World of the Sages: Undermining the dream

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January 25, 2007 15:45

The question must have arisen: Where should this 19th blessing be inserted in the Amida?




The central part of our daily prayer routine is the Amida - initially 18 and later 19 blessings canonized in Yavne under the aegis of Rabban Gamliel. The Talmud relates that the blessings were arranged by Shimon the cotton merchant (B. Berachot 28b). Yet, another tradition recounted elsewhere the Talmud suggests that the order was derived from biblical sources and dates back to Ezra and the men of the Great Assembly, a legislative body from the end of the Babylonian exile and the early Second Temple period (B. Megilla 17b, 18a). Our sages reconcile the conflicting traditions by explaining that indeed the order was set by the men of the Great Assembly, but over the years the sequence was forgotten. Shimon arranged them in the order of old. One commentator notes that the order of so central a prayer as the Amida could not possibly have been forgotten; the talmudic passage must be talking about the reason for the order. Thus Shimon's contribution was to recover the motives for the sequence (Rabbi Yosef Haim, 19th-20th centuries, Baghdad). The historical account of the arrangement of the blessing refers to the original 18 blessings. The 19th blessing was not part of the original liturgy of the men of the Great Assembly. Our sages tell us that it was Rabban Gamliel who turned to his colleagues with a challenge: "Is there anyone who can compose a benediction against the heretics?" Shmuel Hakatan (the lesser) stepped forward and authored this 19th blessing. The question must have arisen: Where should this 19th blessing be inserted in the Amida? The most obvious suggestion would be to append this later addition to the end. Such a proposition, however, could not be entertained, for the Amida has a conscious tripartite structure: The first three blessings are one unit and touch on the themes of the Almighty and the divine relationship with our forebears; the final three blessings are also viewed as one section and they deal with praise and thanksgiving; the bulk of the Amida sets out various requests. Appending the 19th blessing - a request for the demise of those who seek to undermine Judaism - to the end of the amida would disturb this configuration. It would seem that the most likely possibility would have been to add the blessing as the last of the benedictions beseeching God for divine assistance. Yet this was not the route chosen. Instead, the passage was inserted between the 11th blessing pining for the restoration of the judicial system and the 12th, seeking support for the righteous. The Talmud recounts that the order of the middle blessings was founded on the prophetic sequence described in Scripture (B. Megilla 17b-18a): Ingathering of the exiles will follow a blessing of sustenance and once the exiles have returned home, the system of justice will be restored. With the divinely sanctioned judicial system in place, judgment will be visited on the wicked. When the undermining heretics will be no more, the role of the righteous will once again be lauded. Thus the request for prosperity is followed by the call for the ingathering of exiles and then the appeal for a restoration of divine justice and after that the petition against the heretics, which is followed by the urge for support for the righteous. An alternative explanation arises from a tale of two hassidic masters: In 1865, Rabbi Aharon of Chernobyl (1787-1871) traveled to the Russian town of Makarov for the wedding of his grandson. Soon after his arrival, his younger brother, Rabbi Yitzhak of Skver (1812-1885), known as Reb Itzikl, arrived and immediately paid a visit to Rabbi Aharon. At that time the Russian rulers, responding to reports from informers, had decreed that the leaders of the Chernobyl hassidic dynasty were not free to leave their homes without permission from the authorities. It was with great difficulty that Rabbi Aharon had procured authorization to travel to the wedding. With an air of despair, Rabbi Aharon asked his brother: "What do these evil people want from us? Do they despise us because they think we are righteous? We know the truth that we are really nothing!" Reb Itzikl replied: "The 19th blessing against informers was a later addition and should have been appended to the end of the Amida. Why is it followed by the blessing regarding the righteous? Our sages understood that in each generation there would be those who would undermine the righteous." Thus Reb Itzikl suggested that the existence of the righteous is coupled with the presence of troublemakers. A prayer for the protection of the righteous is the mirror image of the prayer for the downfall of agitators. Expanding on this idea, the benediction decrying heretics is not only strategically placed before the blessing for support of the pious, it is also well placed after the blessing that expresses our hope for a just, divinely guided legal system. The operation of a legal system is no small feat. Tough decisions have to be made; there is almost always at least one party who is unhappy with the result. While constructive criticism may be a necessary check on the judiciary, such critiques can easily descend to acts that undermine the viability and the stability of the system. The blessing against the heretics should not only be read as an affirmation of the true principles of faith; the blessing also relates to the malshinim, the informers, who would undercut central authority, destabilizing the tradition and chipping away at the walls of the system of justice. In this light we can understand the placing of the benediction against agitators: We pine for a legal system that reflects our glorious past, that is divinely piloted, that manifests justice and fairness. Yet we know that with that dream come the inevitable hecklers who seek to spoil all that is good, taking away the gleam of any sturdy structure we attempt to construct. It is these enemies that we eschew. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.


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