Shiur #14: The aggada of the praying chassid and the Roman legionary, and other aggadot – part II

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch
  1. Preface

In the previous shiur, we started discussing the sugyot on the last part of the first Mishna in the fifth chapter of Massekhet Berakhot: “Even if a king greets him, he should not respond to him, and even if a snake is coiled around his heel, he should not interrupt [his prayer].”

We saw that in the sugya in the Bavli (Berakhot 32b), the clause concerning the king is expanded in two parts. In the first part, which is halakhic in nature, the sugya awards the law a limited interpretation, drawing a distinction between Jewish kings and kings of other nations. The conclusion that arises (according to Rashi’s generally accepted understanding of it, which also represents the halakhic ruling) is that a person is not obligated to put his life in danger in order to continue his prayer uninterrupted. In the second part, we find the aggada concerning the “chassid” and the Roman officer. We looked at the discussion in the Yerushalmi, which likewise introduces its discussion of the final two clauses of the Mishna (concerning the king and the snake) by limiting the law to Jewish kings. We also saw that in relation to both of these clauses, the sugya in the Yerushalmi brings stories of individuals who did not behave in accordance with the law established in the sugya. These individuals did not interrupt the recitation of the Shema, or of the Amidah prayer, despite the danger they faced. We noted that the story about R. Chanina b. Dosa and the lizard suggests that when R. Chanina was engaged in prayer, he was altogether unaware of the danger: the lizard’s dangerous bite, the miracle that followed (the appearance of the spring under his feet) and the death of the lizard all took place without him noticing anything. Thus, the Yerushalmi presents a model of a chassid whose experience of prayer is detached from physical reality and surroundings; the chassid thus does not interrupt his prayer in the face of an objective danger. This model proposes an interesting new “pietist” reading of the Mishna, as an addition to the formal categories and conclusions of the sugya. This “pietist” reading views the instructions in the final part of the Mishna – “he should not respond to him”; “he should not interrupt” – not as prescribing a conscious normative decision on the part of the worshipper at a time of danger, but rather as describing a level of concentration in prayer (“he would not respond”; “he would not interrupt”), in which the worshipper continues because he is unaware of the danger.

  1. The sugya in the Bavli – a closer look

Let us now return to the discussion in the Bavli. As noted, the structure of the sugya and its content resemble those of the Yerushalmi, but there are interesting and significant differences, some of which find expression in the story of the chassid and the Roman officer. Let us start by recalling that aggada:

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that a chassid (a pious man) was praying by the roadside. An officer came by and greeted him, and he did not return his greeting. So he waited for him until he had finished his prayer. After he finished his prayer [the officer] said to him, ‘Fool! Is it not written in your Torah, ‘Only take heed to yourself and guard your soul’ (Devarim 4:9), and it is also written, ‘Take therefore good heed to yourselves’ (ibid. v. 15)? When I greeted you, why did you not return my greeting? If I had cut off your head with my sword, who would have demanded revenge for your blood from me?’ He replied, ‘Be patient and I will explain to you. If you had been standing before an earthly king and your friend had come and greeted you, would you have responded?’ He answered, ‘No.’ ‘And if you had returned his greeting, what would have been done to you?’ He said, ‘They would have cut off my head with a sword.’ He then said to him, ‘Then all the more so in our situation. If you [would have behaved] thus while standing before an earthly king, who is here today and tomorrow in the grave, then how much more so must I, when standing before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who endures for all eternity?!’ The officer was immediately appeased, and the pious man returned to his home in peace.”

