The Prayer of Cornelius

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.”Acts 10:1-3

The shortest prayer service of the day takes place in the afternoon, or at least just before sunset, and is called Mincha.

-Rabbi Berel Wein
“Mincha: the afternoon prayer”
Aish.com

moshe.gorin: The KSA says the ikar time for mincha is mincha ketana (9 1/2) hours after sunrise but the Rebbe davened before then. If you’re davening alone, when is best?

Torah613: The Rebbe davvened earlier (probably) because he davvened with the Yeshiva’s minyan, which was daily at 3:15.

Straight halacha would imply that Mincha Ketanah is better, so if it isn’t a question of davvening betzibur, MK is better.

Disaclaimer: As in all halachik questions, a competent Rov should be consulted.

mosheh5769: Whether we pray alone (bediavad) or with a Minyan (betzibbur), the prefered time for Mincha is Mincha K’tanah. Some say that if you pray in Mincha Gedola, you are still Yatza, but Lechatkhila, it is proper to pray at the time of Mincha K’tanah.

I don’t know where and who, but I have no doubt Taryag will help, there is a Posek who ruled that it is better to pray Mincha K’tanah alone than to pray Mincha Gedola with a Minyan. Why, I don’t remember, and I don’t know if other Poskim poskened in the same way.

Anyway, the best time to pray is at the time of Mincha K’tanah and not earlier. But of course, if a Shul has the custom to pray earlier (like the Yeshiva’s Minyan as it has been explained by Taryag) and if there need you to complete the Minyan, even if it is not your custom, you should complete the Minyan and daven earlier.

-from the discussion thread “Best time for Mincha”
Archived thread at Chabadtalk.com

We don’t know much more about the late Second Temple figure Cornelius than what we read in the verses I quoted above. He was what we call a “God-fearer;” a Gentile, a Roman centurion who, by definition, would have been a pagan polytheist, and who, during his assignment in the land of the Hebrews, came to realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was and is the God; the One and Unique Creator of the universe.

Coming to that realization alone must have taken great courage and conviction. His actual response to his realization was certainly astounding, given who he must have been and where he had come from. We know he “gave alms generously to the people”, who we assume to be the Jews among whom he lived. The messengers sent to bring Peter to Cornelius after the Centurion’s vision referred to him as “an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts 10:22). And oh wow! Cornelius was so favored by God that this happened.

And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” –Acts 10:30-33

Incidentally, the ninth hour is at about 3 p.m. in the way we tell time today, about the time of the Mincha prayers. But why is that important? So who taught Cornelius to pray the Mincha prayers. Ok, there’s nothing to say that he was truly praying Mincha, but here’s why I think he was. Consider this.

The Roman Centurion Cornelius comes to faith in the One true God of the universe. Now what does he do? We know that he gives alms, probably to the poor among the Jews. Whatever else he did resulted in Cornelius being “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”, which is no small thing since he was also part of the Roman occupying army. As far as we are able to understand, that group of non-Jews who were called “God-fearers” worshiped on Shabbat among Jews in the synagogue. Where would he have learned the prayers and how to worship? What was the only available model Cornelius could have used to worship a God who was virtually unknown in the Greek and Roman world?

I’m not suggesting that Cornelius “lived as a Jew” in the sense of fully taking on Jewish customs including the various religious and identity markers. It is doubtful (but what do I know) that he would have shown up in the Court of the Gentiles at the Jerusalem Temple. After all, he had to consider appearances and what would the troops in the Italian Cohort have said if one of their Centurions was seen in such a public place among the Jews. On the other hand, his reputation preceded him among the Jewish people based on his being a devout and charitable man. Desiring to worship God above all other considerations, what would he have done? He would have consulted his Jewish mentors as to how to approach God. Prayer offered to the God of Israel is available to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.

“Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for the sake of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm, when he comes and prays toward this house, hear from heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name. –2 Chronicles 6:32-33

Even in the days of King Solomon, a non-Jew could come to Jerusalem, pray facing the Temple, and expect to be heard by God. Why couldn’t the Jews among whom Cornelius lived and worshiped have taught him the same thing?

