Parsha and Manuscript - Va'etchanan: The Power of Prayer

Thursday, 1 August, 2019 - 7:46 am

MS. Huntington 425, fol. 83 (1403) Va'eschanan.png

In the beginning of the Torah portion of Va’etchanan it presents Moses praying to G-d to be allowed to enter the land. The Torah states:[1]


I entreated (Va’etchanan) the Lord at that time, saying, "O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for who is [like] God in heaven or on earth who can do as Your deeds and Your might? Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon."


The question that arises from the text is what is the particular meaning of the word Va’etchanan in reference to prayer, since the usual word for prayer is tefillah, as in:[2] And I prayed (va'etpallel) to the L-rd," and the word chanan in reference to prayer has not been used before in the Torah?


Two answers are given to this question:


1.     Va’etchanan denotes prayer in the form that the petitioner is asking for G-d to grant his prayer as an act of grace (chinam).

2.     Va’etchanan is one of the terms that denotes prayer.


The Midrash Sifrei[3] brings both these interpretations:


1. Two goodly leaders rose up for Israel — Moses and David king of Israel — and they could have asked for reward on the basis of their good deeds, but they asked of the Holy One Blessed be He only that He "grace" them, (this being the thrust of "chaneini" and of "va'etchanan"). Now does this not follow a fortiori, viz.: If these two who could have asked for reward on the basis of their good deeds, asked of the Holy One Blessed be He only that He "grace" them, then we, who are not even a thousandth of the thousands and ten thousands of his disciples, how much more so should we ask of the L-rd only that He "grace" us!


2. Variantly: Prayer (tefillah) is called by ten names: ze'akah, shav'ah, ne'akah, rinah, pegiah, nipul, pilul, atirah, chilui, and chinun: ze'akah – ‘And it was in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel moaned under the toil, and they cried out (vayizaku).[4]’ ‘shav'ah’ - ‘and their outcry (shavatham) ascended.’[5] ‘ne'akah’ – ‘And G-d heard their outcry (na'akatham).[6] ‘rinah’ – ‘and do not raise for them an outcry (rinah).[7] ‘pegiah’ – ‘and do not entreat (tifg'u) Me.’[8] ‘nipul – ‘And I prostrated myself (va'ethnapal) before the L-rd as at first.’[9] ‘pilul’ – ‘And I prayed (va'etpallel) to the L-rd.’[10] ‘atirah’ – ‘And Isaac entreated (vaye'tar Yitzchak) the L-rd for his wife.’[11] ‘chilui’ – ‘And Moses prayed’ (Vayechal Mosheh).[12] ‘chinun’ – ‘And I entreated (va'etchanan) the L-rd.’[13]


Rashi in the 11th century quotes these two interpretations from the Sifrei in his commentary:[14]


1. I entreated: The word chanun and its derivatives in all cases is an expression signifying requesting a free gift. Even though the righteous may base a request on the merit of their good deeds, they request only a free gift of the Omnipresent. (Addition:) Because G-d had said to Moses, “and I will favor (v’chanoti) when I wish to favour (achon),”[15] Moses spoke to G-d, using the expression va'etchanan.’

2. Another explanation: This is one of ten terms which denote prayer as stated in the Sifrei.




MS. Michael 384, fol. 121 (1399) Va'eschanan.pngIn the manuscripts of Rashi found at the Bodleian Library there are three versions of this commentary:


In MS. Huntington 425 (1403),[16] the text of Rashi is found as in the printed edition.


In MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396),[17] the following additional words can be found in the margin: ‘Because G-d had said to Moses, “and I will favour (v’chanoti) when I wish to favour (achon),”[18] Moses spoke to G-d, using the expression va'etchanan.’


In the following manuscripts the additional words are omitted all together: CCCMS165,[19] MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-1225),[20] MS. Oppenheim 14 (1340),[21] MS. Michael 384 (1399),[22] MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-1425),[23] MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408).[24]


The purpose of the additional words is to support the first interpretation that va’etchanan means a request for the grant of prayer as an act of grace. In this context, Sifsei Chachamim explains: Rashi is saying: How did Moses know to ask the Al-mighty even for an underserved gift, one that is not dependent upon good deeds? On this question the text of Rashi includes the verse in Exodus: “I will be gracious, etc.”


This additional text appears in the commentary on Rashi by Sifsei Chachamim and Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, indicating that the additional words became integrated into the text of Rashi in the 16th century. The development of the text of Rashi then appears to be in three stages: 1. It first had the two opinions without the additional words from the book of Exodus, as can be found in the majority of the manuscripts, including the two early manuscripts from the 12th and 13th century, 2. The words were added in the margin, as can be found in MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396),[25] and 3. The text became integrated into the main text of Rashi, as can be found in MS. Huntington 425 (1403),[26] followed by the printed edition.[27] The question we would like to pose is: what is the significance of this addition in the text of Rashi?


