If a person misses a class or doesn't turn up for prayer services, what is the appropriate response? Should we inquire about the person's well-being or should we pay no attention to the absence, respecting the individual's autonomy and privacy by not mentioning it?
Once Rav Avya fell ill and was unable to attend the weekly lecture of Rav Yosef, offered on Shabbat before the additional Musaf prayer (B. Berachot 28b; Rashi).
The following day when Rav Avya was feeling better, he came to the study hall. Abaye wished to make sure that Rav Yosef was not slighted by Rav Avya's absence, so he said to Rav Avya: "What is the reason that master [using the respectful third person] did not come to the lecture?" Rav Avya explained: "I felt faint and was unable." Understanding that Rav Avya felt faint from hunger, Abaye continued: "Why didn't you taste something and come?" Rav Avya explained that his course was rooted in the opinion that forbids eating before the Musaf prayer.
Halacha does not follow this opinion and while it is forbidden to eat a meal before Musaf, tasting is permitted (Shulhan Aruch 286:3). While Abaye accepted Rav Avya's halachic position, he was still not placated: "You should have prayed Musaf privately, tasted something and come!" Once again Rav Avya's path was guided by law: "Don't you accept the opinion that it is forbidden for a person to recite the prayers before the congregation?" While Abaye did accept this rule, he explained that it only applied to one who was present with the congregation. Outside the synagogue, one may privately pray before the congregation and this is what Rav Avya should have done.
Why was Abaye sticking his nose into Rav Avya's business? Before we turn to a possible answer, the Talmud records a similar incident, only this time it was a student inquiring about a teacher's absence (B. Berachot 7b-8a).
In a seemingly intrusive probe, Rabbi Yitzhak asked Rav Nahman: "What is the reason that the master did not come to the synagogue to pray?" Rav Nahman answered simply: "I am unable," referring to his frail state (Rashi).
Rabbi Yitzhak was not to be deterred: "Let them assemble 10 people for the master so that he can pray with a quorum." "It is too troublesome," balked Rav Nahman, as he did not want to burden others (Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner, 17th century, Poland).
Rabbi Yitzhak persisted with a new suggestion: "The master should then ask the messenger of the congregation to come and inform the master when the congregation prays." Thus Rav Nahman would be able to at least pray at the same time as the congregation, if not at the same place.
Wondering about the significance of private prayers coinciding with communal prayers in a different location, Rav Nahman asked: "What is the need for all this?" Rabbi Yitzhak responded with a rabbinic exposition of the verse: "But as for me, my prayer is to You, God, at a favorable time" (Psalms 69:14). When is a "favorable time"? At the time that the congregation prays. Thus those who pray alone should ensure that their supplications coincide with the prayers of the congregation.
Returning to the beginning of the passage: How did Rabbi Yitzhak have the gall to question Rav Nahman? Surely, if the master did not attend services, he had good reason, and it is hardly the place of the pupil to inquire about the master's absence. The key to understanding both these passages may be in another talmudic passage (B. Berachot 6b). Our sages tell us that whoever is a regular attendee at the synagogue and fails to attend one day, the Almighty inquires about him.
A biblical source is offered for this assertion: "Who is there among you that fears God who listens to the voice of His servant? One who walked in darkness and does not have light" (Isaiah 50:10). Expounding this verse the passage continues: "Not having light" depends on the reason for the absence; only if the missing person has skipped the service for a non-mitzva objective do we say that he does not have light. Indeed, our sages rule that one who is involved in a mitzva is released from the obligation to perform other mitzvot, including prayer (B. Berachot 11a).
Thus we see that the paradigm of inquiring after a missing person is traced back to the Almighty, who expectantly awaits the arrival of regular attendees. Should the regulars not turn up, God inquires as to their whereabouts.
Interestingly, the printed editions of the Talmud use the causative form mashil to describe God's inquiry, rather than the usual simple form sho'el. While between biblical Hebrew and rabbinic Hebrew there is a general move away from the simple form, in this case, the use of the causative may indicate that the divine paradigm is encouraging imitation: God inquires, but in fact is trying to cause us to ask about our absent peers.
With this model in mind we can understand the two passages quoted above: Rabbi Yitzhak inquired about Rav Nahman's absence from prayer and Abaye asked Rav Avya why he had missed class.
Why are we encouraged to ask about our colleagues' whereabouts? It is certainly not just a fact-finding mission, for in both talmudic tales the inquirer followed up with practical suggestions that were aimed at finding a way that the absent sage could be part of the enterprise in some way.
It seems that such inquiry reflects an interest in the other and makes the absent person feel like an essential contributor in a shared undertaking.
Indeed, the line between intruding and showing an interest may not be clearly defined. Nevertheless, a laissez-faire attitude is not the solution; such an attitude shows indifference and coldness.
If people know that they will be missed, that they play a part in a joint venture - whether it is prayer, study or any worthy endeavor - they are more likely to realize that every person in the community makes an irreplaceable contribution.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.