This relatively long story has no parallel in the Yerushalmi, although its basic plot is very similar to the story of R. Yochanan in the parallel sugya: a Sage/chassid stands in prayer/recitation of the Shema and ignores an important foreign dignitary who comes by. A broader review of the story of the chassid and the Roman officer shows that expressions or motifs appearing in this story recall other aggadot, and a review of them might enrich our understanding here. For instance, the question that the officer poses to the chassid concludes with the words, “If I had cut off your head with my sword, who would have demanded revenge for your blood [literally, ‘required your blood’] from me?” The “requiring of [revenge for] blood” appears in a number of rabbinical sources with reference to God, Who requires the blood of the oppressed from their oppressors, and particularly the blood of Israel from the other nations. An example is the following midrash (Vayikra Rabba 27):

“R. Yossi, son of R. Yudan, said in the name of Yossi bar Nehorai: The Holy One, blessed be He, always requires the blood of the persecuted at the hands of the persecutors… Israel is persecuted by the nations, ‘and God will require [or “seek out”] the persecuted [or “fleeting”]’ (Kohelet 3:15)….”

Another interesting source in this context is the story of Miriam and her seven sons, which appears in Eikha Rabba (Buber, parasha 1):

“He brought out the seventh [son], who was the youngest of all, and said to him, ‘Bow down to the idol…’. He said to him, ‘Woe to you, Caesar! Shall I then fear you, who are mortal, and not fear the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who is the God of the whole world?... But we are guilty, and have fallen into the hands of a king who is guilty and cruel in order that he may demand our blood – for the Holy One, blessed be He, has many ‘bears’ and ‘tigers’ with which to harm us, and He has given us into your hands in order that in the future He will require our blood from your hands.’”

A reading of these sources as a background to the story of the chassid and the Roman officer imbues the words of the officer - “If I had cut off your head with my sword, who would have demanded revenge for your blood from me?” – with irony, even before the chassid explains to him the difference between a mortal king and the King of kings.

Parallels to the story of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai prior to his death

Another story in which we find expressions paralleling those in our aggada is to be found in a sugya in the fourth chapter of Massekhet Berakhot. The discussion there about the prayer of R. Nechunya b. ha-Kana includes the story of the death of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai (26a):

“When R. Yochanan b. Zakkai fell ill, his disciples came in to visit him. When he saw them, he began to weep. His disciples said to him, ‘Lamp of Israel, right-hand pillar, mighty hammer! Why do you weep?’ He replied: ‘If I were being led today before a human king who is here today and tomorrow in the grave, whose anger - if he is angry with me - does not last forever, who - if he imprisons me - does not imprison me forever and who - if he puts me to death - does not put me to everlasting death, and whom I can appease with words and bribe with money, even so I would weep. Now that I am being led before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, Who lives and endures forever and ever, Whose anger - if He is angry with me - is an everlasting anger, Who - if He imprisons me - imprisons me forever, Who - if He puts me to death - puts me to death for ever, and Whom I cannot appease with words or bribe with money; moreover, when there are two ways before me, one leading to the Garden of Eden and the other to Gehennom, and I do not know by which I shall be led, shall I not weep?’ They said to him: ‘Master, bless us.’ He said to them: ‘May it be [God's] will that the fear of heaven be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood.’ His disciples said to him: ‘Is that all?’ He said to them: ‘If only [you can attain this]! For when a man sins, he says, ‘Let no-one see me…’ When he died, he said to them: ‘Remove the vessels lest they become impure, and prepare a throne for Chizkiyahu, king of Yehuda, who comes.’”

This story, which focuses on the thoughts of Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai in his last moments, shares many points of similarity with the story of the chassid and the officer, as demonstrated in the table below:

 

Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai

The chassid

If I were being led today before a human king who is here today and tomorrow in the grave, whose anger… and whom I can persuade with words and bribe with money,

If you had been standing before an earthly king…

 

If you [would have behaved] thus while standing before an earthly king, who is here today and tomorrow in the grave

before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, Who lives and endures for ever and ever, Whose anger… and Whom I cannot appease with words (le-fayeso bi-devarim) or bribe with money

then how much more so must I, when standing before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who endures for all eternity?

Be patient and I will explain to you (afayeskha bi-devarim)[earlier in the story]

Shall I not weep?!

How much more so!

