Amazingly enough, not everyone needs to pray:
“Those whose full-time occupation is learning Torah, such as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his colleagues, should interrupt their studies to recite the Shema but not for the Amidah prayer.” 1
This statement is quite surprising. Does not prayer fulfill a basic spiritual need? True, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a great scholar who completely immersed himself in Torah study - but why should he be exempt from prayer?
Rav Kook’s explanation in Olat Re’iyah helps us understand the function of prayer and the mechanics of its role in our spiritual growth.
Theoretical and Practical
The Sages used an interesting phrase to describe full-time Torah scholars: “their Torah is their umanut” - their art or craft. In what way is Torah study likened to a craft?
A craft is a skill based on specialized wisdom and knowledge. However, it is not enough just to learn the theory. The craftsman also needs practical training in order to perfect his art.
However, there are unusual individuals who are so talented that they fall under the category of one who “just sees an art and acquires the skill.” Using only their mental powers, they are able to acquire the necessary practical skill. One example of such a gifted artist was Betzalel. He was blessed with a unique Divine spirit that enabled him to create all of the beautiful and intricate Tabernacle vessels solely on the basis of their theoretical specifications, without needing to resort to apprenticeship and experimentation.
The Art of Torah
The Torah may also be described as a theoretical wisdom that needs to be actualized on a practical level. It is not enough just to study about kindness and integrity and holiness. The basis for our good deeds and holy service is when we succeed in integrating the highest perceptions of Divine ideals into our lives.
It is precisely in this transformation from theory to practice that prayer plays a crucial role. Prayer reaches out to our emotions and feelings. Because emotions have a stronger impact on actions than abstract thought, prayer enables us to realize our ethical principles in our day-to-day lives. Our prayers for enlightenment, forgiveness, redemption, and so on, awaken deep yearnings for these eternal values. Prayer softens the heart and prepares us to actualize those concepts of morality and holiness acquired in Torah study. Earnest prayer prepares us to become skilled artists of kindness and integrity.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, however, was a special case. His absorption of Torah was profound and all-encompassing. The impact of his Torah studies was so powerful, and he was so innately attuned to internalize every teaching of holiness and goodness, that he did not need prayer in order to refine his emotions. His Torah study alone was enough to stamp its spiritual images deeply on his heart and soul. He was like the gifted individual who “just sees an art and acquires the skill.” Rabbi Shimon was gifted in his Torah study like Betzalel was blessed in his craftsmanship.
For this reason, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and scholars like him are exempt from prayer. Their Torah study alone is enough to serve as the foundation for the practical application of their ‘craft.’