Is Our Most Famous Prayer a Prayer?
On Thursday 31st October, Rabbi Sacks had the privilege of delivering a short shiur – a “Talmud Talk” – as part of a wonderful evening in London to mark and celebrate the completion of the Noé Edition of the Koren Talmud Bavli with commentary from Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. Please watch the “Talmud Talk”, and click here to download the accompanying mekorot (source) sheet. The event was hosted by Koren Publishers and The Steinsaltz Center, together with Kinloss Synagogue.
Birshut Kvod HaRabbanim, Lauren, and Dayan Binstock, thank you for these wonderful presentations. On behalf of all of us, I’m sure you’ll join Elaine and myself in sending our prayers and our best wishes to Chief Rabbi Mirvis for the speedy recovery of his father and Refuah Krovoh Lavoh, may Hashem send a speedy healing to him and good news to the Mirvis family.
Let me congratulate, first of all, Matthew Miller of Koren and Maggid, who has achieved this extraordinary publication in only seven years of the Noé edition of the Talmud Bavli, and has transformed the face of Jewish publishing. This is really an extraordinary achievement, Matthew, and please send congratulations to the entire incredible team that you’ve assembled. You really have done great things. I want to say to HaRav Mene Even Yisrael how humbled we are by the extraordinary achievement of his father, HaRav Adin Steinsaltz and the great way that he himself is continuing this work.
The Steinsaltz Gemara is one of the real spiritual masterworks of our age, and indeed of any age, and we are privileged to have lived in the time of Rav Steinsaltz. And please commend to him our deep indebtedness. Thirdly, of course, it’s wonderful to be here. We thank the Kinloss community for hosting this – Rabbi Lawrence, Rabbi Laitner, President of the United Synagogue, Michael Goldstein. And thank you for all you do for the community.
Acharon Chaviv to Leo and Susan Noé. Friends, we had the privilege, Elaine and myself, of being with Leo and Susan on Chol Hamoed Succot for the opening of an extraordinary institution they’ve created in Bnei Brak – a vast educational centre for the organisation ALEH, which deals with badly brain damaged children – and where Susan dedicated a Sefer Torah in the memory of her late parents. And what you’ve done, it brought tears to our eyes. (Oh, you can’t hear? You don’t know how lucky you are.)
That event, seeing what you’ve created in ALEH in Bnei Brak was just extraordinary. It was an act of Chessed, the like of which we’re just humbled by. And now to join that to this incredible project, the whole Noé edition of the Koren Talmud Bavli – it’s philanthropy, it’s tzedakah, chessed, on a truly epic scale. The Gemara in Kiddushin ends with this debate, which is greater? Talmud or Ma’aseh? Is learning or doing greater? And of course, Rabbi Akiva resolves the whole issue by saying, “Gadol hatalmud she’hatalmud meivi li’ydei ma’aseh”. “Greater is Talmud because Talmud leads to doing.” You have embodied that principle. You have valued learning and you have learnt, but you have shown how learning leads to doing and what Torat Chessed, the law of lovingkindness actually looks like in real life. You are embodiments of that value and therefore I say to you, Leo and Susan, you are a Kiddush Hashem and we salute you and we thank you.
Friends, one of the things that I’ve been involved with, with Matthew Miller and Koren, has emerged from what Elaine and I discovered as we have travelled the Jewish world these past few years. And we’ve discovered that the deepest spiritual challenge facing Jews today is tefillah, is prayer. Wherever we go, people say, “How do we get more inspired by prayer?” And one of the reasons that prayer is difficult is people don’t understand the tefillot, they don’t understand the prayers. That’s why we did the machzorim and the commentaries. But another reason is that people don’t understand what prayer is as such. What are we doing when we pray? And I want in the next 15 minutes to take a little journey with you showing how one little sentence in the Gemara that is actually about something else completely can transform our understanding of what it is when we daven.
And let’s begin with the statement itself, and it’s on the bottom of the page. [See page 14 in the hyperlinked source sheet.] It’s an amazing statement. “Amar Rabbi Yochanan MiShum Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, afilu lo karah adam elah kriyat Shema shacharit vearavit…” , [meaning] if you do nothing but say kriyat Shema every morning and every night,” “kiyyem ‘loh yamush’”, you have fulfilled the line that says: “Lo yamush sefer HaTorah hazeh mipicha Vehigit bo yomam valayla”. Let this Sefer Torah not depart from your mouth and you shall meditate in it day and night. And we assume that means 24 hours a day or 16 hours a day, and Rabbi Yochanan and Shimon Bar Yochai – these are not nobodies! Rabbi Yochanan was the putative author of the Talmud Yerushalmi and Shimon Bar Yochai was the greatest mystic of the whole Tanaitic, of the whole rabbinic era. These are major, major heroes of the spirit and yet they say, “If you only say Kriyat Shema morning and night, you fulfil the thing, “Don’t stop learning.” But they had a little proviso.
They say, “Vedavar zeh assur le’omro bifnei amai ha’aretz” , but don’t tell an am ha’aretz that, [don’t tell the people of the land] or they’ll never learn. They’ll just say kriyat Shema morning and evening. So don’t tell them. And along comes Lauren’s favourite, Rava, “VeRava amar,” but Rava says, “Mitzvah le’omro bifnei amai ha’aretz”, “ It’s a mitzvah to tell an am ha’aretz that.”
Why? Because Rabbit Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, both of whom are absolute perfectionists when it comes to Torah, they believe that you really should spend 16 hours a day learning Torah and nothing else. But Rava, who as we’ve seen, as Lauren showed us, has a developmental approach to education, wants to raise somebody’s self-esteem. Don’t write yourself off. If you do nothing more than kriyat Shema morning and evening, you have still fulfilled that mitzvah, and then you’ve got them on board. You’ve given them self-esteem, and Rava relies on the dynamics of the teaching process that they will grow. Okay?
That is an interesting thing. Shimon Bar Yochai is a bit of a Litvak in this, and Rava is a bit of a Chabadnik – combine the two, you can’t go wrong, I promise you. But there it is. That’s the statement. That’s Gemara in Menachot. Now, I am not going to take that statement any further. I am just going to ask you one very simple question, which is: What, according to this Gemara, are we doing when we say kriyat Shema? Are you with me? Because according to this Gemara what we are not doing is davening. We’re not being mitpallel. What we are doing is Talmud Torah. We’re learning Torah. That’s exactly what they say. All you have to do is say kriyat Shema morning and evening, and you fulfil the mitzvah of learning Torah morning and night. They hold that kriyat Shema isn’t prayer at all. It’s a mitzvah of Talmud Torah. Right? It’s a mitzvah of learning Torah. That’s what kriyat Shema is, and I want us to stay with that because we will find that an absolutely revolutionary proposition.
Now, let me ask you the question. The question is simple. For the whole of the biblical era, at least most of the biblical era, what was Avodat Hashem? What was it to serve God? The answer was Avodat Hashem took place in the Temple. It was officiated over by Priests and it took the form of sacrifices. That’s what it was. It was central to Judaism. What happened with Chorban HaBayit? What happened, especially with the destruction of the Second Temple? What was going to replace Jerusalem, the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifices? We know that the Sages came up with a number of theories on this – a number of them – but two in particular. And you will find the two here on the next page, [see page 15 in the hyperlinked source sheet].
“Itmar Rabbi Yossi b’Rabbi Chanina amar, ‘tefillot avot tiknum, veRabbi Yehoshua ben Levi amar, tefillot k’negged temidin tiknum.” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, (who lived in Lod in the third century, he was the head of the town), tells us that the substitute for sacrifices was prayer. Shacharit replaced the tamid shel boker, the morning sacrifice; mincha replaced the tamid shel ben ha’arbayim, the afternoon sacrifice; ma’ariv was hekter chalavim ve’arvaim and mussaf was the special sacrifice offered on Shabbat and Holy Days. So sacrifices were substituted by prayer.
However, that was only one line of thought. Let’s have a look in source 3 in Menachot [110a]. “Amar Reish Lakish (Reish Lakish, who was of course the learning partner of Rabbi Yochanan, a Ba’al Teshuvah), my dichtiv “Zot haTorah la’olah, la’minchah v’lechattat v’la’asham”. [meaning] This is the Torah for a burnt offering, a meal offering, a sin offering, and a guilt offering. He dissects that in two and says, “Zot HaTorah.” That’s the Torah, and that is the equivalent of all those different offerings.
