Lecture 7: Daf 3a (continued) - "Whispering Winds"

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

 

Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

 

Lecture 7:  Daf 3a (continued)

“Whispering Winds”

 

 

As we move on to the third and final section, the nature of the story is once again transformed.  The narrative leaves behind the halakhic genres of exemplum and the case story, and morphs into a far older and more widespread genre: the apocalyptic narrative.  Apocalyptic narratives are stories in which Divine secrets that are normally kept hidden to mere mortals are revealed to a special individual.  One common form of apocalyptic narrative involves visions of God and His doings in Heaven.  Apocalyptic narrative has its roots in the visions of the great biblical prophets, especially Isaiah and Ezekiel and, later, the book of Daniel.  In the Second Temple period, the apocalyptic narrative became a very popular and influential genre.  This tradition continued to greatly influence Jewish (and Christian) literature into the Middle Ages, especially mystical literature and the later midrashim.  Apocalyptic narratives are also found in the Talmud and the classical midrashim, though much less often.

 

This section presents three distinct but similar revelations of God’s pronouncements in Heaven, whose exact relationship with each other remains unclear.  The first pronouncement is the Divine voice R. Yosi hears in the ruin.  The words of this pronouncement are identical to those previously attributed to God in his thrice nightly proclamations, in which He mourns the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the exile of Israel.  This line creates the associative link between our story and the previous passage.  The difference between these two depictions is the tone of voice in which these words are expressed.  Previously, the sound of the words was compared to the roar of a lion.  Now, God coos like a dove.  This new metaphor even further humanizes God.  He appears even more weak and vulnerable, as he yearns for the redemption of His people and His Holy City.  Furthermore, the dove is consistently portrayed in aggadic literature as a metaphor for Israel.  Thus, God cooing like a dove also suggests that He identifies strongly with His people. 

 

This scene also transforms the nature of the ruin in which R. Yosi prays.  In the halakhic section of the story, this ruin appears as an inappropriate place for prayer, due to its marginality, instability, and uncivilized nature.  Now, it appears as a place where R. Yosi is privileged to overhear the most intimate goings-on in Heaven.  “It is not but the house of God; this is the gate of Heaven."  This validates our initial intuition that the story specifies that  these ruins are the ruins of Jerusalem because of its significance, and R. Yosi chooses to pray in them, not simply as a way of avoiding the hustle and bustle of the road, but because they are a positive destination.  It seems that these ruins are haunted, not by ghosts or demons, but by God Himself.  In this view, ruins are not only a place of danger, but a place of spiritual opportunity.

 

The occasion of this declaration is never fully clarified.  Is this voice always audible to the spiritually attuned who stand in the ruin? Does God speak these words in response to R. Yosi’s prayers? Or perhaps R. Yosi is hearing one of God’s thrice nightly cries described in the previous passage.  This final interpretation raises the possibility that the entire story is understood as having taken place a night.

 

This question is further complicated by the next report of God’s cry of mourning.  Upon hearing R. Yosi’s words, Eliyahu calls out excitedly, confirming the authenticity of R. Yosi’s experience.  Indeed, he tells us, God makes just such a cry three times a day.  Now, we must consider the possible relationship between Eliyahu’s report of God’s cries and the previous reports in the Gemara.  Does Eliyahu mean to say that R. Yosi has heard one of God’s three regular cries? Or does he mean that in addition to the cry which R. Yosi heard, which was a direct response to R. Yosi’s prayers in the ruin, God also makes this statement three times a day?  Also, what is the relationship between the three times a day that Eliyahu mentions and the three times a night referred to in the previous passage? Does Elijah refer to this thrice nightly call? Or is the “three times” meant to correspond to the three daily prayers of Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv?

