Hebrew Word For Prayer: Tefillah

by | Feb 10, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

Most times, people pray to God with the desire to get favors. Some see prayer as an opportunity to pour their heart out to God or a way to express their deepest wishes and desires. Others believe it’s a means to petition a divine and fair judge. Prayer takes many forms and sizes, and people pray for many reasons. Nonetheless, the common denominator is that prayer is an integral part of a Christian’s spiritual life. It is a means by which we draw near to God and communicate with Him.

So what is the Hebrew word for prayer?

The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is a central aspect of Jewish worship. It is a means to connect with God, express gratitude, seek guidance, and ask for divine intervention. Palal, which is a Hebrew word derived from the same root as tefillah (p-l-l), is a verb that means “to pray,” “to intercede,” or “judgment.” Together, these two Hebrew terms offer a comprehensive understanding of prayer in relation to how and why people approach God.

While the Hebrew word tefillah, when translated to English, means prayer, it has a wide range of meanings. From the same Hebrew root p-l-l, we also get the word palal. While tefillah is the noun form meaning “prayer,” palal is a verb meaning “to pray” or “to “intercede.”

Palal and tefillah share the root (p-l-l) and are related to the concept of prayer. However, they may carry slightly different nuances depending on the context in which they are used. Here are two examples to show the differences that these two Hebrew words can elicit when translated into English:

  • Tefillah: “Hear my prayer, Lord; let my cry for help come to you” (Psalms 102:1). The word “prayer” in this verse is translated from tefillah.
  • Palal:  Samuel says to the people of Israel, “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way” (1 Samuel 12:23). Here, “pray” is translated from the Hebrew word etpalel, which is derived from the root palal.

The Hebrew word for pray, palal, is also portrayed through Abraham’s encounter with King Abimelech, who takes Sarah because he believes she is Abraham’s sister. Later, God appears to King Abimelech in a dream and tells him:

“Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die” (Genesis 20:7). 

Here the word palal means to intercede, intervene, or ask on behalf of another.

Purpose of Prayer

The main purpose of prayer is communication between man and God (Philippians 4:6-7; Psalm 107:28-30). But prayer as a conversation between man and God is not the full Hebraic meaning. It is also about self-reflection and speaking from the heart knowing that He will hear and respond. 

Palal comes from the parent root PL, spelled as pey and lamed. The pictogram for Pey is a mouth, while for Lamed, it is a staff. In this case, the mouth represents to speak, i.e., prayer has to be spoken. On the other hand, a staff points to a figure of authority. Monarchs and religious leaders use scepters and croziers to signify their authority and leadership or power to govern and make decisions. When the Hebrew letters “pey” and “lamed” combine, they form the word “pala.”

Pala (pronounced as paw-law) from the PL root has two main meanings: to do extraordinary, hard, or difficult to explain things and to be marvelous or wonderful. When Pala is used primarily with God as its subject, it expresses extraordinary or wonderful actions in our eyes (miracles). Sarah giving birth at an old age was a miracle, and the angel reiterated the extraordinary power of God by saying.

“Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son” (Genesis 18:14). 

Often, prayer is a way to ask God to do the impossible, i.e., perform miracles. For example, Elijah’s prayer for rain (1 Kings 18:41-45), Hannah’s prayer for a child (1 Samuel 1:9-20), and Hezekiah’s prayer for healing (2 Kings 20:1-11).

There are cases in the Old Testament where the people do not directly mention the word “prayer.”; however, they “call on the name of the Lord,” which usually denotes prayer. For example, David’s prayer for forgiveness (Psalm 51), Jeremiah’s prayer for guidance (Jeremiah 10:23-24), and Daniel’s prayer for deliverance (Daniel 9:3-19). Ultimately, calling upon God and seeking divine intervention, guidance, or assistance, aligns with the Old Testament’s concept and practice of prayer.

Biblical Usage

In the Bible, there are several examples of people praying to God which shows prayer as a medium of communicating with God. However, prayer is not a biblical command. Rather, it’s a divine invitation to speak with God and a way for Him to show kindness. Prayer also provides evidence that our Father listens to us and responds when we call Him (Psalm 34:17; 40:1; 145:18-19; Jeremiah 29:12).

We often do not get immediate results when we pray, and waiting for God’s perfect timing is difficult. We want our prayers answered now, today, and not later. This makes it difficult to discern God’s timing. However, Scripture makes it clear that we should wait for the LORD and that He is pleased with us when we exercise patience (Psalm 27:14; 37:7; Micah 7:7).

Our ability to wait on God’s timing also indicates how much we trust Him. The Bible says that God hears man (Isaiah 38:5; Psalm 17:6, 77:1). So we can trust that when we speak to God in prayer, He will hear us.

Prayer and miracles are often interlinked because we go to Him in prayer to plead our case and ask Him to be a judge. In some cases, we might be in dire need of assistance and pray because only God can turn that situation around. We can rest assured that God will answer our prayers in the form of miracles to remind us of His love, strength, and power.

However, while prayer is not commanded by God, failing to pray even for others can be seen as a sin (1 Samuel 12:23). Samuel, as a judge, prayed for the people of Israel, knowing it was his duty. As a servant of God, he also guided them to follow the right path. Job was also instructed to pray for his friends that the LORD would not deal with them according to their foolishness (Job 42:8).

Conclusion

The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, reminds us that our pleadings and prayers are not falling on deaf ears. The One in authority will answer or bring about justice and miracles in His own time. Prayer is therefore a means by which we can petition heaven to intervene in earthly affairs. 

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About: Ronie

Ronnie Amaya has been actively involved in ministry since his high school and university days where he served as a Christian union leader. After graduation, he worked as an itinerary minister preaching in Schools, Universities, Street Evangelizations, and Churches. In 2018, he led a team in planting a new church in Nairobi, Kenya where he is currently serving as the lead pastor.
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Ronie

Ronnie Amaya has been actively involved in ministry since his high school and university days where he served as a Christian union leader. After graduation, he worked as an itinerary minister preaching in Schools, Universities, Street Evangelizations, and Churches. In 2018, he led a team in planting a new church in Nairobi, Kenya where he is currently serving as the lead pastor.

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