Bereishis, 48:22: “And as for me, I have given you Shechem – one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorite with my sword and with my bow.”
Onkelos, 48:22 “With my prayer (tzaluti) and my supplication (ba’uti).

After blessing the sons of Yosef, Yaakov tells his son that he is giving him the land of Shechem as an extra inheritance. Yaakov explains that he took Shechem from the Emorites with his sword and bow. The Targum Onkelos understands that this does not literally refer to a physical sword and bow, rather Yaakov was alluding to his prayer. However, Yaakov uses two different words that both refer to prayer, and it is not immediately apparent what the difference is between these two forms of prayer.

The Meshech Chachma explains that these two terms denote two, very different modes of conversing with God. ‘Tzaluti’ refers to fixed prayer, such as the three times that we pray daily, whereas ‘Ba’uti’ refers to non-fixed forms of prayer that a person can engage it at any time. He elaborates that in fixed prayer, if a person does not have great intention, then his prayer is still effective.1 With regard to the Amidah, it is only essential to have intent of the meaning of the words in the first blessing, but after that, a person fulfils his obligation even if he has very little intention. In contrast, one’s own non-fixed prayer requires a far higher level of intent in order for it to be effective – the person praying must have full focus, attention and understanding of what he is saying.

The Meshech Chachma adds that fixed prayer is generally a communal form of prayer2 and he cites a Gemara3 that distinguishes between communal prayer and individual prayer in this way – that if a group prays without intent, God nonetheless answers their prayers, but for an individual prays his own personal prayer, he must have intent for his prayer to be answered. The Meshech Chachma then returns to explain the symbolism of the sword and arrow. The blade of a sword is inherently dangerous, and requires very little effort and accuracy in order to do significant damage. Accordingly, a sword represents fixed prayer which requires little intent in order to be effective. An arrow, in contrast, is relatively harmless unless it is used in an expert fashion. This characterizes individual, unfixed prayer which requires great intent and understanding in order to be received.

The Meshech Chachma’s explanation sheds light on the significance of both forms of prayer and the areas that require particular focus in each respective form: With regard to the fixed form of prayer, the first, and most obvious lesson is the importance of performing the fixed prayers at the correct time. Moreover, with regard to men’s prayer, the Meshech Chachma also emphasized the intrinsic power of davening in a minyan. With regard to women’s prayer, there is no obligation to pray in a Minyan, but the standard ruling for Ashkenazi women is that they are obligated to pray Shacharit (morning prayers) and Mincha (afternoon prayers), unless they have the status of a ‘truda’ -someone who is too busy to pray.4 This does not seem to generally apply to non-married women or women with older children, and even many women with children manage to pray the morning and afternoon prayers.

With regard to the individual, non-fixed form or prayer, the main emphasis is on intent. It would seem that it should not be too difficult to have intent since one is speaking in his own words and is focussing on his specific needs. However, the Torah’s account of the splitting of the Sea in Beshalach reveals that this is not so straightforward.

The Torah tells us that when the Jewish people beheld the fearsome sight of the Egyptian army approaching, they cried out to God.5 Rashi explains that they cried out in the tradition of the Patriarchs, which would seem to be a praiseworthy deed in that they learnt from their great forefathers the power of prayer.6 However, in the very next verse we are told that they complained to Moshe that he brought them to die in the desert. This indicates that they were not acting on a high level at all. This begs the question of how could one verse seemingly demonstrate their great righteousness in prayer, and the very next verse highlight their iniquity?!7

The Maharal answers by interpreting Rashi’s explanation that they grasped the craft of their forefathers, in an alternative way from the simple understanding. He writes that Rashi does not mean to praise the Jewish people for following in the ways of the Patriarchs by praying. They were not praying in sincere supplication to God in the way that tzaddikim prayed. Rather, Rashi is telling us that they prayed because that was what their ancestors did; in other words, they prayed out of habit. Thus, when the Torah tells us that they cried out to God it is not saying that they attained any high level. Accordingly, it is easy to understand how in the very next verse we are told that they acted in a blameworthy manner.8 We learn from the Maharal that even these kinds of prayers can be affected by habit. This means that a person can pray in times of need just because that is what he was brought up to do and there is no internal depth to his words. Moreover, this can be the case when a person adds the same individual prayers to his Amidah on a constant basis.

Rebbetzin Henny Machlis excelled in both forms of prayer – the following two stories provide small examples of both the importance of fixed prayer and the power of individual prayer with intent: At the age of twenty-one Rebbetzin Machlis was in the midst of her first childbirth. After several hours of grueling labor, she was told that they had to do a caesarian section. As she was about to be taken into surgery, she suddenly, said, ‘STOP! I have to daven (pray) Mincha before we go into surgery!9 Even in such a drastic situation, she maintained her steadfastness in adhering to the fixed prayers.

The following story shows the power of her personal prayers: One of her daughters sucked her thumb for a long time and everyone said that she would need braces for her buckteeth. Rebbetzin Machlis, asserting that God could make her daughter’s teeth straight without braces, prayed that her teeth become straight. That daughter, now in her twenties has perfectly straight teeth without needing braces. Another daughter, at the age of 19, did need braces and complained to her mother, ‘didn’t you pray for me to have straight teeth?’ Rebbetzin Machlis replied, ‘I prayed for a lot of things for you, but because you didn’t suck your thumb, I forgot to daven for straight teeth.”10

We have seen how Yaakov taught us the value of the two main forms of prayer – may we merit to emulate his example and, in more recent times, those of great people like Rebbetzin Machlis.

  1. Needless to say, the more intent a person has in prayer, the more potent it is, and the more effective it is to change the person praying.
  2. This refers to men’s prayers more than those of women.
  3. Taanit 8a.
  4. This follows the opinion of the Ramban. There is a debate among the Sefardi authorities as to whether women are obligated to pray Shacharit and Mincha.
  5. Shemot, 14:1
  6. Rashi, Shemot, 14:10.
  7. See Sichot Mussar, Maamer 2, ‘The Light and Darkness in Man’ for one approach to this question.
  8. Gur Aryeh, Shemot, 14:10.
  9. Mrs Sarah Yocheved Rigler, Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup, Chapter 13 p.451. This whole Chapter discusses Rebbetsin Machlis’ amazing devotion to prayer.
  10. Ibid, p,467.