World of the Sages: Prayer as strongbox

Is the identity of the authors of our supplications and their intentions of any significance when we stand in prayer before the Almighty? (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Is the identity of the authors of our supplications and their intentions of any significance when we stand in prayer before the Almighty? Perhaps the substance of our prayers is solely a function of the meaning we lend to the words we say? The Talmud appears to deem authorship important as it reports that Shimon HaPekuli arranged the order of 18 blessings that give the amida its synonomous title - the shemoneh esrei (the 18) (B. Berakhot 28b). Following this act, the leader of rabbinic Jewry, Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh (Eretz Yisrael, first-second centuries) turned to his colleagues: "Is there anyone who knows how to compile birkat haminim (the benediction against heretics)?" These dissenters whom Rabban Gamliel wished to censure were Jews who had been enticed by early Christianity and strayed from the path of tradition. Their presence within the community, coupled with their belief in Jesus, was seen as a threat to the fabric of Judaism. Rabbinic leadership decided that there was no place in Jewish society for such heretics and hence sought to denounce them in the amida. The Talmud relates: Shmuel HaKatan (the lesser) arose and authored this, the nineteenth blessing of the amida. What was the challenge in composing this portion of the amida, and what expertise was needed to author this benediction? If we contrast the new addition with the rest of the amida, we see that the entire amida is filled with kindness and love, while the benediction censuring the heretics is the only section of the amida that contains destructive sentiments. Indeed, it is entirely natural that one who tries to uproot or dismember the faith of others will incur the wrath of those who hold those beliefs to be essential and sacred. A benediction against heretics, therefore, should have been the easiest portion to compose, as many people would have passionately despised these agitators. Though such an angry reaction is to be expected, the first chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935) writes that a benediction reverberating with negativity should only be composed by one who is pure of heart. Such a person will not blend personal feelings of hate into the canonized texts of the liturgy. Such an untainted person would author the benediction with wholesome motives, focusing only on the Divine plan. Rabbi Kook continues explaining that it is for this reason that Shmuel HaKatan was truly suited to compose this portion of the amida decrying the heretics. Who was Shmuel HaKatan, and why was he the appropriate candidate? The Talmud relates that Rabban Gamliel invited a rabbinic quorum of seven sages in order to officially declare a leap year (B. Sanhedrin 11a). When the quorum assembled, they found that one had come uninvited. "Who has come uninvited? Let him leave!" bellowed Rabban Gamliel. Without hesitation, Shmuel HaKatan stepped forward: "It is I who have come uninvited. But I did not come to participate as a member of the quorum; I came to learn practical halacha." Rabban Gamliel responded with kind praise: "Be seated, my son, be seated. All the years are worthy of being made into leap years by you." The Talmud concludes the account by telling us that Shmuel HaKatan was not really the guilty party, yet he "owned up" in order to save the interloper from embarrassment. Indeed, our sages offer some insight into the appellation Shmuel "the lesser" (Y. Sota 24b). According to one approach, Shmuel would diminish his own status and hence was known as HaKatan. Another approach suggests that Shmuel was only slightly lesser than the biblical propher Shmuel. Either way, Shmuel HaKatan was clearly no small player. A telltale aphorism of Shmuel HaKatan is found in the mishnaic tractate Avot (4:19): "Shmuel HaKatan says - 'When your enemy falls, do not exult, and when he trips, your heart should not rejoice. Lest the Lord see it and be displeased, and avert His wrath from upon him.' (Proverbs 24:17-18)." This adage of Shmuel HaKatan is indeed strange, for he merely quotes a verse without adding any additional insight. Yet herein lies the key to understanding the many aphorisms in Avot. The dicta quoted are clearly not the only words of the sage; we already know that Shmuel HaKatan's contribution goes beyond this quote. Rather, the maxims represent sayings that each sage would harp upon, urging his community to carefully consider. In the case of Shmuel HaKatan, he would exhort his followers to focus on this verse and its implications. Though the other might be your adversary, the downfall of this enemy is not a cause for celebration. It is this banner of Shmuel HaKatan that qualified him to compose birkat haminim. Why is the intent of the author important? When we pray, we invest the words with meaning from our own meditative thoughts. The pure focus of the author - in this case Shmuel HaKatan - does not appear to be bound to the words of the liturgy. This idea might lead us to wonder whether those of us who are not pure of heart should even be reciting this portion of the amida. Here, too, Rabbi Kook provides us with direction. He writes that we recite the words of the liturgy by right of the godly authors. Though we may be distant from these people of distinguished spirit, we lean on their lofty intent when we recite the prayers. The words of our prayers are umbilically connected to the intentions of the sages who authored those words. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for 'word' in talmudic parlance is teiva (pl. teivot). Teiva is also a box or container of sorts. The words of our prayers can each be seen as teivot, strongboxes containing the thoughts of the authors. To be sure, we aspire to open the vaults of prayer and access the intentions of the authors. If we do not succeed in retrieving the original connotations and subtext and we find ourselves mumbling words, these words are nevetheless invested with meaning by the great authors who bequeathed these prayers - words and intentions - to us. 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.