Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Name For A Prayer

What's his name?
When you pray for someone, does it matter if you get their Hebrew name right? I think that this is another ramification of the difference between the rationalist and mystical worldviews.

According the mystical approach, your prayers (or, as is more common with people who subscribe to this approach, your Tehillim or Torah), function to mechanically manipulate various metaphysical forces. If you get the name wrong, then it presumably simply won't work. Now, of course you can claim that Hashem will make the necessary adjustment to the process. Still, the mystical mindset, with its focus on mechanistic manipulations of metaphysical forces via the power of combinations of letters, certainly points in the direction of mistakes being critical. (It reminds me of the joke about the 80-year-old sick woman who called Kupat Ha-Ir to donate to get a refuah shelemah. When given a list of options, she accidentally pressed the wrong number, and ended up pregnant!)

According the rationalist approach, the concept of petitionary prayer is itself complex (for a fascinating discussion of Rambam's view, see Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides); but basically it is about developing one's own relationship both with God and with the person for whom you are praying. Accordingly, it doesn't matter if you don't get the Hebrew name correct. What's more important is for you to know who you are praying for.

In fact, I would also point out that historically, when people did not have family names, and when you only knew a few hundred people at most, the way to identify someone was by saying "So-and-so the son of so-and-so." But nowadays, we have family names, and we know many thousands of people. So, from a rationalist perspective, when you ask people to pray for someone, it is more important that they should know the family name - i.e., to know exactly who they are - than for them to be given a name that may well be meaningless to them. You might know many Shmuel ben Leahs, or the name might not mean anything at all to you, but you do know one, and probably only one, Steven Spielberg.

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A note of relevance: Many articles by Prof. Menachem Kellner, many of which relate to Rambam and rationalist Judaism, have been uploaded and can be found at https://shalemcollege.academia.edu/MenachemKellner. A terrific resource!

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41 comments:

  1. There was an incident involving R' Moshe Feinstein and R' Yaakov Kamenetzky, where one of them was undergoing an operation and the other was having a Mi SheBerach made for him (I forgot which way). No one in the shul knew the name of the mother of the one undergoing the operation, and the other one said "Don't worry, God knows who we are talking about."

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    1. It's in the Artscroll biography of R' Moshe. He says, "Just say 'Reb Yaakov'; Hashem knows who 'Reb Yaakov' is."

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    2. But that may not be a Rayah. Perhaps R Moshe meant that a Gaon and Tzaddik like R Yaakov is really known to Hashem, but a Beinoni needs the 'official' method of Ploni ben Plonis..!

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  2. I have always had problems with the concept of praying for someone who you know nothing about except the name. For example, if I get a message "Please pray for Ploni ben Plonit who is going through a medical procedure", intellectually I have trouble understanding how this Tfilla works, as opposed to a message that says "The father of your close friend so and so is undergoing an heart transplant tomorrow afternoon and needs your Tfilla", in this case even if I don't know the name at all, I know who the person is and why he needs my Tfilla and the tfilla feels more personal and sincere to me.

    I know that traditionally the name and mother's name is an important component of the Tfilla, I just have trouble with the concept.

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    1. Agreed.

      I struggle even more with the seemingly recently-developed custom of the mishebeirach recited after kriat hatorah on shabbat, containing a long list of names of cholim and the phrase "baa'avur shekol hakal mitpalel ba'avuram".

      At what point in this process is the community actually praying for these cholim? Further, even if they were minded to do so, how does a prayer for someone you don't know, are not aware of your connection to them, and sometimes can't even hear their name being read, actually supposed to 'work'?

      Joel

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    2. agreed
      I have always had problems with the concept of praying for someone who you know nothing about except the name.

      and more so where no name is given because of a desire (imho misplaced) for anonynimty
      KT
      Joel Rich

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    3. I used to daven at a no-nonsense Simchat Torah minyan (only five aliyot) organized by a rationalist rav we both know. He said that he would make one Mi Sheberach per person- not group them as is done (it didn't take more time- he did it as we rolled from the end of the Torah back to the beginning)- but only if the person making the request actually knew the ill person.

      So one guy stepped up. "Is the person really ill? Do you personally care about them?" "Oh, sure, sure."

      So he makes the Mi Sheberach. The second the guy gives him the name, he goes back and starts talking to his friends, not even listening to the bulk of the Mi Sheberach and not even saying Amen at he end.

      That's stuck with me. It's very obvious that some people have a "thing" to memorize as many names as they can and give them, and don't know more than that.

