If Hashem is perfect and unchanging, how can we pray to Him to have mercy on us? Doesn't that imply a change?

I've heard it implied that the way this works is that the prayer itself has the effect of attracting the Midah of mercy to ourselves, but that would not seem to be the poshut pshat in so much of our prayers, which are of a variation of "Please see the bad situation we're in, we're in total trouble, therefore, please have mercy on us and save us".

EDIT: several contributors have suggested that praying changes oneself, and it is this change which makes one deserving of what he's asking for. My problem with that is that the prayers I mention above seem to indicate otherwise.

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    Maybe you are the one who changes.
    – Double AA
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 13:12
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    How is "attracting the Midah of mercy" not a change?
    – Double AA
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 13:13
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    Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/10203/3
    – WAF
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 13:20
  • AA, see my comment to Menachem's answer.
    – Shraga
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 14:46
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    @Shraga I don't see the problem. Reminding ourselves three times a day who's the boss is a good way of making yourself a better person. Moreover, if it makes you reassess your actions, then articulating them through prayer is part of you having a healthy relationship. God might wait to give something until you ask for it (cf Adam and rain). Then it just comes down to the free will question and if infinite beings can 'want' which are old discussions.
    – Double AA
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 19:14

10 Answers 10


It depends on whose perspective is taken.

From the perspective of HaShem (whose true essence is infinite, unchangeable, and unknowable) "looking down upon us", there is indeed no change whatsover. As is written in Malachi 3:6,

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה לֹא שָׁנִיתִי

However, from our apparent perspective, "looking up at Him" from within our world of time and space, our ability to grasp HaShem is limited by how He reveals himself, via limited and quantized channels known in Kabalah as Sfirot. From this perspective, it appears to us that He (Chas VeShalom) "changes", as sometimes -- for example -- the attribute of Chesed might be more dominant, while at other times the attribute of Gvura might be more dominant.

In our relationship with HaShem, our actions down here can effect a change in the way He reveals himself to us. As is written in Proverbs 27:19,

כַּמַּיִם הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים

It is within this basic framework that Torah and Mitzvot in general, and Tfilah and Tshuvah in particular, can effect apparent "changes" in what we see relative to our perspective "from down here." But this is not at all a contradiction from HaShem's absolute perspective.

  • Thanks for your answer. But it still doesn't answer the question as to our nusach hatefilah, which clearly addresses HAshem Himself.
    – Shraga
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 15:22
  • Which exact Nusach are you referring to? Many Nuschaot today include "Patach Eliyahu", from Tikunei Zohar, where it is clearly stated that "לית מחשבה תפיסא בך כלל". So, while it is true that, for example, all Brachot use the word "אתה" -- which seems to imply HaSham "himself" -- it should be clear that there are different levels of how close to HaShem's true essence one is referring to.
    – Yosi Mor
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 15:28
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    BarSamcha, I'll admit I didn't understand your comment. When we daven, we daven to Hashem, the Master of the world, Himself, no?
    – Shraga
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 17:01
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    Yes indeed, directly to Himself alone (to his infinite, unchangeable, and unknowable true essence), and not to his attributes. As is written in Sifri, on Deuteronomy 4:7, "אליו ולא למידותיו". From our limited perspective, unable to grasp Him (his essence) as He truly is, and constrained by notions of "time and space," we can only see Him through his attributes; and it falsely appears to us that He (Chas VeShalom) "changes." Within this context, we ask him to "change" the way he appears to us -- for the "better." Listen: I'm a computer geek, not a professional philosopher/theologian! ;-)
    – Yosi Mor
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 17:47
  • So here we are, two computer geeks talking philosophy :-). What's bothering me is that we're told that it's chas veshalom to think that He changes, yet our prayers are written in such a way as to make it sound like He does. So what gives...?
    – Shraga
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 19:45

Here is a short 5 minute answer to the question by Rabbi Immanuel Schochet. It is a summary of a longer talk here.

In short, prayer is about introspection and changing oneself. Through prayer we become a new person. The decree that G-d made applies to that old person, not the new one we've become.

