Praying for the Wicked to Repent

Question: In the city of Izmir a man left his religion (Judaism) for another, taking with him his minor son. The people there were unsure whether they were permitted to pray for him, i.e. that G-d should cause him to return him to His service and place in his heart the impetus to repent with complete repentance, before knowing whether or not there is an opening or a thought of repentance in his mind.

Answer: We need to make legal judgements here regarding two open questions.

1) Is this type of prayer forbidden because it seems like a vain prayer (a prayer regarding something that prayer cannot change, e.g. a prayer to change the past) since "All is in the hand of Heaven other than the fear of Heaven", which G-d gave over to human free will so that there might be reward and punishment in the universe?

2) This seems to be one of the "deep secrets of the Torah" (The phrase is taken from a Talmudic dialogue in which King Chizkiyah tries to avoid having children because he sees prophetically that his children will be evil, and is told that such calculations are not for him to make - "what are you doing dealing with these deep secrets of the Torah), and thus (it seems appropriate for human beings to say that) if it seems appropriate to Him to cause him (the apostate) to return, he will, and if not, not, since the prayer's only purpose for praying is the glory of His Name may It be blessed. So whatever seems appropriate to Him, He should do in accordance with His will.

Let us begin by briefly discussing the power-to-choose that was given to man. This power-to-choose is not absolute to the extent that G-d will never affect the hearts of human beings as He wills in accordance with the depth of His thoughts. Sometimes the choice is in human hands, and sometimes G-d "tilts the heart". There are verses that say this explicitly, namely "The hearts of kings are in the hands of G-d", "Therefore I did not allow you to touch her", and the whole book of Job speaks forcefully about this type of power-to choose which is sometimes affected by suffereing which causes one to turn back from an evil path, and sometimes not via suffering but rather by G-d directly "tilting the heart", as it is written "and I have hardened his heart". And if G-d does this to cause people to ?do evil?, all the more so He would do it for good, as it is written "and I will remove the stone heart from their flesh", "and I will pour My spirit over them", "for behold like matter in the hands of an artisan".

Do not be astonished at G-d's willingness to change human will after having given them power-to-choose ? this is not a change in Him, may He be blessed ? as we have seen him behave analogously in giving the world over to be run by the constellations and laws of nature, but changing that rule via miracles and wonders, as every member of our nation can testify personally, in addition to the famous testimonies of the Torah and prophets, and thus ?astrologers will speak falsehoods?(source?)

No difficulty for this thesis is posed by the Sages comment on the verse ?Who could make it that their hearts would be like this ?to serve and be in awe of Me forever??, that (Moshe was criticizing the Jews for not responding ?You please make it so?, for their it would be their own prayers and requests which would ause it to be given to them, and it is similar to our daily prayer ?return us? et al, and it is utterly obvious that from the time that a person opens himself (to repentance) at all he is assisted in his intention to become pure. Indeed, without His help may He be blessed, who could conquer ?those mighty mountains??

However, (the story of Abbay Chilkiyahu and wife) in Chapter Seder Taanit, where it says ?alternatively, when there were ?biryoni? in my neighborhood, I prayed for their deaths, while she prayed for them to repent, and they did?, and it appears that they should have asked her to pray for them, as G-d agreed with her, is not very similar to our case when analyzed closely. Rashi there translates ?biryoni? as ?ignorant louts?, which seems difficult, as in Tractate Berakhot and other places he translates the same word as ?unbounded people? (as in ?unbounded son and bloodshedder?, and in Gittin as ?amoral and worthless people?. Certainly the reason (for his differing translations) is that he found it difficult that praying for their repentance was considered good and worthy of reward when it was a vain prayer. Thus he explained that they were ?ignorant louts? whose lack of education caused them to behave as they did, and one can pray for such people (to repent) as one prays for the relief of any wound or illness.

It is further possible that this story cannot be treated as evidence at all. How do we know that Abba Chilkyah?s wife behaved properly (by praying for their repentance, as ?There is no wisdom in women other than that of the loom?? The clouds may have appeared on her side because she benefited the poor more directly (than her husband), as is the case in the story about Mar Ukva in Ketubot, where her feet are not burned while his are. This may well be why Abba Chilkyah prefaced this explanation with ?alternatively? when ?furthermore? seems more appropriate ? certainly it was because he himself was unsure whether she had acted properly.