This is a good time to discuss this all-important word. There are two issues involved: 1) What is the meaning of the root PLL? 2) What is the import of the hitpael form, one that we usually assume implies doing something to yourself?
With regard to the root PLL, this is admittedly a difficult root. It seems to have a range of meanings, such as “assess,” “intervene” and “judge.” For “assess,” see Genesis 48:11. For “intervene” see Psalms 106:30: va-yaamod Pinchas va-yefalel, va-teatzar ha-magefah (=Pinchas stood up and intervened and the plague was stopped.) For “judge,” see I Sam. 2:25.
But the more interesting issue is the import of the prefix HT, the hitpael form. One source I saw counted 984 instances of the hitpael in Tanach. Of course, a large percentage of the time, the hitpael in Tanach is a “reflexive” form, i.e., it implies doing something to yourself. Some examples are chazek and kadesh. In the hitpael, these are transformed from “strengthen” and “sanctify” into “strengthen yourself” (hitchazek) and “sanctify yourself” (hitkadesh).
Based on this reasoning, hitpalel (“to pray”) is typically translated as implying some form of action on oneself. For example: The Otzar Ha-Tefillot Siddur (p. 20) includes the explanation that prayer is an activity of change on the part of the petitioner, as he gives his heart and thoughts to his Creator; by raising himself to a higher level, he will cause a change in his situation.
The standard ArtScroll Siddur (p. xiii) includes the following:
[It] is a reflexive word, meaning that the subject acts upon himself.
Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgment…
See also the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch to Gen. 20:7.
But I would like to offer a very different approach that has been suggested by some scholars. (I will point out that long ago Radak understood that God was the one doing the judging in the word HTPLL. See his Sefer Ha-Shorashim, root PLL.)
To understand the meaning of the HT prefix in HTPLL, we must closely analyze the various hitpaels in Tanach. It turns out that the hitpael has a few different meanings.
For example, at Genesis 42:1 (lamah titrau), the form of titrau is hitpael, but the meaning is “Why are you looking at one another?” This is called the “reciprocal” meaning of hitpael. Another example of this reciprocal meaning is found at II Chronicles 24:25 in the word hitkashru. The meaning here is “conspired with one another.”
A different meaning of the hitpael is found in the case of the word hithalech. (This word appears many times in Tanach). The meaning is not “walk oneself,” but “walk continually or repeatedly.” There are many other examples of this “durative” meaning of the hitpael.
I mention all this as background to another word that appears in the hitpael form in Tanach: hitchanen. The root here is “HNN” (chet, nun, nun), which means “to be gracious” or “ to show favor.” (For simplicity, I am representing the chet with “H.”) HTHNN appears many times in Tanach, and at I Kings 8:33 we even have HTPLL and HTHNN adjacent to one another: ve-hitpalelu ve-hitchanenu. If we are constrained to view HTPLL as doing something to yourself, then what would be the meaning of HTHNN? To show favor to yourself? This interpretation makes no sense in any of the contexts that HTHNN is used in Tanach.
Rather, as recognized by many modern scholars, HTHNN is an example where the hitpael has a slightly different meaning: to make yourself the object of another’s action. (This variant of hitpael has been called “voluntary passive.”) In every HTHNN, you are asking another to show favor to you. As an example, we can look to the beginning of Parshat Vaetchanan. Verse 3:23 states that Moshe was etchanan to God. Moshe was not doing HNN to himself. Rather, he was trying to make himself the object of God’s HNN.
Let us now revisit our word HTPLL. Most likely, the HT in the case of HTPLL is doing the same thing as the HT in the case of HTHNN: it is turning the word into a voluntary passive. The meaning of HTPLL then is to make oneself the object of God’s PLL (assessment, intervention or judging). This is a much simpler understanding of HTPLL than the ones that look for a reflexive action by the one reciting the prayer. Once you are presented with this approach and how it parallels the hitpael’s meaning in HTHNN, it is very hard to disagree with it.
Of course, the idea that prayer involves self-evaluation and self-judgment is a beautiful and highly motivational concept. But it does not seem to be the most likely interpretation in this case.
(I would also like to point out that the meaning of the hitpael stem is not just of interest to Jews. Christian theologians are also very interested in it because of the word hitbarchu at Gen. 22:18 and 26:4. The hitpael issue there is whether these verses teach that the nations of the world will utter blessings using the name of the seed of Abraham or be blessed through the seed of Abraham. These are very different interpretations!)
The above is an abridged version of my article on seforim.blogspot.com in Aug. 2016. I refer interested readers to this longer version. The longer version is also found in my book “Roots and Rituals” (2018), pp. 240-47.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. When not self-reflecting, he can be reached at [email protected].
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.