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    Menachem, thanks for your answer. Butif that is the case, than a lot of our nusach doesn't make sense. As I mentioned in my question, a lot of our prayers plainly ask Hashem to have mercy on us because of the situation we're in, not because praying changes us.
    – Shraga
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 14:46
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    Also, in that case there would be no point praying for someone else, no?
    – Shraga
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 14:56
  • @Shraga: From the page on the first link: Note: Rabbi Schochet’s remarks are brief address a particular question by a member of the audience. For a more detailed explanation of this topic, please watch Rabbi Schochet's full class on this topic: The Dynamics of Prayer. The words "yehi ratson", "May it be Your will", clearly assume that we are able to evoke a new Divine will through our prayers.
    – Menachem
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 15:47
  • Menachem, I'm sure there are many shiurim on the topic, but the reason I asked it here was to hopefully get an answer in less time than a full shiur takes :-)
    – Shraga
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 17:00

here is a quote which answers this from the Manoach Halevavos commentary on chovos halevavos ch.3 by Rabbi Manoach Hendel (1540-1611)

If we were not commanded in prayer by the torah and the Rabbinical decrees, we would not know through our understanding what would be the order of the tefila, shacharit (morning), mincha (afternoon), and arvit (evening), and the other times. And even prayer itself, the understanding does not dictate that we should pray to G-d, because the understanding obligates that G-d gives to each creature and each thing in the world the portion fitting for it. And if it is not fitting for it, prayer should not help in this. Furthermore, according to the divine wisdom (Kabala), and the Moray Nevuchim wrote on this (Part 1 ch.5), that G-d does not "change". Hence, the whole matter of prayer seems to the understanding as if there is "change" in G-d, similar to a request which a man begs before a flesh and blood king, to arouse favor and pity in the heart of the king. All this does not apply by G-d. Therefore, he wrote that if the torah did not command this, and that we did not see from the torah that prayer does help, regarding the prayer of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, and others, and that our Sages did not institute its order, we would not know at all through the understanding neither its order not its matter. The reason we have been commanded in it is hidden, it is among the hidden precepts of the torah. It has great benefits to arouse a person to awareness of G-d's existence, and His almighty power, and that it is proper to serve Him, and many other fundamentals and good traits which are aroused through prayer. Furthermore, In kabala it is known that by a hitorerut (stimulus) from below, one causes a hitorerut (stimulus) above


Wow. I can't accept any of these answers. They all seem to start by buying the assumption of the questioner that if "Hashem doesn't change" - then he cannot really listen to our prayers and respond. That should be really really hard for anyone to accept who just opens a Bible and reads.
As Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch said frequently, even though Hashem is non-corporeal, the Bible uses very physical imagery. Because, he explains, there is a second mistake which is even more severe: someone might imagine that G-d is too distant to have a loving relationship with us. To avoid that mistake, Hashem chose to write his Torah in a way that makes it clear that he loves us, that he cares about us, that we are close to him.
He listens to our prayers and responds to them, personally כביכול - as the whole Bible makes perfectly clear. The fact that this can really only correspond to some aspect of his behavior, while his true essence remains unchanging and far above us, doesn't mean that it isn't true. That is how he set up his world, and how he handles it. There are many reasons why we pray - see all the other answers here - but the most obvious one is because we need his help.
That is the right attitude for us to take when we cry out to him. It isn't some self-help program. We are connecting to G-d and he answers us.
[If you read all the other answers here carefully, you'll see that they are really addressing why things are set up the way they are: It helps us improve ourselves, etc. Or how they are set up: Kabbalistic structures in creation, chesed and rachamim and din, etc. But the reality is the reality, and all these sages weren't denying it: G-d answers prayers.]

Update: I guess my response would be to rephrase the question. Given that Hashem loves us, listens to us, and answers our prayers [Open a Bible], what does it mean exactly to say that "he does not change"? We should start with the part we know.


Rambam discusses the purpose of prayer in several places in Guide for the Perplexed. What emerges from these discussions is that the point of prayer is for man to realize that God is the master of the world and rewards and punishes man based on his deeds. With this realization man will naturally improve his behavior.

Guide for the Perplexed 3:36

Likewise the commandment to cry to God in time of trouble, "to blow an alarm with the trumpets" (Num. x. 9), belongs to this class. We are told to offer up prayers to God, in order to establish firmly the true principle that God takes notice of our ways, that He can make them successful if we worship Him, or disastrous if we disobey Him, that [success and failure] are not the result of chance or accident. In this sense we must understand the passage, "If ye walk with me by chance" (beḳeri, Lev. xxvi. 21); i.e., if I bring troubles upon you for punishment, and you consider them as mere accidents, I will again send you some of these accidents as you call them, but of a more serious and troublesome character. This is expressed in the words: "If ye walk with me by chance: then I will walk with you also in the fury of chance" (ibid. vers. 27, 28). For the belief of the people that their troubles are mere accidents causes them to continue in their evil principles and their wrong actions, and prevents them from abandoning their evil ways. Comp. "Thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved" (Jer. v. 3). For this reason God commanded us to pray to Him, to entreat Him, and to cry before Him in time of trouble.

