T’fillah/Prayer: A Mitzvah to Take a “Time Out”

aT'fillah/Prayer: A Mitzvah to Take a "Time Out"

The obligation to engage in daily prayer, t’fillah, is one of Scripture’s less well-defined commandments.

In its rabbinic guise, however, it became a mitzvah to pray, using pre-selected texts, three times a day most days of the year and even more on certain special days. But prayer is not just focused talking.

Indeed, the Talmud, at Taanit 2a, describes prayer as the “service of the heart,” not merely because it is an example of exalted speech, but because tradition understands prayer to be as introspective an act as it is a communicative one.

T’fillah (also spelled tefillah), Jewish prayer, is more than the sum of its parts and encompasses far more than just the obligation to recite certain specific prayers three or more times a day.

Jewish prayer incorporates b’rakhot (also spelled berachot), benedictions, designed to sanctify, thus to grant a deep spiritual dimension, to experiences as diverse as eating a peach, smelling a rose, hearing a clap of thunder, and seeing a head of state.

But t’fillah also incorporates spontaneous prayer, words we say when we find ourselves in moments of ill ease or worrisome need, or in moments of sublime gratitude.

We pray as Jews to feel connected to our common history, to feel attached to Jews throughout the world, and to solidify our sense of belonging to our own communities. We pray as a people eager to communicate with God in the context of an ongoing covenantal relationship, but we also pray as individuals intent on establishing an intimate and wholly personal relationship with God.

The Goals and Functions of Prayer

T’fillah, the Hebrew word for prayer, comes from a three-letter root that expands in other contexts to yield a range of words mostly related to the concept of judgment. From this, we learn that, when we pray, we stand before God and before ourselves in judgment.

T’fillah, however, is not a final verdict, but far more of a stopping-off point on the long journey toward deciding who we are and how we are living our lives, and how the answers to those questions correlate with our sense of God’s will in both matters.

T’fillah is a God-given moment to measure the lives we are living today and, if that measure comes up short, to use the inspiration that comes from feeling ourselves to be in the presence of God to envisage the lives we wish to be living tomorrow.

T’fillah is our “time out,” an opportunity that comes three times a day to breathe, to take stock, to pause, and to evaluate who and where we are. As we anchor our awareness of these moments in life itself, we develop a greater capacity to recognize the extraordinary within our ordinary lives, and we gain the concomitant ability to sanctify those lives as well.

Adapted with permission from The Observant Life.


  • The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews distills a century of thoughtful inquiry into the most profound of all Jewish questions: how to suffuse life with timeless values, how to remain loyal to the covenant that binds the Jewish people and the God of Israel, and how to embrace the law while retaining an abiding sense of fidelity to one’s own moral path in life. Written in a multiplicity of voices inspired by a common vision, the authors of The Observant Life explain what it means in the ultimate sense to live a Jewish life, and to live it honestly, morally, and purposefully. The work is a comprehensive guide to life in the 21st Century. Chapters on Jewish rituals including prayer, holiday, life cycle events and Jewish ethics such as citizenship, slander, taxes, wills, the courts, the work place and so much more.

  • Rabbi Dr. Karen G Reiss Medwed, works in higher education, as a Senior Assistant Dean for Faculty Affairs and Network Engagement. Dr. Reiss Medwed's scholarship includes understanding the growth of the field of digital education and instruction in higher education, K-12 education and faith-based education. Dr. Reiss Medwed was ordained by JTS in 1995, and earned her Ph.D. from New York University's Steinhardt School of Education in Curriculum, Teaching and Learning with a specialization in Jewish education in 2005. She was a Steinhardt Fellow for the four years of her doctoral studies. She went on to design and develop a Master of Education program in Faith-Based Education at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. Dr. Medwed has studied the development of innovative practices for digital learning and instruction and leadership in higher education.

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