By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
There is an urban myth that Eskimos have 50 words for snow. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that there are a lot of different words in Hebrew used to describe the same spiritual thing. For exmaple, there are seven names for God in Hebrew and at least three words for soul.
King David was an expert in prayer and he had more than one word for speaking to God, each one describing a unique experience. In fact, in just one short verse in Psalm 61 he uses two different words for communicating with the Almighty:
Hear my cry, O God, heed my prayer. Psalms 61:2
In Hebrew, the word translated here as ‘cry’ is rina (רינה), and the word translated as ‘prayer’ is tefillah (תפילה).
What is the difference between these two words? What do they each mean?
Tefillah, perhaps the most commonly used word for prayer in modern Hebrew, is a difficult word to understand. It first appears in the Bible in a different form, after the aged Jacob is reintroduced to Joseph who he believed was dead:
And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.” Genesis 48:11
The word translated here as ‘expected’ is pillalti (פִלָּלְתִּי), which has the same root at the word tefillah. The word pilel is used in a very different manner by Samuel:
If a man sins against a man, God may pardon him; but if a man offends against God, who can obtain pardon for him?” But they ignored their father’s plea; for God was resolved that they should die. I Samuel 2:25
Here, pilel is translated as ‘pardon,’ and the word hitpalel is translated as ‘obtain pardon’. Other commentaries translate both words as ‘judge’.
The word pilel appears later in Psalms but is translated as ‘intervened’:
Phinehas stepped forth and intervened, and the plague ceased. Psalms 160:30
So what does this word Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, mean?
The Hebrew word ‘to pray’ is the reflexive form of this word, l’hitpalel. In this form, the word for prayer might best be understood as a process of self-evaluation (expectation), self-judgment, and even self-intervention.
But our verse in Psalm 61 implies that there are at least two types of prayer: tefillah and rina. How is rina different than tefillah?
The biblical commentator, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th century Spain), explained that rina, also used to describe joyous singing, is performed in an external manner that can be observed by others. Tefillah, however, is an internal process performed in the heart.
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (16th-century Italian) has a different explanation. He writes that that rina is speaking to God about the past, whereas tefillah is speaking to God about the future.
Yet another distinction is made by Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (Ukraine 19th century), better known as the Malbim. He suggests that David used the word rina first to describe his times of difficulty. The second half of his prayer was tefillah, referring to his ultimate success and salvation.
This understanding of rina, crying out in times of difficutly, is expressed in Lamentations as well:
Arise, cry out in the night At the beginning of the watches, Pour out your heart like water In the presence of God! Lift up your hands to Him For the life of your infants, Who faint for hunger At every street corner. Lamentations 2:19
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach provided a deeper understanding of the word rina in an explanation that he gave to Psalms 126:5. There, the word rina, used previously to mean crying out to God in prayer, is used to mean songs of joy:
They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. Psalm 126:5
Rabbi Carlebach explained that one should change the punctuatoin of the verse. Instead of reading it “They who sow in tears, shall reap with songs of joy,” it should be read “they who sow in tears and songs of joy, shall reap.” Rabbi Carlebach explained that everything has both tears and joy in it. Sometimes, in order to acheive true joy we need to shed some tears. These are very real, very holy tears.”
The different meanings of the Hebrew words for prayer suggest that prayer is a complex process that involves not just communication with God, but also introspection, evaluation, judgment, and emotional expression. Each word carries a unique meaning and understanding of the different aspects of prayer. The richness of the Hebrew language allows us to deepen our understanding of prayer and deepen our understanding of ourselves and our connection with the Creator.