What is the Hebrew Word for Prayer?
The Hebrew word for prayer is tefillah. But have you ever thought about how to define prayer? Or explain to someone how to pray? What do the Hebrew Scriptures teach us about praying?
Many of us probably remember learning the Lord’s prayer as children, or the shema if you attended a Hebrew school. Some say that prayer is a wish, others say that is petition to a heavenly judge.
I would argue that although tefillah – prayer – expresses the deepest wishes and desires of our heart, it is much more than a wish. Otherwise, our prayers wouldn’t be that much different than Aladdin’s three wishes to the genie in the magic lamp.
Prayer is supplication and petition, but it also means something more. And looking to the Hebrew word for prayer points us in the right direction.
The Hebrew Word Tefillah
Tefillah comes from the Hebrew word l’hitpalel, which stands for the process of accounting or contemplation, as well as “to judge oneself”. In Exodus 21:22, l’hitpilim is used to refer to executing judgment. In Genesis 25:21, the word translates to entreaty, although it is related to “digging”. And in Deuteronomy 3:23, tefillah means supplication or begging.
Another related word which you may come across in Jewish circles is tefillin (Eng. Phylacteries). It consists of a pair of leather boxes, containing scrolls of parchments inscribed with scripture, and leather straps.
It is customary for observant Jewish men and boys over thirteen years of age to pray regularly with the tefillin wrapped around their arm and forehead. This practice was inspired by Exodus 13:9,16 and Deuteronomy 11:18. The Lord instructed the children of Israel to remember the exodus as a sign upon their hands and a reminder on their foreheads.
Why Do We Pray?
Without a doubt, the Hebrew word tefillah is our entreaty to the Most High. We air to Him our love, joy, hopes, fears, sadness, depression, fatigue, gripes and our deepest shame.
Unbelievers might see prayer as delusion: Karl Marx infamously said that “religion is the opiate of the masses”; an opiate being a powerful narcotic that obscures harsh reality into a palatable oblivion. We all have heard of earnest people who pray to win the lottery, promising to tithe their winnings if such fortune were to befall them.
Common wisdom from the Lord tells us that this is folly, even though miracles and unusual circumstances do sometimes come about. Because prayer is not a “get rich quick” formula, nor is it an opiate – a palliative of the truth.
In fact, tefillah points us to the truth, by inviting us to take account of the truth of ourselves, of our hearts and the world around us. And when we are distraught at the state of the world, or particular life circumstances, we entreat – tefillah – for the Lord’s favor and precise action.
So why do we pray? Allow me to flesh out three reasons, to begin with.
We pray to wonder.
Scripture tells us that creation speaks to God’s magnificence. In Romans 1:19-20, the Apostle Paul says that creation itself speaks to God’s existence and glory:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made… (Romans 1:20)
He also reiterates this in Colossians 1:16:
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him.
In Psalm 8, amongst many other psalms, the psalmist proclaims the Lord’s great majesty through creation and describes the created order of angels and humans. Together with angels we marvel and praise, although we are made “just a little lower” than them.
In our darkest moments, when loss, tragedy, grief, disappointment and betrayal make it difficult to form words, we can place ourselves in nature and marvel at the Lord’s handiwork.
We pray to be grounded.
In taking account, through tefillah, we take note of every item, big and small and consider it, just as one reviews a monthly budget. When looking at the monthly budget, we may see all sorts of things: an expense for new tires, a dentist appointment, coffee, batteries, parking fare… Through this “review” we see where our resources went and take stock
Likewise, the Hebrew practice of prayer grounds us, inviting us to take account of ourselves. Do we feel especially grateful, elated, content, tired, run down, overwhelmed? What happened during the day or the week? Where was the Lord in these moments?
The Prayer of Recollections, a nightly prayer in the Christian tradition, mirrors tefillah, in that we take note of what we experienced throughout the day and when we felt God’s presence. Praying encourages us to take an account of ourselves, so that we can draw near in our hour of need. Which is all the time, if we are being honest!
We pray because we are commanded.
We pray also because we are commanded to. In Matthew 7:7, Jesus exhorts us to ask, seek and knock:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
In the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, in Luke 18:1-8, Jesus uses the example of a woman who was relentless in her pursuit for justice and protection from evil and oppression. And she received relief through her persistent supplication!
Jesus says if the unjust judge granted the widow’s petition, then how much more, will our heavenly father respond and act on our prayers.
As a side note, in the Hebraic mindset, it is very laudable to be persistent and vocal about one’s prayers and petitions to God. Abraham bargained with God to forestall the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses petitioned God to not destroy the Israelites in his anger.
