For What May I Pray?

Question #1:

“Rabbi, this is a very unfortunate and painful question. My grandfather is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and no longer recognizes us. Should we continue to pray that he recover?”

Question #2:

I received this question as an e-mail:

“Dear Rav: I have an extended family member who is, unfortunately, involved in spreading non-Torah ideas. Recently, he was diagnosed with cancer. May I pray for his recovery, knowing that if he recovers he will probably continue to influence people away from Torah?”

Question #3:

“I am a baal teshuvah. May I pray that my non-observant family members find their way to Torah?”


All three questions above revolve around the same halachic issue: The Mishnah (Brachos 54a) and the Gemara (Brachos 60a) rule that one may not recite a prayer in vain. The Mishnah rules that, for this reason, one may not pray for something that has already happened. The Mishnah’s example is that someone who hears of a tragedy occurring in a place where he has family should not pray that this tragedy did not affect them.

What else is included under the heading of a prayer in vain? Does praying for someone to recover from a medical condition that appears to be non-reversible qualify as praying in vain? Am I permitted to pray that something miraculous occur? Analyzing the issues involved not only provides a clear halachic perspective on our daily mitzvah to pray to Hashem, but also clarifies some important hashkafah issues.

The Sefer Chassidim

The earliest source that analyzes the questions I mentioned above is the Sefer Chassidim (#794):

“A person may not pray for something that is impossible under normal circumstances, for, although the Holy One, Blessed is He, could make it happen, one is not permitted to request something that is beyond the natural order of the world. It is therefore forbidden to pray that Hashem perform a miracle that changes the way the world normally functions.”

We see that we are not permitted to pray that Hashem perform miracles in order to influence and intervene in human matters. (We should note that some authorities contend that a person who has reached an elevated level of faith is permitted to pray for a miracle, but this subject is beyond the scope of this article.) It would seem to me that praying for the recovery of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s to the extent that he does not recognize his closest family members would qualify, according to the Sefer Chassidim, as a tefillas shav. Similarly, I have been told by highly reliable sources that the Chafetz Chayim did not pray for a refuah sheleimah for those smitten by cancer, since in his day the disease was incurable. (Today, when faced with an “incurable” cancer, one may pray that the researchers discover a cure quickly.) I know of great tzaddikim who, when asked to pray for people with incurable ailments, pray that Hashem treat the patient with mercy. One may also pray that the person’s condition not get worse (see Tosafos, Bechoros 38b s.v. Vesimaneich).

We will now examine a different case to see if it is considered a prayer in vain.

Chizkiyahu’s Prayer

Chizkiyahu, who was one of the most righteous and scholarly kings of all time, was severely ill and racked by pain when Yeshayahu the Prophet visited him. Yeshayahu had been commanded by Hashem to notify Chizkiyahu that he (Chizkiyahu) should inform his household of his final wishes, and that, furthermore, he would not merit Olam Haba. When Chizkiyahu asked why he was being punished so severely, Yeshayahu answered him, “Because you did not marry.”

To this, Chizkiyahu responded that he had not married because he knew through ruach hakodesh that he would have a son who would be very evil and cause many others to sin. His decision to remain single was completely for the sake of heaven — it was a tremendous personal sacrifice, made expressly to decrease the number of evildoers in the world. Notwithstanding his intention to increase Hashem’s honor, Yeshayahu told Chizkiyahu that he had no right to overrule the Torah’s commandment (Nefesh HaChayim 1:22). Yeshayahu explained that it is not our place to get involved in the secret ways in which Hashem runs His world – our job is merely to obey and fulfill His commandments, and Hashem does what He sees fit.

At this point, Chizkiyahu asked to marry Yeshayahu’s daughter, hoping that their combined merits might overturn the Divine decree that Chizkiyahu’s child would be evil. To this request, Yeshayahu responded: “It is too late. There is already a Divine decree that you will die.”

Chizkiyahu retorted: “Close up your prophecy and be gone! I have a mesorah from my grandfather, David HaMelech, that even if a sharp sword rests upon your neck, it is still not too late to pray” (Brachos 10a).

At this point, Chizkiyahu turned to the wall in prayer, and his prayers were heard. He was granted fifteen more years of life (Melachim II 20:1-6).

