The late Jewish comedian George Burns was one of several people to whom the following quote is attributed: “The most important quality in life is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
The question is: Does that apply to praying too?
In a number of places, the Talmud considers whether mitzvot require intention. In general, the rabbis are loath to explicitly require it, yet proper intention — kavanah in Hebrew — is certainly considered an ideal.
One particularly vivid expression of that ideal is found on today’s daf.
Rabbi Ami said: A person’s prayer is heard [nishma’at] only if he places his soul in his hand, as it is said, “Let us lift up our hearts with our hands.” (Lamentations 3:41)
What does it mean to put your soul in your hands? According to Rashi, it means to pray with sincerity. Interestingly, the Shakers depict sincerity similarly with this symbol, a heart in the palm of a hand.
Perhaps as a matter of law, one doesn’t need proper intention to fulfill the obligation to pray. But Rabbi Ami is addressing a different question: Will our prayers be nishma’at — heard, listened to, responded to — if they aren’t made with sincerity? His answer is clear: Only if we pray wholeheartedly.
Lest we jump to the conclusion that praying always requires such focus, the Talmud immediately objects with a statement from Shmuel, who quotes a passage in Psalms that disputes this assertion.
“But they beguiled Him with their mouth and lied to Him with their tongue, for their heart was not steadfast with Him, neither were they faithful to His covenant” (Psalms 78:36–37), and nevertheless the psalm continues: “But He, being full of compassion, forgives iniquity, and does not destroy” (Psalms 78:38).
The verses from Psalms suggest that though the people were not sincere and did not pray wholeheartedly, their prayers were still heard by God. We have then a conflict between Rabbi Ami and Shmuel. How can the conflict be resolved?
The answer the Talmud gives is simple: Rabbi Ami was speaking about those who pray alone. When we pray alone, we need total sincerity for our prayers to be heard. But when we pray with a group, the merit of the group ensures that even the insincere prayers of the individual are accepted.
Interestingly, the Sephardic scholar Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad has a different interpretation of the soul-in-hand metaphor. He points out that the Hebrew word for soul, nefesh, can refer to one’s money, as it does in the traditional rabbinic understanding of the verse from Deuteronomy 6:5, which states that one must serve God “with all your soul.”
According to Yosef Hayyim, to put your soul in your hand could mean to put your money in your hand — that is, to give charity. According to this interpretation, Rabbi Ami could be saying that one’s prayers will only be heard if one intends to give charity.
Such an interpretation might encourage all of us to think not only about ourselves when we pray, but about those in need as well.
Read all of Taanit 8 on Sefaria.