How did Jews pray during the Second Temple period? I’m no expert, but assuming the Jews in the time of Cornelius and Peter had similar traditions about prayer to those of Jewish people today, they would have prayed as Jews pray now. They would have prayed the Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), and Maariv (evening) prayers. If Cornelius wanted to learn how to pray from the Jews, they would have taught him how to pray the way that they prayed, with perhaps only a few variations, because Cornelius was not Jewish. In those days, siddurim (prayer books) were not used and the prayers were generally memorized. That means, Cornelius would have had to say the prayers by memory, probably in Hebrew or Aramaic (given that the Centurion was posted to a foreign land, it’s not inconceivable that he was bi-lingual or multi-lingual). He also would have prayed at the times set by halacha for prayer which, in the afternoon, meant around 3 p.m. or the ninth hour.

Why am I writing this and why should you care? What does it matter to a Christian in the 21st century if a Roman centurion, who came to faith in Jesus almost 2,000 years ago, happened to worship and pray in a manner similar to the Jews? Have you ever wondered why Christians don’t pray in the same manner as the Jews today?

I’m not saying that we must pray morning, afternoon, and night (though it wouldn’t be a bad idea). I’m saying that there’s nothing stopping us from considering where we come from as a faith. However you pray and however you worship in your church, your way isn’t the only way. In fact, if you go back more than a few decades or a few centuries, the way you may consider “Christian” and “holy” probably wasn’t practiced, as least in a manner you’d recognize. Go back far enough, like 2,000 years, and the way a God-fearer and a Christian prayed and worshiped wouldn’t be much different than the way a Jew prayed and worshiped.

Imagine that.

We tend to take prayer and worship for granted because we can always pray and worship anytime we want. But in many ways, the church considers prayer and worship as optional or at least voluntary. We get to choose our own way and manner of doing things. However, for believers and God-fearers like Cornelius, that privlege and honor to worship the King may have come with a commandment attached, maybe at the level of rudimentary “halacha” for non-Jews who had faith.

Today’s amud discusses the halachah regarding hearing the Torah reading when one is in prison. Although today in many places things may be different, it used to be that most prisons would not allow a sefer Torah inside—even for an important person or a minyan of prisoners. When the Vilna Gaon spent about four weeks imprisoned it was impossible for him to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Torah reading. After he left prison he called a baal koreh to read for him all four parshios he had missed while in prison.

Although missing so many weeks is very unusual, many greats were meticulous to make up the reading that they had missed that day.

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Prisoner’s Duty”
Siman 135, Seif 11-14

Our Gemara reviews a series of Mishnayos where the obligation to fulfill mitzvos is taught to be more inclusive than plainly stated. Regarding the mitzvah to read the Megillah on Purim, R’ Yehoshua b. Levi teaches that the expanded inference is meant to include women. Although this rabbinic mitzvah is one that is restricted to time, and women are generally exempt, here woman are obligated because “they were also included in the miracle.”

Rashi explains that women are obligated in the mitzvah to read the Megillah to the extent that a woman may read the Megillah for her husband or other men.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Women’s obligation in reading and hearing the Megillah”
Arachin 3

The level of “commandedness” which defines Jewish tradition, worship, and prayer seems very “heavy-handed” to most Christians and the spectre of “man-made rulings” is generally disdained in the church (and among many Gentile believers to call themselves “Messianics”). And yet, how would an “upright and God-fearing man” like Cornelius have seen his responsibilities to God as taught to him by his Jewish mentors? Would the Jewish sense of halacha have meant to him what it meant to the Jews? We don’t know. But imagine if we, as Christians, could experience some of the sense of duty and obligation to God, to the prayers, to our way of worship, as Cornelius may have? How much more would God be a part of our lives today? How much more would God be our lives today?

ShemaOne of the functions of tradition and halacha in the life of a Jew is to make every act holy. You cannot eat without blessing God and considering the food on the plate sitting in front of you (or even without considering the plate). You cannot wake up in the morning without gratefully thanking God for returning your life to you. You cannot go to bed at night without asking God to send his angels to guard your soul as you sleep. You cannot progress through your day without ceasing your labors at specific hours in order to devote yourself to God in prayer. And for one day a week, you cannot do many things as you do them on the other days of the week, but instead, you cease labor entirely and dedicate the day to family, prayer, worship, and God.

I’m still not saying that as Christians we should live like Jews, but consider what we’re missing by not taking tradition more seriously. Tradition can be like a straight-jacket or a pair of wings. It can bind us inescapably to a collection of actions and rules that threaten to smother us, or it can send us free into flight away from a mundane world and into the presence of God with practically every move we make.