 

Finally, Eliyahu recounts yet another instance of God crying out in mourning for the exile.  This occurs when Jews gather in the synagogues and prayer houses and answer, “May His great name be blessed…” To what event does this refer? My teacher, the great Aggada scholar Yona Fraenkel, assumes that this refers to the recitation of Kaddish during communal prayers.  He sees this event as identical to the previously mentioned “three times daily” in which God calls out in mourning.  As we suggested earlier, Fraenkel sees these three times as referring to the three fixed daily prayers.  The problem with this interpretation, as Moshe Benovitz points out, is that the recitation of Kaddish as we know it is thought by most scholars to have emerged only in the Geonic period, centuries after the time of the Tannaim and Amoraim.  Indeed, Benovitz suggests the possibility that the Kaddish we are familiar with was in fact inspired by this passage in our story.  However, though the Kaddish may be a relatively late innovation, the phrase yehei shmei rabba, “May God’s great name be blessed” is quite ancient.  Going back to the period of the Tannaim, we have testimony to the existence of a series of interrelated responsive liturgical formulae in which God, or His name, are declared to be blessed for eternity.  These include: the Barkhu (the call to prayer); the zimun (the call to grace after meals); yehi shem Hashem mevorach me’ata ve-ad olam; and the response barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va’ed used in several contexts.  They also include the formula that the Sifrei, Devarim 306, mentions without giving its context: yehei shmo ha-gadol mevorakh, to which is responded le-olam u-le-olamei olamim.  Some sources suggest that this last call and response was recited in conjunction with the study of Aggada.  Eliyahu, therefore, most likely refers here not to the Kaddish of the thrice daily prayers with which we are familiar, but more generally to the gathering of Jews in the synagogue to pray.

 

Here then we have an example of God responding to the prayers of Jews.  This lends credence to the possibility we suggested above, that God similarly responds to the prayers of R. Yosi.  There is, however, an important difference between these two incidents.  In the first case, we find God responding to the prayers of an individual great rabbi, who apparently evokes this response only when he prays in the ruins of Jerusalem.  We might conclude from this that God responds as such to prayers of the spiritual elite and, even then, only when they pray in preferred locales.  Now, we learn that, in fact, God responds as such to the people of Israel as a whole, each and every time they gather to pray in the synagogue.  Nevertheless, R Yosi remains superior to the common Jew in that only he can actually hear God’s response.  Indeed, we only know about God’s responses to communal prayers because Eliyahu chose to reveal it to R. Yosi.

 

God’s response is significantly different from the previously recorded Divine cries of mourning.  First, this statement is preceded by a brief description of God’s actions that accompany it.  We learn that “God shakes his head and says…”   According to the Talmud, this is not the only time that Eliyahu describes God’s head gesture before reporting His words.  In the famous story of the Oven of Akhnai, Eliyahu reports that following the showdown between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua in the house of study, “God chortled and said, ‘My sons have defeated me…’” In our case, the description of God’s behavior heightens the pathos of God’s words, by showing that his mourning extends beyond His words and grips his very body.

 

This description pushes the envelope for the Talmud’s depiction of God as having human characteristics.  Until now, this series of passages describing God’s declarations has engaged only in what is known as “anthropopathism,” the attribution to God of human emotions.  Now the text goes one step further and engages in anthropomorphism, describing God as having a human-like body.  This, of course, is a far more problematic notion for traditional Jewish theology as we have inherited it.  A Maimonodean reading would probably interpret this description as metaphorical, meant to communicate the intensity of God’s mourning, rather than suggest, G-d forbid, that He has a body. 

 

God’s actual declaration here is also significantly different from those previously reported.  God’s mourning here is tempered.  He first declares his joy that he is being praised by the Jews in the synagogue, and only then expresses his regret that both He and Israel must suffer the pangs of separation brought on by exile.  There is an almost paradoxical element to these lines.  God mourns over the exile using the image of the son who has been exiled from his father’s table.  This would appear to refer to the destruction of the Temple and especially the cessation of the sacrifices.  Yet in the previous sentence, He declares that His people are praising him “in His house.”   The synagogue, like the Temple, seems to be God’s house, and there too Israel can enjoy a close relationship with God.

