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The Oxen is on Our Lips

Many Jewish people have the erroneous notion that תפלה, prayer, was not always a mitzvah. Many think that prayer was only introduced as a command once the sacrificial service in the Temple came to an end. However, a careful investigation into the listing of the 613 commandments, the list compiled by the Rambam (Maimonides) in his Sefer Ha’Mitzvot, shows that prayer was a command from the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Even the Ramban (Nachmanides), who argues with the enumeration by the Rambam, agrees the Torah requires prayer in a time of pending calamity to Israel.

This dispute notwithstanding, many features of תפלה were later enacted by our Rabbis based on the Torah’s system of offering sacrifices. For example, the number of daily prayers, three, stems from the two daily sacrifices brought on behalf of the entire nation, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. While no sacrifice may be offered at night, on a short winter day, perhaps all the sacrifices offered by individuals were not completely consumed before nightfall. The animals would be left on the altar to burn at night. Hence we have morning, afternoon and evening prayers. On Shabbat and holidays, an additional sacrifice, מוסף, was offered so there is a corresponding additional prayer called “musaf.” Other laws, such as the times for prayer, are also taken from the sacrificial service.

The rabbis of the Talmud use the expression, “ונשלמה פרים שפתינו” “and the completion of the oxen should be on our lips.” Here we have a succinct statement that relates prayer to sacrifice. Even in the Temple days, the sacrificial offerings were lacking without some verbal accompaniment. What are some of the common denominators between them? In what way does prayer complete the offering? What values for human existence are expressed both through the sacrificial process and prayer?

One significant idea is the demonstration that giving up something precious and valuable leads to perfection for man when done to achieve a higher goal. In the sacrificial process physical possessions, usually the goal of man’s strivings, become a means for coming close to and attaining a relationship with God. Not that God needs offerings but they are an expression of our gratitude for our physical success. Every שמונה עשרה concludes with three special blessings of thanks to God for the goodness He has bestowed upon us.

After reading this week’s Torah portion, ויקרא, it is clear that the sacrificial service is part of the atonement process. Atonement through animal sacrifice has been suspended until the arrival of the Messianic era. With every sin sacrifice there is a verbal confession made by the person seeking forgiveness. To be sure prayer is its own mitzvah; but it is also a means for us to reflect on our shortcomings. More importantly, prayer is an opportunity for us to consider and express how we can change and improve our behavior. In that sense again prayer takes the place of sacrifice.

Other sacrifices, such as the Pesach lamb, were accompanied by the singing of Hallel, a special series of Psalms. Here sacrifice and prayer merge to express our praise to God for fulfilling His promise, the redemption and preservation of the nation of Israel.

Another important idea for man is gleaned from the juxtaposition of the sacrificial process and prayer. Animal sacrifice, in specific, reminds us that an animal lives a purely instinctual existence. If a person lives a purely instinctual life, his end will be destruction too. However through prayer, man can elevate himself. By recognizing his dependence on the Creator, man has the opportunity to come before the Creator formulating his life’s requests in an intelligent way. How necessary and often should man engage in the process of reviewing his needs? Based upon the daily sacrificial process, the Rabbis instituted prayer three times a day.

Finally, just as the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was the institution set up for the sacrificial process, today our synagogues are the focal point for our prayers. Here another important idea of prayer is expressed. Just as the two daily oxen were offered on behalf of the entire nation of Israel and accepted by God, so too our daily prayers should, preferably, take place at the synagogue. The law states, “תפלת הציבור נשמעת תמיד” “the prayer of the community is always heard.” Even when praying alone, the emphasis is community. To remind us of this concept, all of our prayers are written in a plural language.

Thus while sacrifice and prayers are two independent mitzvoth, they are linked in significant ways. The word “korban, קרבן” means “to come close.” Likewise, when engaged in prayer a person is considered “עומד לפני ה’ “, “standing in the presence of God.” Rabbi Solevietchik of blessed memory often referred to prayer as “a rendezvous with God.”

By attaching many of the laws of sacrifice to the requirements for prayer, the Rabbis designated prayer as the primary vehicle to reflect important values we can no longer access directly. Although our Holy Temple lies in ruin and the sacrificial process is no longer available to us, we still have the maxim, “the completion of the oxen is on our lips.” We are not at a loss as long as we engage properly in the mitzvah of tefilah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan