Lecture 6: Daf 3a (continued) - "On the Road"

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

 

Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

 

Lecture 6:  Daf 3a (continued)

“On the Road”

 

 

The first section that we shall deal with serves as a bridge between the previous sugya and the one that follows:

 

R. Yitzchak b. Shmuel says in the name of Rav:

The night has three watches,

and at each watch the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and roars like a lion and says:

Woe is me,

That I destroyed My house

and burnt My temple

and exiled My children among the nations of the world.

 

In this section, R. Yitzchak b. Shmuel, in the name of Rav, repeats R. Eliezer’s statement that portrays God marking the three night watches.  However, these later rabbis add an extra line.  Whereas R. Eliezer presents God as producing an inarticulate roar, R. Yitzchak records the exact words that God utters as He roars three times nightly. 

 

The result of this addition is a radical transformation of this tradition and its depiction of God.  As we saw previously, R. Eliezer portrays God as a cosmic force who is quite different than the God of history who roars in the biblical source in Yirmiyahu.  God, according to R. Eliezer’s presentation, operates according to the eternal repetition dictated by the laws of the universe, not according to the unfolding of human history.  He roars from the heavens three times a night at precisely the same points, without regard to what is happening to the humans on the earth below.  God expresses Himself through a triumphant roar which transmits his power throughout the nighttime heavens, while on earth it seems that the world is dominated not by God, but by demonic powers.

 

In the later Amoraic iteration of this tradition, God appears not as an inarticulate and inevitable cosmic force who is far removed from human events, but as a vulnerable being who mourns the historic tragedy of the Jewish people.  He spends each night mourning His destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and exile of His children.  This is a remarkably human God, who is prone to regret his actions and is emotionally involved with His home, His city and His children on earth.  This God is clearly quite different from God as R. Eliezer portrays Him, and from the rationalist of God of the Rambam and his followers.

 

This passage also presents a different perspective on the nature of galut (exile), the destruction of the Temple, and Israel’s dispersion among the nations of the world.  In the Bible, as in the Yirmiyahu passage on which this tradition is based, galut is God’s just response to Israel’s sins.  In rabbinic sources such as this one, however, we often find a different account of galut.  Any mention of Israel’s sins is omitted.  The reasons for God’s decision to exile His people remain hidden.  God may even have done something wrong in sending Israel into galut.  Despite His responsibility and later regret for the galut, God does not necessarily have the capacity to immediately end the galut.  He is a prisoner of His own actions.

 

The theological implications of this text are quite disturbing.  How could any of the Rabbis have believed that God is so fallible and vulnerable? Certainly, as we have mentioned, there is little basis for such a God in the Bible.  I am not sure how the Rabbis would have responded to these concerns.  Perhaps the Rabbis believed in a multi-faceted God, who is at once profoundly human and at the same time perfect and all-powerful.  Such a God is arguably more complete than a purely rational, transcendent God, because He takes part in all aspects of existence – being and becoming, permanence and change.

 

The problematic nature of this passage was already noted long ago.  The text presented above is based on the manuscripts of the Talmud that we have received.  The printed edition of the Talmud, however, records a slightly different version, in which God says “Woe to My children – because of their sins I destroyed the Temple…” It seems that some scribe or printer was disturbed by the text’s implication that God is solely responsible for the galut and now regrets His actions.  So he emended the text so that it places the blame for the galut squarely on the people of Israel and their sins.  God does not regret His actions; rather, He regrets the actions of the Jewish people that forced Him to unleash such a terrible punishment on them. 

 

The Gemara goes on to present a baraita which tells a story:

 

A   It has been taught: R. Yosi says,

I was once travelling on the road,

and I entered into one of the ruins of Jerusalem in order to pray. 

Eliyahu of blessed memory appeared

and watched over me at the door till I finished my prayer.

 

B   After I finished my prayer, he said to me:

Peace be with you, my master!

and I replied: Peace be with you, my master and teacher!

And he said to me: My son, why did you go into this ruin?

I replied: To pray. 

He said to me: You ought to have prayed on the road. 

I replied: I feared lest passersby might interrupt me. 

He said to me: You ought to have said an abbreviated prayer. 

Thus I then learned from him three things:

One must not go into a ruin;

one may say the prayer on the road;

and if one does say his prayer on the road, he recites an abbreviated prayer. 

 

C   He further said to me:

My son, what sound did you hear in this ruin?

I replied: I heard a Divine voice, cooing like a dove, and saying:

Woe is me that I destroyed My house

and burnt My temple

and exiled My children among the nations of the world!

And he said to me:

By your life and by your head! Not in this moment alone does it so exclaim,

but thrice each day does it exclaim thus!

And more than that,

whenever the Israelites go into the synagogues and schoolhouses and respond: 'May His great name be blessed!'

the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says:

Happy is the king who is thus praised in this house!

Woe to the father who banished his children,

and woe to the children who were banished from the table of their father!

 

This story is complex on both the formal and thematic levels.  On the formal level, the story is narrated by its protagonist, R. Yosi.  R. Yosi, however, does not present his story in a straightforward chronological manner.  Rather, he narrates his story three times, each time filling in details that were missing from the previous versions.  We marked these three sections A, B and C.

 

In section A, we get the basic outline of the story.  R. Yosi goes into the ruin to pray, and Eliyahu appears and watches at the entrance until R. Yosi finishes his prayers.  Though the story is told in the first-person, the narration seems objective.  We see only what an outside observer would see.  As such, we do not have access to the characters’ motivations.  We do not know why R. Yosi decided to pray in the ruin. Neither do we know why Eliyahu comes to stand guard at the door.  We can, however, already speculate regarding the characters’ motivations.  R. Yosi may have gone into the ruin simply in order to find a quite place to pray, much as, in the pre-cell phone days of ubiquitous pay phones, people used to duck into telephone booths in order to pray Mincha undisturbed.  However, these are not ordinary ruins; they are the ruins of Jerusalem, a few generations after the Romans destroyed it.  Perhaps there was some spiritual significance to praying in Jerusalem’s ruins in those days, just as we pray at the Western Wall.

 

Eliyahu’s positioning himself as a watchman at the door suggests that there is some element of danger in this ruin.  This should hardly come as a surprise.  Even in our modern context, old, abandoned buildings are considered dangerous places.  From a cultural perspective, they are what anthropologists call “liminal spaces” or, to use another technical term, they are “nisht a hin und nisht a her.”  They stand at the margins of civilization.  On the one hand, they are a product of human civilization. On the other hand, they are no longer really part of that civilization.  They are inhabited by people who are at the margins of society: squatters, criminals, and others involved in illicit activities, as well as animals that make their homes in proximity to human settlement.  These structures provide shelter, but not complete shelter, and they are prone to collapse.  Ruins’ liminality may also extend to their marginal position between the natural and supernatural.  Old, abandoned houses are often thought of as haunted by spirits or demons.  In sum, ruins are places of danger because of their marginal position in the human landscape.

 

The next two sections of the story each record a dialogue between R. Yosi and Eliyahu in which R. Yosi narrates more details of his entry into the ruin. 

 

The first conversation deals with R. Yosi’s motivations for entering the ruin.  From this conversation, we learn that R. Yosi entered the ruin because he sought a secluded place to pray, away from main road and the interruptions of potential passersby.  Eliyahu berates R. Yosi for this decision, saying that he should have said a shorter prayer by the roadside instead.

 

In the second conversation R. Yosi tells us what transpired while he was inside the ruin.  In the original telling of the story, the reader effectively remained outside of the ruin with Eliyahu.  R. Yosi sought privacy in his prayer, and he is not disturbed even by the readers’ gaze.  Now that he has finished praying, R. Yosi reports to Eliyahu and to the reader that he heard a Divine voice in the ruin – God mourning for His lost Temple and His exiled people.  This time Eliyahu responds, not with rebuke, but with further elucidation, telling R. Yosi about other instances in which God makes similar declarations. 

 

This rather unusual narrative strategy, in which each subsequent retelling of the story fills in various details, plays an important role in the thematic development of the story.  Like many rabbinic stories, this narrative combines both halakhic and aggadic elements. Our story is distinctive because it divides the halakhic and aggadic elements into two different sections.  The first dialogue deals with the halakhic aspects of the story, while the second one deals with the metaphysical aspects of the story.  The resulting narrative contrasts between halakhic and aggadic approaches to prayer. 