From which he concludes, “Kol ha’osek baTorah – ke’ilu hikriv olah, mincha, chatat v’asham,” whoever learns Torah is as if he brought those sacrifices.
Have a look in source four [Eruvin 63b], “Amar Rabbi Shmuel bar Inya mishmay d’Rav: Gadol Talmud Torah yoter meihakravat tamidin,” [which means] Learning Torah is even greater than offering sacrifices.
Now we have here two different routes, (point two), we have here two different roads offered up, opened up by the Sages. When the Temple was destroyed, what replaced sacrifices as a way of serving God? Route one was tefillah, prayer; Route two was Talmud Torah, learning. And we see both of those represented in the Gemara, and of course they had different homes. Prayer belonged to the Beit Knesset and learning belonged to the Beit Midrash.
So these two activities were different activities: one of the heart; one of the head. They had different homes and those were the two roads opened up. And they are different worlds, they are different phenomenologies.
Now, point three. Tell me, what is the difference between prayer and study? In prayer we speak to God, right? “Chaneinu me’itcha de’ah binah vehaskel, Refa’einuh Hashem veneirafeh, S’lach lanu Avinu ki chatanu…”. [meaning] Please, give us knowledge, forgive us, heal us. We are talking to God. In prayer we are talking to God. In study, what is happening? God is talking to us. We’re listening and reading the Torah, God’s words from Moshe Rabbeinu or one of the commentaries. Halachic commentary, aggadic commentary. It doesn’t matter. In prayer, we are talking to God. In study, God is talking to us. Or to put it the other way round, prayer is an act of speaking, study is an act of listening. That is the difference between those two and that is point three.
Point four. Let us have a look at something that happens in the siddur. Can you see this? Right at the beginning. What do they call it now? The late arrivals in Shul? “JFK,” “Just For Kiddush” I think it’s called…
So if you’re Just For Kiddush you would’ve missed this bit because it’s right at the very beginning, but you see right at the beginning, before we do the Birkat HaShachar, before we do the dawn blessings, we make brachas with the Torah and then what do we do? You remember what Lauren told us just now? “Chayav adam lehashlish limudo”, A person has to divide his learning or her learning – sorry Lauren – into three: Mikrah, Mishnah, and Gemara. That is a universally accepted principle. How that works out in practise you’ve already indicated. The Ba’alei Tosfot say one way and so on, but the truth is it is universally agreed that you have to divide your learning into three: Mikrah – Torah, Bible, etc; Mishnah; and Gemara. Now, have a look at that page. Can you see it [see page 16 in the hyperlinked source sheet]?
That’s what we say immediately after the blessings of the Torah. Can you see what’s happening in that passage? And precise three stage learning: “Yevarechecha Hashem Veyishmerecha”, the priestly blessings from parshat Naso; then “Eilu devarim she’ein lahem shiur”, [meaning] these are the things that have no fixed measure. That’s a Mishnah, Pe’ah, chapter one, paragraph one; and then, “Eilu devarim she’adam ochel peiroteihem ba’olam hazeh”, that’s a Gemara from Shabbat, page 127a. So you can see, before we even open our mouths in prayer, we begin with an active study precisely structured on the principle of dividing your time into three. Then we say the birkat hashachar and the various other prayers. And then what happens next? Have you got it? [see page 17].
This is just before “Mizmor shir chanukat habayit leDavid…” – I don’t know what page it is on the siddur. Can you see what it says? “Vayedabar Hashem el Moshe leimor…”, that is the tamid shel boker, that is the passage of the morning sacrifice.
Then “Eizehu m’koman shel zevachim…”, which is a chapter of Mishnah, it’s the Mishnah in Zevachim chapter five. So we have the first paragraph is Mikra from number chapter 28. It’s Parashat Pinchas, then Mishnah, and then we have, “Rabbi Yishmael omer: bishlosh esreh middot HaTorah nidreshet…” And here we have to understand, where is that from? Does anyone know? That’s from a halachic Midrash on the Book of Vayikra known as the Sifra, the Torat Kohanim, but you have to have a look. Have you got it there [page 18 in the source sheet]. Do you have this? Maimonides, Laws of Torah Study [1:11], where, he brings this law, “Chayav leshalosh et zman lemidato, shlish baTorah shebichtav, v’shlish beTorah shebe’al peh, v’shlish yavin veyaskil acharit…”, right?
And then have a look, in the middle of that second line. “Veyavin bemidot shehaTorah nidreshet bahen,” You should understand the exegetical principles by which the Torah is expounded, “ad sheyada heich hu ikar hamidot vha’ich, yotzi ha’assur vehamutar kiyotzi bahen medevarim shelamad mipi hashmuah ve’inyan zeh…” learning those exegetical principles is called, “hu hanikra Gemara”.
We nowadays only use the word Gemara to refer to the Talmud, but Maimonides tells us explicitly that any methodological study from that age is called Gemara. So we see that the beginning of birkot hashachar begins with a study session: Mikrah, Mishnah, Gemara. The end of birkot hashachar ends with a second study session structured on exactly those lines – of Mikrah, Mishnah, Gemara. Here, we have a slight difference between Anglo-Jewry and Eastern European Jewry as to how many korbanot you say. Have a look in the green siddur on the one hand, and if you have a look on the East European siddurim – Matthew and I agree to differ on this one because the Koren Siddur is an Eastern European siddur – and you will see there lots and lots of korbanot. It’s terrific. The only trouble is, it’s wrong! He [Matthew]’s going to sacrifice the sacrifices… The reason I say it’s wrong is I had the great zechut to have a great-grandfather who produced and published the first printed edition of the first ever siddur, which was the Siddur Rav Amram, produced in the ninth century. And you will see the Siddur Rav Amram and the siddur of Saadia Gaon in the 10th century have it exactly as Minhag Anglia has it. When very, very simple Mikrah, Mishnah, Gemara. Okay? So that’s the beginning. So now we are seeing something we didn’t fully understand before that we are learning even before we’re praying and we’re learning after we’re praying. And that all happens within the first few minutes of Shacharit. What about the end of Shacharit? Now here, the trouble is that we can’t see the full building, because the building, as it existed, doesn’t exist anymore.
What we have at the end of davening on a weekday Shacharit is first of all, Ashrei, then we have a psalm, Lamnatze’ach, and then we have Uva LeTzion and then we have something – it’s called the Kedushah D’Sidra – we say Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, and Baruch Kvod Hashem mimkomo. But we say them with their Aramaic translations as well. And then we have a series of prayers culminating in a kind of concluding prayer, Yehi ratzon milfanecha, etc, etc, Shenishma chukecha ba’olam hazeh etc. It’s unclear what that whole sequence is, until we go back and discover what it was. I’m not going to read the source to you. See it in source eight, [page 18, Responsa of Rav Natronai bar Hilai Gaon], the source eight tells you exactly what actually happened. It is from the Teshuvat Rav Natronai Gaon, who was the Rosh Yeshiva in Sura, in Babylon, in the ninth century.
And he explains something very fascinating – that it was the absolute fixed custom, that every single day at the end davening they learned 10 verses of Nevi’im, of Prophets. It’s like a biblical Daf Yomi, or like 929, you know, they learned the Nevi’im. They went through it and then after learning the Nevi’im, he says they would either learn Mishnah or Gemara. Now that whole custom has disappeared. I don’t know any communities that learn those 10 versus of Nevi’im every single day. All that are left are these verses, “Uvah leTzion go’el”, 2 verses on redemption from Isaiah chapter 59, and the two verses of Kedushah from Isaiah 6 and from Yechezkiel, the two mystical visions in the prophetic books. But you will see that they were originally learned. They weren’t just, said they were learned. And that is why the Targum is there, it doesn’t appear anywhere else. Whenever else we say Kedushah we are kind of praying it or we’re referring to it, we’re not actually learning it. And because at that point in Kedushah d’Sidra at the end of davening, they actually learnt it, we retain the Targum because that’s how they learn something. They learnt it with its translation. So now we know the following – that just as every davening begins with two different sessions of learning, so every session of davening ended with a session of learning, which included in Nevi’im and included, exactly on Rava’s principle, that “Ein adam lommed ellah bemakom mimakom shelebilchav eitz”, if a person preferred Mishnah they learned Mishnah, and if they preferred Gemara, they did Gemara – that’s according to Rav Natrunei.
So there was serious learning right at the beginning and the end of davening. The real question I am now going to ask, point number six, is what is the kriyat Shema doing in the middle of davening? What exactly is it doing? I’ll tell you exactly.
Shema is there not because it’s a prayer – it isn’t a prayer. In a prayer, we speak to God. When we say Shema Yisrael, are we speaking to God? God is speaking to us, through Moshe Rabbeinu. “Listen, Oh Israel” – this is directed to us. This isn’t directed to God. Shema, we are actually learning. And here’s the proof, right? Can you see source 9 [on page 18]?
Here’s a Gemara in Brachot [11b], “ Amar Rav Yehudah amar Shmuel, hiskim lishnot, ad shelo kara kriyat Shema tzarich levarech”. If you get up early to learn and you haven’t yet said kriyat Shema, you have to make brachot over learning Torah,“Mishekarah kriyat Shema eino tzarich levarech”, but if you’ve already davened Shema in Shacharit, you don’t need to make a brachah, “shekvar niftar b’ahava rabbah”, because you have already said the brachah when you said ahava rabbah. Ahava Rabbah is the functional equivalent of a blessing over learning. The Gemara says so. It is a bracha al haTorah and that exempts you from saying the brachot over learning if you have said ahava rabbah. We now know what Shema is doing there, and why specifically it is there before the Amidah. It is there because, first learn and then pray. That is what Chazal are telling us.
But why? Surely, they are two different things, learning and praying are two different things. They are two different kinds of mitzvahs. They are two different kinds of mental activity. What has learning got to do with praying? And the answer is this: When we pray we are speaking to God. But when we learn, we are listening to God. This is the fundamental point. Before we can ask God to listen to us, we have to show that we can listen to Him. That is what kriyat Shema is doing.
Now, finally, I come to point 7, my final point. We know that the Amidah is called the “Shmoneh Esreh”, which means 18. We also know if you count up the paragraphs, they come to 19. Which is the odd one out? Everyone says, “Velamalshinim”. Everyone. Why? Because historically it was the last of the paragraphs to be added. I don’t have time to work out the analysis here. But if you actually look at those middle 13 brachot, one of them stands out, and it’s not Velamalshinim. Every one of those brachot in the middle is a prayer for something, except one – “Shema Koleinu”. Shema Koleinu is the only paragraph that doesn’t ask for anything in particular. It’s a prayer about prayer. “Shema Koleinu”. [It’s saying], we’ve said lots of prayers, please listen to us. It’s a meta prayer. Now you see the drama that is being set out in front of us. Can you just see it there [on page19]? Can you see it? Second half of the page?
Shacharit consists of two climaxes; one before the Amidah; the other during the Amidah. The one before the Amidah consists of the words Shema Yisrael. The one in the middle of the Amidah consists of the words Shema Koleinu! That is what the drama is about. We engage in an act of listening to God, Shema Yisrael, and then we say to God, “We have listened to You. Please listen to us.” Shema Koleinu. That is the incredible tension, and the creative tension. That is what makes Jewish prayer unusual, and that’s what makes Judaism unusual.
That is how Chazal took the two things that they saw as the substitute for the sacrifices – praying and learning – and somehow they brought them together. They brought together learning and prayer. So they brought together mind and heart. So they brought together the Divine word and the human word. So they brought together listening to God and speaking to God.
The siddur is not so much just about speaking, it’s also about listening as well. That is why we have to say “Shema Yisrael” to ourselves before we can say “Shema Koleinu” to God. I hope that gives you an insight into prayer that you didn’t see before. Let it mature because it’s a really profound idea that Chazal gave.
All I can say, Leo and Susan, is that I’ve tried to show that study can be a form of prayer. And prayer itself is a form of study. You have made study possible for hundreds of thousands of people who could not have done it otherwise. In that reward, may all your prayers be answered. Amen.