World of the Sages: The blessing of the masses

The Talmud records the appropriate blessing for seeing a multitude of Jews.

Temple model 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Temple model 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Talmud records the appropriate blessing for seeing a multitude of Jews: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, the sage of secrets" (B. Brachot 58a). This benediction voices the Almighty's power to know the secret thoughts of every person in the crowd despite each person's individuality, as our sages explained: "For their minds are not similar to each other and their faces are not similar to each other." The Talmud defines a multitude of Jews as an assembly of at least 600,000 people. The commentators explained that the number 600,000 represents the entire gamut of types of intellectual aptitude. Despite the vast range of minds, thoughts, opinions and personalities, the Almighty knows the secrets of them all. Thus seeing such a throng of people it is appropriate to recall God's infinite awareness and that is the thrust of the mandated benediction (Ramban, 13th century, Spain-Eretz Yisrael). Other commentators suggested a different explanation for the blessing. While the presence of so many people indicates a plentitude of varying opinions, there are still some ideas that are beyond the human ken, concepts and views to which only the Almighty is privy. In recognition of this divine ability and the human knowledge frontier, the blessing over the multitude was instituted (Meiri, Provence, 13th century). The Talmud reports how one sage - Ben Zoma - when confronted with a throng of people, dutifully recited the required blessing over a multitude, adding an addendum to the benediction. Ben Zoma was situated on a step of the Temple Mount and from this vantage point he could see crowds of people ascending to Jerusalem for the thrice yearly festival pilgrimage. At this sight, he was moved to say the blessing over the masses and added: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who created all these to serve me." In explanation of his additional blessing, the Talmud cites words that Ben Zoma was wont to say: "How much effort did Adam the first human exert until he had bread to eat! He plowed and he sowed and he reaped and he gathered the stalks and he threshed the stalks and he winnowed the chaff from the grain and he separated the waste from the grain and he ground the grain into flour and he sifted the flour and he kneaded the flour into dough and he baked the dough. After all that he ate the bread. But as for me, I wake up in the morning and I find all this already prepared before me." Ben Zoma continued: "How much effort did Adam exert until he had clothing to wear! He sheared the wool and cleaned it and disentangled it and spun it into threads and he wove the threads. After all that he had a garment to wear. But as for me, I wake up in the morning and I find all this already prepared for me." "Indeed," concluded Ben Zoma, "All tradespeople diligently come to the entrance of my home, and I wake up in the morning and find them all before me." While Ben Zoma may have been a prominent sage, it hardly behooves him to suggest that he is the center of the world. Moreover, the Talmud describes Ben Zoma as someone with Mosaic qualities, to the extent that like Moses he was worthy for the divine presence to rest on him. The only reason he did not merit such a connection with the Almighty was that the generation in which he lived was undeserving (B. Sanhedrin 11a). Moses, we recall, is described in the Bible as the most humble human being alive (see Numbers 12:3); this makes comparing the apparently haughty Ben Zoma to the humble Moses all the more irksome. Despite his seemingly nondescript name - Ben Zoma, meaning the son of Zoma - and lack of rabbinic title, he is described as one who was totally devoted to the service of the Almighty. Ben Zoma was so stanch in his commitment to God that he never able to commit to marriage (B. Kiddushin 49b and Rashi). Ben Zoma's scholarly accomplishments were also lauded by his colleagues. He is recognized as one who had intimate knowledge of the esoteric Torah (Bereshit Raba 2:4) and he was one of four sages who entered the mystical realm known as pardess (B. Hagiga 14b). Grappling with the image of a respected and accomplished sage suggesting that everything was created for his own personal benefit, commentators sought to understand Ben Zoma's declaration. The most prevalent explanation offered suggested that his words should be read as an expression of appreciation, not haughtiness. Hassidic tradition has expanded on the idea expressed in Ben Zoma's words. Ben Zoma acknowledged that leaders are only as good as their followers. As mentioned, he did not merit to be like Moses because the generation was undeserving. Seeing the masses stream to the Temple, he nonetheless recognized that his lofty achievements were thanks to the people. In a similar vein, one modern commentator, Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel, suggested that Ben Zoma's declaration should not be read as conceit rather as an expression of appreciation for the contributions of the people to his life. Tzuriel expanded on the importance of acknowledging what others have done for us going as far as calling this trait a basis of Judaism. Ben Zoma - said Tzuriel - was a paradigm of thanking others for their part in his life. Thus when Ben Zoma saw masses of people he recited the appropriate benediction over a multitude, adding an extra blessing acknowledging how so many people contributed to his own survival, well-being and achievements. Instead of focusing on what he did not achieve, Ben Zoma unreservedly was quick to acknowledge the contribution of those around him and publicly expressed gratitude for the efforts of others. Often we are quick to blame others for our failures; Ben Zoma suggests that we should be more diligent in commending others for our achievements. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.