Does God Hear Our Prayers?

Traditional Judaism answers with an emphatic

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The following article looks at the traditional ways in which Judaism explains the communication of Jews with God through prayer. At the end, the author raises some questions that many modern Jews have asked about prayer and God's answer to it. Reprinted with permission from The Way Into Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights).

The traditional view of prayer is relatively straightforward. The Bible, for instance, takes it for granted that people have conversa­tions with God the same way they do with each other. To take but one example, Moses pleads with God to pardon Israel's sins, and God duly responds, "I have pardoned, just as you say" (Numbers 14:20). Sometimes God initiates the conversation; sometimes hu­man beings do. But either way, God appears here as an all-knowing and all-powerful being who welcomes our praise and, if we are deserving, acts positively on our requests.

Talmudic Beliefs

By the second half of the second century B.C.E., the leaders whom we call the Rabbis were coming into being. So influential were they for all the rest of Jewish history that Jews today are uni­versally rabbinic through and through. Jewish tradition is the Hebrew scriptures that Jews call the Bible plus the voluminous writings of the Rabbis of antiquity and the subsequent, equally monumental work of other Jewish leaders, also called rabbis, from the Middle Ages up to and including our own day. We customarily differentiate the Rabbis who laid the foundation for rabbinic Judaism until roughly the middle of the sixth century C.E. from the rabbis who are their spiritual descendants by capitalizing the first term but using lowercase for the second.

By the year 200 C.E., the Rabbis had recorded their views on prayer (as on everything else) in a compendium called the Mishnah. By 400 C.E., further generations of Rabbis in the Land of Israel had composed a larger work called the Palestinian Talmud. And some­where around 550 C.E., Rabbis in Babylonia (present-day Iraq) compiled a monumental work (some 16,000 pages in the standard English translation) called the Babylonian Talmud, or sometimes just the Talmud because of its size and influence.

From all of these works, we see that the Rabbis viewed God more or less as their biblical forbears. They knew that unlike the prophets, however, they themselves never heard God speak, so they concluded that actual prophecy had ceased. Apparently God didn't initiate conversations any more.

Formalized Prayer

But the Rabbis were equally certain that God still hears our prayers, and sometimes even answers them by granting the things we pray for. They were sure, in fact, that God wants us to pray--and not just as the mood strikes us, but regularly, and in community, not alone.

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Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., is Professor of Liturgy at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is the author of The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Alone, Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide, and The Way Home: Discovering the Deep Spiritual Wisdom of the Jewish Tradition.