World of the Sages: Slithering prayers

When do outside distractions validate interruption of prayer? The Mishna offers a clear guideline.

jew kotel prayer 298 (photo credit: AP)
jew kotel prayer 298
(photo credit: AP)
When do outside distractions validate an interruption of prayer? The Mishna offers a terse but clear guideline: Even if the king inquires as to your welfare, you should not interrupt your prayers to respond, and even if a snake is coiled around your heel, you should not interrupt to rid yourself of this reptile (M. Brachot 5:1). Our sages temper the tone of the Mishna by qualifying the rule (B. Brachot 32b-33a). First the Talmud limits the rule stating that only kings of Israel may be ignored, presumably because they should know better than to disturb a supplicant during their prayers. A gentile king, however, is not assumed to have the same priorities, hence supplicants may interrupt prayers to respond rather than endanger their lives. Our sages also limit the rule about dangerous animals: Only when a snake is wrapped around your leg must you continue to pray; if a scorpion is present, an interruption is warranted for a scorpion is more dangerous as it is prone to sting repeatedly without being provoked. Following this principle another source states that if the snake is agitated and appears to be set to strike, it is permitted to interrupt the prayers and remove the hissing serpent (Y. Brachot 9a). One commentator permits shaking off any snake or walking away even in the middle of prayer when calling for help would be considered an unsanctioned interruption (Rabbeinu Yona Gerondi, 13th century, Spain). Even with these qualifications, the law is still difficult to grasp. The trend, however, is clear: On one hand, it is nigh impossible to expect regular people to ignore a snake wrapped around their leg and continue in heartfelt prayer. On the other hand, the Mishna clearly dictates such a course of inaction. Thus, as we have seen, authorities sought to limit the scope of the Mishna: Only snakes that are not dangerous do not warrant an interruption; scorpions and potentially harmful snakes should not be ignored. Normative Jewish law has accepted these limiting qualifications (Shulhan Aruch OH 104). A most extreme expression of this trend can be found in the writings of the hassidic master and halachic authority, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro of Munkatch (1871-1937), who in his commentary to Shulhan Aruch was uncharacteristically troubled by this law. The Munkatcher Rebbe was a champion of tradition; his works are filled with suggested sources and justifications for accepted conduct that at first blush appear to veer from normative practice. At the same time as seeking sources for accepted practices that departed from normative law, he dedicated his life to upholding the tradition, often using harsh words in his critiques. It is therefore unexpected to find the Munkatcher Rebbe questioning a talmudic law, proverbially saying that it "shatters the roof," meaning that it is extremely difficult to comprehend. The Munkatcher Rebbe's primary claim was that we are dealing with a life-threatening scenario. In such cases, we do not start evaluating the likelihood of a lethal venomous snake bite. In regard to life-threatening situations, we do not follow the majority. Thus, even if we were to conclude that most snakes do not bite and even among those that bite the majority do not carry venom, we still consider the minority of lethal snakes. Indeed, the Talmud dictates that even where there is a doubtful life-threatening situation, the laws of Shabbat are set aside and life must be preserved (B. Yoma 84b). If the primary laws of Shabbat recede even when there is a possibility of a life-and-death situation, surely in such a case a mere interruption of prayer is justified! The Munkatcher Rebbe also commented on the mind-set of the supplicant standing in prayer with a snake curled around his leg: Could such a person truly concentrate even on one solitary word with a snake wrapped around his leg? With regard to the license to walk away but not to call for help, the Munkatcher Rebbe goes further, questioning: "How will this save the person? What will he do if the snake does not fall from his leg? Will he try to remove it with his hands? Won't that just rouse the snake and then it will most certainly bite him!" The Munkatcher Rebbe felt that sometimes there is no choice: The supplicant must interrupt so that he can call a snake charmer to enchant the snake to uncoil itself or an expert who knows how to pry the snake from his leg with tongs. The Munkatcher Rebbe entertained the possibility that the talmudic passage speaks of a pet snake that poses no real danger and is almost a member of the household. This explanation is roundly rejected, for no commentator or codifier mentions the qualification that the rabbinic dictum refers only to a tame, house-trained snake. One commentator quoted by the Munkatcher Rebbe tried to explain the rabbinic rule: Once the snake is curled around a person's leg, it poses no danger for it is expressing its love and affection by cuddling up to the person. This approach is difficult to swallow; it certainly does not apply to a boa constrictor, and even a venomous snake can hardly be said to be hugging. Indeed, elsewhere in the Talmud detailed instructions are offered as to how to rid oneself of the danger of a snake coiled around a leg (B. Shabbat 110a); clearly this cold-blooded creature is not expressing its warmth and friendliness. The Munkatcher Rebbe's conclusion is clear, stating that except in the realm of mysticism, this law is incomprehensible. He boldly rules that the law does not apply and if a snake glides up while in the midst of prayer, you should suspend your supplications and assure your safety. By employing methods of interpretation internal to the halachic system and coupling them with an analysis of reality, the law of praying with snakes coiled around our legs may have slithered away over the generations. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.