(Friedlander translation)

Guide for the Perplexed 3:44

THE precepts of the ninth class are those enumerated in the Section on Love. Their reason is obvious. The actions prescribed by them serve to remind us continually of God, and of our duty to fear and to love Him, to keep all His commandments, and to believe concerning God that which every religious person must believe. This class includes the laws of Prayer, Reading of Shema, Grace, and duties connected with these, Blessing of the priests, Tefillin, Mezuzah, Ẓiẓit, acquiring a scroll of the Law, and reading in it at certain times. The performance of all these precepts inculcates into our heart useful lessons. All this is clear, and a further explanation is superfluous, as being a mere repetition and nothing else.

(Friedlander translation)

Guide for the Perplexed 3:51

We must bear in mind that all such religious acts as reading the Law, praying, and the performance of other precepts, serve exclusively as the means of causing us to occupy and fill our mind with the precepts of God, and free it from worldly business; for we are thus, as it were, in communication with God, and undisturbed by any other thing. If we, however, pray with the motion of our lips, and our face toward the wall, but at the same time think of our business; if we read the Law with our tongue, whilst our heart is occupied with the building of our house, and we do not think of what we are reading; if we perform the commandments only with our limbs, we are like those who are engaged in digging in the ground, or hewing wood in the forest, without reflecting on the nature of those acts, or by whom they are commanded, or what is their object. We must not imagine that [in this way] we attain the highest perfection; on the contrary, we are then like those in reference to whom Scripture says, "Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins" (Jer. xii. 2).

(Friedlander translation)

A more radical understanding of prayer, based on Maimonidean thought, is offered by R. Joseph Ibn Kaspi. In Gevia Kesef Chapter Six he writes:

For this reason Moses in the Torah told us to offer sacrifices, even though in truth they are an abomination. This, however, is something that it is not proper for the masses to know, (for sacrifices) are necessary to maintain a community. This is especially (necessary) when the opinion of the masses is that sacrifice is most desired by the Lord. Under no circumstances, however, should sacrifices be offered to the heavenly spheres, but only to the Lord. The same is true of prayer, for even though it is superior to sacrifice, as Maimonides has hinted, nonetheless when we make assembly halls, a Temple, or synagogues, these, like sacrifices, are not necessary in truth.

(Herring translation, p. 159)

Here he apparently extends the Maimonidean idea that sacrifices are a concession to man's unsophisticated understanding of worship to include prayer as well. Thus, according to this, it would seem that there is in fact not an intrinsic purpose of prayer.

Rambam himself touches upon this in Guide for the Perplexed 3:32 but it is sufficiently vague so as to neither outright support or refute Ibn Kaspi's argument:

But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to bum incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars, as has been explained by us. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action.

(Friedlander translation)


I heard another answer, quoted by R' Matisyahu Salomon in the name of the Saba miKelm. The way I understood it, he mentioned that prayer is an exercise in concentration on the proper things, which involves diverting attention from that which is our natural tendency to think and forcing focus that which we are currently trying/wanting to think and its implications on the depth of our relationship.

Measure for measure, G-d's judgement, which is perfect and naturally correct to be executed, is pushed away by Mercy, the measure of the true depth of our relationship.


I don’t have the sources in front of me, so I hope I am accurate. To my understanding there are basically two approaches. That of the Kabbalists and that of the rationalists. The Kabbalist (see Nefesh Hachaim most of shaar bes) looks at tefila not as a mechanism for “changing G-d’s Mind”, but rather as more of an act that sets certain machinery and mechanisms in motion. G-d decrees that things should be a certain way, when a person prays using various formulaic texts that person draws down shefa and more blessing into the world which causes real changes in the world and outcome of events. It is not as though if on eprays really hard than G-d is moved by the sincerity, but rather by saying certain words and having various intentions (kavanos) it causes metaphysical changes in reality.

The rationalist approach is what you allluded to in your question, that man changes himself. (My answer is primarily based on the approach of the Sefer Hachinuch on the Mitzvah of birchas hamazon and the tefila for Bikurim.) When man prays he is not influencing G-d, but rather influencing himself. As the Chinuch often states mans internal state of mind and beliefs are influenced by his external actions. To the extent that man turns to G-d in his hour of need and expresses and recognizes G-d as the source of all blessing and the only true power to that extent he will also feel it in his heart and truly believe that which he is saying. When one fully comes to the recognition of his utter dependency on G-d he is now a new individual worthy of a different judgement. Based on this, the actual text of the prayer is not as relevant as much as the effect it has on his internal beliefs and devotion.