 

This paradox can be resolved by noting two subtle shifts from the first to the second sentence of God’s statement.  In the first sentence, Israel’s presence in the synagogue is compared to being in God’s house.  In the second sentence, their presence in the Temple is compared to sitting at God’s table.  One could argue that sitting at the table suggests a much closer relationship than simply visiting someone’s house.  Second, the metaphor shifts between the first and second sentence, from comparing the God-Israel relationship to the relationship between a king and his servants, to comparing it to that between a father and son.  One can similarly argue that this suggests that, whereas in the Temple God has a more intimate father-son relationship with Israel, in the synagogue it is only a more distant king-subject relationship.

 

According to this analysis, God’s words here embody the tension inherent in the rabbinic conception of the experience of exile.  On the one hand, the destruction of the Temple represents a traumatic severing of the relationship between God and Israel, which is a source of constant pain to them both.  On the other hand, through prayer and study, Israel continues to enjoy a regular and close relationship with God.  This experience raises mixed emotions from both sides.  On the one hand, this continued relationship provides great comfort to both Israel and God, at times perhaps sufficient to all but erase the feeling of loss of the “old days."  On the other hand, the experience in the synagogue and study house only serves to remind both Israel and God of the greater intimacy that was possible with the Temple, thus further opening the scars of the destruction and intensifying the pain. 

 

The sugya follows up this story with a citation of another baraita:

 

Our Rabbis taught:

here are three reasons why one must not go into a ruin:

because of suspicion [of sexual misconduct], falling debris, and demons.

 

This source explicitly states that ruins are dangerous.  It confirms our previous speculation that the rabbis were worried that ruins pose a danger of collapsing, and that they may be haunted by dangerous spirits.  It also adds the concern that one entering a ruin may be suspected of going there in order to have an illicit sexual encounter.  Once again, the position of ruins at the margins of society makes them an attractive location to marginal individuals, such as prostitutes and others who would skirt the bounds of sexual propriety.

 

In summary, this story, through its complex rhetoric, contrasts two different approaches to prayer.  We have a description of an event, R. Yosi’s prayer in the ruin, followed by two perspectives on the event expressed through two exchanges between R. Yosi and Eliyahu.  The first dialogue takes what we have called the halakhic-normative approach to prayer.  Prayer is seen primarily as a halakhically defined ritual.  Its practice, like all halakhic behavior, must be carried out through carefully balancing the often conflicting demands and interests of the Halakha, including spiritual, moral and social concerns.  The second dialogue expresses what we have called the “mystical” or experiential approach to prayer.  In this view, prayer is essentially an all-encompassing encounter with God that has the potential to lead to actual Divine revelation.  While praying, all worldly concerns, including the concern for one’s continued physical existence, must fall to the wayside as one submits oneself entirely to the experience of standing before God. 

 

The conflict between these two views takes place in the ruin.  In the halakhic view, the ruin is a place that is at odds with halakhic life, which necessitates concern for human safety and fidelity to human society.  In the mystical perspective, the ruin is a potential portal to the next World, a space that is free of the conventions of human society.  It is thus an ideal place to pray for those who are ready for a high-level prayer experience. 

 

The question of whether the ruin is an appropriate space for prayer parallels a similar question that underlies the Gemara’s overall discussion of the nighttime Shema in this chapter: is the night an appropriate time for prayer?  A halakhic, ritualistic perspective on prayer might lead us to the conclusion that the night is not a time for prayer.  As we have noted in an earlier shiur, the Temple operated only in the daytime.  The night is a time in which human activities, especially public life, are limited.  So too, God’s rule on earth is limited, if we are to accept the notion that the demons run free at night.  Yet we do say the Shema at night and even pray Ma’ariv (though this prayer's status was far from clear in the time of the Gemara.)  We also saw a tradition that God roars like a lion throughout the night, expressing His power even in the darkness.  Later on, we shall see sources that suggest that the nighttime is actually the optimal time to pray.