World of the Sages: Heavy metal in prayer

The talmudic metal hammer is a metaphor for the foreign thought that comes knocking at a person's head.

The Mishna proscribes three particular additions to the text of the Amida, and the Talmud explains what is problematic with these insertions (M. Berachot 5:3; B. Berachot 33b-34a). The first prohibited prayer supplement is for the leader of the service to add the words: "Your mercy, God, extends to the bird's nest" referring to the requirement to chase the mother bird away before taking her eggs or chicks (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). The Talmud offers two possible problems with such an insertion. First, such an addition intimates that God's mercy extends to birds only. Alternatively, this phrase implies that God's directives are to be followed because they express mercy, whereas in reality the rules are decrees of the unfathomable divine will and as such must be respected (Rashi, 11th century, France). Second, the phrase "Your name shall be remembered for the goodness" may not be added for this implies that we thank the Almighty for the good things but do not acknowledge God's hand in the bad things that befall us (see M. Berachot 9:8). And finally a supplicant may not repeat the word "modim" saying "we give thanks, we give thanks" for this would appear as if two deities were being addressed. In all three instances the ruling is the same: We silence the supplicant who has added such phrases. Concerning the third case - doubling the recitation of the word "modim" - the Talmud adds that the law applies equally to one who repeats the first word of the Shema prayer, essentially declaring: "Hear! Hear!" This too could be construed as addressing two deities and is therefore forbidden. One talmudic sage questioned the harsh condemnation of one who repeats these words: Perhaps the supplicant did not concentrate when he first recited the word and therefore repeated the word in an earnest attempt to focus? The repetition in such a case does not reflect a misguided belief in two deities; rather, it is an expression of a sincere desire to have proper concentration during prayer. Surely such an approach should be lauded not censured. The Talmud explains that such a course is itself worthy of reprimand, for when we talk to the Almighty it is inappropriate not to dedicate our undivided attention to the task. Thus the entire scenario is reproachable. In the rhetorical words of the Talmud: "May one act toward heaven with the familiarity with which we act towards a havruta [a study partner]!?" The recommended course is a far cry from merely repeating a few innocent words: "If a person did not concentrate from the outset, we strike the supplicant with a metal hammer until he does concentrate." One commentator immediately tempers the talmudic dictum noting that educators need not walk around with metal clubs hitting people who lose concentration in prayer over the head without warning. Rather, we instruct the supplicant to focus in prayer, and if necessary strike him should he persist repeating words (Rashi). Moving further away from any violent interpretations we turn to the world of Hassidism. One of the foremost students of the famed Besht (c.1700-1760) and the author of the first published work of hassidic thought, Rabbi Ya'acov Yosef of Polonnoye (d. 1784), wrote that his master elucidated this talmudic passage to explain one of the foundational tenets of early hassidic thought. The Besht began by noting that the talmudic passage barely responded to the question: Why is striving for greater focus that leads to word repetition considered so heinous a crime? Perhaps the reiteration was in fact an attempt to concentrate; why should we assume that it reflects a position about the Almighty's oneness? The Besht explained that the supplicant's concentration may have been disturbed by some foreign thought when he was first attempting to pray. Rather than rejecting this strange thought out of hand, it should be acknowledged as also having a divine origin and elevated to a spiritual plane. The mistake of the supplicant who repeats the words was that he did not acknowledge the Almighty's presence even in the invading strange thought that had been sent by God to be rectified or reclaimed for sacred purposes. The talmudic metal hammer is a metaphor for the foreign thought that comes knocking at a person's head, pleading to be elevated to a spiritual plane. At that moment, the supplicant's task is to grasp the thought and use its kernel or thrust for positive action. Elsewhere in his writings, Rabbi Ya'acov Yosef cited an example of this process that he heard from the Besht: A lustful thought should be recast as a drive for loving-kindness. Discarding the thought as indicated by trying to recite the prayer a second time, denies the very divinity in that invading thought and is comparable to limiting the presence of the Almighty; as if to say that the divine spark cannot be found in foreign thoughts. The Besht acknowledged that some foreign thoughts should be set aside and he provided a formula for distinguishing between different types of intruders: If as soon as the strange thought enters his mind the supplicant has an idea how this thought can be spiritually elevated, then rather than discarding the thought he should rectify it. If, however, no such idea immediately presents itself, the thought has come merely to disrupt and disturb. In this case only, the person should discard the intruding thought. It should be noted that the early hassidic idea of elevation of foreign thoughts irked the mitnagdim, the opponents to Hassidism, and the doctrine was largely abandoned even by the Hassidim in later generations: The elevation of foreign thoughts was left to only the most spiritually adept. The doctrine nevertheless continues to bear a relevant ideal: To identify God's presence in every item, every space, and every scenario. This is truly a lofty goal. It may be easy to say that everything is from the Almighty, but the challenge lies in internalizing this ideal, rather than treating it as part of a cosmetic Judaism concerned most with catchphrases rather than substance. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.