Through prayer and fasting, Esther was granted favor by the King and the Jewish people were able to fight back against their enemies. There is no such thing as being coy or polite in our prayer life.
We can say that “God already knows what it is on my heart, so I don’t have to say anything”. But this leaves out our crucial engagement and relationship with the Lord, who earnestly desires that we ask, knock and petition.
‘Tefillah’ in the Old Testament
One of the earliest instances of tefillah is in Genesis 25:21, in which Isaac entreats God on Rebekah’s behalf so that she can conceive a child. Similarly, Hannah in her distress entreats the Lord to provide her with a son.
Hannah is so distraught that she is weeping at the temple and uttering her words silently, that Eli the priest believed her to be drunk. She makes a vow to dedicate her son if she was to be granted her petition. Hannah’s song is a noteworthy song of praise, giving thanks to God, who heard her tefillah.
Finally, we can’t think about prayer in the Bible without recalling the Shema (hebr. Hear): “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut 6:4). It is directly followed by another famous Jewish prayer, the V’havta (“And you shall love”).
Prayer in the New Testament
The greatest example of prayer that we see in the New Testament is the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples – often called the Lord’s Prayer. It was a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s quoted in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-13.
The Sermon on the Mount serves as a parallel to the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. There, the nation of Israel agreed with one voice to listen and obey the commandments.
In the Sermon on the Mount, a crowd had again gathered. Jesus, greater than Moses, gives an exposition of the Torah which says we are not only to follow the instructions in a rote way by simply obeying with the body. But we are to obey with our heart, fulfilling both the Spirit and the letter of the law.
Yet, we cannot keep the commandments in our own strength.
The Lord’s Prayer
The first challenge of praying the Lord’s Prayer is reconciling that we do in fact live in a broken, fallen world that with the naked eye seems godless and fatherless. This darkness is not of God’s design, but an effect of sin.
“Our Father who art in Heaven, hollowed be Thy name…”
But it is against this darkness that the light of Messiah Jesus shines ever brighter. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we are praying “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. We are looking towards a greater future, eternity, and the restoration of all things.
Meanwhile, we humbly acknowledge our inability to live a life that is pleasing to God (loving your neighbor as you love yourself) without the help of the Holy Spirit guiding us every day.
Theologian Dallas Willard says of the Lord’s Prayer, specifically in its petition to deliver us from temptation and evil, that it is a vote of “no confidence” in our abilities.
The Hebrew Word-less Tefillah
It is worth mentioning that tefillah does not always require words and speech (although God does entreat us to ask and petition). As mentioned before, Hannah was so distraught that she silently mouthed her words before making her formal vow.
The Apostle Paul writes that the Spirit continually groans for us and is interceding to the Father on our behalf.
“In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27
When we are grieved by our own sin, the hardness of our hearts, and the seeming inability to change, our groan in itself is a prayer. We call – wordlessly – on the Lord for help in our time of need.
Prayer for Israel
Scripture commands us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Psalm 122:6-7 the well known Jerusalem Psalm, entreats us to pray like so: “May they prosper who love you. May peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces.”
But why should we pray for Jerusalem?
The prophets called the people to repentance and spoke of a future glory of Israel and the nations who honor her. Ezekiel paints a picture of dry bones coming back to life in chapters 36 and 37, meanwhile Isaiah speaks of judgement and coming restoration and redemption.
Thus, we pray not just so God would prosper us, but because Jerusalem is where all things culminate. That is where the Messiah will return to rule and reign.
This is a personal future for us! Every believer in Messiah who puts their trust in Jesus will be with Him when He returns, whether they are alive at the time of the second coming or are resurrected.
This means, we get to participate in Israel’s future glory! Just as we now are grieved in prayer and submit our entreaties, let us share in this greatest hope too.
So, let today be the day that your lift up your voice in prayer for the sake of Israel and the peace of Jerusalem!
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“Jewish Holy Scriptures.” The Prophets (Nevi’im). Accessed May 20, 2023. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-prophets-nevi-rsquo-im.
“Jewish Prayers.” Prayers and Blessings. Accessed May 20, 2023. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/prayers-and-blessings.
“The Meaning of Tefillah.” Aleph Beta. Accessed May 10, 2023. https://www.alephbeta.org/jewish-prayer/tefillah.
Rabin, Joshua. “Daily Prayer: Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv.” My Jewish Learning, June 25, 2018. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shaharit-minhah-and-maariv/.
Willard, Dallas. The divine conspiracy: Rediscovering our hidden life in god. New York: HarperOne, 2018.