 

Taken on its own, section A of our story may be seen as a halakhic exemplum, a type of rabbinic story in which we learn a legal lesson from the actions of a rabbi.  R. Yosi leaves the road and enters a ruin in order to pray, and Eliyahu comes and watches over him.  This seems to suggest that R. Yosi’s behavior was proper, and it is appropriate to pray in a ruin.

 

However, with the second scene, the entire nature of the story is transformed.  R. Yosi is no longer an exemplar of proper conduct, but the object of Eliyahu’s rebuke.  Eliyahu informs R. Yosi that his halakhic considerations were incorrect, and he should have remained on the road and prayed an abbreviated prayer.  Now the story takes on the form of another standard type of rabbinic story, the case story.  In this type of story, a rabbi or rabbis evaluate an event or action done by others and then make a legal ruling determining its halakhic status.  In this case the “rabbi” who evaluates the situation is none other than Eliyahu himself, who is qualified to overrule the decision of a mere mortal, even a great sage like R. Yosi.  Yet because the individual in question was a great rabbi, even if his position was ultimately overruled, his actions still retain an element of legitimacy.  The story contrasts the views of R. Yosi and Eliyahu, ultimately ruling in favor of Eliyahu.

 

The story’s halakhic discussion deals with a series or related issues that revolve around a central question: To what extent is prayer an all-encompassing experience of direct relationship between the individual and God, which shuts out the outside world and its demands, even when doing so endangers one’s life? And to what extent should the individual modify the way he prays in order to accommodate the demands of his social, political, and physical reality?  These are issues that come up throughout the first chapters of Berakhot, both with regard to the recitation of the Shema and with regard to the Shemoneh Esrei.  These issues often come up when a person needs to pray “on the road,” rather than in his home or in a house of prayer or study.  In these circumstances, a person has limited control over his environment, and the demands of the outside world are more likely to intrude on his private conversation with God.

 

I would like to take a quick look at some of these relevant texts in order to place our own discussion in a broader context.  The first text is later in the first chapter of Berakhot.  Mishna 1:3 deals with the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai regarding the proper posture for the Shema.  Beit Shammai hold that one must lie down for the evening Shema and stand for the morning Shema, in accordance with the verse “When you lie down and when you rise.”  Beit Hillel, in contrast, focuses on the words, “when you go on your way,” understanding them to mean that one can say the Shema in whatever posture one finds oneself.  The Mishna then records the following account by R. Tarfon:

 

R. TARFON SAID:

I WAS ONCE WALKING BY THE WAY

AND I RECLINED TO RECITE THE SHEMA

IN THE MANNER PRESCRIBED BY BEIT SHAMMAI,

AND I INCURRED DANGER FROM ROBBERS. 

THEY SAID TO HIM:

YOU DESERVED TO COME TO HARM,

BECAUSE YOU ACTED AGAINST THE OPINION OF BEIT HILLEL.

 

This story is remarkably similar to ours.  Here too, a rabbi tells us how he found himself on the road and placed himself in a dangerous situation in order to pray in the optimal manner.  In this case, the danger is not one of place (the ruin), but one of time: at night it is dangerous to be on the road because of the presence of bandits.  This recalls the concerns about the dangers of the night that we have previously seen referred to in the Gemara.  In both stories, the rabbi is rebuked for his dangerous behavior.  Though the cases are quite different, both stories conclude that one should not endanger one’s life for the sake of proper prayer (at least in these situations). 

 

Next, in the opening mishna of the second chapter we read:

 

IN THE BREAKS [BETWEEN THE SECTIONS OF THE SHEMA]

ONE MAY GIVE GREETING OUT OF RESPECT AND RETURN GREETING;

IN THE MIDDLE [OF A SECTION]

ONE MAY GIVE GREETING OUT OF FEAR AND RETURN IT. 

SO R. MEIR. 

