Monday, June 27, 2011


Twenty five years ago I participated in a session led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi for klei kodesh: rabbis, cantors, prayer leaders and others who serve the Jewish community as religious leaders. Among the many teachings Reb Zalman shared was the assertion that the technology that rabbis and others needed to master was our texts, including liturgy. In this context technology means the use and knowledge of given techniques and systems in order to serve a purpose, such as enhancing prayer. Just as we would hesitate to use an electrician who had not mastered the details of working with his technology, so we should be cautious about a rabbi or prayer leader who had not mastered and was not adept at using the liturgy of the prayerbook.

I like that notion; as a Reform rabbi who often chooses what prayers to include in the service on any given occasion I believe it is essential to understand the function of the prayers and be able to articulate why I am choosing the service I lead. If I cannot explain why I am including or excluding a given prayer, why would I think my congregants could understand the service?

Some of my colleagues have objected to my description of the liturgy as a technology. They argue that the prayers have intrinsic meaning and that describing them as technology lessens that meaning and turns them into the “nuts and bolts” of the service. I appreciate their concern. I certainly agree that the prayers have meaning and that constitutes the heart of the service. But I also acknowledge that I and many others manipulate the service from time to time and I believe we need to know the import of our choices every bit as much as an electrician knows what wire to use when.

Which leads to a surprising discussion regarding the Shema found in Y. Berachot 14a. The broad discussion is about the function of the Shema. The problem is that the Shema is not a prayer but a quote from Torah. Other prayers, like those in the Amidah or the ones that surround the Shema, fit the categories that we normally associate with prayer – petition, praise, gratitude or adoration. The Shema is composed of three passages drawn from different sections of Torah. While we sometimes describe it as “the watchword of our faith” and the mishna describes it as “accepting the yoke of heaven and the commandments”, it is an anomaly in the prayerbook.

This particular passage is concerned with public prayers held on a fast day. The service is convened as one of the steps beseeching God to end a drought. The service is held late enough in the day for people to gather, but after the designated time for reciting the Shema. R. Aha is concerned that the recitation will not “count”, will not fulfill the obligation to recite the Shema or may mislead others to think it would be effective at that hour, while R. Yose argues that the recitation serves a different purpose on this occasion.

R. Yose and R. Aha were present for prayers on a public fast day when the congregation recited the Shema (but after the 3rd hour of the day). R. Aha wanted to stop them [because the time had passed . R. Yose said, “They have already recited the prayer in its proper time and are now repeating it so they can pray the Amidah along with words of Torah.” R. Aha responded, “Nevertheless I object because it may mislead unlearned folk who will think this is a proper time for the Shema.”

R. Aha's concern is understandable. As one who believes that the Shema is only effective as a prayer within certain time boundaries, he does not want to give anyone the wrong impression. He wants every word of prayer to be as effective as possible.

R. Yose introduces two new thoughts. First, that the Shema may carry power as words of Torah over and above its power as words of prayer. Most of the time I suspect we are unaware of the Shema as a passage of Torah. We encounter it in the prayerbook, read it as part of our service and describe it as an affirmation of our love of God. All well and good, but it is also words of Torah and we account those words as having power.

Second, he states that prayer requires Torah study. In order for the prayers of that fast day to be effective, he argued, they needed to include words of Torah. The Shema was chosen, I suspect, because in a large crowd which includes scholars and non-scholars, it is the best known passage one could choose.

This exchange between R. Aha and R. Yose is all about technology, what tool works in what situation. While R. Aha argues that the purpose of the Shema within a prayer service is limited, R. Yose understands that it may serve multiple purposes. R. Yose is willing to use the “technology” of the Shema in multiple ways, while R. Aha is not.

The past half century has been a time of amazing creativity in Jewish liturgy. Among the most obvious examples are the creation of innovative ceremonies for welcoming daughters into the Covenant, the composing of egalitarian Ketubot for weddings, and the groundbreaking use of the mikveh as a place of healing. Similarly the explosion of new Jewish liturgical music, from Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman and many others, has changed the musical landscape of synagogues across the globe. Along the way there have been many failed attempts at shaping meaningful liturgies for these occasions and similar occasions for prayer.

