Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yehi 5767/ January 6, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Rachel and the power of prayer


Dr. Boaz Spiegel


Department of Talmud


During Jacob’s second meeting with Joseph, as described in this week’s reading, Jacob said to Joseph (Gen. 48:7):  “‘When I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath’ – now Bethlehem.”

In Pesikta Rabbati and other midrashic works the Sages delved into these words of Jacob’s, and Rashi in characteristic fashion cited the main points of these homilies as follows (Gen., loc. sit.):

And I buried her there and did not carry her even the [short distance] to Bethlehem to bring her into a city.  I know that in your heart you feel some resentment against me.   Know, however, that I buried her there by the command of G-d, that she might help her children when Nebuzaradan would take them into captivity.  For when they were passing along that road Rachel came forth by her tomb weeping and beseeching mercy for them, as it is said, “A voice is heard in Rama, [the sound of weeping … Rachel weeping for her children]” (Jer. 31:15), and the Holy One, blessed be He, replied to her, “There is reward for thy work, says the Lord, … for thy children will return to their own border” (Jer. 31:16-17).”

This legend, which evokes love of the patriarchs and expresses firm faith in the Everlasting G-d of Israel, has conquered many hearts and, so it turns out, became inscribed in the memory of many people from early childhood, when they studied the Pentateuch with Rashi’s commentary.

Abraham Shalom Yahuda (Semitics scholar, of Iraqi origin, 1877-1951) expressed this idea in his memoirs entitled “When I studied Rashi,” [1] and recalled how once, while touring Madrid with Max Nordau, he remarked to him on the powerful impression Nordau had made by his speech at the First Zionist Congress (Basel 1897).  At that congress Nordau addressed thousands of people, telling them of this legend about the matriarch Rachel crying for her children.   When Yahuda asked him how he knew of the legend, Nordau responded that when he had been receiving patients in his home in Paris (Nordau was a physician), one of his patients had been a Jewish boy who was studying in heder.  When Nordau asked the child what he was learning, the child welled up with emotion and began telling him in Yiddish the legend about Rachel, which he had learned in his Bible lessons.  Nordau recounted: [2]   “At that moment every limb of my body began to tremble; I hugged and kissed the lad on his forehead and said to myself, such a people who cherish memories like these for thousands of years, instilling them in the hearts of their children, is not likely to perish but is assured to live forever.”  Nordau continued, so A. S. Yahuda recounts, “It happened during the same period as the Dreyfus affair, when I was beginning to have doubts about other nations of the world treating the Jews fairly, and one could say that this lad was a factor in bringing me closer to Zionism and faith in Israel’s Eternal One.”  (Nordau was an assimilated Jew who considered himself a German “And only a German.” After the Dreyfus affair, Nordau joined the Zionist movement.)

Indeed, this legend cited by Rashi not only conveys a message of love of the Jews, the land of Israel, and prophetic faith in Israel’s Eternal One, but also is imbued with several important lessons pertaining to prayer, two of which we shall investigate here:

A.   Helping one’s fellow through prayer.   The legend presented here shows that an important and effective tool for anyone who seeks to promote the well-being of his fellow is to pray for that person, for thus it was said of Rachel:   “that she might help her children,” and all her help to her children and her children’s children was accomplished through prayer for them.

Quite a number of Talmudic and midrashic sources inform us of the principle that oftentimes a person's well-being and success, and even his deliverance, depend on others praying for him.   For example, in Midrash Tehillim (55:4) it says of Rachel herself that she had been intended for Esau as his wife, “and what caused Rachel to be saved from him? – ‘It is as though many are on my side’ (Ps. 55:19), for even Jacob and Leah prayed for her.”   Rachel was also delivered from barrenness in like manner, as we read in Genesis Rabbah (73:3):   “Rachel was remembered through much prayer”; the legend explains that in addition to her own prayers, also Leah, Jacob and his concubines prayed for her.

Furthermore, praying for someone can save his life.  For example, when David’s life was endangered in his confrontation with Ishbi-benob, according to Tractate Sanhedrin (95a), he asked Abishai son of Zeruiah, “Help us.”  The nature of the help he received is recounted there:  “That is as it is written:  ‘Abishai son of Zeruiah came to his aid’ (II Samuel 21:17).   Rav Yahuda said, quoting Rav, that he aided him by prayer,” and by virtue of this aid, David was saved.   Or, to give another example, take the case of Daniel when he was thrown into the lion’s den.   Midrash Tehillim (ibid.) says:  “And who caused him to be saved?  ‘It is as though many are on my side’ (Ps. 55:19), for even Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah prayed for him.”

This makes it clear why the Sages said:   “Any person who is in the position of begging for mercy for another human being and does not do so is a sinner” (Berakhot 12b), for he deprives the other person of great and vital assistance, sometimes even saving the person from death. [3]

Praying for someone can give that person not only life in this world, but also life in the World to Come.   For example, there is a legend that Moses, through his prayers, succeeded in improving Judah’s lot in the Hereafter, gaining him entry to the Metivta de-Rakia (Yeshivah of Heaven) where “he could engage in learning according to the law” (Bava Kama 92a).  Or, to give another example, it is said that David prayed for his son Absalom, after his death, and through his prayers “lifted him up from seven levels of Hell," even "bringing him to the World to Come" (Sotah 10b).   In fact, the entire notion of saying Yizkor and reciting Av ha-Rahamim for the dead is based on this special power of prayer.

