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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beshalach: Prayer, an 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 has never been the norm. There are two kinds of prayer. King Solomon referred to special prayers 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, we achieve our accomplishments through prayer. We are totally dependent on G'd, both in good and difficult times. No one is free of sin. Although there are two kinds of prayer, they both have to be said with sincerity.

Frightened and cried out

In this week's parasha the Torah relates how the Jewish people, who had recently left Egypt, suddenly saw 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 the Midrash Rabba (Shemos 28:11) that describes their praying as "taking to the occupation of their forefathers".

Prayer as an occupation?

The Talmud (Berachot 26b) teaches that Abraham was the one who instituted the morning prayer, Isaac the afternoon prayer, and Jacob the evening prayer. However, what does the Midrash mean when it refers 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 the occupation of our patriarchs said to be prayer rather than how they made a living?

Nine hours

The Talmud relates (Berachot 30b) how there used to be righteous people who spent three hours for each of the three daily prayers, a total of nine hours per day. In regards to these people it may be correct to say that prayer was their occupation. But praying for nine hours has never been the norm, and we do not find any reference that our Patriarchs conducted themselves in this way.

Two kinds of prayer

We may be able to answer our question by analyzing the concept of prayer a little further. We find that there are two distinct kinds of prayer: the regular daily prayers and prayers recited in times of need and danger. After Jacob blessed Joseph's children, he told Joseph (Bereishis 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 times of need and danger.

Special prayers

The Ramban, in his Annotations on the Rambam's Book of the Commandments (Mitzvah 5), explains that when 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 …", it is a commandment to pray 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 when he 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). It is this kind of prayer the Jews prayed as they cried out when they stood before the Sea with the Egyptians in pursuit. However, if that is the case, why do our sages say that they followed in the footsteps of the Patriarchs? The Patriarchs instituted regular daily prayer services.

How are you doing?

The following will help us clarify all this. The Bais Halevi, the famous rabbi of Brisk, once visited a former student of his. The Rabbi asked his host 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 responded that he heard him the first time, and said, "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

We gain a similar message from his grandson, Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that we learn from the Prophet Jonah that we do not define ourselves by what we do for a living. Jonah was travelling on a boat that was hit by a storm, as we read in the Haftorah on Yom Kippur. He was asked by his fellow travelers what is your occupation? He answered, "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 define ourselves by our essence as G'd fearing people (see Listen to your messages, by Rabbi Yissocher Frand, p.201). This is what the Talmud (Berachot 33b) teaches: "Everything is in the Hands of Heaven but fear of Heaven." Being a G'd fearing Jew manifests itself first and foremost 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 strive to be among those who fear G'd and express their longing for His help through prayer.

Prayer occupation

Rabbi Yerucham Levowitz, the great mashgiach of pre-war Mirrer Yeshiva, explains that from the time of our Patriarchs, our occupation 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 to 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

The last two weeks we spoke about how 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 of Egypt, we came under His direct supervision. The nations of the world achieve their accomplishments through work and other natural efforts; whereas, the Jewish people achieve by turning ourselves to G'd in prayer. We say this everyday as we quote from (Tehillim 20:8): "These with chariots and those with horses, but we call out in the name of HASHEM our G'd." In times of war and in times of peace, our strength lies in our ability to pray directly to G'd. The Talmud (Sotah 49b) expresses this in regards to our time, just prior to 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 (Bereishis 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 …" However, for the Jewish nation prayer is our real occupation and our only 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 a normal and natural lifestyle.

At the same time, we must always bear in mind that our primary effort of making a living is through prayer. The Chofetz Chaim once impressed this lesson upon someone 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 my business so that I can make a living", answered the fellow. Replied the Chofetz Chaim, "Maybe you are really running away from making a living." The obvious question is that we see many Jews who are successful in business despite the fact that they do not pray. This may be the result of the prayers of their ancestors or other righteous people, or it can be due to other calculations that only G'd Himself knows. On the other hand, for non-Jews prayer is an opportunity that can enhance their situation, but it is never their occupation, for unless G'd decides otherwise, they are governed by the laws of nature and its forces.

Good and difficult times

Rabbi Levowitz lived just prior to World War II, when the Jews of Eastern Europe felt the noose tightening around their necks. On one side Nazi Germany, made one decree after another restricting the Jewish citizens and eventually stripped 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. Every observant Jew understood that there was nothing to do but to turn to G'd. 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. We are always totally dependent on G'd. In this regard, said Rabbi Levowitz, there really is no difference whether times are good or difficult.

Not free of sin

The Mishna says in Pirkei Avos (2:18): "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 …" In his commentary, Rabbenu Yona explains that we shall pray as someone in need, even in good times, and not just say the words as if we do not need anything. We all need to pray like this for no one is free of sin. Therefore, even when everything seems to be fine, we do not know if this is due to the slow anger of G'd Who mercifully is just waiting for us to repent. We must be humble before G'd and realize that everything we have may be due to G'd's mercy.


The fact that our sages describe the Jewish people's prayer as taking on the occupation of their forefathers, concludes Rabbi Levowitz, also teaches us how to pray. At the time of peril and danger, one's prayer is very sincere. By comparing it to the three daily prayers of our Patriarchs, our sages teach that these regular prayers should be done with the same sincerity and focus as prayers in special times. There should be no difference in the way we pray our "regular" daily prayers and the way we pray our "special" prayers in times of danger and peril. Although they are two kinds of prayer, there is only one way of sincerity with which to say them. In this merit, may the words of King David 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 notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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