R. Nechunya's Prayer and the Dangers of the Study Hall

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #24: R. Nechunya's Prayer and the Dangers of the Study Hall

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

R. Nechunya ben Hakaneh would pray a short prayer upon entering and leaving the beit midrash. They said to him: "What is the nature of this prayer?" He said to them: "When I enter, I pray that no mishap should occur because of me, and when I depart, I give thanks for my lot."

The Rabbis taught: What does he say when he enters? "It should be your will, the Lord my God, that no mishap should occur because of me, and I should not err in a halakhic matter and my colleagues will rejoice over me, and I should not declare the impure pure or the pure impure, and my colleagues should not err in a halakhic matter and I will rejoice over them."

What does he say when he leaves? "I am thankful to You, the Lord my God, that You have placed my lot among those who dwell in the beit midrash and not with those who hang around street corners. They arise early, and I arise early. I arise early for words of Torah, and they arise early for idle matters. I toil, and they toil. I toil and receive reward, and they toil and do not receive reward. I run, and they run. I run to the life of the world to come, and they run to the pit of destruction." (Berakhot 28b)

As with many gemarot, this passage lies somewhere along the boundary-line between halakha and aggada. Rambam, in his commentary on the mishna, understands this prayer as a concrete obligation incumbent upon each individual who enters the beit midrash. He tries to draw proof from the formulation of the beraita's opening question – "Ma hu omer," or "What does he say," as opposed to "Ma haya omer," or "What would he say." This indicates that the beraita is not merely describing the personal practice of R. Nechunya, but rather establishing an obligatory recital for all. The Ritva, on the other hand, sees this as a voluntary prayer. Those of us who do not recite the prayer rely either upon the Ritva's position or upon the theory advanced by the Arukh Ha-shulchan (O.C. 110:16) that the prayer is obligatory only for poskim attempting to render halakhic decisions.

Turning to the meaning of the prayer brings us closer to the aggadic realm. Why do the sages ask, "Ma makom le-tifila zo" (translated above as, "What is the nature of this prayer")? One could explain that they simply wanted to hear the text and themes of the prayer. Rav Kook (Ein Aya), however, suggests a deeper interpretation. We often associate prayer with an appeal to God in situations of physical or spiritual danger. The sages saw R. Nechunya praying before entering the study hall and they wondered what could possibly be so threatening about the time spent learning. After all, he is entering a holy place to perform an important mitzva. However, R. Nechunya understood that the beit midrash also poses its own religious and ethical challenges. Indeed, yesh makom le-tefila zo.

R. Nechunya expresses his concern that he might err in halakhic judgment. He then adds a request that his colleagues will "rejoice over him," which Rashi explains as further expression of R. Nechunya's fears. He is afraid that his peers might laugh at and ridicule him for his errors in halakhic analysis. Then, he will have not only distorted the given halakha, but also been the cause of his friends' improper behavior. In a slightly different vein, Maharsha suggests that this "rejoicing" refers to part of what R. Nechunya prays for, not what he fears. Namely, R. Nechunya prays that his friends react with joy to his success at expounding the halakha.

Perhaps we can best appreciate this point by envisioning an academic conference, during which some professors dedicate all their energy assailing the theory of rival scholars. At some point, we must conclude that personal pettiness has supplanted the intellectual search for truth. Let us also admit that such things are not unknown in the world of the beit midrash. Rashi emphasizes an environment in which people do not take pleasure in others' mistakes. Maharsha goes further and aspires to an atmosphere in which people take active joy in the achievements of others. It behooves us to think about how to generate such an atmosphere in our own places of learning.

The Ahavat Eitan adds another suggestion in his commentary, found in the Ein Yaakov. He notes that mistakes are usually an indispensable part of the learning process. Indeed, the gemara (Gittin 43a) explicitly states that "a person cannot understand matters of Torah unless he first stumbles in them." Yet the one who recites R. Nechunya's prayer would like to avoid even the initial error. The method for doing so, the Ahavat Eitan contends, depends upon "yismechu bi chaverai." Only a positive collective learning environment, in which different scholars complement the strengths of others, helps avoid the errors inherent in any solitary individual's approach to a topic.

Finally, let us analyze the prayer of thanksgiving offered upon leaving the study hall. We can certainly appreciate the feeling of contentment over engaging in meaningful activity, rather than frivolously killing time. At the same time, we might question the phrase "they toil and do not receive reward." Surely, many people involved in foolish activities nevertheless receive some reward, financial or otherwise, for their efforts. The simplest answer might be that the reward mentioned in this prayer refers specifically to otherworldly compensation. If so, we can understand why only those engaged in more meaningful work receive it.

The Chafetz Chayim offers a different answer (see Chafetz Chayim al Hatorah, beginning of Bechukotai). He admits that both groups who toil receive some type of reward. However, one group's reward rests solely in the results, while the other receives reward for the effort involved in the process. The card shark on the street corner measures success solely in terms of the amount of money pulled in on a given day. The toil, per se, is not grounds for reward. By contrast, the person struggling for understanding in the beit midrash views the endeavor as inherently valuable even if on a given day comprehension remains elusive. In this sense, the person leaving the study hall can truly declare: "I toil and receive reward."

Many of us do not recite this tefila, but the themes inherent in both parts should animate all of us who spend time learning. Following our learning session, we should appreciate our fortune in engaging in significant activity rather than wasting the day in mindless entertainment. Prior to learning, we should think about both the necessary seriousness of purpose in trying to understand the peshat, and about setting the correct interpersonal tone for the give-and-take of academic discourse. Without denying that pride in Torah achievements has its place in the study hall, we can and must avoid an atmosphere in which the clash of egos supplants the sincere milchamta shel Torah.