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Our sages prescribed prayers for all types of situations. Thus the Talmud relates that someone who enters a public bathhouse should say: "May it be Your will, God my Lord, that you spare me from this [danger] and from its like and may no matter of ruin or iniquity befall me. And if a matter of ruin or iniquity should befall me then let my death be an atonement for all my sins" (B. Brachot 60a).
What was so dangerous about a bathhouse? Roman bathhouses had a hot room, the caldarium, which was built on pillars. The area below the caldarium, called the hypocaust was connected to a furnace and heated the floor of the caldarium. If the floor of the caldarium collapsed, the bathers would fall into the hypocaust and die.
This was a real danger as is apparent from the continuation of the talmudic passage: Rabbi Abahu entered a public bathhouse and the floor beneath him gave way. Fortunately for Rabbi Abahu and the other bathers, a miracle happened and instead of falling into the hypocaust below, he was left standing on one of the pillars. From that perch, Rabbi Abahu managed to save 101 men with his one arm.
Bathhouses were therefore truly hazardous places; unless, that is, you were fortunate enough to take your bath where Rabbi Abahu used to bathe. Thus when departing this unsafe site, a prayer of thanksgiving was called for: "I thank You, God my Lord, for having spared me from the fire."
The Talmud cites one sage - Abbaye - who objected to the wording of the blessing upon entering the bathhouse: Asking the Almighty to spare us from peril is appropriate, but the last line - "And if a matter of ruin or iniquity should befall me then let my death be an atonement for all my sins" - invites danger. A person entering a precarious situation should avoid speaking of impending disaster. In the words of the Talmud: "So that he does not open his mouth to Satan," that is, he need not give Satan any ideas.
Abbaye also objected to another prayer for the same reason. Earlier in our tractate a prayer recited by mourners as they acknowledge the righteousness of the Almighty's judgment is recorded: "Master of the universe, I have sinned greatly before you and you have not exacted from me one thousandth [of what I deserve]. May it be Your will, God our Lord, that You seal our breaches and the breaches of all Your people, the House of Israel, in mercy." This formula too prods Satan and therefore should be avoided (B. Brachot 19a; see also B. Ketubot 8b).
One commentator explained that Satan serves as the prosecutor in the heavenly court, and by mentioning the possibility of death, Satan the prosecutor has the opportunity to say: 'See, the accused himself admits that he is worthy of the punishment of death!' (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland).
The Talmud continues with a biblical paradigm of the folly of giving the prosecutor the chance to open his mouth. The Jewish people lamented: Had not God the Lord of hosts left us a remnant, we would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah! (Isaiah 1:9). The people felt that they would have justly been wiped out like these two nefarious cities, had it not been for the mercy of the Almighty. Alas, the mention of these cities and the confession that they may be deserving of such harsh punishment, spurred Isaiah to respond in kind: Hear the word of God, O chieftains of Sodom, listen to the law of our Lord, O people of Gomorrah (ibid v.10).
The concern for giving a Satan a chance to prosecute in the heavenly tribunal, has led to a slew of euphemisms in our tradition, and is one of the reasons that diseases are often mentioned in hushed tones or by code words rather than by their real name.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the injunction against providing an opportunity for Satan the prosecutor to open his mouth, is the fact that the instruction is recorded in codes of Jewish law (see Rema YD 376:2). According to one halachic authority, this is the very reason that those who are fortunate to have parents alive should refrain from reciting the Mourners' Kaddish (Rabbi Efraim Zalman Margoliot, 18th-19th centuries, Poland).
On a more optimistic note, in the introduction to his ethical work entitled Reishit Hochma (The Beginning of Wisdom), the Safed kabbalist Rabbi Eliahu di Vidas (1518-1592) explained that this is the meaning of the verse: Who is the person who desires life and loves days, that he may see good in them? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile (Psalms 34:13-14) - the key to life is to guard our tongue.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.