World of the Sages: Rules of prayer

Certain regulations appear malleable in the hands of our sages.

minyan prayer 248.88 jta (photo credit: Ben Harris / JTA)
minyan prayer 248.88 jta
(photo credit: Ben Harris / JTA)
The Mishna and Talmud of the first tractate of Brachot are filled with rules and regulations regarding prayer rites. To this day, these regulations continue to dictate the form and structure of our liturgy. To cite but one example, the Mishna prescribes how many blessings should envelop the twice-daily reading of the Shema: In the morning two blessings precede the Shema and one follows it; in the evening two blessings again precede the Shema, though here two blessings are recited after the reading (M. Brachot 1:4). The Mishna continues defining the length of the blessings and asserting that the ordained length is mandatory. Despite such apparently rigid rules, an analysis of the talmudic discussion reveals that certain regulations appear malleable in the hands of our sages. This tendency can be demonstrated by an issue that is discussed in light of the aforementioned rules of the blessings that accompany Shema (B. Brachot 4b; Yalkut, Devarim 842). The Talmud states that a mention of the ultimate redemption should be juxtaposed with the silent Amida prayer. One who succeeds in this endeavor is guaranteed a portion in the world to come. Indeed in one case one of the sages wore a smile for an entire day after he managed to allude to the redemption and continue immediately to the silent amida (B. Brachot 9b). In the morning, this is easily achieved for the blessing after the Shema deals with this very topic and concludes, "Blessed are You, God, who has redeemed Israel." Immediately after these words we launch into the silent Amida. In the evening this is more problematic, for after the Shema, as we have noted, there are two blessings; the first deals with redemption, but this blessing is followed by a second asking for safety, peace and wise counsel. This second blessing - known by its opening word hashkiveinu - separates between redemption and the Amida prayer, an apparent contravention of the rule requiring the juxtaposition of these two prayer elements. The Talmud explains that since the hashkiveinu blessing was instituted by the sages, it is as if all post-Shema paragraphs are connected to the theme of redemption and the interruption is discounted. In a slight variation, the same is said for the morning prayer. Even though the blessing following the Shema and preceding the Amida discusses redemption, as we have seen, before beginning the Amida we add a biblical verse: God, open my lips and my mouth will say your praise (Psalms 51:17). The Talmud asks: Isn't this an interruption between redemption and the Amida? Here too the Talmud explains: Since the sages instituted this short supplication, it is considered part of the Amida prayer. In both cases, the seemingly rigid rule of prayer is bent to make room for an additional rabbinic prayer institution. The Talmud is silent on the question of why the sages felt it necessary to flout the rules and append these passages; the service would appear to be complete without such additions. One aspect is clear: Despite the rules that at first glance are stated in unyielding tones, the sages had the authority to view them as pliable. This approach is not limited to the talmudic era. The prolific hassidic master and halachic authority, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro of Munkatch (1871-1937), in his commentary to the Shulhan Aruch relates to the custom of inserting various piyutim (liturgical poems) in the middle of the service on select Shabbatot. The Munkatcher Rebbe explained that we dare not cancel an institution of our venerable sages, particularly considering the hidden and esoteric valence of these passages. Once again we see that our forebears had the authority to make such changes and once again we are left wondering what their motive was; a license to change law still requires a reason to exercise that license. This brings us to a fourth example, also connected to prayer liturgy, this time from the responsa of the Munkatcher Rebbe. The relevant rule in this case is that biblical verses must not be recited piecemeal; entire verses as defined by tradition must not be broken. In the words of our sages: "Any verse that was not defined as a verse by Moses, we are not permitted to define as a verse" (B. Ta'anit 27b; B. Megila 22a). Despite this clear rule, in almost every piyut we find the poet commonly using fractions of biblical verses in apparent contempt for the rule. Moreover, this is often considered a laudable poetic device that ties the piyut to our traditional sources. By now we should not be surprised to learn that the poet is granted a poetic license to breach the stated rule. In this case, however, the Munkatcher Rebbe goes further, explicating the motive for defying the rule: The insertion of the piyut into the service is designed to accentuate the significance and uniqueness of the day. The particular piyut therefore seeks to enhance the liturgy, aiming to awaken and inspire. Faced with this noble objective, the rule proscribing breaking up biblical verses retreats and the poet is permitted to employ parts of biblical verses. While the Munkatcher Rebbe's explanation is suggested with regard to the flouting of a particular rule associated with the liturgy, it would appear that his words resonate for all the cases we have cited: In each case the exalted purpose of making the prayer service more meaningful sanctioned a contravention of the stated liturgical rule. We can therefore restate the principle that describes defined prayer rituals: Indeed there are rules which govern the liturgy; these regulations, however, may recede in the face of other considerations that answer the ultimate purpose of prayer rites. There are, of course, questions that remain: Are all regulations of the same timbre; perhaps some rules are more pliable than others? What goals are considered worthy enough to permit a rule contravention? Who is invested with the authority to decide when a rule may retreat? Despite these unanswered questions, the phenomenon of prayer rules being abrogated for a lofty purpose is evident. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.