World of the Sages: Abundant and everlasting love

The famed talmudist, Rabbi Meir Simha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), was renowned for erudite learning and rabbinic leadership. He served the community of Dvinsk for 40 years.

meir simha hakohen 88 (photo credit: )
meir simha hakohen 88
(photo credit: )
The famed talmudist, Rabbi Meir Simha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), was renowned for erudite learning and rabbinic leadership. He served the community of Dvinsk for 40 years. In 1906, he was offered a rabbinical post in Jerusalem, but did not take the position after the desperate entreaties of the Dvinsk community saw the departure of the Torah scholar as the destruction of their city and indeed the entire Diaspora. During World War I, most Jews of Dvinsk fled, leaving behind only the poor and infirm. Rabbi Meir Simha remained with these inhabitants, declaring that if there were nine Jews in the city, he would be the 10th, making up the requisite quorum for communal prayer. Rabbi Meir Simha's commentary on Maimonides, Or Sameah, reflects his scholarship. His commentary to the Torah, Meshech Hochmah, which displays his breadth of knowledge of Jewish sources and sparkles with originality, was published the year after his death. We also have his novellae to various tractates of Talmud, some responsa and other notes, all published posthumously. The story is told how Rabbi Meir Simha once penned a letter to a friend, signing off the letter with the unusual ending, "The one who signs according to Samuel and the Rabbis, Meir Simha of Dvinsk" (retold by Rabbi Asher Bergman in his biography of Rabbi Meir Simha). When the letter reached the addressee this unusual signature puzzled him. Not being able to fathom the meaning of this ending, he took the undecipherable line to a rabbinic acquaintance who was also baffled, until finally his eyes brightened as he realized the meaning of this curious signature. In the entire Talmud there is only one disagreement presented between Samuel and the Rabbis. The Mishna indicates that two blessings must be recited before the morning Shema (M. Berachot 1:4). The Talmud discusses these blessings and inquires as to what is the second blessing, the one immediately preceding Shema (B. Berachot 11b). The first opinion presented is that of Samuel, which is supported by other sages and earlier traditions: The blessing opens with God's affection for His people and begins with the words ahava rabba (abundant love). The Rabbis, however, offer an alternative rendition: The blessing begins with the words ahavat olam (everlasting love). Scriptural support for this version is offered: "And with an eternal love (ahavat olam) I have loved you, therefore I have drawn kindness to you" (Jeremiah 31:2). The talmudic discussion focuses only on the opening words of the blessing - ahava rabba or ahavat olam. The remainder of the paragraph is not the subject of dispute (Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, 16th-17th centuries, Poland and others). To be sure, in the various traditions that have reached us there are minor differences in the syntax of the blessing, but the content is basically uniform. Returning to Rabbi Meir Simha's signature, the decipherer explained: "Rabbi Meir Simha wanted to convey his deep love for you. Instead of writing so openly, he encoded his thoughts by signing off in this unique manner. Now choose for yourself one of the two opinions - Samuel or the Rabbis - and know that Rabbi Meir Simha loves you either with everlasting love or with abundant love." I would suggest a slightly different conclusion: Rabbi Meir Simha was expressing that his love for the addressee was both abundant and everlasting, and hence signed "according to Samuel and the Rabbis." Indeed, when describing God's feelings for us, we would hardly want to be forced to choose between His abundant love and His everlasting love; certainly we yearn for both forms of love. This dual desire is reflected in the opinion of some halachists and in the Ashkenazi prayer rite, as we shall see. The version of the talmudic passage that was before many codifiers presented an earlier tradition, supporting the opinion of the Rabbis that ahavat olam should be said. Consequently, these halachists ruled that ahavat olam should be said. This is the accepted ruling in the Sephardi rite and the practice in hassidic communities (Rif, 11th century, Morocco, and others). As in the version of the talmudic discussion that we have before us, others saw the earlier tradition as supporting the view of Samuel, and hence they preferred the alternative formulation - ahava rabba (quoted in Rashba). One Provencal halachist suggests that a combination may be said: "ahavat olam rabba" (Rabbi Avraham Hayarhi, 12th-13th centuries). Other authorities concur that both versions - ahava rabba and ahavat olam - are valid, however they do not advocate a hybrid rendition. Instead, this approach recommends ahava rabba before the morning Shema and ahavat olam before the evening Shema (Geonim and others). Indeed, this is the accepted practice in Ashkenazi communities. Though the Talmud does not offer a scriptural basis for the ahava rabba view, the biblical verse "They are new each morning, abundant (rabba) is Your faithfulness" (Lamentations 3:23) has been suggested as a source. Since "morning" is juxtaposed with "abundant" (rabba) in the verse, this phrase was chosen for before the morning Shema (Perisha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). In addition, one commentator - Rabbi Ezekiel Landau (18th century, Poland-Prague) - furthers this analysis by stating that ahavat olam is particularly appropriate before the evening Shema, since that paragraph ends with the words "and may you never (le'olamim) take away your love from us." Hence, both the beginning of the blessing and its end refer to an everlasting relationship with God. With this explanation, Rabbi Landau concludes that the Ashkenazi practice is proper. Rabbi Landau, nevertheless, validates the Sephardi custom, though he is highly critical of European Jews who depart from the Ashkenazi custom and adopt the Sephardi rite; namely, Ashkenazi Jews who were drawn to Hassidism. Using the wrong formula is not considered a serious error; mistakenly referring to God's everlasting love in the morning or His abundant love in the evening does not invalidate the prayer (Mishna Berura 6:2 and Rabbi Avigdor Neventzal's additional notes). This ruling reflects our longing for a compound signature bearing God's mark; a signature that expresses the Almighty's abundant love and His everlasting love, regardless of the rite of our community. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.