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Friday, October 1, 2010

Musings and Meanderings from Baba Metzia to Berakhot / Baba Metzia 42 and Berakhot 16-17

We’ve taken a side trip on our excursion through Baba Metzia. It came about because of a passage in Baba Metzia 42a:
Our Rabbis taught: Someone who goes to measure [produce] in his granary says: “May it be Your will, Lord our God, that You will send blessing upon the work of our hands.” After he has begun to measure, he says, “Blessed is [God] Who sends blessing upon this pile [of produce].” If he measured and afterward said a blessing, this is a prayer said in vain, because blessing is not found, neither in something that is weighed, nor in something that is measured, nor in something that is counted, but [only] in something that is hidden from the eye, as it is said, The Lord will command the blessing upon you in your storehouses (Deuteronomy 28:8).
The passage seems to be an attempt to balance prudence and providence, but it evoked many questions, among them:
  • Why is it proper to recite a blessing prior to or in the midst of measuring, before one knows the extent of the harvest, but after measuring it’s a tefilat shav (a prayer said in vain)? An experienced farmer can look at a pile of produce and estimate its volume fair precision; measuring merely confirms what he or she has already discerned, so there is little surprise in the measurement. But even if the final tally is a delightful surprise, the quantity has not changed from the time measuring began until the final total is jotted on a clipboard or entered into a laptop. It seems that the experience of not knowing (or not having confirmation of the final tally) versus the experience of learning the measured quantity is what matters: until the grain is measured, the farmer presumably cannot be sure what he or she has. Hence the final quantity is still “in God’s hands” until the measuring is completed. (I don’t find this religiously satisfying, but I can imagine that others would.)
  • Why are the two blessings offered in the text couched in different tenses (the first in the future tense – “that you will send” – and the second in the present tense – “who sends”). Why does one begin “May it be Your will…” while the other begins “Blessed is [God] Who…”
The second question sent us in search of other prayers following the “May it be Your will…” structure and we ended up on Berakhot 16-17, which are replete with the personal prayers of many Sages. We jumped into the pool on 16b with a mishnah that cites three cases in which the students of Rabban Gamliel and his son, Shimon, question their masters’ decisions to contravene a halakhic ruling.
[Rabban Gamliel] washed the first night after his wife died. His students said to him: You, our master, have taught us that a mourner is prohibited from washing. [Rabban Gamliel] said to them: I am not like other people; I am a delicate individual.

When [Rabban Gamliel’s] slave Tavi died, he accepted condolences for him. His students said to him: You, our master, have taught us that one may not accept condolences for a slave. He said to them: My slave Tavi is not like other slaves; he was worthy.

If a groom wishes to recite the Shema on the first night [following his wedding] he may recite it. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Not everyone who wishes to take the name may take it.
The three examples appear to be in ever-widening circles of relationship. The first (washing) concerns one’s relationship with one’s body. The second (Tavi) concerns one’s relationship with another human being. The third (reciting Shema) concerns one’s relationship with God. In each case, the halakhah establishes standard procedure, but Rabban Gamliel and Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel find that the global ruling is not appropriate in all cases, particularly in their own circumstances. Rabban Gamliel has a fragile constitution; his ill health requires that he wash. His washing reminds us that Jewish practice cannot be “one size fits all” because we not all the same (“A person stamps many coins with one die and they are all alike, one with the other, but the Holy One blessed be God, Sovereign of sovereigns, has stamped all humanity with the die of the first man and yet not one of them is like another.” Sanhedrin 4:5) Similarly, Rabban Gamliel developed a close tie to Tavi such that Tavi was family to him and conventional societal roles were trumped by the tenderness and intensity of their friendship. Rabban Gamliel opens a window of fresh air to flexibility in one’s relationship with tradition. Perhaps in reality it’s a reflection of time before rigidity set in.

Our third example, however, seems to suggest a different direction: Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel rejects the Sages’ permission to a groom to choose whether or not to recite Shema on his wedding night; he appears to view it as hubris to believe you have the kavanah for Shema on such an occasion. The Gemara on 17b discusses Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel’s viewpoint. The question is raised: if Shimon is worried about the appearance of haughtiness, does this imply the Rabbis are not? They introduce another mishnah, Pesachim 4:5, in which we are told that the Rabbis taught that where people normally work on Tisha B’Av (the date in the calendar on which Jews commemorate and mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples), one may work; where it is not the custom to work, one need not work. However, Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says a person should always act like a Torah scholar (and hence abstain from work). Does this not make one appear haughty? Is this not in contradiction to our mishnah above on Berakhot 16b? The Gemara concludes that no contradiction exists because in the first case (Berakhot) the brideroom holds himself out as different from others. In the second case (Pesachim) we can assume that there are many others who are not working, so abstaining from work on Tisha B’Av does have the appearance of haughtiness.

We began in Baba Metzia with a question about prayers that begin “May it be Your will…” and that led us to Berakhot 16-17 which is replete with examples. The mishnah that inspires these prayers, or calls them into the Talmud, sets a tone of flexibility and personal practice. The prayers themselves are deeply personal, individual prayers. These aspects of our tradition – flexibility in practice and personal prayer not connected to fixed liturgy – is set in the beginning, but not nearly as emphasized today as they deserve to be.

Berakhot 16 and 17 record some beautiful prayers, a few of which have been incorporated into our liturgy, and others that are worthy of attention. I’ll share several with you next time. You might like to use them.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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