Question: What is a voluntary prayer and is it recited nowadays?
Answer: All prayers that we recite were established in place of the sacrifices which were brought during the times when the Bet Hamikdash stood, as the verse states, “So we will render for bulls the offering of our lips,” meaning that the prayers we recite are offered in the place of the sacrifices which were brought when the Bet Hamikdash stood (see Berachot 26b). Although people prayed when the Bet Hamikdash stood as well, there was nevertheless not as much of an obligation to do so three times daily and using the text enacted by our Sages.
Since an individual did have the opportunity to come to the Bet Hamikdash and offer a “donated” sacrifice, it would seem that one who wishes to may stand before Hashem and offer a “donated” or voluntary prayer.
Thus, the Gemara (Berachot 21a) states that an individual may stand and recite the Amida prayer as a donation to Hashem and this prayer will act as a merit for the individual as though it were a donated offering. Such an individual who adds a voluntary prayer before Hashem is worthy of being called “willing of heart” as the verse (Divrei Ha’Yamim II, 29) states, “Then Chizkiyahu answered and said: ‘Now you have consecrated yourselves to Hashem, come near and bring sacrifices and thanksgiving-offerings to the house of Hashem’; and the congregation brought sacrifices and thanksgiving-offerings and those who were willing of heart brought burnt offerings.”
Nevertheless, the Rosh writes in one of his responses (Chapter 4, Section 13) that one who prays a voluntary prayer “must know himself to be focused and clear of mind such that he will be able to concentrate throughout the prayer from beginning to end without interruption only in which case one can be called ‘willing of heart’; however, if one cannot concentrate well, about such an individual does the verse state, ‘For what purpose is your multitude of sacrifices to me says Hashem; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, lambs, or he-goats.’” The Rosh exclaims that were it only that we could have the proper concentration when we recited the three daily obligatory prayers.
The Rosh means to say that prayer without intention or concentration is like a body without a soul; thus, we must put forth maximum effort to concentrate fully during the three prayers that we are obligated to pray daily. However, adding additional prayers is not recommended in our times when concentration is quite difficult and not many people have the ability to do so. Thus, one who does so will bear the verse “For what purpose is your multitude of sacrifices.”
Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 107) rules, as follows: “One who wishes to pray a voluntary prayer may do so; however, one must add something (some request) into one’s prayer (such as requesting health for an ill individual in the Refa’enu blessing etc.).” Maran continues: “One who wishes to pray a voluntary prayer must know himself to be focused, careful, and clear of mind such that he will be able to concentrate throughout the entire prayer, from beginning to end. However, if one cannot concentrate well, he bears the verse ‘For what purpose is your multitude of sacrifices’ and were it not that one would be able to have the proper concentration during the three daily fixed prayers.”
The Rashbetz, Rabbeinu Shimon bar Tzemach, writes in his commentary that “we have not seen anyone in our generation who recites voluntary prayers; in our generations, the idea of voluntary prayers has been completely removed and no one recites such prayers at all.” Indeed, Rabbeinu Chaim Abulafia rules in his Sefer Nishmat Chaim (Chapter 4) that “nowadays, one should not recite voluntary prayers at all.” Other great Acharonim rule likewise.
Thus, halachically speaking, one should not pray any voluntary prayers at all nowadays. In the following Halachot we shall, G-d-willing, explain in what situations one should or must pray a voluntary prayer even nowadays.