World of the Sages: A moment of disruption

At the conclusion of Shabbat, when it is once again permitted to use fire, a blessing is recited over a flame.

At the conclusion of Shabbat, when it is once again permitted to use fire, a blessing is recited over a flame. If a group of people are sitting in the Beit Midrash at the conclusion of Shabbat and a candle is brought before them so that they can recite the appropriate benediction, there is a dispute as to how this blessing should be said (B. Brachot 53a). According to the first opinion presented - that of the school of Shammai - each person should recite the text of the blessing on his own. The school of Hillel dissented: One person should recite the blessing publicly, thus communally discharging the obligation of all present. The school of Hillel further offered biblical support: In the multitude of the people is the glory of the king (Proverbs 14:28), indicating that a glorification of the King of Kings in a public forum, in the presence of numerous people is a greater expression of honor than if each individual would privately articulate the same sentiments. The ensuing talmudic discussion scrutinizes these two conflicting opinions, noticing that only the school of Hillel offered a reason for its position. What then is the logic of the position of the school of Shammai? The Talmud explains that the school of Shammai was concerned that a public recital of the blessing would constitute bitul beit midrash - a disruption of learning in the study hall. When one person recites the blessing for others, all present must momentarily pause in their studies, attentively listen to the recitation and appropriately respond with "amen" (Rashi, 11th century, France). This would constitute an unjustified interruption of learning. The school of Shammai, therefore felt that it was preferable for each person to privately recite the benediction. To buttress this position, the Talmud offers a source that relates to another type of interruption. The household of Rabban Gamliel would not say the customary "health!" after someone sneezed in the Beit Midrash because this would disrupt learning. What type of disruption is the pronouncement of "amen" or "health" - one solitary word pronounced in a fraction of second? We can offer three possible explanations of the nature of this one-word disturbance. The most prevalent approach among the commentators focuses on the importance of not wasting even a moment from Torah study (Rabbi Hanoch Zundel, 19th century, Bialystok). The primary difference between an individual recital of the flame blessing and a public reading is the word "amen." Similarly, after someone sneezes, even the word "health" should not be said so that a moment of Torah study is not lost. Following this line, the Klausenburger Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Yekutiel Halberstam (1904-1995) noted the value of each and every moment of a 24-hour day, each hour with 60 minutes and each minute with 60 seconds. This rigorous view places a premium on each study moment in the Beit Midrash; not a second should be wasted on responding with "amen" or offering someone the one-word blessing of "health." The flip side of each moment wasted is the merit of each word of Torah pronounced in the Beit Midrash. One of the most outstanding Torah scholars of recent centuries, Rabbi Eliahu, known as the Gaon of Vilna or simply by the acronym Gra (1720-1797), suggested that a single word of Torah is so efficacious that with one word a person can minimally discharge his obligation of Torah study. At first blush this may appear to be a surprising statement coming from someone who was wholly committed to Torah study. Yet on closer examination we can understand that the Gra, who recognized the valence of each and every word of Torah, would want to dedicate every moment to plumbing the depths of our tradition, never diverting his attention for a second. The Gra gave the example that studying a single page of Talmud was the equivalent of fulfilling a myriad of mitzvot. Indeed, it is not only the sum of the arguments, reasoning, thoughts and ideas encountered while learning, but each and every word of Torah is valuable. We may offer a second explanation for our talmudic passage. The concern of the school of Shammai and of Rabban Gamliel's family is not merely with the length of time it takes to say a word, rather the disruptive nature of responding to outside stimuli - a blessing or a sneeze - while studying. While it may only take fraction of a second to say a word, the cost of this interruption is far greater. In depth and meaningful Torah study is something that requires concentrated focus and application. Even the shortest stoppage distracts the mind and heart from the noble task at hand. A final possible explanation of the talmudic passage may focus on the term used in justifying the position of Shammai's school and the reason why Rabban Gamliel's household did not say "health." While each person may recite the blessing over the flame, and while any person may randomly sneeze while learning, a total cessation of study is an unthinkable scenario for the Beit Midrash. The Beit Midrash must be, as its name suggests, a house of learning; at any and at every moment the din of Torah study should reverberate. A pause in study effectively cancels the very nature of this sanctified space and is therefore unconscionable. The school of Hillel would not deny the essential nature of the Beit Midrash, undoubtedly demanding uninterrupted Torah study. Nevertheless, Hillel's school would suggest that there are valid reasons for a moment of silence in the Beit Midrash, namely a public, unified expression that glorifies the Almighty. The veneration of the king may not only be in the public nature of the statement; nor is it only due to the presence of the masses. Perhaps the glorification can be found in the unity, commonality and solidarity - albeit fleeting - of all the king's subjects. For this lofty value, the school of Hillel would advocate a momentary disruption. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.