• Rav Michael Siev


Introduction to the Study of Talmud

Rav Michael Siev

Megilla 22: 25a


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Key words and phrases in Hebrew and Aramaic are marked in blue, and their translation/explanation can be seen by placing the cursor over them. 

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Within the quoted texts, my explanations and additions are also written in red

We concluded our shiur last week with the gemara's explanation of why it is that we silence one who inserts into his prayer the idea that God's mercy extends to birds through the mitzva of shiluach haken. We pick up with the 15th line of 25a, which continues this theme:


A certain man went down (to serve as chazzan) in the presence of Rabbah. He said: You (God) had mercy on the bird's nest, have mercy and compassion on us (you had mercy on "it (a mother animal) and its son," have mercy and compassion on us).

Said Rabbah: How this rabbi knows to appease his master!

Abaye said to him: but "we silence him" is written (in our mishna)!

And Rabbah said it in order to sharpen Abaye.  

ההוא דנחית קמיה דרבה. אמר: אתה חסת על קן צפור אתה חוס ורחם עלינו, (אתה חסת על אותו ואת בנו אתה חוס ורחם עלינו).

אמר רבה: כמה ידע האי מרבנן לרצויי למריה!

אמר ליה אביי: והא משתקין אותו תנן!

ורבה לחדודי לאביי הוא דבעא.    

The gemara here tells a story that relates to what we have learned above. A person, in the presence of Rabbah, inserted into his prayer the fact that God has mercy on birds, as evidenced by the mitzvah of shiluach haken. According to our edition of the gemara, he inserted another line as well; that God has mercy on animals as indicated by the mitzvah of oto v'et b'no (Vayikra 22:28), which forbids slaughtering a mother animal and her child on the same day. This line is in parenthesis because it does not appear in some editions of the gemara.

As our mishna ruled and the gemara explained, this type of insertion into the prayer is inappropriate. Nevertheless, Rabbah praised the man for his insightful addition. Abaye questioned Rabbah's reaction, on the basis of our mishna. The gemara concludes by noting that Abaye is in fact correct, and that Rabbah (who was Abaye's teacher) intended merely to test Abaye's response.

Back to the gemara

The gemara moves on to discuss a different story of someone who made a misguided attempt to add to his prayer.  


A certain man went down (to serve as chazzan) in the presence of R' Chanina. He said: The God Who is great, mighty, awesome, glorious, strong and powerful.

(R' Chanina) said to him: Have you finished the praises of your master?

Now, these three, if not that Moshe had written them in the Torah and the Great Assembly established them, we would not say them, and you say all these?

It is comparable to a person who had a thousand-thousand thousands of gold dinars, and they praised him (for a thousand) silver dinars; is it not insulting to him? 

ההוא דנחית קמיה דרבי חנינא. אמר: האל הגדול הגבור והנורא האדיר והחזק והאמיץ.

אמר ליה: סיימתינהו לשבחיה דמרך?

השתא הני תלתא, אי לאו דכתבינהו משה באורייתא ואתו כנסת הגדולה ותקנינהו, אנן לא אמרינן להו, ואת אמרת כולי האי?

משל לאדם שהיו לו אלף אלפי אלפים דינרי זהב, והיו מקלסין אותו (באלף) דינרי כסף. לא גנאי הוא לו?

As part of the first beracha of the shemona esrei, we praise Hashem with the formula, "The God Who is great, mighty and awesome." The chazzan in our story thought that it would be even more respectful to add to those praises. R' Chanina chastised the man. God is so exalted that it is impossible to properly praise Him. Any attempt to do so is consequently irreverent; the cessation of the praise implies that one has exhausted all relevant praises. It is therefore inappropriate to add to the series of praises in the shemona esrei.

Based on R' Chanina's objection, a fundamental question arises - how can we recite even the three praises that are an official part of the shemona esrei? If any attempt to praise God borders on the sacrilege, we should omit praises altogether! R' Chanina continues his statement and explains that, in fact, we would not be able on our own to mention even these praises. The formula that we use was previously employed by Moshe and recorded in the Torah (Devarim 10:17), and was subsequently established as part of the shemona esrei by the Great Assembly.  

R' Chanina concludes his reprimand with an analogy. If someone were to have a billion gold dinars and people would describe him as being so wealthy that he had a thousand silver dinars, that would in effect trivialize the full extent of his wealth. So too with God, any attempt to praise Him is bound to trivialize His true greatness.

Ritva explains that this analogy is not just a cute story that repeats what the gemara has already said; it rather helps to further clarify what is so wrong about a human being initiating praise of Hashem. It is not simply that we are not able to praise Him enough in a quantitative sense, as though we say that He is powerful, while in reality He is very, very powerful. The problem is rather a qualitative one. We are completely unable to fathom God's true essence. As human beings, we can think only in human terms - such terms are necessarily inappropriate when applied to God. None of our descriptions could ever be in any way accurate. This is what the analogy emphasizes when it describes praising someone for his silver when in reality he owns large amounts of gold. It's not just that he has more money than what he has been praised for - his property is of a completely different quality.


Do we never praise God other than the phrase "God Who is great, mighty and awesome?" Even in that very first beracha of shemona esrei we offer other praises! How can this be justified in light of our gemara?   

