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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beshalach: Prayer - Obligation or occupation?


With the Egyptians in pursuit, the Jewish people were frightened and cried out to HASHEM. What do our sages mean when they refer to prayer as an occupation? Spending nine hours praying is not and has never been the norm. There are two kinds of prayer. Special prayers were referred to at the inauguration of the Temple. The well-being of family and business is G'd's doing. As Jews we should not define ourselves by what we do for a living. The occupation of the Jewish nation is prayer. The nations of the world will achieve their accomplishments through the work of their hands and other natural efforts; whereas, the Jewish people achieve our accomplishments by turning ourselves to G'd through prayer. We are totally dependent on G'd in good times and bad. One should pray as a needy person begging for his needs. Although there are two kinds of prayer, there is only one sincerity with which to say any prayer.

This Torah Attitude will explore the meaning of that prayer is the "occupation of our forefathers."

Frightened and cried out

In this week's portion, while on their way after the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people suddenly see the Egyptians pursuing them. As it says (Shemos 14:10): "And the children of Israel raised their eyes and behold Egypt is travelling after them and they got very frightened and the children of Israel cried out to HASHEM." Rashi quotes from our sages that as they were crying out to HASHEM they took to the occupation of their forefathers.

Prayer as an occupation?

The Talmud (Berachot 26b) learns from Scripture that Abraham was the one who instituted the morning prayer, Isaac the afternoon prayer, and Jacob the evening prayer. However, we may ask what do our sages mean when they refer to prayer as an occupation? We know that Abraham operated a guest house in the desert, Isaac was envied by the Philistines because of his many enterprises, and Jacob is referred to as being a student of the study halls of Shem and Eber. Later when he lived with Lavan he built up flocks and herds tendered by his shepherds as had Abraham and Isaac before him. So why is it that the occupation of our patriarchs is said to be prayer rather than how they made a living?

Nine hours

The Talmud relates (Berachot 30b) that there were extremely righteous people who spent three hours for each of the three daily prayers for a total of nine hours per day. For these people it may be understandable to say that prayer was their occupation. But praying for nine hours is not and has never been the norm and we do not find any reference that this was the case for our Patriarchs.

Two kinds of prayer

The words of our sages need further clarification. We find that there are two distinct kinds of prayer: the regular daily prayers and prayer in times of need and danger. When Jacob told Joseph (Beresheis 48:22) that he was giving him an extra portion which he had taken from the Emorites with his sword and his bow, the Targum Onkelus interprets this as referring to prayer and supplication. The commentaries explain that prayer means the daily prayers and supplications refers to the special prayers said in the times of need and danger.

Special prayers

It says: (Bamidbar 10:9) "When you go to war in your land against an enemy that oppresses you, you shall blow in your trumpets and you shall be remembered before HASHEM your G'd …" The Ramban, in his Annotations on the Rambam's Book of the Commandments (Mitzvah 5), explains that this is a commandment to cry out in prayer with trumpet blasts when the community is in distress and danger. It is this kind of prayer that King Solomon referred to at the inauguration of the Temple. He was pleading with G'd and said: "When there is no rain … when there is hunger or other natural calamities as well as when the enemy attacks, or when there is any sickness. Every prayer, every supplication …and You shall listen in heaven at the foundation of Your dwelling place "(Books of Kings I 8:35-39). And it is this kind of prayer the Jews prayed as they cried out when they stood before the Sea with the Egyptians in pursuit. So it seems strange to suggest that this conduct followed in the footsteps of the Patriarchs who instituted regular daily prayer services.

How are you doing?

The following stories shed a new light on all this. The Bais Halevi, the famous rabbi of Brisk, during a trip once visited a former student of his. The Rabbi asked him how he was doing. The student answered, "Thank G'd, business is fine, my family is healthy, everything is going well." The Rabbi asked again, "How are you doing?" The student assumed that the Rabbi had not heard him the first time, so he repeated his answer. The Rabbi told him that he heard him the first time, and informed him, "That your family is doing well and the business is going fine, this is G'd's doing, but I want to know how you are doing?"

G'd fearing Jew

A similar incident is related about his grandson, Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik who elaborated and explained that we Jews do not define ourselves by what we do for a living. The Prophet Jonah was travelling on a boat hit by a storm as we read in the Haftorah on Yom Kippur. He was asked by his fellow travelers what is your occupation? Where do you come from? He answered them, "I am a Hebrew and I fear HASHEM, the G'd of the Heavens, Who created the oceans and the land" (Jonah 1:8-9). Jonah did not reply that he was a prophet, but that he was a G'd fearing Jew. As Jews, we should define ourselves not by how we are making a living but by our essence of being G'd fearing people (see Listen to your messages, by Rabbi Yissocher Frand, p.201). This is what it says in the Talmud (Berachot 33b), everything is in the Hands of Heaven besides fear of Heaven. Being a G'd fearing Jew manifests itself in our prayers. As King David says (Tehillim 33:18), "Behold the eye of G'd is upon those who fear Him, those who long for His lovingkindness, to save their soul from death and to sustain them in hunger. Our souls long for HASHEM, our hope and shield …" We define ourselves as people who fear G'd and we express our longing for His help through our prayers.

