Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the great first-century scholar and leader, was deeply troubled — his son was seriously ill. When the child’s condition became life-threatening, the rabbi turned to one of his students, Chanina ben Dosa, known for his piety and ability to perform miracles. “Chanina, please pray for my son so that he may live!”
Chanina willingly obliged. He placed his head between his knees in complete submission to God, and prayed for mercy. And the boy recovered.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai later commented to his wife: ‘If I were to place my head between my knees all day long, it would not have made a difference.’
‘What?’ exclaimed the rabbi’s wife. ‘Is Chanina greater than you?’
‘No,’ replied Rabbi Yochanan. “But he is like a servant before the King, while I am like a minister before the King.” (Berachot 34b)
What is the difference between the king’s servant and his minister? Why was Chanina ben Dosa’s prayer more efficacious than the prayer of an eminent scholar like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai?
In general, there are two paths to serve God. The first path is through the mind: to utilize one’s intellectual faculties to grasp and follow the ways of God. The second path relies principally on the heart. It is based on one’s innate disposition towards kindness and holiness.
Both paths are valid forms of serving God — whether one is guided by the intellect’s enlightened truth, or by one’s innate sense of goodness and purity.
For those whose service is based on the intellect, they must concentrate their efforts on attaining and internalizing true knowledge of God’s ways. Prayer, on the other hand, primarily engages feelings and emotions; it contributes less to the path of intellectual spiritual growth.
But for those who choose the path of the heart, prayer contributes greatly to refine and uplift their service. For this reason, their prayers are more likely to be accepted, as Divine providence looks to assist and complete us in the path that we have chosen. As the Sages taught in Makkot 10b: “On the path one wishes to take — on that path he is conducted.”
The service of the mind is elevated above that of the heart, just as the intellect is a higher faculty, above the emotions. Nonetheless, prayer will be closer and more effective for those who have chosen the path of holy emotions, the path of elevating the spirit through an outpouring of prayer and feeling the natural draw of closeness to God.
Now we may understand Rabbi Yochanan’s response to his wife. His student Chanina ben Dosa was like a servant before the King. Chanina’s service was based primarily on holy and pure emotions. He performed God’s Will like a faithful servant, without questioning or deeper understanding. And Chanina’s sincere prayers, straight from the heart, naturally suited his spiritual service.
The great scholar Rabbi Yochanan, on the other hand, was like the King’s minister. His service was an elevated path, the service of Torah wisdom and scholarship. For one accustomed to this higher service, the emotional service of prayer is a descent; it is less central for this spiritual path.
Perhaps that is the significance of the Talmud’s description of Chanina ben Dosa’s prayer — “he lowered his head between his knees.” This bodily position indicates a service of God in which the intellect takes a backseat. The head is lowered, while the heart and its emotions take center stage.
(Adapted from preface to Olat Re’iyah vol. I p. 27; Ein Eyah vol. I p. 166)