Thus we learn that a weighty responsibility is placed upon all of us with respect to our family, relations, friends and acquaintances, presenting us with a great challenge and testing whether we have the wisdom to pray for them, both in their lifetime and after their death.   Moreover, henceforth it should be clear that praying for another person, for their good and their physical and spiritual well-being, is one of the measures of true love for the person.

Therefore, it should not be surprising that in rabbinic literature dealing with personal prayers especial prominence is given to parents' prayers for their children, stressing their constant nature.   For example, Rabbi Isaiah ha-Levy Horowitz wrote in his book, Shnei Luhot ha-Brit: [4]

A mother and father should constantly have a prayer on their lips for their offspring, praying that they be devoted to studying Torah and that they be righteous and of good character.   They should direct their prayers strongly towards this idea when reciting the benediction about studying Torah  … and also in the blessing, ahavah rabbah [in the recitation of Shema and the surrounding benedictions], as well as when they say, "that we not labor in vain, nor bring forth for confusion" [in the Morning Service, Hertz, p. 205].

Thus it was, in recent times, that R. Shlomo Wolbe attested of himself: [5] "It is clear to me, quite personally, that if I have achieved anything in Torah, it is by virtue of my mother's prayers.  I noticed that she would pray for me as many as ten times a day."  He wrote further, [6] "We can never say that we have prayed enough for our children, and no limit can be set to the amount of praying we must do." [7]

The apogee of this practice of endless prayer for one's children was reached by our patriarchs, who prayed not only for their own children, but for all their progeny, the entire Jewish people.   We learn this from the Sages in many places in their writings.  They added that our patriarchs not only prayed extensively in their life for all future generations, but even after they passed from this world they continued to petition the Lord for all of Israel, as indicated in the homily presented above, in which Rachel cried for her "children" hundreds of years after her death.

B.  On prayers being answered.  The Ba'al Shem Tov and his disciples taught us an important principle – that in truth there is no prayer that goes unanswered.   Rather, every prayer has an effect and is helpful to one extent or another, if not directly for that which is requested, then for something else; and if not for the person praying, then for others; and if not on earth, then in heaven.

This approach has also been followed by rabbis in recent times.  For example, we have it from R. Israel Jacob Kanievsky (author of Kehilot Ya'akov): [8]   "Sometimes one sees that the simplest of homes can produce a righteous and learned person, all due to the fact that his grandmother may have poured her heart out in prayer and tears, that she have the pleasure of having children who are learned in the Torah.  And if her entreaty did not avail for her sons, it availed for her grandsons.   Thus we see that ultimately no prayer goes unanswered."

The germ of this idea, that sometimes prayers for one's children do not help the children but only the children's children, can be found in the legend at hand.  Rachel prayed for the exiles from Jerusalem and Judah, and even though the Lord heard her prayer and answered her, "There is reward for thy work," His promise that "thy children will return to their own border" was not realized for the exiles themselves, but only for their children and grandchildren, seventy years later.

This principle sheds new light on all events that are accompanied by prayers which appear not to have been helpful.   It is also extremely important to all discussions and studies that might be done on the effect of prayers.   For, we must remember that prayers have an effect, both individually and generally, also beyond their time and place.   Therefore, the Lord's answer to our prayers cannot be examined merely in the immediate short range and in relationship only to those concerned; rather, it must be evaluated over the course of many years, maybe even generations, and with respect to the entire Jewish people.  Such an investigation at the moment is beyond our capabilities.  Indeed, it is not for nothing that Rabbi I. J. Kanievsky taught us: [9]   "In times to come all will be revealed to us – all the beneficence and deliverance that resulted from each and every prayer of each and every one of us."


[1] A. S. Yahuda, Ever Va-Arav , New York 1946, p. 257.

[2] Ibid.   Recently cited also in B. Tirosh, Ha-Pantheon ha-Yehudi, (Yahadut Kan ve-Akhshav), Tel Aviv 2002, pp. 141-142.

[3] Indeed, it has been written that one who refrains from begging for mercy for another is like a person who violates the commandment of “Do not profit by the blood of your fellow” (Lev. 19:16).  See Rabbi M. Y. Ha-Levy Epstein (the Admor of Ozherov), Be'er Moshe, Leviticus I, Jerusalem 1984, Kedoshim, sect. 10, p. 319.                                                              

[4] Cf. R. I. Ha-Levy Horowitz, Shnei Luhot ha-Brit, Jerusalem ed., 1993, Part I, Sha'ar ha-Otiyot, Derekh Eretz, pp. 286-287, sect. 18.

[5] R. S.Wolbe, Zeri'a u-Vinyan be-Hinukh, Jerusalem 1996, p. 34.

[6] Ibid., p. 35.

[7] This does not only apply necessarily to young children, but to any age.   For example, R. Y. M. Stern, in Ha-Mashgiah de-Kaminitz, Jerusalem 1998, p. 241, wrote:   "Once someone came to the author of Kehilot Ya'akov (Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Kanievsky, called the Steipler Rav, 1899-1985, author of the Talmud commentary Kehilot Yaakov) to request a blessing of success in educating his sons from the Rabbi, and the Rabbi answered him:  'You are the one who needs to pray.  What do you think?  To this very day I pray daily for my children, that they may have long life.'   And this was when his son, R. Hayyim, a great scholar in his own right, was already fifty-two years old."

[8] Cf. R. A. Kanievsky, Toledot Ya'akov (bio of Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Kanievsky), Bnei Brak 1995, p. 118.

[9] Toledot Ya'akov, p. 119.