Prayer occupation

Rabbi Yerucham Levowitz, one of the great mussar exponents of pre-war times, explains that from the time of our Patriarchs the occupation of the Jewish nation is prayer. Unlike the nations of the world, who are governed by the laws of nature, we are directly dependent upon G'd Himself under His personal guidance. As it says (Devarim 4:19): "Don't raise your eyes to the heavens so you will see the sun, moon and stars - the entire legion of heaven …which HASHEM your G'd has given to the nations under the entire sky. But G'd took you and brought you out from the iron oven, from Egypt, to be a nation that is His lot to this very day."

Natural forces

G'd created a world where the laws of nature are affected by the sun, moon and other natural forces. The entire world is governed by these laws of nature. But when G'd selected the Jewish nation at the time of the Patriarchs and later brought the Jews out from Egypt, we came under His direct supervision. The nations of the world will achieve their accomplishments through the work of their hands and other natural efforts; whereas, the Jewish people achieve by turning ourselves to G'd through prayer. As we say everyday with the words of King David (Tehillim 20:8), "These with chariots and those with horses, but we call out in the name of HASHEM our G'd." Whether in times of war or times of peace, our strength lies in our ability to pray directly to G'd. As the Talmud (Sotah 49b) says regarding the situation before the coming of Mashiach, "who do we have to rely on, only our Father in heaven." This is also alluded to in the famous words of our Patriarch Isaac (Beresheis 27:22 ): "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Eisav." This is not to say that the prayers of non-Jews are futile, or that Jews do not need to work. In the continuation of King Solomon's prayer at the inauguration of the Temple he pleaded for the gentiles as well and said (Books of Kings I 8:41-43): "Also the gentile that is not from your nation Israel who come from a distant country …and he will pray in this House [Temple] and You shall listen in heaven … and do all that he asks …" For the Jewish nation prayer is our occupation and our only real means of success. We work because we may not rely on open miracles, and for the vast majority of Jews, G'd wants us to live normal and natural lifestyles. However, we must always bear in mind that our primary effort of making a living is through prayer. As the Chofetz Chaim once impressed upon a Jew who on a weekday morning left the synagogue in a rush before the end of the service. "Where are you running?, asked the sage. "To make a living", answered the Jew. Replied the Chofetz Chaim, "Maybe you are really running away from making a living." When we see many Jews who are successful in business despite the fact that they do not pray, it may be the result of prayers of their ancestors and other righteous people, or based on other calculations that only G'd Himself knows. On the other hand, for the non-Jews prayer is an opportunity that can enhance their situation but it cannot be their occupation, for they are in general always governed by the laws of nature and its forces.

Good times and bad

Rabbi Levowitz lived in the time just prior to World War II, when the Jews of Europe felt the noose tightening around their necks. On one side Nazi Germany, made one decree after another restricting the Jewish citizens and eventually stripping them of their citizenship altogether. On the other side was Communist Russia making it more and more difficult to live a life of Jewish observance. Whoever was caught was doomed to exile or worse. It was a time of despair. Everyone understood that there was nothing to do but to turn in prayer to the Almighty. But said Rabbi Levowitz, is it only in time of peril and danger that we have no one else to turn to? Even when things go well, we also have no one else and we are totally dependent only on G'd Himself. In this regard, there really is no difference whether times are good or difficult.

Begging for needs

In his commentary on Pirkei Avos (2:18), Rabbenu Yona explains the words of Rabbi Shimon: "Don't make your prayer a routine, rather ask for compassion and supplication from G'd. As it says, 'For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness …" Says Rabbenu Yona, in any situation one should pray as a needy person begging for his needs and not just say the words as someone who does not need anything. Everyone needs to pray for himself because no one is free of sin. Even when everything seems to be fine and going well who knows if this is due to the slow anger of G'd Who mercifully is just waiting for the person to repent. In the best of times, a person should be humble and realize that everything he has may just be an act of mercy of G'd.


Concludes Rabbi Levowitz, our sages comment that the Jewish people prior to the splitting of the sea took on the occupation of their forefathers. It teaches us firstly what our occupation really is, namely prayer. It further teaches us how to pray. At the time of peril and danger, the outcry in prayer is very sincere. By telling us that the Jews at the Sea took to the occupation of their forefathers, our sages teach us that when our Patriarchs instituted our three daily prayers, it is to be done with the same sincerity and focus as prayers in special times. There should be no difference in the format of the prayer whether in "regular" daily prayer or whether it is a prayer in times of danger and peril. Although there are two kinds of prayer, there is only one sincerity with which to say any prayer. May the words of King David regarding the time prior to the coming of Moshiach (as the Vilna Gaon explains) come to fulfillment: (Tehillim 20:8-10)"These with chariots and those with horses, but we call out in the name of HASHEM our G'd. They knelt down and fell and we stood up and were encouraged. G'd help! The King will answer on the day that we call."

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel