Sunday, October 31, 2010

"May it be Your will..." / More from Berakhot 16 and 17

A few weeks ago I wrote that our studies in Baba Metzia led us on an excursion into masechet Berakhot, specifically searching out prayers beginning, “May it be Your will…”

Today, for your pleasure and enjoyment, several of the Sages’ prayers recorded on dapim 16 and 17. Often, we think that Jewish prayer is restricted to the “authoritative” prayers published in authorized siddurim (prayer books). In fact, originally all Jewish prayer was the spontaneous creation of each individual engaged in prayer to God. Our Sages ordained the themes and order of the prayers, but not the precise wording. At a later point in time, it became clear that it was onerous to compose prayers each and every day to cover the lengthy order of prayer themes, so the Rabbis commissioned the writing of prayers, resulting in many of those we use today.

Among those recorded on dapim 16 and 17 is the prayer of Rav that was used as the foundation of Birkat HaChodesh (the prayer to announce the coming of the new moon) and prayer of Mar b. Ravina that is recorded in most siddurim following the Amidah as an example of personal prayer. In fact, the Talmud tells us that all the prayers on these pages were the personal prayers of the Sages following the recitation of the Shema. These days, we think of them as being more appropriately appended to the Amidah because there is a tradition that merely reciting the words of the Amidah, without adding something from one’s own heart, is insufficient. God wants to hear what’s on our minds. Given that prayer is not about making ourselves subservient to God and acting the role of obedient automaton, but rather about forging a meaningful relationship with God, this makes perfect sense.

Here are some lovely examples from the Talmud. Perhaps you might like to “take them out for a spin.” See if they work for you. Perhaps they will inspire your own expression in prayer.
R. Eleazar, on concluding his prayer, used to say the following: May it be Your will, O Lord our God, to cause to dwell in our lot love and brotherhood and peace and friendship, and may You make our borders rich in disciples and prosper our latter end with good prospect and hope, and set our portion in Paradise, and confirm us with a good companion and a good impulse in Your world, and may we rise early and obtain the yearning of our heart to fear Your name, and may You be pleased to grant the satisfaction of our desires. (16b)
Here’s another beauty:
R. Safra on concluding his prayer added the following: May it be Your will, O Lord our God, to establish peace among the celestial family, and among the earthly family, and among the disciples who occupy themselves with Your Torah whether for its own sake or for other motives; and may it please You that all who do so for other motives may come to study it for its own sake! (16b, 17a)
There is a disagreement concerning whether the following prayer was said by R. Hamnuna or R. Alexandri. What I love about it is that it acknowledges that our failures, while sometimes due to outside forces, cannot be entirely blamed on others. We must take responsibility, too. The prayer names the failure of human will before external influences, reminding us that we should look within before casting around elsewhere for blame:
Sovereign of the universe, it is known full well to You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough [i.e., the evil inclination] and the subjection to the foreign powers. May it be Your will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to perform the statues of Your will with a perfect heart. (17a)
Rav Sheshet, when he fasted, would say this prayer, in which he draws a fascinating parallel between the blood and fat offered on the altar in the Jerusalem Temple, and the blood and fat he would lose through his fast. Rav Sheshet offers up his blood and fat for atonement. Given Judaism’s stance against asceticism, we might wonder that this prayer was included, yet you might want to consider it next Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur.
Sovereign of the universe, You know full well that in the time when the Temple was standing, if a man sinned, he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was its fat and blood, atonement was made for him by it. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Your will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I had offered them before You on the altar, and please favor me. (17a)
If you have a favorite prayer you have composed and would like to share it here, by all means, please do.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, October 15, 2010


Dostoyevsky would be my preferred author to turn chapter 3 of Baba Metzia into a novel. It opens with a request for a simple favor, “Would you watch over my goods for a while,” and ends as a psychological drama as the presumed guard contemplates theft. This is the trajectory traced by this chapter which serves as an extended exploration of the verses from Exodus 22:6-8:
If a man shall deliver to his neighbor money or utensils to keep, and it is stolen from the man’s house; if the thief is found, let him pay double. If the thief is not found, then the master of the house shall be brought to the judges, to see whether he has put his hand to his neighbor’s goods. For every kind of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for garment, or for any kind of lost thing, which another challenges to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whom the judges shall condemn, he shall pay double to his neighbor.