If I consider why some of these efforts succeeded while others failed, I come back to the debate between R. Aha and R. Yose and to the advice offered by Reb Zalman. Every piece of our service has meaning and purpose. Nothing is there just because it sounds nice. Every element, if properly understood, moves us toward a spiritual goal. Like any technology, if an expert uses it well, it succeeds; if one simply moves the pieces around without purpose, it fails.

Imagine attending a service where everyone present understood the import of every prayer. As the service progresses each pray-er awakens their body, their heart, their mind, and their soul to the possibilities before them. Not everyone can reach the same height; nor can any individual enter the prayers with the same energy day after day. But as a community our prayers can soar. The technology of prayer, properly used, can make this happen. May we all be blessed to experience it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

May you be blessed / Yerushalmi Berakhot 13b

A dear friend who died this past January taught me the power of blessing in the last year of his life. Diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, he was determined to make the time he had left meaningful to him and others. He wanted to be a blessing. Everywhere he went he bestowed blessings on people. He told me that everyone yearns to be blessed. He told me I, too, should bestow blessings on people. At first this sounded presumptuous to me. Who am I to bless others? He responded that blessings are hopes for someone, not guarantees and not a claim to power, so there is no arrogance involved. Then it sounded hokey. He told me that if it feels uncomfortable and hokey, get over it because it’s good for others. As his condition deteriorated, I came to realize (yet again) that time is our most precious commodity, and that he was absolutely right: get over it and get over it quickly because other people should not have to wait for what they need.

I want to share one very short passage in the Yerushalmi, Berakhot 13b. It begins by citing Mishnah 1:5:
MISHNAH: And on shabbat, they add one blessing for the outgoing mishmar (guard).

GEMARA: What is the blessing [they added]? R. Chelbo said: This is it: “May the One Who dwells in this house plant among you companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship.”
Perhaps you’re wondering: What is a mishmar? The Priests and Levites were divided into twenty-four “guards” (mishmarot) to offer the daily sacrifices and performed the ancillary work of the Temple, in rotation, in order to involve as many people as possible. The change-of-shift to the new mishmar occurred every shabbat in the late afternoon as evening arose. The previous mishmar would offer the morning and musaf (additional) sacrifice for shabbat, and then the new mishmar would come to replace them. Their first act was to replace the twelve loaves of showbread on the table in the Temple. In the time of the Second Temple, the population had increased prodigiously and the Priests and Levites were so numerous that the mishmarot (guards) were further subdivided into batei avot (subdivisions) and often each person performed at most one task during his week of service. Mishnah 1:5 tells us that as one guard left and another came on duty, a blessing was added to the evening recitation of the Shema on that occasion.

The additional blessing is beautiful: “May the One Who dwells in this house [i.e., the Temple, where the changing of the guards is taking place] plant among you companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship.” (The Bavli – Babylonian Talmud – on Berakhot 12a records virtually the same blessing, except that the order of companionship and loyalty is reversed.)

The Hebrew in the Mishnah is a bit ambiguous: U’v’shabbat mosifin b’rakha achat la’mishmar ha-yotzei can mean both, “And on shabbat they would add one blessing for the outgoing mishmar [to recite],” and “And on shabbat they would add one blessing for [the sake of] the outgoing mishmar.”

Traditional commentators agree that the outgoing mishmar recited this blessing for the incoming mishmar, expressing the hope that their service for the coming week would be marked by “companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship.” Perhaps they had in mind a disturbing and graphic incident recorded in Yoma 23a. The priesthood had proliferated so that even menial tasks were deemed highly desirable. Cleaning away the ashes from the altar early in the morning (t’rumat ha-deshen) became a competitive foot race up the altar, on one occasion with disastrous consequences:
It once happened that two [of the priests] were neck and neck as they ran and ascended the ramp [to the altar]. One of them came within four cubits [of the top of the ramp]. His colleague took a knife and drove it into his heart. (Yoma 23a)
Perhaps the blessing was intended to remind the incoming mishmar that their holy work for the week to come should not devolve into a vicious competition of the most unholy kind. It was meant to draw them together as they served in the Temple for the sake of Israel, not serve as an opportunity for self-centered and self-aggrandizing behavior.