I was able to look up the sources. See Nefesh hachaim shaar 2 chapters 2-4 in contrast to Sefer hachinuch mitzva 430. They both discuss the concept of saying Baruch and give diametrically opposed definitions. The Nefesh hachaim states that saying Baruch is coming to add (תוספת) to hashem. This creates higher degrees of shefa/influence that will the be filtered down to this world זהו ענין הברכה לו יתב' בכל הברכות והתפלות שפירושו הוא תוספת ורבוי ממש כמשמעו כנ''ל. שזהו רצונו יתב' מטעם כמוס אתו ית'. שנתקן ונייחד על ידי הברכות והתפלות הכחות והעולמות העליונים. שיהו מוכנים וראוים לקבל שפעת קדושת אור עליון. ולהמשיך ולהוסיף בהם קדושת האור ורב ברכות מעצמותו יתב' המתחבר אליהם ומתפשט בתוכם וממילא יושפע זה התוספת ברכה והקדושה גם על עם סגולה שגרמו וסבבו לכל הכבוד הזה.

On the other hand the chinuch writes כי באמרנו תמיד בברכות ברוך אתה השם או יתברך, אין המשמעות לפי הדומה, להוסיף ברכה במי שאיננו צריך לשום תוספת חלילה, כי הוא האדון על הכל ועל הברכות

נאמר שענין הברכה שאנו אומרים לפניו איננו, רק הזכרה לעורר נפשנו בדברי פינו.. כי הוא המבדך, ומברך יכלל כל הטובות, ומתוך ההתעוררות הטוב הזה בנפשינו ויחוד מחשבתינו להודות אליו שכל הטובות כלולות בו והוא המלך עליהם לשלחם על כל אשר יחפץ, אנו זוכים במעשה הטוב הזה להמשיך עלינו מברכותיו, ואחר הזכרה והודאה זו לפניו, אנו מבקשים ממנו מה

  • I'm not sure that there really is a machlokes here. Both agree that the subject of the beracha is how Hashem's beracha comes to us. The Chinuch expresses this in the rationalist terms of meriting from our awareness,and the Nefesh Hachaim expresses this in the kabbalistic terms of effecting the upper worlds, but those are entirely dependent on human action and thought, as described at length in the first part of Nefesh Hachaim.
    – Mordechai
    Commented Nov 24, 2019 at 20:04
  • I see what you are saying, however it is clear that according to Nefesh hachaim one is effectuating change in the “upper worlds”, while according to the chinuch the change is within the self. Perhaps it still works on a merit based sysetem, but the merit comes from the person reaching a higher degree of recognition in G-d’s Goodness.
    – ASL
    Commented Nov 24, 2019 at 20:23

Expanding a little more on the rationalist approach in other answers (sorry, I can't recall any sources for this):

We each have a relationship with Hashem. We know that Hashem is immutable - He cannot change. Therefore, if our relationship with Him changes, it must be a change on our part, not on His.

To put it another way, Hashem always does what is Good. What is Good for me will change depending on my behaviour. In order to correct my course in life, it is sometimes necessary for me to be punished. I think of it like the cars which have a system that beeps loudly to warn you if you drift out of your lane on the road. The punishment is like the beep to remind you to get back in lane. If we don't drift out of the lane, we don't need that warning, that nudge to remind us what direction we're supposed to be heading in.

At times, I think a sat nav might be a better analogy. I'm sure we've all had times when we've set the sat nav and then changed our mind towards the end of the journey exactly where we're going, and it keeps trying to correct us, not knowing that we've changed our destination. This is the other way around - the sat nav is right, and we're wrong. Sometimes I think it feels like we're fighting battles because we don't realise that we're heading in the wrong direction and so we keep getting more and more nudges to push us back on path.

The reverse can be true as well though. Sometimes things just flow incredibly easily and life goes well. At times, maybe that is because Hashem is rewarding us for following the correct path - the one which leads us to self improvement and becoming a better person.

The above is somewhat simplistic - it is also possible that difficult times and easy times are tests for us, so it could be for the opposite reason. Hashem knows what we need to get the most out of ourselves, but we need to do some introspection to try to work out what it means. In either case, self improvement is a good approach - that's our constant goal.

