The Tisch: Relying on others

According to Hida, while saying “May the God of Rabbi Meir answer me,” the person should meditate at that moment, so that he would have the same focus and intention as Rabbi Meir had when he prayed.

Jewish man praying  (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
Jewish man praying
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
In 1906, Reuven Zak printed a Hebrew booklet in Warsaw titled Knesset Yisrael. The subject of the slender volume was the captivating hassidic master Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850). Zak was a disciple of the hassidic master Rabbi David Moses Friedman of Czortków (1827-1903), the eighth of the 10 children of Rabbi Yisrael and his wife, Sarah.
In Knesset Yisrael, Zak provided a story that was to be refashioned and retold numerous times in the 20th century and is undoubtedly a classic hassidic tale. The following is a translation from the earliest printed version: “Our holy master [Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin] told a story of the Besht [Ba’al Shem Tov, ca. 1700-1760], blessed be his memory, that once there was a dire life-threatening matter where there was a certain only son, who was very good, etc.
“And [the Besht] instructed to make a candle of wax and he traveled to the forest and attached the candle to a tree and did various other things and performed yihudim [mystical unifications of the Divine name], etc., and brought salvation with the help of God, blessed be He.
“And afterwards there was such an incident involving [Rabbi Yisrael's] great-grandfather, the Holy Maggid [Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, d. 1772], and he did likewise as described above, and he said: ‘The yihudim and kavanot [mystical intentions] that the Besht performed I know not, but I shall act on the basis of the kavana [meaning] that the Besht intended.’ And that, too, was accepted.
“And afterwards there was a similar incident involving the holy Rabbi Moses Leib of Sassow [1745-1807], blessed be his memory, and he said: ‘We do not even have the power to do that; I shall only tell the story, and it is up to God, blessed be He, to assist.’ And thus it was, with the help of God, blessed be He.”
This story is a famous and beloved hassidic tale. It has been retold countless times – in hassidic lore and by philosophers, scholars, and storytellers of the 20th century, including Martin Buber, S.Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem, Walter Kaufmann, Elie Wiesel and Abba Kovner. But it is really a hassidic tale? There is no doubt that the personalities mentioned in the tale were heroes of the hassidic movement, and that the tale was recounted in the context of hassidism. But is the notion of evoking and relying on the prayers and mystical intentions of forebears, in consideration of our own limitations, a truly hassidic idea? Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) – more commonly known by the acronym of his name, Hida – was one of the great rabbinic scholars of the 18th century. A traveler, bibliophile and prolific author, the Hida’s works are chock-full of insights and historical notes. In Petah Einayim – his commentary to the Talmud that he published in Livorno in 1790 – Hida records a prevalent custom: whenever a person prays during troubled times, that person says “May the God of Rabbi Meir answer me.”
This miraculous phrase appears in the Talmud, and it was the sage Rabbi Meir who personally suggested to a guard to use it as a last resort if he were in danger and unable to bribe the Roman authorities (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 18a-b).
Despite the bona fide talmudic source, Hida still sought to offer an explanation for the widespread practice of evoking the name of the sage Rabbi Meir when beseeching the Almighty.
According to Hida, while saying “May the God of Rabbi Meir answer me,” the person should meditate at that moment, so that he would have the same focus and intention as Rabbi Meir had when he prayed. Hida explained that this was also the root of the practice of people who pray, study or fulfill commandments in accord with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Hida concluded that this was a worthy practice, and fortunate is the person who does so.
Hida’s explanation was cited by the great Rabbi Hayim Palache of Izmir (1787-1868), who added that some people evoke the name of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, a righteous king of Judah who was known for honoring his father.
The great Baghdadi sage, Rabbi Yosef Hayim (Ben-Ish Hai, 1834-1909), went a step further. In his Ben Yehoyada – a commentary on the aggadic passages in the Talmud, first published in Jerusalem in 1898 – he related the final instructions of the sage Rabbi Eliezer to his disciples. Inter alia, Rabbi Eliezer told his students that, when they pray, they should know before whom they stand (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 28b).
Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad explained that, since there are so many mystical intentions that we should focus on during prayer, we therefore recall that we are standing before the Almighty and allow God to fill in the gaps.
Thus, if we struggle to focus during prayer, we can rely on the intentions of our saintly forebears: great rabbinic sages and famous hassidic masters. Not only that: when trying to fill in gaps in our prayer intentions, we can even rely on God.
The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the Pardes faculty and a post-doctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.