If asked, most people would agree that tefilah is a central part of Jewish life. Tefilah is our prime form of communication with God, it forms and expresses the bond between Jews and functions on some level as a replacement for korbanot (sacrifices). It would therefore be reasonable to assume that tefilah is one of the six hundred and thirteen fundamental mitzvot de’orita, biblical mitzvot, but is that really so?
The Rambam in his Sefer Hamitzvot, a work that presents the 613 mitzvot and the rationale for what is included in that list of mitzvot and what is not, writes that the fifth mitzvat aseh is the requirement to pray. According to the Rambam the mitzvah of tefilah is learned from the command of “le’ovdo”, to worship God. Though the command of Le’ovdo is actually a general command, meant to give a directive of how to perform other mitzvot, and therefore should not be included in the count of 613, it also has a more specific meaning of prayer. The Rambam’s primary source is the Sifrei (a Midrash Halacha on Bamidbar and Devarim) on the verse in Parshat Ekev “uleovdo bechol levavchem”. The Sifrei states that leovdo commands us to tefilah. Asks the Sifrei from where do we know that it refers to prayer and not work? The answer offered is that since the pasuk continues “bechol levavchem”, with all your heart, it would indicate an avodah of the heart. What is the work of the heart, it is prayer, which stems from the heart. (See Sifrei Parshat Ekev piska 5 and Rambam Hilchot Tefilah 1/1)
The Ramban, in his comments to Sefer Hamitzvot, disagrees with the Rambam, stating that tefilah is a charity of God to man enabling man to turn to God with his troubles and needs. In the opinion of the Ramban it was Rabanan (the Rabbis) who instituted the recitation of tefilah on a regular basis. As for the source for tefilah brought in the Sifrei the Ramban suggest one of two possible explanations. The first is that the Midrash does not claim that tefilah is commanded in the torah. It is a rabbinic requirement supported by the formulization of the pasuk in Torah. The other possibility suggested by the Ramban is that there is a requirement of prayer in the Torah, though he differs with the Rambam on what that requirement is. While the Rambam sees the biblical requirement of tefilah as a daily requirement, the Ramban sees it as applying only to times of hardship and misfortune. In the opinion of the Ramban it is part of a broader requirement to call out in times of trouble expressed in the set of laws unique to Taanit Tzibur.
The Ramban establishes his opinion of tefilah de’rabanan on several sections in the Gemarah that differentiate between the reciting of Shema Yisrael and tefilah. In those sections the Gemarah states that we must be more stringent in reference to reciting Shema than we are with tefilah. In one source Rabi Elazar states that if one is in doubt whether he has recited Shema he must recite the Shema, while if such a question arises in reference to tefilah he should not repeat it. Rashi explains that Shema is de’orita while tefilah is only de’rabanan as stated earlier on the same page. (Berachot 21a; see also Shabbat 11a and Sucah 38a)
Though the Rambam is of the opinion that tefilah is of biblical origin he limits the requirement to once a day and some minimal form of prayer. In the Mishneh Torah Hilchot Tefilah the Rambam states “the number of tefilot is not from the Torah, nor is the wording of tefilah nor the times of tefilah”. These components that create the framework of tefilah are of rabbinic origin even according to the Rambam. This definitely narrows down the scope of the dispute between the Rambam and the Ramban and creates a situation that most of our tefilot as we know and recite them are only of rabbinic origin.
Many commentators use the above mentioned distinction to explain the Rambam’s understanding of the gemarot that state tefilah is of rabbinic origin. According to the Rambam these gemarot refer to the number, wording or times of tefilah and not to the basic requirement of tefilah.
A unique understanding of the Ramban is found in the Aruch Hashulchan. In his opinion it is not possible to say that tefilah according to the Ramban is only of rabbinic origin. Rather, the Aruch Hashulchan suggests that the Ramban is of the opinion that tefilah is de’orita but is not included in the count of 613 mitzvot. The Torah expects us to stand before God and to express our love and commitment to him this is the meaning of le’ovdo which is not a specific mitzvah pertaining to a particular action but rather a requirement of how we relate to God. As such claims the Aruch Hashulchan it would be difficult not to see standing before God and communicating our needs as a biblical requirement.
From the words of the Aruch Hashulchan we must conclude that whether we consider the specific requirement of tefilah to be de’orita or de’rabanan it must take a central place in our lives and daily schedule.