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    4. My shul (Kehilat Yedidya) has a misheberach for people in need of healing where the person saying it pauses at the place for names, and everyone has in mind whoever they want.

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    5. Warren Burstein, a somewhat known rabbi told a gabai I know, when asked if the shul could do this to cut down on the Tirchah D'tziburah, that, no, it should not be done. No clear reason was given but the implication was it doesn't work (as well? at all?) unless you do it the old-fashioned way, name by name out loud.

      Sheesh!!!

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  3. A truly rational approach would hold that God is immutable and thus unaffected by prayer with prayer being essentially for the benefit of man. As such the name shouldn't really matter as long the prayer knows who he's praying for and the prayee knows or believes that he's being prayed for.

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    1. That approach is neither rational nor Jewish. It is atheistic or Aristotelian. This does not involve God, but rather hoping for the Placebo Effect.

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    2. Maybe, but such a position can certainly be found in "The Guide".

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    3. "Your Correspondent", how on Earth can holding of an immuatable God be atheistic?

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    4. Except that we find a number of examples in the Torah of prayer being effective and changing God's mind, see for example, Moshe's prayer for the Jewish people after the cheit haegel.

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  4. My attitude has always been that Hashem is smarter than a post office. He knows who you mean.

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  5. Your choice of example was, perhaps, unfortunate. Many of us knew Mr. Spielberg's mother who ran a kosher restaurant in LA, first on Beverly Dr. and later on Pico.

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    1. Why unfortunate?

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    2. Aside from the fact that the original version of the post had her name wrong, if you know someone, her name is more meaningful than if you just get some social media request to pray for ploni ben plonit.

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  6. I recall hearing once that the main point of using the name is to focus the intent of the one offering the prayer.

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  7. My own humble opinion comes down on an "it depends". There is certainly a difference between a prayer that comes with the effort of trying to find out the person's "offical prayer name" than one which is done with less effort involved.

    So, it depends why the prayer has the person's name. Passed on 12th hand via "mi shebeirakh list" email chain, perhaps not so much.

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  8. BTW - the effectiveness of prayer without using the correct name has been tested and come out lacking, so clearly using the correct name is important.
    In the following study various groups were asked to pray for people, but it doesn't say that they used the correct names, so that would explain why there were no positive results:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3193902.stm

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  9. Praying for a sick person does diddly squat for that person, whether you know the individual or not, whether you use the correct name or not, whether 10,000 people pray for their sick rebbe or not. There is nothing other than an occasional anecdote that suggests otherwise. Certainly there is zero evidence when prayer for others is studied scientifically.

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    1. If there was evidence that wouldn't require a leap of FAITH. Being a rationalist doesn't require you to be an athiest

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    2. Ma inyan science etzel tefillah?
      What a peculiar critique.

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  10. Excellent post. For all the reasons you said, and other commenters added, the emphasis on first names in prayer always seems misguided.

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  11. part of a larger question about the efficacy of prayer in general

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  12. See Rashi on Bamidbar 21:1. We see it's better to have the correct name. It would seem that it also works otherwise, but is more difficult to get the desired results.

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  13. zdub: Assuming you believe that praying for oneself can do more than "diddly squat" for the person...

    And I think it's within the realm of Orthodox thought to believe one prays to G-d when experiencing troubles because one turns to their parents when they have a hard time and need someone to talk to. Without any belief that there would be a chance of change for doing so.

    (After all, I believe that it indeed the purpose of requests in prayer -- not to get the request, but the relationship with G-d. I personally believe that a change in the person's relationship with G-d could change what G-d gives them. But I wouldn't say that someone who ruled it out is beyond the bounds of Torah. As long as they have some explanation for our rich tradition of supplicative prayer.

    But again, assuming prayer can change the outcome of events in one's own life...

    What about praying for one's child? After all, doesn't a parent need an end to their own distress over their child's pain?

    Now, what about the lesser bt still present distress over the poor health (or other misfortune) of a close friend or a cousin?

    R JB Soloveitchik explains that the way praying for another works is by getting more people impacted by the person's fate. A human court ends up punishing more than the criminal. When a person is sent to jail, his wife is deprived of his companionship, his help, and any (legitimate) income he brought in. His kids lose access to a father. The whole family suffers embarrassment. His boss now has the job of hiring someone new, or at least finding coverage, etc...

    But with G-d, everyone gets exactly what they have coming to them. So that by getting other people emotionally invested in this person's health, you can get someone whose prayers ought to be answered.

    This is NOT a defense for the way Mi sheBeirakh is usually done. Especially in this era of long lists of names that only one person in shul knows of, or perhaps one person knows of someone who knows of, saw the name on a email list, etc...

