Honorific Titles in Tefillah

I was asked the following question:
It is part of the mitzvah of bikkur cholim to daven for the recovery and well being of a sick person and therefore it becomes important to know how to refer in prayer to the individual for whom one is praying. What if the person concerned is a rabbinic dignitary and would normally be addressed with an honorific title, Moreinu, Harav or Hagaon etc. Are any of these titles appropriate to be used when mentioning his name in davening for his refuah shleimah?

To answer this question one has to grasp a fundamental principle of Jewish Thought.

The Gemara (Kiddushin 43a ) speaks about David Hamelech and the way in which he made sure that Uriah was killed in battle. Chazal say that David Hamelech was justified in this form of punishment since Uriah was ‘morred be-malchut’ – ie. he had been in breach of the required respect and deference to the king. His violation is mentioned by the gemara, that in his conversation with the king, Uriah had referred to his senior officer as ‘Adoni Yoav’ (Shmuel II. 11.11)- my master Yoav, and it is disrespectful in conversation to the king to refer to any other form of allegiance other than to the king himself.

This concept is part of a general principle that when the Kevod Shamayim is required, ie the respect due to God, all other forms of Kavod, – respect and honour- become irrelevant and even blasphemous. As we find in Gemara (Berachot 19b) the statement that ‘kol makom sheyeish chillul Hashem ein cholkim Kavod le-Rav’ wherever the issue of respect for God is present, one does not accord respect to other people, even rabbinic authority. There it is mentioned in the context of respecting human dignity which is generally highly protected in the halachic system, but when doing so would involve a direct violation of a Biblical commandment the respect for the Divine Law is paramount.

Theologically this concept plays an important role in understanding our Emunah, and by contrast the way in which mankind entered into the mindset of idolatry. Rambam (chapter 1 hilchot avodah zarah) explains that the way in which ancient mankind deteriorated from believing in God and descended into idolatry was not out of a denial of the existence or power of God. Rather it was because they believed it to be acceptable to worship the sun and other forces of nature,as they were all servants of the One God the Creator, and that through worship of the servant one is vicariously showing allegiance to the King. The question here is, why is that an erroneous way of thinking?

The concept discussed above is the key to this issue. It may be true in the human world that for instance honouring a government official is a way of indirectly honouring the King, but that is only true when one is not IN THE ACTUAL PRESENCE OF THE KING. In contrast the essential perspective of Emunah is to grasp the principle of ‘shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid’ which is the omnipresence of God in all circumstances. Therefore one can see why the worship of natural forces, even as intermediaries to God, is an act of ‘morred bemalchut’ , a denial of one of the essential principles of Emunah.

Clearly it is correct to use honorific titles for individuals such as great scholars when addressing them or referring to them in conversation, but when standing before God in tefillah, it would be a mistake to do so, since it is the Presence of Hashem which uniquely commands our attention and full deference.

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About the Author,

Rabbi Kimche is the Rav of the Ner Yisrael community in Hendon.