Maybe this is why the Jews considered the foreigner Cornelius an “upright and God-fearing man”. Maybe this is why God found that Cornelius merited a vision of an angel, and made him and his household a bridge between God-fearers and disciples of Christ.

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. –Acts 10:44-48

Amen.

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13 thoughts on “The Prayer of Cornelius”

  1. Great post, James. I have some questions for you:

    In Acts 10 it says “…Then Peter said, [47] “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” My question: Why would Second Temple Era Jews have prevented uncircumcised men from being immersed with water in the first place? What about their laws would’ve suggested to them that it was wrong to “baptize” the uncircumcised? What did Second Temple Era Jews believe a “baptism” signified? And what was it about the manifestation of the Holy Spirit that would then require the Jews to “baptize” the uncircumcised men?

    Blessings,

    Peter

  2. I’ve generally understood the practice of John the Baptist and Peter performing baptisms as being related to the mikvah. We’ve seen a number of commandments in the Torah where the Children of Israel were required to be immersed under certain circumstances, usually to become clean after some event, such as touching a corpse, a man having a seminal emission, or a woman after her monthly period (see Leviticus 14 and 15 for some examples). Modern Orthodox Judaism maintains the mikvah traditions with many synagogues having a mikvah “in-house”, so to speak, or having access to a facility that can act as a mikvah. The modern mikvah is used to purify an individual after they have entered a state of uncleanness and is part of the process of teshuvah or repentance from acts of sin. When a Gentile undergoes conversion to Judaism, the final act of the conversion process is to be immersed in the mikvah. The person goes down into the mikvah as a Gentile and rises up as a Jew.

    My understanding is that Jews would not have immersed Gentiles prior to Matthew 28:19-20 because they were not part of the covenants of God, particularly the Sinai covenant. Since immersion was specifically tied to various Torah commandments, it wouldn’t have occurred to any Jew to immerse a pagan Gentile or even a non-Jewish “God-fearer”. There was no precedent to do so. There was also no precedent for a Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit, which is why Peter and his Jewish companions were absolutely astounded when they witnessed Gentiles receiving the Spirit of God, just as the Jewish Apostles did in Acts 2. The events at the end of Acts 10 were absolutely pivotal in the lives of all Gentiles because they signified that all the peoples of the world could also have access to the God of Israel through the Jewish Messiah. It had never, ever happened before, but God in His infinite wisdom and compassion, allowed His grace to be poured out on the rest of us.

    Oh, the term “uncircumcised men” just meant “Gentiles”.

  3. “My understanding is that Jews would not have immersed Gentiles prior to Matthew 28:19-20 because they were not part of the covenants of God, particularly the Sinai covenant.”

    Are you saying that, post-resurrection, the uncircumcised Believers are part of the Sinai covenant?

  4. No. Not even close.

    I’m saying that before Jesus gave the “Great Commission” to his Jewish disciples to make disciples of *all the nations*, the idea that Gentiles could be baptized into the name of the God of Israel, the Spirit, and the Moshiach wasn’t even “on the table”. Jesus opened the door for Gentile access to God through the Messianic covenant. It doesn’t link us back into Sinai. I only mentioned the Mosaic covenant because the Torah obligates *Jews* to undergo the mikvah under certain circumstances. Because those commandments don’t apply to Gentiles, no one would have thought in their wildest dreams that a Gentile should undergo the mikvah.

    Not sure where you got the idea I was talking about the resurrection.

  5. I’m confused. The “resurrection chapter?” I tend to think of Matthew 28:19-20 as Jesus giving a directive to “evangelize” to the people of the world. We must look at this command in two very different lights.

  6. The root of the miscommunication (on my part) was that multiple things happen in Matthew 28. I didn’t realize you were referring to the Great Commission which happens towards the end of the chapter.

    I’m curious: why do you think we interpret the Great Commission “in two very different lights”?

  7. I guess because you referred to Matthew 28:19-20 in terms of resurrection. I couldn’t figure out where you were getting that from these verses. Oh, I checked and I did specifically address verses 19 and 20 in my original comment. Not trying to be mean, I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t misleading in my previous statements.

    As they say, “all’s well that ends well in the inkwell” (from Max Fleischer’s Koko the Clown cartoon).

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