    If I were running a shul, I would ask the person submitting the name if they check in with their source to find out how the person is doing. If no one in shul worries about the person's help, I don't think the prayer has enough value to justify the interruption of services.

    Similarly, the practice Warren Burstein reports, and I have seen as well. In some shuls the list has gotten so long that the prayer has become a chat break. Both bad in and of itself, and horrendous in terms of how bridging that limit impacts the amount of distraction and off-topic-chatting during rest of davening. That too is part of the cost of trying to include too many people in a Mi sheBeirakh.

    Before telecom, the number of people prayed for was so few, each got their own MsB. This whole business of grouping names into one (or one per gender) reflects too much ritualization of the concept of prayer. Stick to people the minyan is emotionally invested in.

    (RJBS also insists that Mi sheBerakh on Shabbos should be limited to life-and-limb cases whose medical care would override Shabbos.)

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  14. R. Reuven Mann once pointed out that Moshe Rabbenu prayed for Miriam without stating her name "אל נא רפא נא לה". It is magical thinking to believe that the only way your prayer can reach God is through the special key that is their name. It may be psychologically transformative in some way to explicitly articulate their name and their parent's name... but it is perfectly sufficient to mentally map who the referent is or what your connection to them is in order to pray for them.

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  15. Good news for R. Slifkin: all those wishing ill on "Nosson Slifkin" will have their klalos returned unopened.

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  16. I have a problem with people having a problem with the concept of praying for someone who they know nothing about except the name. Aren't all Jews bothers and sisters? Just train yourself in empathy.
    It also seems the people claiming the problem actually have the empathy that they claim to lack. When a terrorist slaughters Jewish "strangers" in a backwoods Kibbutz, don't they all mourn? So illness is in whatever way the same idea. It's in you -just take some time to think about it.

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  17. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot, page 34A:
    Rabbi Huna taught:
    Whoever prayers for his friend,
    does NOT need to specify his name.

    תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לד/א
    אמר רב חסדא כל המבקש רחמים
    על חבירו אין צריך להזכיר שמו
    =====================================

    Rambam Rejected Childless Messiah:

    http://shilohmusings.blogspot.com/2016/08/rambam-rejected-childless-messiah-by-mr.html

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    1. The more explicit a source is against popular custom, the more likely the custom is defended from it in Halachic literature.

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  18. @Yonah: "Good news for R. Slifkin: all those wishing ill on "Nosson Slifkin" will have their klalos returned unopened."

    Unless the change to Natan was rejected by heaven :).

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    1. I have it on good authority that it was always Natan. :-)

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  19. The mi shebeirach traditionally included a promise to tzedaka. It was the tzedaka that was the merit. As a gabbai, I give a pause at baavur, to let the person know that a donation is now in place.

    This mi shebeiracah business is just a waste of time. If anybody cares that much about someone else's illness, let us see them doing something in their own lives, instead of jumping on the tzibbur to make it their problem. They should make a tehillim group after davening and whoever decides that is the correct avoda for them, should stay for it. One may force a mitzva on others as arvus, not a personal madreiga.

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    1. It's because of the promise to tzedaka that our late rav, Eliezer Cohen z"l, insisted on a separate mi sheberach for each choleh. This would add between 10 and 15 minutes to the davening, so after his passing, we adopted the practice (may he forgive us!) of reciting a single group mi sheberach as is done elsewhere.

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    2. Back when our shul made a separate mi sheberach for each choleh, one of our members requested one for "Father Francis." The gabbai dutifully repeated that name, and continued, "... btoch shaar cholei Yisrael...."

      Given that "btoch shaar..." implies inclusion in the Jewish people, I congratulated him afterward on having converted a priest.

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  20. I observed a delicious irony once. On Yom Kippur I wanted to do a Mi Shebeirach for an aunt in a coma. I asked my cousin who was also there for her precise name, as I had thought she had a Shinei Shem a while ago, to which he responded "I'm sure Hashem knows".

    Later that day, when he got Maftir Yona, and made a long Mi Shebeirach which included all his friends in Shul individually by name (rather than 'Kol Hakohol Hakodosh Hazeh', I was tempted to remind him, "Don't worry, I'm sure Hashem knows".

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    1. When I was 18 the wife of the rabbi that I was learning with got sick. He wouldn't give me her name to pray for because, he said, once you get her on one of those lists you can't get her off and these prayers will make her sick again. This was 40 years ago and the rabbi was a Breslover, so mysticism can work with common sense too.

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