Who should pray and bless ?
By Rabbi Shabtai Rappoport
P.'s first son was born at full term seven weeks ago, and at that time seemed to be a healthy vigorous infant. When his complexion became yellow the physician told the new parents that it was a normal condition and will disappear in a few days. However, after the yellowness only strengthened, the blood tests that were ordered showed abnormal liver functions. Further tests revealed that the baby was born with a very small, almost non-existent gall bladder, and worse, without the necessary common bile duct that takes the bile produced in the liver into the duodenum. If the baby is to live, such a duct will have to be surgically constructed. The operation is a most difficult one, especially given the infant's young age, and the chance of success is estimated at no more than twenty five percent. The direness of the situation brought P. to seriously consider helping the situation with prayer. Even though P. prays regularly himself, like any Torah observing Jew, he feels that in this circumstance he should ask a prominent personality to pray for him, and to bless the afflicted infant, attempting to ensure, as much as possible, that the Almighty will accept that prayer and realize the blessing. His dilemma is who to approach. Should he solicit help from a person who is known to deal with the mystical world of the Kabala, from a person who is known for his righteousness, or from an eminent Torah scholar? P. desires to concentrate his effort in the one proper approach in which he will believe, and not to merely experiment with all the alternatives.

Considering the Talmud and Midrash sources one may conclude that it is impossible to decide between these alternatives. The verse (Psalms 65, 6) "By awesome things in righteousness will you answer us" is interpreted in the Midrash that one who is righteous, and bestows help on the needy is promised that his prayer will be listened to by the Almighty, and fulfilled (namely, "be answered" as expressed in the Bible and by the Sages). It seems to follow that such a righteous man should be approached in times of grave difficulty. On the other hand the Talmud tells us (Berachot 34, b) "It happened that Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa went to study Torah with Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. The son of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai fell ill. He said to him: Hanina my son, pray for him that he may live. He put his head between his knees and prayed for him and he lived. Said Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai: If Ben Zakkai had stuck his head between his knees for the whole day; no notice would have been taken of him. Said his wife to him: Is Hanina greater than you are? He replied to her: No; but he is like a slave before the king, and I am like a minister before a king".

The second source gives us important insights. Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai who was the Nation's leader and greatest Torah scholar during the calamitous period of the destruction of the Second Temple, who had the vision of creating a spiritual center outside of Jerusalem, guaranteeing the Nation's eternal existence - a deed that certainly needed Divine assistance - did not believe that his prayer for his own son will be answered. Instead he asked his disciple to pray for his son, understanding that Rabbi Hanina has the advantage of being "like a slave before the king" as opposed to a "minister before the king". The meaning of this saying is indeed elusive – what human being could be likened to a minister to the Almighty, and why then his prayer for his own son will not be answered? Many commentators addressed this issue. Rav Avraham Yitzhak Ha'Kohen Kook, the noted Halacha and Jewish Philosophy authority of Eretz Yisrael during the first third of the twentieth century, explains (Olat Re'iah, Matters of Prayer 6) that a "minister" is a person whose attitude to life is dictated by pure intellectual striving to understand G-d and fulfill His will. The "slave" is one whose consummate emotions of awe and love to G-d command his everyday deeds. He is likened to a slave, because of his relatively lower rank when compared to the intellectual, but as far as prayer goes – since prayer, being an emotional activity, is an essential factor in his life – his prayer is more likely to be answered. This will indicate that the best person to pray for the sick is not necessarily one who is known for his acts of charity, but one who is known for his soulfulness.

On the other hand, the Talmud (Baba Bathra 116, a) quotes Rav Phinehas bar Hama saying: "whosoever has a sick person in his house should go to an eminent Torah scholar who will invoke [heavenly] mercy for him; as it is said (Proverbs 16, 14): `The wrath of G-d is as messengers of death, but a wise man will pacify it`." A careful comparison of the above three sources will show that the first two do not include an instruction or a recommendation to ask a generous or a soulful person to pray for the sick. The only such direction is given regarding the Torah scholar. This direction is brought down as a ruling in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De'ah 335, 10). The above ruling instructs a person to go to the Torah scholar of his own town.

Rav Moshe Feinstein, the noted twentieth century Halacha authority concludes (Igrot Volume 8, Orach Chaim part 5, 43, and Yoreh De'ah part 4, 51) that this direction pertains not only to the Sages and the greatest Torah scholars of old. The Torah scholars of each generation are permitted to decide and rule on current issues, and similarly they are the ones to pray for people in danger. The verse from Proverbs quoted above refers to a very dangerous illness that involves the "wrath of G-d" and the "messengers of death" and still the "wise man" of the present generation will pacify it. He also concludes that "a sick person in the house" is only an example to any distress that requires a special prayer.

Rav Moshe's conclusion serves to explain why the references to generous and soulful persons did not become Halachic ruling, unlike that to a Torah scholar. Indeed, the prayer of a genuine man of charity is answered, as is the prayer of a truly soulful man. The problem that faces a man that seeks a person to pray for him is how to determine who is a truly generous person – who practices charity without any ulterior motive. It is even more difficult for a man without the tremendous knowledge and penetration of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai to know a truly soulful man. As G-d told the Prophet Samuel when he was sent to select a king among the sons of Jesse, and mistakenly thought that Eliab, the eldest, is G-d's anointed one "Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him; for the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (Samuel I, 16, 7)

A Torah scholar is different. One should accept the rulings of the known Torah scholars even when it is impossible to evaluate their innermost motives and personalities. The Torah orders us "And you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge who shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall declare to you the sentence of judgment; and you shall do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the Lord shall choose shall declare to you; and you shall take care to do according to all that they inform you" (Deuteronomy 17, 9-10). The Sages explained "Can we then imagine that a man should go to a judge who is not in his days? This shows that you must be content to go to the judge who is in your days" (Rosh Ha'Shana 25, b).

Since the definition of a Torah scholar who can make Torah rulings lies not with the hidden qualities of the personality, but with the widely regarded public recognition, people in need should refer to him for a prayer and a blessing.

This is what P. should do regarding the great need of his son for prayer that the surgery should succeed in spite of the small odds, go to a noted Torah scholar and ask that he should pray for his son, the prayer and the obedience the ruling of the Sages to go to a "wise man" might bring G-d's mercy upon him.