The Hebrew, however, lends itself to another interpretation: “And on shabbat they would add one blessing for [the sake of] the outgoing mishmar.” In this reading, the incoming guard bestows a blessing on the outgoing guard, expressing the hope that their service of the past will inspire them to bring “companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship” home with them to their families and communities. May the One who dwells in the house – i.e. God who dwells in the Holy of Holies – bless their houses (both familial and communal) with the very attributes that should mark their service in Jerusalem. In this way, they truly represent the people, and their service in the Temple reaches those of Israel who live outside Jerusalem.

I think of this alternate understanding in connection with our service to God: prayer, study, chesed (deeds of kindness), pursuit of social justice, or whatever we do in response to God in our lives. Do we do it purely for our own spiritual benefit, or do we do it with a mind to also share the blessings we seek for ourselves, with others?

I recall reading in a prayer book, but do not know the original source, a thought that has always stuck with me: “Those who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.”

I am especially intrigued and moved by the word yita (“plant”) – “May the One Who dwells in this house plant within you…” The image of planting attributes is one of setting down roots that will take hold in firm soil, blossom, and propagate, giving rise to new generations and bearing fruit for many. The blessings we bring to others – and the blessing we are to others – do precisely that. May you be blessed with life, peace, joy, and fulfillment in all that you do.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Okay, just who's in charge now? / Yerushalmi 11b-12a

Who’s in charge – God or the Rabbis? Which is more authoritative – Torah or the laws of the Rabbis? The answer in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) may surprise many of us.

Did the Amoraim (the Sages of both Talmuds, from the time of the compilation of the Mishnah in ~200 C.E. until the end of the 6th century) have the authority they claimed over the Jewish community in the Land of Israel in the 3rd and 4th centuries? Or did they operate and adjudicate as if they had the authority, and thereby in the course of time, establish it for their successors?

Was the enterprise of the Rabbis – Rabbinic Judaism, including Mishnah, Gemara, and midrash – a translation and extension of the Judaism of the Second Temple period to post-Temple rabbinic Judaism, or was it a complete transformation? Evolution or emergent phenomenon?

To answer the third question (and thereby gain insight into the first two questions) we might investigate rituals and practices. We might scrutinize how service to God was carried out. Or, we might examine who claimed authority and how it was wielded.

The first chapter of Berakhot in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) discusses when to say the Shema – morning and evening – as well as who must interrupt their activity to recite it precisely on time, in the first two mishnayot. Mishnah 3 records a disagreement between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai concerning the proper position for reciting the Shema in the evening. Bet Shammai say one should recline because the Shema specifically states, b‘shockh’b’cha u’v’kumecha, which Bet Shammai take to mean “in your lying down and in your rising up.” Bet Hillel, however, say you may recite Shema however you choose, because it also states, u’v’lekh’t’cha va’derekh, “when you go on your way.” Bet Hillel understands b‘shockh’b’cha u’v’kumecha to be temporal, not positional: “when you lie down and when you rise up.” This occasions an excursion in the fourth mishnah to discuss Rabbinic authority vis-à-vis the Torah, and more particularly Bet Hillel versus Bet Shammai.

Mishnah 4 is an anecdote concerning R. Tarfon who followed the opinion of Beth Shammai with nearly tragic consequences:
Said. R. Tarfon, “I was traveling and I reclined to recite the Shema in accordance with the opinion of Bet Shammai. [As a result] I placed myself in danger of [attack by] bandits.” They said to him, “You have only yourself to blame [for what might have happened to you] because you violated the opinion of Bet Hillel.”
This story precipitates a discussion in which the Rabbis aver the supremacy of rabbinic authority over even the Torah. Shocking? Let’s take a look.
The colleagues in the name of R. Yochanan, “The words of the scribes [i.e. rabbinic teachings] are as precious as the words of Torah and as dear as the words of Torah.” And your mouth [=rabbinic teachings] is like the best wine [=Torah] (Song of Songs 7:9).