There is a fundamental difference between the phrase "God Who is great, etc." and the other praises that we say about God. This phrase praises God Himself. Since man cannot understand God's essence, he cannot truly praise God, and it is therefore inappropriate to add to this formula. The other praises that we say praise God's actions and His mercy with regard to His creations. We can say as many of these as we like. Even the phrase that immediately follows "God Who is great, etc." may allude to this distinction. We say kel elyon, "the supreme God." This can be understood to mean that Hashem is above all possible praise that we can offer; we therefore turn from praising God Himself to praising the way He acts toward His creations; "He bestows beneficial kindness, etc."

Back to the gemara

Having quoted a statement of R' Chanina, the gemara digresses to discuss another of his teachings:


R' Chanina said: everything is in the hands of heaven except for fear of heaven, as it says: "And now, Israel, what does Hashem your God ask of you, but to fear . . ." (Devarim 10:12)

Does that imply that fear (of heaven) is a small thing?

Yes, for Moshe Rabbenu, it is a small thing;

This is analogous to one who is asked for a large vessel and he has it - it seems to him as a small vessel. (If he is asked for) a small (vessel) and he does not have it - it seems to him like a big vessel. 

אמר רבי חנינא: הכל בידי שמים. חוץ מיראת שמים, שנאמר (דברים י') ועתה ישראל מה ה' אלהיך שאל מעמך כי אם ליראה.

מכלל דיראה מילתא זוטרתי היא?

אין, לגבי משה רבינו מילתא זוטרתי היא,

משל לאדם שמבקשין הימנו כלי גדול ויש לו - דומה עליו ככלי קטן, קטן ואין לו - דומה עליו ככלי גדול.

R' Chanina's assertion is that all is in the hands of heaven except a person's fear of heaven, which is entirely in his own hands. As a proof to this idea, he quotes a pasuk from Moshe's farewell speech to the Jewish people, in which Moshe declares that all that Hashem asks of the people is that they fear Him, etc. The gemara accepts R' Chanina's statement, and moves on to ask a tangential question on the pasuk that R' Chanina quoted. The pasuk states that all Hashem asks is that we fear Him; this implies that fear of heaven is not such a hard thing to attain! The gemara answers that for Moshe Rabbenu, who made this statement, fear of heaven in fact seemed like a "small thing." It is only to us, who have not yet reached this level, that it seems to be a very difficult accomplishment.  

 The gemara continues

We now return to a discussion more closely related to the mishna. We learned in the mishna that we silence one who repeats the word "modim" in his prayer. We are on the 7th wide line of 25a:  


R' Zera said: One who says "shema-shema" is like one who says "modim-modim."

A challenge was raised (from a b'raita): "One who reads the shema and doubles it - this is disgraceful."  It is disgraceful, but we do not silence him!

There is no difficulty: This (source refers to a case in which) - he said each word and repeated it, this - he said each verse and repeated it.

Rav Papa said to Rava: Perhaps he did not focus his mind at the beginning and now he focused his mind?

He said to him: Is he (acting as) a fellow toward heaven? If he did not focus his mind - I will strike him with a smith's hammer until he focuses his mind. 

אמר רבי זירא: האומר שמע שמע כאומר מודים מודים דמי.

מיתיבי: הקורא את שמע וכופלה - הרי זה מגונה. מגונה הוא דהוי, שתוקי לא משתקינן ליה!

לא קשיא: הא - דאמר מילתא מילתא ותני לה, הא - דאמר פסוקא פסוקא ותני לה.

אמר ליה רב פפא לרבא: ודלמא מעיקרא לא כיון דעתיה והשתא כיון דעתיה?

אמר ליה: חברותא כלפי שמיא? אי לא מכוין דעתיה - מחינא ליה בארזפתא דנפחא עד דמכוין דעתיה.    

We have already learned that one who repeats the word modim, "we thank" or "we acknowledge," in shemona esrei is silenced because it appears as though he is addressing his prayer to multiple beings. R' Zera compares one who doubles the word shema to one who repeats modim; here too it seems as though one is accepting multiple deities. The gemara questions this comparison based on a b'raita which seems to say that one who repeats shema is acting inappropriately but is not to be silenced. The gemara differentiates between one who repeats each word of shema and one who repeats each verse of the shema.

It is unclear which case results in his being silenced and which is disgraceful but not silenced. The commentaries disagree about how to understand this answer of the gemara. Rashi understands that if one repeats each word, it does not seem as though one is addressing two separate deities, and we do not silence the person. It is worse if one says the entire verse and then repeats it. Rambam and others disagree and claim that we silence one who repeats words of the shema but not one who repeats the entire verse.

The gemara then quotes Rav Papa, who questions the very assumption that it is problematic to repeat the words or verses of shema. Maybe the reason that the person is repeating himself is that he was not able to focus properly the first time he said the shema and he wants to repeat it with proper kavana!

Rava responds with a harshly worded attack on anyone who could recite the shema without proper focus. God, after all, is not one's friend to whom one can speak with half a mind. Presumably, his intention in context is to assert that even one who repeats the shema for this reason is, in a larger sense, acting inappropriately, for he should not have recited the shema without kavana to begin with. This response explains why it is that the b'raita speaks disparagingly about one who repeats words or sentences of the shema, but it does not seem to reject Rav Papa's premise that if one did say shema without kavana, he ought to repeat himself. Practically, in fact, if one did not concentrate on what he was saying when he recited the shema, he should repeat the first paragraph (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 63:4), but should do so quietly so as to avoid the appearance of accepting two deities, which is the concern of our gemara (Mishna Berura 63:14, 61:22).