The Music of Halacha: A Prayer For The Journey
One who is about to go on a trip should recite the Traveler’s Prayer.1
Abraham had to deal with numerous Halachic issues in order to begin his expedition. He needed his wife’s permission3. He was leaving his father and would no longer be able to fulfill his obligation to honor Terach4. He was about to move to Israel, placing his livelihood at risk5. However, I would like to focus on whether Abraham was obligated to recite the Traveler’s Prayer before beginning his journey. 6
Abraham was instructed by God to leave his home and travel to the Land of Canaan. He was on a divine mission, and he was leaving with God’s promises of protection and blessing. Did Abraham need to pray for Divine protection for such a journey?
We first must define the purpose of the prayer. Rashi understands the Traveler’s Prayer as a request for permission to travel7. A person who must run from war or a fire does not need permission. People who had to escape from pogroms on Shabbat did not need permission for their “trip.” According to Rashi, they were not obligated to recite the Traveler’s Prayer. Abraham did not need permission to begin his journey. God had commanded him to go. It seems that Rashi would hold that Abraham did not need to recite the Traveler’s Prayer.
Other early authorities understand the Traveler’s Prayer as just that, a prayer, requesting God’s protection and guidance. God had already promised His protection and blessing to Abraham. Did Abraham still need to pray? Was he allowed to rely on the promises received and assume that he had no need to pray?
There is an opinion that believes that the text of the Traveler’s Prayer is actually based on Abraham’s journey.8 Rashi explains that God’s blessings to Abraham addressed the specific dangers inherent in Abraham’s trip.9 God promised to protect Abraham from the dangers of traveling, the potential loss of income and the damage to his reputation. “Save me from all enemies” addresses the dangers associated with traveling. “Send blessing in the work of our hands”, speaks to the loss of income, and “Give us favor and kindness in Your eyes”, is directed to the loss of reputation when someone arrives as a stranger in a new place.
The Zohar10 adds a deeper dimension to this prayer:11 “Even on the road as the fool walks, he lacks sense.12” Rabbi Shimon taught that when a person wants to fix his ways and redirect his path toward the Holy One, Blessed is He, he must take counsel with God and pray that God will help him succeed. As it says: “The man of righteousness will walk before Him, and set his footsteps on the way13.”14
The Zohar takes the idea of this prayer out of the limited context of a trip and applies it to the journey of life, specifically to a person who has lost his way and wants to rediscover a path through life. The fact that we refer to our legal system as “Halacha”, or “Walking,” is the strongest indication that we must view our choices as a journey, an expedition, and a great exploration. Jewish law is simply a GPS. The Zohar understands all of life as a journey, hopefully a trip with a destination in mind. Just as we would not begin a journey without praying for God’s help and guidance, we should not move forward on our own journeys without a clear awareness that we cannot progress without God’s help.
Many Jews are attracted to the “Path” philosophy of Eastern religions. These religions show how the spiritual methods used to advance on their particular path lead toward a desirable and accessible goal. The path offers direction and focus. It is difficult to find the path of Judaism. People who are searching for a rewarding and worthwhile path in life find Judaism obscure. Judaism’s spiritual methods may appear to be little more than a suffocating morass of arbitrary and generally archaic ritual practices, all imposed as authoritarian command.
This was not the path chosen by Abraham. He began his patriarchal life with a journey because he understood that the family he would start had to become a nation of travelers. He wanted his descendants to be explorers of life and its possibilities. All of life is a journey. So much so, that some cabbalists would recite the Traveler’s Prayer each morning, without using the name of God, as they would step from their homes15.
Abraham did recite the Traveler’s Prayer, not for the immediate trip; for that he had God’s promise of protection and guidance. Abraham prayed that his journey through life be successful and that his descendants would be travelers, just as he was.
i TBBerachot 29b, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 110:4
ii Translation of the Artscroll Siddur, with some changes.
iii Zohar. Shemen Sasson of the Magen Avraham on the Yalkut Shimoni.
iv Rabbeinu Bachya, Parashat Ki Tetzei. Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon on Logically Derived Mitzvot. Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 23. These authorities hold that Abraham was obligated to honor his father, Terach. However, it appears that Rashi, Nazir 61a, disagrees.
v Orchot Chaim of Rabbi Aharon of Luniel, volume 2 #73. Responsa of Ridbaz volume 3 #853. Terumat HaDeshen #88. Responsa M’eel Tzedaka #26. Rabbi Yaakov Emden, Introduction to Commentary to the Siddur, Sulam Beit El page 14. Pe’at Hashulchan 1:66. Chazon Ish Collected Letters, volume 1 #180.
vi Was he permitted to cry when he said farewell to his father? (Kaf Hachaim 110:17) Was he allowed to take non-believers along with him? (Ibid. 19) Did he have to take supplies with him, or could he rely on God’s help during the trip? (Ibid. 23)
vii There is a custom based on this and a similar Rashi, Berachot 3b, that just as King David would consult with the Sanhedrin before going to battle so that they would pray for him, so too, we consult with a holy person before taking a trip so that the person will pray for us.
viii Ma’aseh Betzalel on Rikanati #35.
ix Genesis 12:2
x Zohar, Volume 1 59a. See Zohar, Volume 3 87b: God will not travel along with those who have no focus. (Or Yakar of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Volume 13, page 123a)
xi I am indebted to Dr. Charles Vernoff for inspiring the idea that follows, in a yet to be published future classic on the meaning of Shabbat, “Gateway to Transcendence”.
xii Ecclesiastes 10:3
xiii Psalms 85:14
xiv Damesek Eliezer, Commentary to the Zohar, explains this selection as a description of the Traveler’s Prayer. Please note that the Zohar includes both the idea of Rashi, consultation, and that of the other authorities, which is prayer.
xv I have heard this, but have never found a reliable source.