November 24, 2001
Hosea’s message is one of both alienation and reconciliation. He decries the alienation of the people of Israel from God caused by their disloyalty. Yet he also offers a profound call for human intimacy with God. He urges Israel to mend its relationship with God using the following words: “Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him: ‘Forgive all guilt and accept what is good. Instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips’” (Hosea 14:3 NJPS translation)
The interpretation of this verse is difficult. In particular, the Hebrew phrase “u’shalmah farim sfateinu”, which is rendered above as “Instead of bulls we shall pay [the offerings of] our lips”, is not easily understood. A. Ehrlich, the 20th century German Biblical commentator, asserts that this verse means that “we will do that which we have vowed to do”, namely, that if we say that we will repent, we will live up to our intentions.
The Rabbinic tradition understood this phrase differently. Targum Jonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, explains this phrase: “May the words of our lips be pleasing to You as if they were bulls sacrificed on the altar.” This translation may be based on the 4th century interpretation of Rabbi Abahu which is found in the following midrash: “Who will pay the offering of bulls which we used to sacrifice before You? ‘Our lips’ (Hosea 14:3) – The prayer that we offer before you.” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana Shuva, 19 – Mandelbaum edition p. 377)
Sacrifices were a significant part of the life of a religious Jew because they represented the closest thing that a person could do to serve God next to literally offering himself or herself up before God. The implication of this midrash, composed after the destruction of the Temple, is that prayer has replaced the sacrifices as the means for Jews to interrelate with God. The phrase “u’shalmah farim sfateinu” provided the textual basis for this spiritual symbiosis.
The Tur, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s 14th century code, took this idea to a new level: “One should pray one’s prayers with the sincerity of a poor person begging. They should be recited slowly so as not to seem like a burden that you want to finish quickly. For if you have prayed properly, it is certain that your prayer will be accepted, for prayer has taken the place of sacrifices, as it is written:: ‘instead of bulls we give the offerings of our lips,’ and it is written: ‘and serve Him with all your heart’. What is ‘the service of the heart’? It is prayer, which should be done with the utmost sincerity like offerings in the Temple, since improper thoughts render a sacrifice invalid.”
(adapted from Tur Orach Hayim 98)
May our prayers be worthy of God’s acceptance.