Analysis of the Dispute

We see that there was a halachic dispute between Yeshayahu and Chizkiyahu as to whether praying that a prophecy not be fulfilled is considered a prayer in vain. Yeshayahu may have held that since he had already received a prophetic verdict regarding Chizkiyahu’s prognosis, praying for a different outcome constituted a prayer in vain (see Tosafos, Moed Katan, 21a s.v. De’i). Alternatively, he may have held that this prophecy had the status of a gzar din she’yeish imo shavua, a heavenly decree accompanied by a heavenly oath, which can only be annulled by a prayer of the public (Rosh Hashanah 18a). Chizkiyahu held that the prophecy did not preclude the possibility that his prayer could be successful. Indeed, his prayer was answered. Thus, we see that although one may not pray for something that is clearly miraculous, one may pray for something that defies a prophecy, particularly if the prophecy is about a punishment, and the person has done teshuvah for the evil for which he was to be punished (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 10:4).

Praying for Sinners

At this point, I would like to address the second of our opening questions: May I pray for the recovery of someone who influences people to turn away from Torah? Although this may not seem as if it qualifies as a tefillas shav, we will soon see that it indeed may be.

Again, to answer this question, I will turn to a ruling of the Sefer Chassidim (#688):

“One should not pray for the recovery of someone who caused people to sin and is now ill. The same approach should be followed regarding someone who prevents the community from performing mitzvos. In addition, one should not pray that someone who caused many others to sin do teshuvah, if some of those people [those that he caused to sin] have already died, because the prayer will not help.”

The last part of this ruling seems a bit unusual. Why is the halachah whether I may pray for him dependent on whether some of the people that he influenced are dead?

The commentaries explain that this ruling of the Sefer Chassidim is based on the following Gemara:

Kol hamachati es harabim, ein maspikin beyado laasos teshuvah, whoever causes the public to sin is not given any opportunity to do teshuvah (Yoma 87a).

The Gemara explains that it is intolerable that the one who caused others to sin reach gan eden, while those whom he led into transgression languish in gehennom. To avoid this happening, Hashem will not assist someone to do teshuvah if the person caused the public to transgress.

The Sefer Chassidim rules that as long as all the misguided followers live, Hashem will assist their leader to do teshuvah, since his followers might join him on the proper path. Once some of his followers have died and have arrived in gehennom, Hashem will not assist him to teshuvah. It is therefore inappropriate at this point to pray that he find his way to Torah, since praying is asking Hashem to help, and Hashem will not help in this situation. However, the Sefer Chassidim adds: “One may pray that he stop causing others to sin.”

Only if he qualifies as an Intentional Sinner

Although the Sefer Chassidim prohibits praying that this evil leader do teshuvah, he attaches an important factor to this decision: “If he is influencing them because he is a shogeig [someone who violates the Torah because of ignorance, error or negligence – that is, he does not realize how grievous a sin he is committing], then one may pray that he recover from his illness.” The example that the Sefer Chassidim chooses for someone who is deemed to be shogeig is someone who has no tzadik, no righteous individual, near him to influence him as to how to return to Torah. “However, if he was reproved appropriately by a tzadik and ignored the reproof, he is considered to be someone who violates halachah intentionally.”

Based on the Sefer Chassidim, we can answer the second question raised above: “I have an extended family member, who is, unfortunately, involved in spreading non-Torah ideas. Recently, he was diagnosed with cancer. May I pray for his recovery, knowing that if he recovers, he will continue to influence people away from Torah?”

The answer is: if the family member qualifies as a shogeig, I can pray that he recover. If he qualifies as a meizid, one who is sinning intentionally, not only should I not pray that he recover, but, if some of those whom he influenced have died, I may not pray that he do teshuvah, according to the Sefer Chassidim, although this may be permitted according to others. In all instances, I can pray that he stop influencing people in a harmful way.

An Alternative Reading of the Text

It is important to note that our editions quote the Gemara (Yoma 87a) that is the basis of the Sefer Chassidim’s ruling with a slight textual variation that has profound halachic significance. Our version reads kol hamachati es harabim, kimat ein maspikin beyado laasos teshuvah, which translates as whoever causes the public to sin will be given almost no opportunity to do teshuvah. The text quoted by the Sefer Chassidim omits the word “kimat.” According to our text, it should be perfectly fine to pray that this evildoer do teshuvah, even though some of his followers have already died. Although Hashem will not provide him with the usual measure of assistance that He gives to help people do teshuvah, the person may still merit some assistance in his endeavors.

