Book Review: Praying Legally

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Shalom E. Holtz, Praying Legally (Brown Judaic Studies, 2019)
Reviewed by Shawn Zelig Aster

“When people prayed in biblical Israel and in the ancient Near East, what did they think they were doing?” With this question, Shalom Holtz opens Praying Legally, a 135-page exploration of one aspect of prayer in Tanakh: that prayer is a form of legal argument, in which the pray-er (mitpallel) asks God to pass judgment on his or her request. In other words, the pray-er is recognizing God as authority and judge, while at the same time, trying to present the best legal case in order to convince God, as it were, to grant the request.

The most obvious demonstration that prayer has a legal aspect is the word tefilla, derived from the same root as pelilim, judgment, a point Holtz notes in various places (e.g., 3, 17, 27-28). Building on this, Holtz aims to explore how the courtroom formed a sort of analogy to the world of prayer, so that Israelites of Tanakh saw themselves as standing in a courtroom when they came before God in prayer. 

Akkadian analogies are addressed in the first chapter, building on the work of Rachel Magdalene, who used these analogies to better understand much of the drama in the book of Job (see her On the Scales of Righteousness: Neo-Babylonian Trial Law and the Book of Job, 2007). But as he points out, the legalistic structure found in a famous Akkadian ritual (known as maqlû), in which the sick person asks the gods “judge my case” is dissimilar to what actually happened in Babylonian courts. To Holtz’ argument, one might profitably add that whatever the formal similarities between Biblical prayer and Babylonian formulations, the unbridgeable difference between the addressee of prayer in Babylon (the gods) and its addressee in Biblical Israel (God) precludes any higher-order similarity between legally-formulated prayer in Tanakh and legalistic prayer elsewhere in the ancient Near East. The supplicant in pray-er in maqlû is quite well aware that he can “put one over” the gods. On some level, he knows that the gods are fictional, that the temple practitioners manipulate them to their benefit, and that the entire religious edifice is “the work of man’s hands, wood and stone” (Deut. 4:28). In contrast, the pray-er in Tanakh knows (or ought to) that legal argument will carry him only a very little way, since God knows “what goes on in your bedroom” (II Kings 6:12), and in other secret places; that is, God cannot be fooled. (I recognize that not every scholar of the ancient Near East shares my cynicism about the sincerity of Mesopotamian religion.)

Nevertheless, the pray-er in Tanakh does indeed use legal imagery. Holtz shows this persuasively in citing Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the first Temple: “You will hear their prayer and supplication and render their judgment” (I Kings 8:45 and 49). But perhaps the double language here is not a hendiadys (the expression of a single idea by two words or phrases), but a recognition that two things happen in the context of a person standing before God: first the person speaks his piece, his prayer, and second, the person is judged by God. The judgment is based partly on the fact that the person comes before God to pray, but also on other aspects of the person’s life. And the judgement process, and the factors that determine the judgment, are often, and perhaps always, beyond humans’ ken, as Nachshon Wachsman’s father reminded us in his memorable statement, “Sometimes a father can say ‘No’.” 

Another example of the use of legal imagery in prayer is in Psalm 54, where the opening verses asks God to “judge me.” The pray-er here argues that he has a clear case: “strangers have risen against me and ruthless men seek my life.” As Holtz notes: “When speakers pray, they make their case” (59). The pray-er’s “hoped-for outcomes are ‘remedies sought’ in the technical legal sense of that expression” (63). As Holtz notes, when pray-ers make the case for themselves, arguing that they have done right, and that their enemies have done wrong, they are implicitly implying that if God does not respond to their prayer, justice will not be done in the world. 

The archetype of such bold prayer is of course Abraham praying for Sodom, “Will you indeed destroy the just with the wicked?” (Gen. 18:23). Does Abraham really know that the just for whom he prays are just? Does he know that the “judge of all the world” is not doing justice if all the people of the five cities will be destroyed? Of course he doesn’t. But he makes his case, pleads for the people, and prays to God using the best logical arguments that his limited, but Divinely-given reason can provide. And when God says “no” Abraham gets up the next morning “to the place where he stood there” (Gen. 19:27), and continues his relationship with God. 

Prayer therefore is indeed a legal exercise in a very profound way. We present our case, do the best we can with our limited verbal and intellectual abilities. But more importantly, perhaps, we “present ourselves in judgment” and recognize that our fate is in God’s hands, just as a petitioner, when he or she presents a petition to the court, accepts the court’s authority. Prayer begins, as Holtz points out, with “approaching” and “standing before” God (95-100). We all owe him a debt for making us all a little more aware of what we are all doing when we pray. 

Shawn Zelig Aster is an Associate Professor at Bar-Ilan University, where he specializes in the study of Tanakh and the Biblical period. His recent book, Reflections of Empire in Isaiah 1-39, was reviewed on TraditionOnline here. His curriculum on teaching the book of Isaiah in Jewish schools can be found at

[Published on February 17, 2020]

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