶ֧לֶךְ וְאֶת־אִשְׁתּ֛וֹ וְאַמְהֹתָ֖יו וַיֵּלֵֽדוּ:

And Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his handmaids, and they gave birth.

The third place is in Parshat Vayechi, this week’s Torah portion. Yaakov is about to depart this world, and gathers his sons. When Yaakov addresses Yosef, he says:

פָנֶ֖יךָ לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי וְהִנֵּ֨ה הֶרְאָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י אֱלֹקים גַּ֥ם אֶת־זַרְעֶֽךָ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף רְאֹ֥ה. And Israel said to Yosef, “I had not expected to see your face, and behold, God has shown me your children too.” Yaakov never wanted to believe that Yosef was not alive, but reality set in and he said to himself, don’t ever expect to see him. He had not seen Yosef, his son, in 22 years, the same amount of time that Yaakov had not seen his father, Yitzchak, because he was working for Lavan.

When people were liberated after the Holocaust, they searched for their loved ones. They went back to their towns and wanted to connect and see if anyone else from their family had survived. Most were gone, but imagine the elation of seeing a loved one or a friend you haven’t seen for years and whom you have resigned to never seeing again. When my mother was in Auschwitz she saw a younger girl she had known from before and took care of her. At great risk, she would dole out the meager brick of bread to Tziporah during the day, rather than having her eat it all at once. They were literally in the gas chamber together. Fortunately for them, and for me, there was a higher priority to exterminate a group of orphans that were brought in. My mother and Tziporah were whisked out of the gas chamber after sleeping there all night. Ultimately, they were taken to different work camps and never saw one another. They didn’t know what happened to each other, or if the other one survived. As many orphans did, they each went to what was then Palestine. My mother recounts how she was walking in Tel Aviv and heard a voice that she immediately recognized. Imagine the elation. How unbelievable! How amazing it was for them to see one another again.

That’s what Yaakov said to Yosef: I never imagined that I would ever see you again. It’s unbelievable. Yaakov uses the word פִלָּ֑לְתִּי. The word פִלָּ֑לְתִּי means “amazed or amazement” and this is the root for the word tefillah.

There are many other examples and form of this word, including:

Bereishit 18:14: הֲיִפָּלֵ֥א מֵֽה’ דָּבָ֑ר (with an alef), Is anything that God is incapable of?

Job (Iyov) 37:14: נִפְלְא֬וֹת קל, the wonders of God. In the prayer Ashrei we say:

הֲדַר כְּב֣וֹד הוֹדֶ֑ךָ וְדִבְרֵ֖י נִפְלְאֹתֶ֣יךָ אָשִֽׂיחָה: Of the majesty of the glory of Your splendor and the words of Your wonders I shall speak.

When something unbelievable or unexpected would happen, my father would use the phrase

לא יאומן כי יסופר—too unbelievable to imagine. In English we might use the phrase “fact is stranger than fiction.”

When someone managed to escape the concentration camps, they told of the atrocities that were occurring there. Most didn’t believe them and chose not to take notice because it was too crazy, too unbelievable to imagine that such a sophisticated nation of people could be perpetrating such things. To a much different scale, it is analogous to what we are experiencing now with COVID. Who, in February or early March 2020, would have imagined that nearly two years later, we would still be in its grips? Who knows how much longer this is going to last?

A common phrase Rav Goldvicht uses when giving shiur and introducing something that is unbelievable is: פלאי פלאים, wonders of wonders! The word פלא and the word תפלה both derive from the root פלל. Some would say: how could that be? One ends with an א and the other with a ה? It is not unusual for words to end with either letter, especially when words are interchanged between Hebrew and Aramaic.

The overwhelming number of roots of Hebrew words have three letters, and rarely two letters. I am aware of one verb that has a one-letter root. The word תפלה and תפלין are derived from the two-letter root פל, at the root of the words פלל or פלא. Both words mean “astonished” or “wondrous.” There are other examples of words whose last letter is doubled.

The reflexive התפעל form is used when one acts on oneself, i.e., להתרחץ means to wash myself, and להתלבש to dress myself. To pray, להתפלל, likewise, means I was mindful and I astonished myself, or I became astonished (hitpalalti). The word להתפלל means both the act of praying, תפלה, and it also means to become wondrously amazed.

The word נפלא means wonderful and the word נפלאות means wonderous miracles. In Asher Yatzar we say וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת, which means to make wonderous things happen. Can you think of a wondrously huge animal that derives from this root? פיל is an elephant.

What is equally amazing or wonderous about Lashon Hakodesh is that the same word can have the diametrically opposite meaning. The word נפל means to fall (say it out loud and you will even hear the same phonetics). In Numbers 14:7 it says וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע משֶׁ֔ה וַיִּפֹּ֖ל עַל־פָּנָֽיו, Moshe heard and fell on his face. When someone falls in battle we use that same word: נפל. A child who passes away within the first 30 days is called a נפל.

The opposite of פלא, wondrous, is טפל, which means insignificant. Note that the word is composed of the same two letters at its root. Clearly תפילה means prayer, but at its root the meaning and the purpose of tefillah, תפילה, and tefillin, תפילין, is to become cognizant and amazed at the enormity and wondrous nature of God and to realize how טפל, insignificant, we are.

This article is dedicated to the memory of my father מנחם בן משה and my daughter, Danya Davida.


Dr. Roth is a developmental optometrist, and as such, he may see things from a slightly different perspective.

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