What is Prayer?

And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord.

1 Samuel 1:15 (KJV)

Soul – When we think of prayer, we think of our needs or requests. Often times our prayers include phrases like “Heal me.” “Redeem me.” “Have mercy on me.” “Forgive me.” It’s very me focused. Prayer’s relevance arises when we have lost some sort of control and need God to help us get a handle on it again. That’s our Greek mindedness — retaining that control. But what if our perception of prayer was all wrong?

A paragraph from The Complete Artscroll Siddur by Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, explains something interesting below.

Man is the creature that prays. And as mentioned in that paragraph, the soul is likened to the prayer of man. Here is the except referenced from the Talmud.

Another of Abba Binyamin’s statements with regard to the laws of prayer was taught in a baraita: Abba Binyamin says: If two people enter a synagogue outside of the city in order to pray, and one began praying before the other and did not wait for the other person to complete his prayer, and left him alone in the synagogue, his prayer is thrown back in his face. Because he left the other person alone and caused him to be distracted during his prayer, his own prayer is thrown back in his face, as it is stated: “You who throw your soul in your face, for your sake will the earth be forsaken? The Rock will be moved from its place” (Job 18:4).

Talmud, Berakhot 5b

The relationship between the soul and one’s prayer is made clear. So when Hannah, from the verse in 1 Samuel, tells Eli that she poured out her soul before the Lord, she’s essentially speaking of her prayer.

What is man but his soul, and what is man’s soul but his innermost longing, whatever matters to him most? These are the things in which man puts his faith, and the form of that faith is prayer. It comes from a place within man.

Prayer, then, is not a list of requests. It is an introspective process, a clarifying, refining process of discovering what one is, what he should be, and how to achieve the transformation.

The Complete Artscroll Siddur, Nosson Scherman, Meir Zlotowitz

Our very soul is the source of our prayer. It is the preparation of our heart for a Godly life. The word for “prayer” in Hebrew is tefillah (תְּפִלָּה‎), and from it we can derive the root, palal ( פָּלַל ) which means “to judge, to mediate, or to differentiate.” So prayer is our soul’s desire to understand what truly matters opposed to those trivial things that masquerade as important.

This should offer another perspective to prayer. It’s not just about alerting God to our needs. He knows what we need already, right? If that was the case, then surely prayer wouldn’t be necessary. It’s true purpose is to help us develop true perceptions of life so that we are better prepared for God’s blessings.

It’s important to point out that the Hebrew verb for “praying” is reflexive (מתפלל). So the person praying requires actions of himself. Self-evaluation and self-judgement become the crux of prayer in an attempt to remove ourselves from the frivolous, and better align us to God’s purpose for our lives.

If you notice in Hannah’s prayer, while it begins with her desire for a child, it quickly becomes about how that child will be a servant for God’s purpose. Hannah poured out her soul in prayer. Her lips moved even though her words were not heard by those around her. And God granted her a son so that His will would be fulfilled.

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