World of the Sages: Prayers for learning

There are 2 differences between the Babylonian prayer and the supplication in Eretz Yisrael.

prayer praying haredi 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
prayer praying haredi 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Jewish tradition prescribes how a person should start the day. Immediately after waking in the morning, the morning Shaharit prayers are to be said. Following the service, before going out to pursue a livelihood, we are enjoined to repair to the beit midrash (study hall) for Torah study. Indeed our sages tell us of the benefit that accrues to one who juxtaposes Torah study with prayer: "One who leaves the synagogue and enters the beit midrash and engages in Torah study will merit to greet the countenance of the Divine Presence" (B. Brachot 64a; B. Moed Katan 29a). A biblical proof text is cited to buttress this notion: Go from strength to strength, appear before the Almighty in Zion (Psalms 84:8) - go from the strength of the synagogue to the strength of the beit midrash and then you will merit appearing before God. According to one commentator, the reference to "greeting the countenance of the Divine Presence" indicates that going from the synagogue to the beit midrash is akin to fulfilling the commandment regarding the thrice yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals. The Bible repeatedly describes this trip as appearing before the presence of the Almighty (see Exodus 23:17; 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16). Thus in a Temple-less world, we can still fulfill this mitzva by going from the synagogue to the beit midrash (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). This talmudic advice was codified as Jewish law (Tur, 13th-14th centuries, Spain). The codes further mandated that this time for delving into the texts of our tradition should be fixed and sacrosanct; even great business opportunities should not encroach on this time slot. Moreover, even those who are not proficient in delving into Torah texts should still make their way to the beit midrash and take part in this endeavor in whatever capacity (Shulhan Aruch OH 155:1). This idea is reflected in the order of the mishnayot presented earlier in our tractate. After detailing the times for daily prayers, the Mishna immediately proceeds to present a prayer to be recited upon entering the beit midrash (Rabbi Yisrael Lipschuetz, Germany, 19th century). Thus the Mishna reports that Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakanah would recite a short prayer before entering the beit midrash and upon leaving (M. Brachot 4:2). Seeing him offering this brief prayer, onlookers queried: "What is the nature of this prayer?" The sage replied: "When I enter I pray that a mishap not come through me and when I exit I give thanks to the Almighty for my portion." A fuller text of these supplications is presented in the Talmud (B. Brachot 28b). The full prayer against mishaps, recited upon entry, is: May it be Your will, God my Lord, that a mishap not come about through me, and I will not stumble in a matter of law, and my peers will rejoice over me. And I will not say regarding something which is impure that it is pure and regarding something which is pure that it is impure. And may my colleagues not stumble in a matter of law and I will rejoice over them. This personal prayer sounds like the person about to engage in the beit midrash learning pursuit enters with trepidation or at least some apprehension: Will my colleagues rejoice in what I have to contribute or will I stumble and they will jeer at me? The Babylonian beit midrash environment hardly sounds inviting. This is all the more apparent when comparing this prayer with the text of the prayer recited before entering the beit midrash in Eretz Yisrael (J. Brachot 7d): May it be Your will, God my Lord and the Lord of my forefathers, that I take not offense at the words of my colleagues, and that my colleagues should not take offense at my words. That we do not rule impure that which is pure and that we do not rule pure that which is impure. That we do not rule forbidden that which is permitted and that we do not rule permitted that which is forbidden. [For if this were to occur] I would find myself embarrassed in this world and in the next world. There are two significant differences between the Babylonian prayer and the supplication recited in Eretz Yisrael. First, the Babylonian version is recited solely in the singular, whereas the prayer from Eretz Yisrael also uses the plural. The learning endeavor in Eretz Yisrael was a communal pursuit where decisions were made in concert; in Babylon, it was each scholar for himself and one could only pray that peers would rejoice in what he had to say. A second difference is that in Eretz Yisrael there appears to have been a greater concern for getting angry: The supplicant should not get upset nor should he upset others. In the Babylonian version there is no parallel concern: Heated exchanges were integral to the Babylonian beit midrash (see B. Kiddushin 30b). The Eretz Yisrael beit midrash appears to have been more inviting than its Babylonian counterpart. Indeed each learning situation calls for a different type of prayer that is appropriate to the challenges of the particular beit midrash. Each beit midrash is different, each learner is different and we each enter the beit midrash with different aspirations. Hence our prayers before entering will understandably differ. Reading the two passages together, perhaps the most important aspect to the prayer before entering the beit midrash is not the content of the prayer, but its existence: It matters less what we say and more that we turn to the Almighty before we begin to study. In this way, the beit midrash experience is more than an intellectual exercise; it becomes a spiritual opportunity for relationship with the Almighty. Probing our sacred texts in the beit midrash is another avenue to connect to God. The beit midrash journey should follow and complement the morning encounter in the synagogue. Thus the most important aspect of the passages is the question that is posed in both Talmuds: When entering the beit midrash, what is the prayer that we each offer? The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.