Praying that my Friend do Teshuvah

Rav Yonah Landsofer, a great halachic authority and kabbalist of early Seventeenth Century Prague, was asked the following question: A Jewish resident of Izmir, Turkey, had left the Jewish community and converted to a different religion, taking with him his young son. Could they pray that this apostate do teshuvah and return to Judaism? In his volume of responsa called Shu”t Me’il Tzedakah (#7), Rav Landsofer addresses this issue, first asking whether such a prayer qualifies as a tefillah in vain.

All is from Heaven, except…

The Me’il Tzedakah notes that Hashem declared that everything is under His control except for yiras shamayim, fear of Heaven, which He deliberately chose not to control so that people could earn reward – otherwise, there would be no reward and punishment in the world. To quote the Gemara:

“It is declared before each child is born whether it will be strong or weak, wise or foolish, wealthy or poor. But, it is not declared whether it will be evil or righteous, because everything is in Hashem’s hands, except for an individual’s fear of Heaven (Niddah 16b).”

Thus, the possibility exists that praying for a sinner to repent qualifies as a prayer in vain, since Hashem already decided that He would not interfere in man’s decisions.

So, we need to decide whether requesting that Hashem influence someone do to teshuvah means asking Hashem to do something that He has chosen not to do, which is the definition of a prayer in vain.

Removing one’s Free Choice

Notwithstanding the Gemara’s statement that it is not predetermined what direction in life a person will choose, the Me’il Tzedakah notes that Hashem may, and indeed does, take away free choice from people when He feels it is necessary. Among the several proofs he rallies to this conclusion is the verse in Mishlei (21:1), “The heart of a king is in the hands of Hashem,” which means that a king loses some of his free choice, although he does not realize it. (Isn’t it amazing how many people are eager to become president of the United States, although it means that they will lose some of their free choice!) Thus, praying that Hashem influence someone to do teshuvah does not qualify as a prayer in vain, even if I were to be praying that Hashem take away the person’s free choice in the process. Certainly, praying that he be exposed to positive influences that would encourage his involvement and return to Judaism does not constitute a tefillas shav. However, this might involve a different halachic issue:

A Second Reason

Based on this background, the Me’il Tzedakah asks whether praying that someone do teshuvah may not be correct for a different reason: Hashem has chosen to allow man to decide whether he should do good or evil, and my praying for someone to do teshuvah may be interfering with Hashem’s realm. He questions whether a person should ask Hashem for matters that do not affect him personally, since this may be getting involved in “the secrets of Hashem.” In other words, one should pray for things that affect one’s self, but whether someone else merits honoring Hashem is Hashem’s domain, and not a place for prayer.

For sure, a person should pray that Hashem help him keep the mitzvos — we have many such prayers. But, may one pray that someone else do teshuvah?

Rabbi Meir and Beruria

The Me’il Tzedakah notes that this discussion will depend on how we understand the famous dispute between Rabbi Meir and his wife, Beruria.

There was a group of troublemakers in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who were causing him great distress, and Rabbi Meir wanted to pray that they die. His wife, Beruria, said to him: “Why do you feel this way? Because the verse [Tehillim 104:35] says that chata’im should cease from the world? However [noted Beruria], the verse does not say chote’im, which clearly means sinners, but says chata’im, which can be interpreted to mean that which causes sin (that is, their yetzer hora). Furthermore (proceeded Beruria with her lesson), the continuing part of the verse reads, uresha’im od einam, and the evildoers no longer exist — if the sinners are destroyed, then there is no need for the verse to repeat itself and say that there are no evildoers. Instead, you should pray that they do teshuvah.” Indeed, Rabbi Meir prayed for them to do teshuvah, and they repented (Brachos 10a).

The Me’il Tzedakah contends that the troublemakers disturbing Rabbi Meir did so because they did not know Torah; had they known Torah, they would have behaved differently. In other words, they were not inherently evil, but misinformed, and it was, therefore, appropriate to pray that they discover the proper approach to Yiddishkeit, which would help them keep mitzvos. This is not considered a prayer in vain, since the people were inherently sincere, and would have sought to be yirei shamayim, had they known what that was.