Source of additional text


CCCMS165 Fol. 130 Va'eschanan.png

The source of this additional text is from two further midrashic texts where the two above interpretations of va’etchanan can be found. This includes Midrash Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma:


Midrash Rabba states:[28]


Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘There are ten terms which denote prayer: shv’ah, ze’akah, ne’akah, rinnah, pegi’ah, bizur, keri’ah, nuppul, pillul, and tachanunim. Of all these expressions, Moses prayed only with the approach of tachanunim [an appeal to G‑d's grace]. Rabbi Yochanan said, "Hence you learn that no creature has any claim on His Creator, because Moses, the teacher of all prophets, made use only of tachanunim - an expression that denotes asking for an act of grace.’ Rabbi Levi said: ‘The reason why Moses made use only of tachanunim is because the proverb says: Take care that you are not taken at your own word.’ How? The Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to Moses thus:[29] ‘And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.’ G-d said to Moses: ‘To him who has any claim upon me I will show mercy, that is, I will deal with him according to My attribute of mercy; And as for the one who has no claim upon Me, to him ‘I will be gracious,’ that is I will grant his prayer as an act of grace.’ When Moses desired to enter the land of Israel, G-d said to him: Let it suffice you.[30] Whereupon Moses exclaimed before Him: ‘Master of the Universe, did you not say to me, ‘Anyone who has no claim of reward upon Me, to him ‘I will be gracious,’ that is I will grant his prayer as an act of grace?’ Now, I do not claim there is anything due to me from You, but grant You me my prayer as an act of grace.’ Whence this? From what we have read in the text under comment:[31] ‘And I besought the Lord.’


Midrash Tanchuma has a similar text.[32]


Rashi’s choice of source


MS. Oppenheim 14 (1340), fol. 122 Va'eschanan.pngIt would seem that while both the Sifrei and Midrash Rabba and Tanchuma bring the two interpretations: a. act of grace and b. expression of prayer, Rashi, in all the editions, besides a single 15th century manuscript, MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408),[33] ends the commentary with the words ‘as found in the Sifrei.’ This ending implies the deliberate choice of Rashi in his use of the Sifrei and his source for the commentary, as opposed to the Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma. Significantly, the additional text can be found in the latter sources, as opposed to Sifrei, which omits it, explaining why it was omitted in the first place in the text of Rashi.


The broader question however is, why did Rashi choose the source from the Sifrei where the additional text can not be found and thus omitted it in his original text, and not from the text of the Midrash Rabba and Tanchuma, where the text can be found. What is the significance in the differences between the two midrashic sources?


Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi explains that a fundamental difference between the two sources is that in the Sifrei the two interpretations are alternative interpretations, whereas in the Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma they are combined into a single complementary interpretation. As the Midrash is divided about the arrangement of these interpretations, the medieval commentaries are also divided: Rashi chooses to follow the approach that presents the interpretations as alternative comments, while Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, known as the Rosh, in his commentary on the Torah combines both into a single interpretation.


This approach of the Sifrei – representing them as two separate interpretations - as followed by Rashi’s commentary is highlighted further by the 16th century commentary Sifsei Chachamim who consolidates this understanding of the interpretations by explaining a reason why Rashi in fact brings two alternative interpretations and not just one and what the problem is with each of these interpretations. The problem with the first interpretation is that if va’etchanan means asking for an underserved (free) act of grace, it should have stated va’etchanam (I asked for a free gift) with the ending ‘am’ instead of ‘an.’ Conversely, the problem with the second interpretation is: why does it not say vayechal (implored) also denoting prayer and used in Exodus.[34] Both these commentaries accept that the underlying approach of Rashi is following the Sifrei that both interpretations are alternative interpretations, as opposed to a combined commentary, as in Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma.


This would explain the reason why the additional text was first omitted in the majority of the manuscripts, while in MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396),[35] the additional text was added from Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma into the text of Rashi. While the actual additional text appears a harmless addition, merely supporting the idea that ‘va’etchanan’ refers to an act of undeserved grace, the choice of Rashi in his use of sources would have been deliberate, intentionally leaving out the additional text, so as to avoid confusion regarding the source of his commentary. What is however the fundamental difference between the two sources of commentary, whether they are complementary or alternative commentaries, and why did Rashi choose the latter?[36]


Seven approaches to prayer


MS. Oppenheim 34, fol. 100 (1201-25).pngThe difference between the two approaches in the Midrash Rabba and Tanchuma and the Sifrei, whether the interpretation of va’etchanan as ‘act of grace’ is an alternative stand-alone interpretation or combined with the second interpretation that va’etchanan denotes ‘an expression of prayer,’ reflects two approaches to the nature of prayer in the context of Moses’ praying to G-d to be allowed to enter Israel: a. deserved prayer for an act of grace from G-d, and b. undeserved prayer for an act of grace.