When he died (petirato) he said to them…

The officer was immediately appeased (nitpayes) and the pious man left (niftar) for his home in peace

 

The two stories also share something else: Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai declares that the King of kings cannot be appeased with words, but “appeasing with words” is exactly what the chassid does to the Roman officer. In addition, at the end of the story, Rabbi Yochanan departs for the next world, while the chassid departs and heads home. This similarity creates an allusion to the story of Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai, directing the reader to view it as background to the story of the chassid.

The structural similarity between the stories is not coincidental. In terms of content, the story of Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai draws two contrasts between a mortal king and God: the first concerns the fear and awe that a person feels when standing before a mortal king on the one hand, and the fear and awe that one should experience when brought before the King of kings on the other. The second contrast, at the end of the story, is between the fear of heaven on the one hand and the fear of (or shame before) mortals (in the context of avoiding sin) on the other. This is central in the story of the chassid, too, in explaining to the (mortal) officer why he was unable to respond to him while he stood before the King of kings.

Thus, a reading of the story of the chassid in light of the story about R. Yochanan b. Zakkai serves to emphasize the differences between a mortal king and God. The main contribution of the story of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai in this regard is its elaboration on the description of God (“Whose anger - if He is angry with me - is an everlasting anger, Who - if He imprisons me - imprisons me forever, Who - if He puts me to death - puts me to death for ever, and Whom I cannot appease with words or bribe with money”), which reinforces the contrast and the reason why the chassid is not able to interrupt his prayer. Moreover, it seems that a comparison between the stories underlines the fact that the story of the chassid takes a slightly different direction from the story in the Yerushalmi. While the Yerushalmi discusses a situation in which the worshipper is unaware of the danger, it would seem that the story in the Bavli addresses a different scenario: here, the chassid is aware of the danger, but makes a calculated decision, based on his comparison between a mortal king and the King of kings. On the basis of this comparison, it is clear that it is preferable to continue one’s prayer before God and to ignore mortal authority.[1] The same idea arises from the story of the chassid himself, as the chassid presents a clever allegory in explaining to the officer why he was unable to interrupt his prayer. This does not seem to describe a situation of intensive concentration on and engagement in prayer, preventing the chassid from noticing the danger. Rather, this is a conscious decision about priorities. The chassid’s decision is still an act of piety, even though – as noted – the sugya exempts the worshipper from the obligation to ignore a foreign king and thereby put himself in danger.

Parallels between the Bavli and the Yerushalmi in the story of R. Chanina b. Dosa

A similar situation arises in the second part of the sugya, which discusses the snake, and cites – in parallel fashion to the Yerushalmi – the story of R. Chanina b. Dosa. However, this story is different from the one in the Yerushalmi, as we can see from the table below:

 

Bavli Berakhot 33a

Yerushalmi Berakhot 5:1, 9a

Our Rabbis taught: In a certain place there was once a lizard which used to injure people. They came and told R. Hanina b. Dosa. He said to them: Show me its hole. They showed him its hole, and he put his heel over the hole, and the lizard came out and bit him, and it died. He put it on his shoulder and brought it to the Beth ha-Midrash and said to them: See, my sons, it is not the lizard that kills, it is sin that kills! On that occasion they said: Woe to the man whom a lizard meets, but woe to the lizard that R. Hanina b. Dosa meets!

It was said concerning R. Chanina b. Dosa that once, as he stood in prayer, a [poisonous] lizard came and bit him, but he did not interrupt his prayer. They went and found the lizard lying, dead, over the entrance to its hole. They said, ‘Woe to the man who is bitten by a lizard, and woe to the lizard that bites R. Chanina b. Dosa.’

[R. Chanina b. Dosa’s] students said to him, ‘Rabbi, did you not feel it?’ He answered them, ‘May something of my intention [literally, “the direction of my heart”] during my prayer befall me if I felt [anything].’

R. Yitzchak bar Elazar said, ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, created a spring beneath his feet, in fulfillment of the verse, ‘He fulfills the desire of those who fear Him; He also hears their cry and saves them’ (Tehillim 145:20).

 

The basic plot of the story is the same, as is the message conveyed by R. Chanina b. Dosa’s students. However, there are also differences between the two accounts. One is that the story in the Bavli makes no mention of anyone being in the midst of prayer. This raises the question of why this story appears in the middle of a sugya whose context is the permissibility of interrupting one’s prayer. We might resolve this puzzle by focusing on the words that R. Yochanan b. Zakkai addresses to his disciples: “It is not the lizard that kills, but rather sin kills.” That message pertains to prayer, too, where – according to the chassid – any perceived threat is not a real threat. If we were to project R. Yochanan b. Zakkai’s teachings onto the story of the chassid, we might say, “It is not the angry Roman officer who kills, but rather sin kills” – as suggested by the story there and from the words of the chassid.

We might, therefore, point to an important difference between the messages of the two stories. While in the Yerushalmi, Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai testifies that he was quite unaware of his encounter with the lizard because he was engrossed in prayer, in the Bavli he deliberately seeks out the lizard (while not engaged in prayer). The “pietist” message of the Yerushalmi is that the chassid is intent on his prayer to the extent that he does not sense the lizard’s bite, and he is saved from its poison by virtue of his righteousness. In the Bavli, in contrast, there is a conscious decision and deliberate instigation of conflict with the lizard. Although R. Yochanan b. Zakkai is not engaged in prayer, the Bavli’s account is nevertheless reminiscent of the conscious decision by the chassid, in the story involving the Roman officer, not to interrupt his prayer. As noted, Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai goes on to state explicitly in the Bavli that his decision entails no danger, since “it is not the lizard the kills, but rather sin kills.” This is offered as justification for the conscious decision to take on the lizard. Within the framework of the sugya in the Bavli, it also serves as justification for the conscious decision not to interrupt prayer: the worshipper should avoid interrupting his prayer not only because of the importance of prayer, but also because there should, in fact, be no danger involved. If anything, greater danger is entailed by interrupting his prayer. Perhaps the sugya as a whole hints to a sort of cyclical perception, although it is not stated explicitly: the worshipper who stands and prays without interruption, thereby refraining from a sort of “sin”, protects himself from the danger that would seem to require that he interrupt.

Thus, the first part of the halakhic sugya about interrupting prayer is the same in both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. The halakhic discussion interprets the Mishna as declaring that there is no requirement that a person endanger his life in order to continue his prayer uninterrupted. In the aggadic discussion that follows, the Bavli and Yerushalmi share some aspects, while conveying different messages. The similarity lies in the fact that the stories present a “pietist” model that deviates from the halakhic conclusion of the sugya, which is meant as the general norm. The difference is that the sugya in each source presents the reader with a different “pietist” message. The Yerushalmi offers a model of total involvement in prayer that leaves no room for any consciousness of danger, while the Bavli offers a model in which the chassid knowingly takes on the danger entailed in continuing his prayer, with the awareness that “it is not the snake (or the Roman officer) who kills, but rather sin kills.”

Hence, both sugyot allow for the normative halakhic decision that it is permissible to interrupt prayer in a situation of danger, along with a pietist possibility that upholds the importance of continuing one’s prayer even in the face of danger.

 

Translated by Kareen Fish

 


[1]  It is possible that the allusion to the story of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai places the decision not to interrupt prayer in the realm of fear – the fear of heaven which is greater (as least in the case of the chassid) than the fear of mortals. This concept of fear or awe is an appropriate continuation of the beginning of the sugya in the Bavli, which discusses the first part of the Mishna: the Gemara offers different verses as possible sources for the demand that one pray with serious intent, most of them speaking of fear, such as, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (be-hadrat kodesh)”(Tehillim 29:2)  – which is interpreted as “in fear of holiness” (be-cherdat kodesh); “Serve the Lord in fear”, etc.