“וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי לְךָ ה', עֵת רָצוֹן” (תהילים ס"ט:י"ד)
“But as for me, may my prayer to You, O Lord, be at a favorable time ...” (Psalms 69:14)
What is this ‘favorable time’ that the psalmist so desired for his prayers? When is the best time to pray?
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai explained that the verse is not referring to a particular hour of the day, but rather to a particular situation. “When is it a ‘favorable time’? When the congregation is praying together.” (Berachot 8a)
Rabbi Shimon’s answer is surprising. We tend to view prayer as a private matter, an personal conversation between the soul and its Creator. Why did the Sages place such an emphasis on public prayer, even claiming that it constitutes the best, most favorable form of prayer?
To answer this question, we need to understand the fundamental purpose of prayer. Prayer, Rav Kook explained, is a tool for strengthening moral character. Prayer uplifts and refines us, bolstering our spiritual path.
A person who lives alone has few moral dilemmas and ethical challenges. When is our character put to the test? When we live with others, when it is necessary to share space and other resources. The need for ethical behavior stems from the nature of life within a social framework.
Since the primary goal of prayer is to refine our moral sensitivity, it follows that prayer is primarily for the sake of those who require such sensitivity because they live in a social setting. For hermits and recluses, prayer is superfluous. Their spiritual needs can be met by studying Torah, which bestows a correct outlook on life and the world.
That is why the prayer of the community is the central prayer. According to Rabbi Shimon, even the prayers of an individual are only efficacious through their connection to the prayer of the community. An individual who prays only for his own needs, without considering those around him – such a prayer is self-centered and may very well be rejected. It misses the main point of prayer.
When the congregation prays together, each member entreats God for the good of the community. This communal tefillah fulfills the basic function of prayer – improved social living and moral refinement. This type of prayer constitutes a “favorable time” for prayer.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 36-37; Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 261)