One may in fact summarise in Jewish teaching seven approaches to prayer:


1. As part of G-d’s creation, unconnected to one’s deeds, one prays to have one’s needs granted.[37]


2. A person is deserving of reward and prays for their requests to be granted as compensation.[38]


3. A person appears to others to be deserving, while in truth, before G-d, one knows one is undeserving, and prays for G-d’s grace.[39]


4. A person’s deeds are truly deserving before G-d, but one regards oneself to be undeserving, and prays for G-d’s grace.[40] 


5.  A person is undeserving due to lack of good deeds. Prayer is a commandment to ask G-d to nevertheless grant one’s requests out of kindness.[41]


6. Even if one has good deeds and deserves compensation, one prays only for G-d’s grace, as one can in any event not say that G-d is required to grant compensation.[42]


7. The person feels undeserving and is aware that they cannot in any event say that G-d is required to grant compensation.[43] In this ‘negative’ context one prays for G-d’s grace.


According to the Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma that combine the two interpretations: ‘act of grace’ and ‘expression of prayer’ both in a single meaning of ‘va’etchanan,’ the approach to prayer that the Torah is referring to is one who is deserving of having one’s prayers granted, though asks G-d to grant his prayers as an act of grace. According to the Sifrei, however, that separates the two interpretations, the approach to prayer in the first interpretation is one who prays for G-d’s grace but unconnected to one’s deeds; merely as an undeserved gift.


These two approaches explain the reason for the selection of the source for Rashi’s commentary from the Sifrei, and the omission from Exodus in the early manuscripts of the text as found in the Midrash Rabba and Tanchuma: This is to reflect the power of prayer as a request for the grace of G-d unconnected to the deservedness of the person praying and without expectation that G-d has any obligation to fulfil one’s request. One still prays to G-d for one’s request to be answered out of the grace and kindness of the Al-mighty.




[1] Deuteronomy 3:23-25.

[2] Deuteronomy 9:26. See also Psalms 17:1, Psalms 102:1, Psalms 65:3, Psalms 90:1, Proverbs 15:8, Jeremiah 32:16, Chabakkuk 3:1.

[3] Deuteronomy 26:6-7.

[4] Exodus 2:23.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 24.

[7] Jeremiah 7:16.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Deuteronomy 9:18.

[10] Ibid. 26.

[11] Genesis 25:21.

[12] Exodus 32:11.

[13] Deuteronomy 3:23

[14] Deuteronomy 3:23.

[15] Exodus 33:19.

[16] Fol. 83.

[17] Fol. 163.

[18] Exodus 33:19.

[19] Fol. 130.

[20] Fol. 100.

[21] Fol. 122.

[22] Fol. 121.

[23] Fol. 200.

[24] Fol. 93.

[25] Fol. 163.

[26] Fol. 83.

[27] In some editions the additional text is in brackets.

[28] Devarim Rabba 1:2.

[29] Exodus 33:19.

[30] Deuteronomy 3:26.

[31] Deuteronomy 3:23.

[32] Midrash TanchumaVa’etchanan 3:1: (Deut. 3:23:) “I besought the Lord.” This text is related (to I Kings 8:30 // II Chron. 6:21), “And may You harken unto the prayer of Your servant and to his supplication.” See, prayer is designated by many names: (1) prayer, (2) beseeching, (3) call, (4) cry, (5) outcry, (6) chant, (7) encounter, (8) falling and (9) amidah. Why did Moses only pray under the word, "beseeching (rt.: hnn)"? [This is the usage here] where it is stated (in Deut. 3:23), “I besought (rt.: hnn) the Lord.” It is simply that when Moses stood there and said to the Holy One, blessed be He, (in Exod. 33:18), “Please show me Your glory,” he said to Him, “Master of the world, please show me by what principle You run Your world.” It is so stated (in Exod. 33:13), “please show me Your principle.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Yes, I will show you; (in Exod. 33:19:) ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will call….’” [The Holy One, blessed be] He, said to him, “I have no obligation to [any] creature. Anytime a person does a commandment, I give him [reward] as a favor. Not that I have any obligation to any creature, but I do it as a favor.” Thus it is stated (ibid., cont.), “I will be gracious (rt.: hnn) to whom I will be gracious […].” Moses said to him, “If so, do me a kindness, make a commandment for me and grant [the reward] to me as a favor (rt.: hnn).” Ergo (in Deut. 3:23), “I besought [the Lord].”

[33] Fol. 93.

[34] Exodus 32:11.

[35] Fol. 163.

[36] This question is posed by Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi and left unanswered.

[37] Psalms 145:9: ‘The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are on all His works.’ Ketubot 67b. Likkutei Sichot 24:29.

[38] Leviticus 26:3. Maharik on Rashi Deuteronomy 3:23. Likkutei Sichot 24:29, footnote 17.

[39] Maharik on Rashi Deuteronomy 3:23. Drashot Haran 9. Pnei Yehoshua on Berachot 32b. Likkutei Sichot 24:31, footnote 30.

[40] Rashi on Deuteronomy 3:23.

[41] Ikarim 4:16.

[42] Psalms 62:13: ‘And You, O Lord, have kindness, for You repay a man according to his deed.’ Likkutei Sichot 24:30.

[43] Psalms 62:13: ‘And You, O Lord, have kindness, for You repay a man according to his deed.’ Likkutei Sichot 24:30.


Comments on: Parsha and Manuscript - Va'etchanan: The Power of Prayer
There are no comments.