I find it hard to blog on the individual issues within this chapter. The arguments tend to be complex and not easily summarized. The chapter as a whole, however, serves as a cautionary tale worthy of our notice.

The opening mishnah (B. Baba Metzia 33b), poses what sounds like a simple situation: “If someone deposits an animal or vessels with his friend and it gets stolen or lost.” The questions that follow are predictable: how does one substantiate that the goods were stolen, what compensation is due, what happens if a thief is located after a settlement has been reached. In certain ways the Talmudic concerns differ from our own because there is the possibility of goods having been dedicated to the Temple. It is a complication without parallel in the modern world. Much of the discussion that follows is recognizable in our contemporary setting.

The problem at the root of this discussion is that the one who is watching over the goods is the legitimate caretaker, but not the owner. On one hand, he bears responsibilities that are similar to an owner, but there are limits on his behavior. On the other hand, the goods in his possession may be a temptation. The Mishnah explores a variety of permutations on the theme, which leads to the title of this blog. What begins as a bailment (a legal arrangement that arises when a person gives property to someone else for safekeeping), may lead one to consider committing a misdemeanor or tempt one to consider even worse crimes.

At the outset the focus notes the tension between ownership and possession. “If one rents a cow from his fellow and then lends it to another, and then the cow dies or natural causes.” (B. Baba Metzia 35b) On whose watch did the cow die? Is there compensation for the owner who has lost a cow, for the renter who no longer has the means to complete his work, or for the borrower? More, the cow, which can be sold for meat, still has some value. Who is to benefit from that value?

Fittingly the Mishnah discusses the differences that exist when dealing with different goods. If one is entrusted with an animal, there is a responsibility for the maintenance of the animal. When storing produce, which can rot or be eaten by vermin, different considerations come into play. And if one entrusts money for safekeeping with another, there are appropriate ways to protect those funds.

By the middle of the chapter, the focus begins to shift. What if the guardian was guarding a barrel of wine, but moved it about and it broke? If he was authorized to move it about, perhaps it is okay. But then the sages wonder if he was moving it for its own benefit, to somehow improve his situation, or if the move was for his convenience or benefit. Perhaps he was using it as a stepladder to reach some high object. One must distinguish between several possible ways to understand the guardian’s actions. The last half of the chapter tries to sort between these possible understandings of a guardian’s action:
• the latitude the guardian was given by the owner,
• the reasonable authority he held as the one on the scene,
• the possibility of negligence in caring for the property poorly,
• the opportunity to borrow some of the goods now with the intention of returning them before the owner reclaims the goods,
• the temptation to misappropriate the goods (say, to have an occasional sip from the stored wine),
• or the enticement to steal the object for his own benefit.

The final mishnah considers the intention that may precede action. “Someone who intends to misappropriate a deposit…” (B. Baba Metzia 43b) Beit Shammai (44a) considers that the thought is sufficient to establish the crime, while Beit Hillel argues that he is not liable until he actually stretches out his hand to do the deed.

Throughout our study of this chapter I found parallels between the gemara and the daily news. Revelations of malfeasance, from Madoff to unscrupulous mortgage lenders to unexamined foreclosures, reflected the ancient discussions of the sages. In the simple act of asking a friend to watch over some goods, we have explored a wide range of possible deeds and misdeeds. It recognizes that entrusting goods to another is not a simple act at all. It opens up questions of competence and integrity. It acknowledges the temptation that we feel when we have control over another’s property.

The last word of the chapter is teiku, meaning that the question remains unanswered until Elijah the Prophet comes to resolve all outstanding questions in advance of the Messiah’s arrival. While it responds to a specific and limited issue within the gemara, I feel that the choice to leave this as the last word points to a bigger matter. When we are entrusted with another person’s goods we face choices on how we will act in this instance. Will we be a trustworthy guardian of the bailment in our hands, or will we succumb to the temptation to commit crimes and misdemeanors.

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