One more moshol to help. If someone had committed a brutal murder and there is plenty of evidence that they did, there are two scenarios as to how the jury could react. In one case, they may vote to give the maximum sentence (eg. death) because they feel that there is no hope of rehabilitation and this person is a danger to society and likely to repeat the offense. On the other hand, they may believe that this person is genuinely sorry, they have spent hours soul searching and done everything that they could to repent and change their ways. It won't bring back the victim, and the jury probably won't let them off, but the sentence is likely to be a lot lighter. In this case, the jury can't be totally certain that the person has fully repented, and of course they wouldn't want to set a precedent for other murderers to think they can get off scot free in future, but Hashem doesn't have those worries. If we've totally repented, our past behaviour is no longer relevant, because we're now a constructive member of society and don't need any correction anymore.

It is worth noting that it isn't just prayer that can change things. In the davening on Rosh Hashanah, we just said "teshuva, tefilla and tzedaka can change the decree". Anything that helps us improve ourselves works.

I think that the reason that we refer to Hashem as though He was a person, and we do things like begging for mercy is that it is much easier to relate to Hashem as though He was another human. After all, we no experience in relating to other beings who we can properly communicate with except other humans. We don't really have the ability to understand who Hashem is properly - He is infinite and we have only a finite ability to perceive and understand. If we tried to pray to Hashem as He actually is, we wouldn't have the capacity to do so, and it would feel very unnatural. We may have some limited intellectual ability to understand some of Hashem, but we can't rely on that abstract understanding - we need something that we can put into practice.

Also, I think that as we go through life and take on different roles, we get a different understanding of how Hashem treats us. As a child, we think of Hashem like our parents and how they treat us. As an employee, we get a different perspective on what it is like to work for someone, perhaps as part of a team to achieve something overall. As a boss, we may see the other side of it and gain a different understanding of that same relationship. As a spouse, we see things from yet another perspective, in a far more intimate way than anything else. As a parent, we see a different side of the parent-child relationship. I'm not there yet, but I'd imagine that the same is true as a grandparent. As each of these relationships develop, we learn new things. I'm British, and the death of Queen Elizabeth II has made me (and many other people) think a lot more about what it means to have a monarch and be a subject. It is fascinating to see how much she affected people's lives in ways that we weren't conscious of until she has gone. She never had the kind of power of the monarchs of earlier times, but she still had an incredible ability to bring people together and inspire them to work together for the greater good. With each of these relationships, we can apply each piece of our new understanding to enhance our relationship with Hashem, not because that is really the way it is, but because that's the best way that we can achieve some kind of limited understanding.


According to the Rambam, G-d does not change. This means that G-d never spoke to anyone. The Rambam writes in the first chapter of his Mishneh Torah that G-d created nature, a divine creation, and Moshe copied the governing rules of nature and produced the Torah, which is certainly divine. Now that we understand that G-d is immutable, we can try to comprehend how He responds to prayer. Philosophers like the Greek pagan Aristotle felt that prayers help improve people and are a time of self-reflection. The Hebrew word for prayer is lehitpaleil. The root is p-l-l, which means “judge.” Prayer means to "judge one’s self."

Maimonides, Aristotle's philosophical successor, felt that G-d does not listen to prayer. The world functions according to the laws of nature. Nothing we do will alter or change natural law. G-d is transcendent and it is impossible for us to describe Him. Any description we put will only remove our understanding of what G-d is. At best we can say that G-d has no body and is one. Rambam says that G-d's uniqueness and oneness are so One, that we cannot compare anything else to Him. G-d is One but not in the unity of one. For instance, if I take a chair and say, "Surely this is one chair," it is not really one since it is made up of many components, that make up the chair. G-d is unlike this chair which if disassembled, will have legs, cushions, seats, etc.

Since G-d is One, it follows that G-d cannot change. If G-d cannot change, G-d cannot become angry when you sin and be happy the next when you make teshuva by making a prayer. Thus, G-d does not have emotions and He does not listen to prayer. This is, to my humble understanding, the Rambam's view on prayer (but it is by no means all of Judaism's view on prayer).


It depends on your what one defines as change. Genesis 6:6 says that "God regretted that He had created man on earth." If God could not change at all then there would be no possibiltity of regret. Regret implies there was a change in thinking following some event or simply time. Also the decision God has of doing thr flood is another point in time where God changes his previous decision. Another example is the changing in the number of people needed to save the city of Sodom and gamora. In the tanach there is clear textual evidence that shows God changed his mind. That leads me to conclude that God being unchanging must be a subset of what it means to be unchanging. To address your question, God can have some alterations in thinking (at least regret) adding further meaning to us being the people who struggle with God. This means that some of his decisions can be influenced by past events. Therefore praying can in theory be considered such an event that will sway His thinking. Asking is clearly possible since God will listen and He can decide to act. @Harel13 please inform me of what you find wrong in this answer.

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