Shiur #26: Afterword

  • Rav Ezra Bick

Technically speaking, we have finished. The Shemoneh Esrei consists of blessings, and "Sim shalom" was the last one. We all know, though, that there is another paragraph recited after the blessing of shalom, beginning with the words, "Elokai netzor lishoni mei-ra."

 

            The words of the Shemoneh Esrei were composed, according to the Talmud, by the "Men of the Great Assembly." These are the earliest sages of the halakha, the bridge between the age of the prophets and the age of the Law. As we have seen, they used the words of the Bible. The words of "Elokai netzor" were composed by a single individual in the late Talmudic period. That is one reason why we will concentrate less on the specific formulation of this prayer. But more importantly, this is not an "official" prayer. The Sages did not institute this text; rather it was the private custom of an individual sage. In fact, the Talmudic passage from where it derives, lists numerous examples of what different Talmudic Rabbis recited after the Shemoneh Esrei, where the prayer of "Elokai netzor" is merely one of the examples given. This highlights the major characteristic of this prayer - it is the private supplication of an individual. This is the main reason why we will not analyze these particular words, at least not in the detail with which we have subjected the berakhot of the Shemoneh Esrei, but rather the meaning of the framework of "Elokai netzor," which is the prayer which comes after the prayer.

 

            The Talmud (Ber. 16b) relates:

 

R. Eliezer, after he finished his prayer, would say: May it be Your will, HaShem our God, that You make love and brotherhood and peace and friendship dwell in our fate, and that You multiply the disciples in our midst, and that our end be successful with the goals of hope, and give us a share in the Garden of Eden, and grant us a true companion and a good inclination in Your world, and that we rise and find the desire of our hearts to fear Your name, and that the satisfaction of our hearts come before You for good.

 

            The text then continues to list how other Rabbis would add a different prayer after they "finished their prayer." There are eleven examples given, with the last one, the prayer of Mar the son of Ravina, being "Elokai netzor," the text found in our siddurim. Two other prayers listed there are familiar to us - one serves today as the introduction to the Shabbat prayer before a new moon, and the other is recited after the Shemoneh Esrei on Yom Kippur. The other examples are not utilized in the modern siddur. I shall not quote them here, though reading them is a fascinating experience.

 

            It is clear from the numerous examples that there is no set and fixed text for this prayer. Furthermore, it should be clear that there is in fact no fixed prayer at all here - these are texts recited "after one finishes one's prayer." We have here a prayer after prayer, in other words an optional, individual supplication.

 

            (It is worth noting that despite the language of the Talmud indicating that this text is recited AFTER the Shemoneh Esrei is completed, Jewish tradition has ensured that it be appended within the halakhic framework of Shemoneh Esrei by delaying the taking of three steps backward until after it is recited. Halakhically, as long as one has not stepped away from "standing before the King," one is still technically within the Shemoneh Esrei framework.)

 

            I think the explanation of what is happening here is that this is the place for personal prayer. In order to understand what I mean, a word of introduction - actually a review - is needed.

 

            If you have been following these shiurim from the beginning, it is clear that Jewish prayer, as exemplified by the Shemoneh Esrei, is a formal exercise. There are fixed times for prayer, rules of how to pray, and most important, fixed texts. The texts themselves are based mostly on Biblical verses, and preserve the formal, dignified language of the source. Furthermore, there is a halakhic requirement that prayer be recited in plural. One should request the blessings of God for the community as a whole, with oneself included. "Abaye said: One should always include oneself together with the community" (Ber. 29b). This entire series is based on the assumption that the phrasing of the prayers encapsulates basic ideas of Jewish philosophy, chosen with enormous care by the Sages, and presented to each individual Jew to recite three times a day.

 

            Historically, thinkers of every generation have struggled at times with the nature of tefila, as exemplified by the Shemoneh Esrei. If prayer is formulated by the Sages of old, with strict rules of recitation, with a formal, fixed text, to be repeated three-times daily all one's life, does this not contradict the soul of prayer, as a heart-felt outpouring of one's inner emotions, a spontaneous, genuine meditation on the meaning of one's life, a chance to reach into the depths of one's unique individual soul as it stands alone before the Creator, our Father, our King? Have not the laws, the text, the ritual of tefila expunged the inner soul of prayer?