RABBI YEHUDA SAYS:

IN THE MIDDLE

ONE MAY GIVE GREETING OUT OF FEAR

AND RETURN IT OUT OF RESPECT,

IN THE BREAKS

ONE MAY GIVE GREETING OUT OF RESPECT

AND RETURN GREETING TO ANYONE. 

 

This passage presents a dispute between R. Meir and R. Yehuda about situations in which the obligation to interact with a person who approaches you conflicts with the need to say the Shema without interruption.  The Mishna deals with a series of situations of varying seriousness.  The lowest level of seriousness is the common passerby, the sort of person that R. Yosi, in our story, is concerned will interrupt his prayer.  R. Meir forbids even returning a greeting in this case, while R. Yehuda permits returning a greeting between paragraphs.  In the next situation, one of “honor,” one is confronted by one’s social or political superior. In this case, R. Meir and R. Yehuda disagree on the extent to which one may interrupt.  Finally, in the situation of “fear,” one may endanger oneself by failing to greet a certain person.  In this case, all agree that one may even initiate a greeting.  Once again, the normative position is that the need for an exclusive engagement with God during prayer does not mean that one may or should endanger oneself by ignoring threats from the outside.

 

Next, in 4:4, the Mishna explicates the abbreviated prayer mentioned in our story:

 

R. YEHOSHUA SAYS:

IF ONE IS TRAVELLING IN A DANGEROUS PLACE,

HE SAYS A SHORT PRAYER,

SAYING:

SAVE, O LORD, THY PEOPLE THE REMNANT OF ISRAEL;

IN EVERY TIME OF CRISIS

MAY THEIR REQUIREMENTS NOT BE LOST SIGHT OF BY THEE.  BLESSED ART THOU, O LORD, WHO HEARKENEST TO PRAYER.

 

Here we find, once again, that one sacrifices an optimal prayer experience, by cutting one’s Shemoneh Esrei short, in situations of danger.  Physical existence takes precedence over developing the life of the spirit. 

 

However, in the beginning of the fifth chapter, we find another perspective:

 

ONE SHOULD NOT STAND UP TO SAY TEFILLA

SAVE IN A REVERENT FRAME OF MIND. 

THE PIOUS MEN OF OLD

USED TO WAIT AN HOUR BEFORE PRAYING

IN ORDER THAT THEY MIGHT CONCENTRATE THEIR THOUGHTS UPON THEIR FATHER IN HEAVEN. 

EVEN IF A KING GREETS HIM [WHILE PRAYING]

HE SHOULD NOT ANSWER HIM:

EVEN IF A SNAKE IS WOUND ROUND HIS HEEL

HE SHOULD NOT BREAK OFF.

 

This mishna, which takes its cue from the “pious men of old,” sees prayer as an all-encompassing experience in which one shuts out the outside world entirely so that one can concentrate on one’s encounter with God.  No temporal power or threat, even a king or a poisonous snake, should interfere with God’s demand for total attention.  (One should note that the Gemara greatly moderates the implications of this mishna, rejecting the notion that one should risk one’s life rather than interrupt one’s prayers.)

 

In summary, we see two competing notions of prayer in the Mishna.  According to the first approach, which we may call halakhic or normative, prayer is a ritual obligation whose demands must be balanced against other social, moral, political and halakhic concerns, not the least of which is keeping one’s physical body intact.  The second approach, which is largely rejected except for in the last passage that we cited, may be called a mystical or ecstatic form of prayer.  In this view, prayer is all-encompassing, and God demands the individual’s total attention.  All other concerns, including concerns for life and limb, must be blocked out.  This position may come together with the belief that no harm will come to a person who is genuinely engaged in prayer before God.

 

To return to our story, R. Yosi seems to represent this mystical approach.  He enters the ruin in order to avoid the interruptions of the open road, allowing him to pray a complete and uninterrupted Shemoneh Esrei.  At first it seems that his approach is vindicated, because Eliyahu protects him from harm during his prayer.  In fact, as we learn from the second part of the story, Eliyahu actually advocates the normative, halakhic approach to prayer.  One cannot place oneself in danger in order to have an optimal prayer experience.  One should, rather, have an inferior, abbreviated prayer experience when out on the open road.  Prayer is not a complete escape from the cares and requirements of daily life.