Shimon bar Va in the name of R. Yochanan: the words of the scribes are as precious as the words of Torah and more dear than the words of Torah, [as it says] For your love [=Rabbinic teachings] is better than wine [=Torah] (Song of Songs 1:2).
R. Ba bar Kohen in the name of R. Yehudah b. Pazi: You will know that the words of the scribes are more dear than the words of the Torah, for if R. Tarfon had not recited [the Shema] he would only have violated a positive commandment [for which there is no punishment]. But because he violated the words of Bet Hillel [i.e. the opinion of the Sages] he was liable for death [at the hands of bandits] according to [the principle] And a snake will bite him who breaks through a wall [i.e. one who violates a rabbinic regulation will be severely – or perhaps lethally – punished] (Kohelet 10:8).
The gemara opens with R. Yochanan’s assertion that rabbinic teachings are as precious (i.e. authoritative) as Torah. Shimon bar Va in his name claims that R. Yochanan went further: rabbinic teachings are more authoritative than Torah. How do we know? Because had R. Tarfon failed to recite the Shema altogether, he would have violated only a positive commandment of the Torah and would therefore not have been subject to the death penalty. In purposefully following the opinion of Bet Shammai, however, R. Tarfon violated the opinion of Bet Hillel, and was therefore liable – or at least deserving of – death.

What an incredible and audacious claim!

Our passage ends with the claim that with in the world of the Sages, Bet Hillel has greater authority than Bet Shammai:
This [rule that Bet Hillel’s authority trumps all others] applies only after the heavenly voice went forth [to decree that the law follows the view of the Bet Hillel].

But before the Heavenly voice went forth anyone who wanted could be stringent with himself and follow the stringencies of Bet Shammai and the stringencies of Bet Hillel. Concerning this one it is said, The fool walks in darkness (Kohelet 2:14).

One who follows the leniencies of this one and that one [i.e., both Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel] is called wicked.

Rather, [one should follow] the leniencies and stringencies of this one, or the leniencies and stringencies of that one. This was before the heavenly voice went forth.

But after the heavenly voice went forth, the halakhah forever followed the words of Bet Hillel. Anyone who violated the words of Bet Hillel was liable to death.
The declaration of the bat kol (heavenly voice) alluded to here is found in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud):
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel, the former saying, “The law follows our views,” and the latter saying, “The law follows our views.” A bat kol [heavenly voice] proclaimed: “Both are words of the living God, but the law follows Bet Hillel." (Eruvin 13b)
Our last passage from the Yerushalmi explains that prior to the bat kol promulgating heaven’s decision that Bet Hillel has the final say in all halakhic matters, people had options. They could take upon themselves stringencies, or follow only the stringencies of both schools, or choose one school to follow consistently. However, they could not follow only the leniencies of both schools. Since the bat kol alluded to in Eruvin 13b, all options are off the table save following the decisions of Bet Hillel.

It is irresistible to compare this passage with the famous passage in the Bavli (Baba Metzia 58-59) which also discusses divine authority versus rabbinic authority, and which prominently features a bat kol (heavenly voice). I mentioned this passage in my previous posting. Amidst a disagreement among the Rabbis, a heavenly voice declares that heaven concurs with the decisions of R. Eliezer in all matters, but the Sages say, “…Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai. We no longer pay attention to a Heavenly Voice.” Judaism – as interpreted by the Rabbis – has emerged from its adolescence, strong, independent, and capable of making its own decisions, with the wisdom of what my kids call “the parental unit” informing them but in the background. The “parental unit” is delighted: “My children have defeated Me!” God laughs with joy.

In our passage in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) we do not meet God as a participant or witness. God has no role in this story because, it appears, the Rabbis have assumed sole authority. One could claim – and rightly so – that the very same situation pertains in the Bavli. There is both a difference and a similarity. Baba Metzia paints a picture of transition, God ceding authority willingly, and delighting in the Rabbis assuming their new role. That is absent in our Yerushalmi passage. What is more, the Yerushalmi presumes that Rabbinic authority trumps Torah and moves on to the internal struggle between the opinions of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. Both, however, ironically find license to claim authority over Torah – which they understand to be God’s word – from God! It is the bat kol who proclaims their authority.

While the Bavli paints a scene of transition of authority, the Yerushalmi paints a scene of complete transformation: out with the old, in with the new.

Perhaps the Sages of the Yerushalmi are more honest about what they are doing: creating something radically new, different from the Second Temple Judaism that came before both in structure, content, and authority. Perhaps because they live in the Land of Israel and therefore maintain that powerful connection to the past, they are freer to assert what is radically new. The Sages of Babylonia, 1000 miles from the Land, lack that powerful connection, and seek to portray their enterprise as arising organically from the earth of pre-Temple Judaism.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman