An endless journey

Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakana's prayers - though private and personal in origin - are mandated for all who enter and exit the beit midrash (Shulhan Aruch OH 110:8).

By LEVI COOPER
November 1, 2006 11:12

The Talmud (B. Berachot 21a) seeks a biblical source for the benediction recited before studying Torah and suggests the biblical verse that opens the Ha'azinu poem rendered by Moses just before his death: "When I proclaim the name of God, acknowledge the greatness of God" (Deuteronomy 32:3). Indeed a blessing before Torah study is required, though there is a discussion among the sages as to the most appropriate wording of this blessing (B. Berachot 11b). The codifiers accepted all the suggested texts and today these benedictions are part of the daily morning liturgy (Shulhan Aruch OH 47:5 and commentators). The Talmud continues with a discussion of the possibility of a blessing that should be recited at the completion of Torah study. Though there appears to be no explicit source for such a blessing, one sage suggests that it is derived from the benediction mandated after eating. The required grace after meals has its source in the biblical verse: When you eat and are satisfied, then you must bless God your Lord (Deuteronomy 8:10). The Talmud suggests that a blessing after Torah study can be concluded a fortiori from grace after meals: Since food does not biblically require a blessing before it is consumed yet does call for an after blessing - surely Torah which mandates a blessing before the act, should entail a benediction after the study session has been completed! The Talmud rejects this legal maneuver claiming that food and Torah are inherently different and hence incomparable: Food brings physical sustenance, Torah is rewarded with everlasting life - the two are unlinked. The accepted practice is, in fact, that no after-blessing is recited when an individual studies Torah. Nevertheless, there is still room for an afterward of sorts (M. Berachot 4:2). The Mishna relates that Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakana would offer a short prayer when he entered and exited the beit midrash (study hall). Those present inquired about the nature of this prayer. "When I enter I pray that no mishap should be caused by me and when I depart I give thanks for my portion," explained the sage. The Talmud offers the full text of these prayers (B. Berachot 28b). Upon departure, Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakana would say: "I give thanks before You, God my Lord, that You have placed my portion amongst those who sit in the beit midrash and You have not placed my portion amongst those who sit on the street corners, for I arise early and they arise early - I arise for words of Torah and they arise for words of futility; I toil and they toil - I toil and receive reward while they toil and do not receive reward; I hasten and they hasten - I hasten to the World-to-come and they hasten to the depths of Hell." Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakana's prayers - though private and personal in origin - are mandated for all who enter and exit the beit midrash (Shulhan Aruch OH 110:8). His concluding departing prayer also forms part of the special thanksgiving passage recited at the completion of study of an entire tractate of Talmud. It is important to note that Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakana did not recite a benediction, rather he offered a prayer that expressed thanks for the opportunity afforded him and beheld a hope for future opportunities. This was not a blessing praising God; it was a supplication beseeching the Almighty. Is the rejection of blessing at the conclusion of a Torah study session merely the result of an unsuitable use of the a fortiori mechanism? Or perhaps there may be a deeper reason for the rejection of a blessing at the completion of study. The scholarly leader of Lithuanian Jewry in Israel, Rabbi Elazar Menahem Man Shach (1898, Lithuania - 16th Heshvan 2001, Israel), once met a group of advanced students and he told them: "I have long been bothered by a certain question posed by the classic talmudic commentator Penei Yehoshua (1680-1756, Poland-Germany)," and he quickly added, "But I doubt whether this question would cause you any discomfort." Urged by the students to reveal the question, Rabbi Shach responded: "I doubt whether you would even find the question difficult." The students were not discouraged and continued to pester their teacher, perhaps thinking that they might be able to answer the question posed by the Penei Yehoshua as they often did with other such quandaries encountered during their studies. Once Rabbi Shach realized that they truly desired to be privy to the question that was bothering him so, he decided to share it with them: "The Penei Yehoshua asks on our passage - how can there be a blessing at the conclusion of learning Torah; is there ever really a time that can be considered 'the conclusion of learning Torah'? We are commanded to constantly study Torah!" Rabbi Shach continued: "This question certainly doesn't bother you, since at the end of your study sessions you close your books and you have a concept of 'the conclusion of learning Torah'." Concluding, Rabbi Shach turned to the students: "A true student of Torah must feel that the Torah is not just any old discipline. Students of Torah must realize that the Tradition is our life, it is all we desire. Only through this awareness can we climb the supernal rungs of Torah." Traveling to the other side of the world: In a summer camp in Victoria, Australia the mornings were dedicated to Torah study while the afternoons and evenings were filled with assorted camp activities. Every morning after breakfast campers would gather with their counselors to learn Torah. At the conclusion of the study session, the microphone would boom: "Learning never ends! Learning never ends! Learning classes are now over, please proceed to... " At first blush, this sounds like a ridiculous, contradictory announcement. Yet it contains a deep truth about Torah study: A particular Torah class or learning session may be finite, but the enterprise of Torah study is an ongoing venture. This is the reason that there is no blessing after Torah study; because learning never ends. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.


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