The Me’il Tzedakah also offers another possibility for praying that Rabbi Meir’s adversaries do teshuvah, the fact that this takes away their free choice notwithstanding: because he was praying to help himself – after all, he was suffering from them, and therefore, he was entitled to pray that they do teshuvah to relieve his own suffering. This is not considered mixing into Hashem’s affairs, but praying for something that affects me.

In the context of this discussion, I think it is important to note that Rav Hirsch, in his commentary to Tehillim, explains the difference between chote’im and chata’im differently. Chote’im means people who sin occasionally, and this is something that will always be. Chata’im means those for whom sinning is part of their character. Dovid HaMelech is declaring that there should be no more people who sin, not as an occasional error or temptation, but as part of their lifestyle or temperament.

Chazon Ish’s approach

At this point, I should like to note that the Chazon Ish appears to disagree with the way the Me’il Tzedakah explains that Hashem does not decree whether someone do teshuvah. The Chazon Ish writes that, indeed, Hashem does not influence whether a person becomes a yarei shamayim or whether he does teshuvah unless someone prays on his or her behalf. However, when one person prays for another that another person do teshuvah, Hashem will help (Chazon Ish, Orach Chayim page 256). Therefore, when one prays for another person whose behavior affects an innocent party, such as a sinful adult caring for an innocent child, Hashem will help in the child’s merit.

Praying for the Apostate

At this point, the Me’il Tzedakah returns to his original question: may one pray that someone who has chosen to live an evil life return to the Jewish fold? The Me’il Tzedakah presents two reasons why one may.

1. A parent may daven for his child to do teshuvah, because the parent suffers greatly; therefore, the parent is davening to Hashem, asking Him to alleviate his own suffering, which is permitted. Therefore, this apostate’s parents could pray for his return.

2. In the case at hand, the apostate had taken his son with him — a young child who would be raised bereft of contact with the Jewish community. One who feels anguish for the Shechinah because this young child will be raised outside of Yiddishkeit could pray for the child’s return. And if the most obvious way to return this child to Yiddishkeit would be through his father’s return, then one may pray that Hashem bring the father back to Yiddishkeit. This is not a prayer in vain, since sometimes Hashem will force someone to do teshuvah — as explained above.

The Eye of a Needle

The Me’il Tzedakah then quotes a prayer that he found, which he says was written with tremendous accuracy.  The prayer is for a chazzan to say privately prior to leading services on a fast day, similar to the prayers that our chazzanim recite prior to musaf on Yomim Nora’im. In these prayers, the chazzan notes that even the most stubborn evildoers occasionally feel remorse or doubt about what they are doing. The chazzan then asks Hashem to accept this sense of remorse as if these people are attempting the first steps toward teshuvah. If they are attempting to do teshuvah, then they will merit tremendous Divine assistance to repent, as we are aware of from the following, frequently-quoted Midrash.

“Hashem said to Israel: ‘My sons, merely open for me an opening to do teshuvah as large as the eye of a needle, and I will expand for you openings wide enough that wagons can drive through'” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:2).

The Me’il Tzedakah rallies proof that this is an acceptable prayer from the following Midrash:

“A person who sees a place where an idol was destroyed should recite the brocha: ‘She’akar avodas kochavim mei’artzeinu.’ He should then add: May it be Your will, Hashem Elokeinu, that you uproot it (idolatry) from all places, and bring back the hearts of those who worship it to serve You with a full heart.'”

The Midrash then asks: “Is this not considered praying on behalf of evildoers?” Rabbi Yochanan answered, “There is hope for the greatest sinners.”

The Me’il Tzedakah explains this Midrash to mean that even the greatest sinners may be returned to service of Hashem, and that it is always appropriate to pray that someone find his way back to Hashem. (He notes that his approach seems to disagree somewhat with that of the Sefer Chassidim.) Even the apostate who left the Jewish community of Izmir occasionally doubts the correctness of his new path, and one can pray that Hashem view this as a desire to do teshuvah and open the gates for him, helping him in his return.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, we see that both the Sefer Chassidim and the Me’il Tzedakah conclude that, under most circumstances, someone who feels tremendous grief over the evildoing of certain individuals may pray that Hashem do whatever is necessary to bring them to teshuvah.