World of the Sages: Impressions from our actions

As we raise and educate the next generation, we are mindful of the imprints our behavior leaves on impressionable minds.

praying 88 (photo credit: )
praying 88
(photo credit: )
As we raise and educate the next generation, we are mindful of the imprints our behavior leaves on impressionable minds. This concern also accompanied the sages in their conduct. The Mishna reports a dispute over the proper posture for the Shema recitation (M. Berachot 1:3). The disagreement is centered on the interpretation of the verse that forms part of Shema: "…and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy 6:7). According to the school of Shammai, the second part of the verse - "And when you lie down and when you rise up" - should be read literally, thus the evening Shema should be read while reclining and the morning Shema should be read while standing. The beginning of the verse - "And when you walk by the way" - indicates the requirement that even when walking by the way, the reciter must lie down or stand up. The school of Hillel argued; they read the second part of the verse as describing the time for Shema, not its proper posture. Regarding posture, this school focused on the first part of the verse - "and when you walk by the way" - indicating that Shema should be read in a manner that suits the reader. One commentator opines that the reading of this school was not only based on interpretative considerations. This line of thought demonstrates that a person can accept the yoke of Heaven - as embodied in Shema - in all postures, in all situations (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh da Modena, 16th-17th centuries, Italy). Jewish law follows Hillel's school and there is no mandated stance for Shema, though it is preferable not to recite the first verse midstride since it is difficult to concentrate while walking (Shulhan Aruch OH 63:1, 3; Mishna Berura, ad loc). The approaches of the two schools are the subject of a story recounted in rabbinic literature - a tale that reflects the sages' concern for the impact of their actions (T. Berachot 1:4; Sifre, Vaethanan 34; Y. Berachot 3b; B. Berachot 11a). Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya were together one evening. The former was reclining, while the latter was sitting. When the time arrived to recite Shema, both scholars changed their positions: Rabbi Elazar lay down and Rabbi Yishmael immediately sat up - perhaps in response to his colleague's move. Once they concluded their obligation to recite Shema, Rabbi Yishmael queried: "What is going on, Elazar? Did you lie down with the intent of expressing support for the position of Shammai's school?" Rabbi Elazar replied: "Yishmael, my brother, it is like one who asks 'Why are you growing your beard?' And the bearded one replies 'I grow my facial hair in protest against those who cut their beards!' Likewise, we both changed our positions in support of the opinion we deem correct. I reclined to recite the evening Shema in accordance with the school of Shammai. You sat up from your reclining position, as per the view of the school of Hillel (Rabbenu Hananel, 10th-11th centuries, north Africa; Rabbi Natan of Rome, 11th century. cf. Rashi)." Rabbi Yishamel accepted this analysis of their changes of posture. Nevertheless, he felt that there was a qualitative difference in their displays for he had acted in accordance with the accepted opinion of Hillel's school, while his colleague had preferred the non-normative position of Shammai's school. If we re-examine the opinion of the school of Hillel, the standpoint preferred by Rabbi Yishmael, we realize he had no need to sit for Shema. Hillel's school stated no postural requirement, hence Rabbi Yishmael could have remained reclining - the position in which he found himself when the time for Shema arrived. Had Rabbi Yishmael acted thus, he would have avoided being forced to choose one school over the other, since continuing in his lounging posture satisfied the stipulations of both viewpoints. Sensing this, Rabbi Yishmael added a further reason for his course, indicating that his movement was indeed in reaction to Rabbi Elazar's reclining. Rabbi Yishmael felt that there was a danger in his remaining in the reclining position even if it was halachically acceptable: "Lest the students see us both reclining, and think that the normative ruling follows Shammai's school." Indeed, the concern for what the students would see and the conclusions they would hence reach bothered the sages. We have a number of examples where the sages' conduct was directly influenced by this concern (see T. Berachot 5:2 and parallels). The Mishna (M. Hala 4:11) tells of a priest called Joseph who, after missing the first opportunity to offer the pascal sacrifice, arrived with his family in Jerusalem for the 14th of Iyar to offer the sacrifice at this second opportunity - Pessah Sheni (Numbers 9:11). Upon his arrival he was instructed to return home. The commentators discuss why he was sent on his way. One approach suggests he had brought his children to fulfill the commandment of appearing in Jerusalem on the three festivals. This obligation is not incumbent upon minors on Pessah Sheni (Maimonides, 11th century, Egypt). Others understand that Joseph had arrived with his wife, and a woman's participation in Pessah Sheni is not mandatory. To avoid the appearance that women are obligated in Pessah Sheni, Joseph was sent home (Rabbi Shlomo Sirillo, 16th century, Spain-Adrianople-Salonkia-Eretz Israel). Either way, Joseph the priest was not causing harm by bringing additional people. Nevertheless he was told to leave, as the Mishna explains: "So that the matter should not be instituted as an obligation." It is indicative that the sages were so mindful of the impressions that their actions would leave. As we have seen, at times they avoided deeds that carried halachic value in that they also satisfied non-normative opinions, such as the stance of Shammai's school. Other times, they avoided behavior that might appear to be an expansion of the parameters of the law, even if such an expansion would not be a hindrance or might even be preferred (see also T. Demai 5:24; B. Ketubot 50b). And all this so that those viewing their behavior - the next generation - would not get a skewed vision of Jewish Law. 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.