The Tisch: Even nothing can be worth something

The Hozeh of Lublin, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Halevi Horowitz, was one of the prime hassidic masters in the formative years of the movement.

American Hassidic Jews 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
American Hassidic Jews 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
The Hozeh (Seer) of Lublin, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Halevi Horowitz (1745-1815), was one of the prime hassidic masters in the formative years of the movement. He studied together with an elite coterie under Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717- 1786) – the master credited with bringing Hassidism from the area of Ukraine westward to Poland. The Hozeh of Lublin may have been the first such master to serve in a major city, albeit in a suburb of the city.
One of the hassidim of the Hozeh decided one day to stop praying altogether. When he came to Lublin, the Hozeh asked him why he had stopped praying. The hassid responded: “My prayers were once filled with lofty meditations. Alas, I fell from my spiritual level and am no longer able to meditate in prayer as I once was. I therefore feel that every time I say the Almighty’s name, it is as if I am saying it in vain – Heaven forfend.”
The Hozeh of Lublin replied: “It is written God will count in the script of nations (Psalms 87:6; often translated “God will record when He registers the peoples”) – it is known that Jewish tradition does not have its own numeral system. To indicate numerals we use the letters of the holy tongue [Hebrew], whereby each letter has numeric value.”
“The nations of the world,” continued the Hozeh, “have their own numeral system” – and here the Hozeh was referring to the Hindu-Arabic system of numeration – “and their system even has a symbol that does not indicate any value on its own.” The Hozeh was referring to the zero, invented in the seventh century by the Indian mathematician, Brahmagupta (598–668). No comparable grapheme exists in the Hebrew numeral system.
“That symbol,” explained the Hozeh, “only has a value when it is joined by other graphemes indicating value. Writing a zero alone or a series of zeros indicates no value. But if the numeral 1 or 2 appears before the zero, suddenly we have 10 or 20. The more zeros that are added, the greater the number… as long as there is another numeral in front of the zeros.”
Having completed the lesson in numeral systems, the Hozeh unpacked the parable: “This principle applies to the study of Torah, prayer and doing good deeds. Ideally, a person should perform these actions with sincere intent and proper meditation. Alas, if a person does one of these actions without the right thoughts, it is like a zero: a symbol that has no value.
“Fortunately, the situation can be rectified in one of three ways. First, the person can learn Torah, pray or do that deed one time with the full and proper mystical intent, such that everything he did heretofore is considered to also have been of substance.
“Second, on Yom Kippur, the person has the opportunity to seek forgiveness and to even change the valence of the empty deeds.
“Third, a person can benefit by cleaving to a true righteous person, who has the ability to spiritually transform the surroundings.
“But all this is only possible if the person actually studied Torah, prayed or performed a deed – albeit without the proper meditation. The possibility of repair is predicated on there being what to fix. If a person chooses not to pray at all – there are not even zeros!” The Hozeh concluded: In each of these cases, the zero-like deeds suddenly get a numeral in front of them. The numeral might be the person’s one sincere prayer, a Yom Kippur spent in heartfelt remorse and resolve to do better, or the influence of the righteous person, whose spiritual abilities affect the entire surroundings. This “numeral” changes the zeros into a number of consequence.
This is the meaning of the verse “God will count in the script of nations” – the Almighty will consider prayer, study or deeds without intent as zeros waiting for another numeral to give them value.
Thus, prayer without concentration is worth nothing; but even nothing can be worth something.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law.