 

            The answer to this question, in some sense, has been what has been beneath all of our discussions in this shiur, beginning with the first introductory one on the nature of "avoda," service. I do not wish to repeat the essence of that first shiur, but merely to remind you of that word, that concept - tefila is DEFINED halakhically as the service of God. It is not the lonely cry in the night of the soul, lost in darkness. One is not expected to pray daily with the feeling that "my father and mother have abandoned me, and HaShem takes me in." Man serves God by praying, by declaring that he is dependent on Him, by turning to Him to provide the basic needs of Man, the needs that were identified by the Sages as defining our relationship with God.

 

            There is a difference in the Halakha between TEFILA, prayer, and TZE'AKA, crying out. The Ramban, for example, claims that daily prayer is only a rabbinic obligation, whereas crying out to God in times of distress is a Torah obligation. The Rambam, as well, discusses the mitzva of tze'aka in the laws of fasting, and not in the laws of prayer. It is not as though Judaism does not believe that one can cry out to God. "From the straits I called out to You, God; You answered me from the wide expanse of God." On the contrary, one who comes to cry before God is not bounded by all the laws which circumscribe tefila. This is exemplified by the prayers on a fast day of distress - not in the confines of the synagogue, the courts of God, but in the street, breaking all the rules. One who grabs the corners of the garments of the king and cries out for succor will be listened to, even if he has violated all the rules of royal protocol. (See II Kings 7,26; 8,3). This, however, emphasizes how regular daily tefila bears a different character. One does not burst in before God and cry out in distress, but rather one stands in court before the King, and recites, in the words of the prophets and Sages, the appropriate prayers. These are the words of man as he should feel, they express the true needs of man, the genuine nature of his relationship with God. Some of these words are so far above our usual state that the Sages said of them that had they not been uttered by the prophets we could not have thought of saying them ourselves. Prayer is not spontaneous self-expression, but service, dedication of man as he can strive to be.

 

            There is, however, a need for the individual to speak to God as well. This cannot be mandated, for then it would become part of the mitzva, part of the ritual. Therefore, at the end of prayer, in the halakhic sense, we find that individual sages said that which they needed to say. The Talmud is careful not to state that there is a requirement to pray after prayer. Rather we learn from example, or rather from eleven examples. The prayer after prayer is the place for the individual, for the single heart. "Elokai netzor" is written in the singular. Looking at any of the examples in the Talmud, we are immediately struck by the absence of grandeur, of biblical imagery, of grand national themes. There is an unmistakable simplicity, one small voice alone with God. The formal part of tefila is over, we have taken leave, but before turning away, one adds a few words, one touches the corner of God's garment and expresses, in a simple outpouring of the inner heart, what one's soul needs.

 

            There is a certain irony in the historical fact that the Jewish people have more or less formalized the informal prayer. Our siddurim have a standard spontaneous prayer. Perhaps this reflects human failing, perhaps we do not know how to express ourselves. But this should not obscure the true nature of this section of tefila - no matter what words one uses, one is not reciting now the prayer of someone else, of Sages or prophets, but of one's own inner soul. And of course, this is indeed the place to add whatever the lonely soul before God needs to add, for that is why you have not yet taken the three steps backward of departure.

 

            R. Yaakov Emden, in his siddur, brings all the texts cited in the Talmud after the Shemoneh Esrei, and adds:

 

Now I have presented each prayer and supplication of the Talmudic sages as the spirit of God appeared on them. Every man may innovate for himself a prayer according to his needs, and as he knows his pain and affliction, so he can explicate the pain in his heart accordingly. Even if this will not be phrased eloquently, it is yet the heart of the pure and ready service of the heart - one who knows to innovate words from the depths of the pure and clean heart. He should place God before him and pour out his soul in words, before God when he wraps himself in His spirit - not as a ritualistic prayer, out of habit, like a burden or a bother.... One should not bind oneself to one particular version....

 

 

May it be Your will, HaShem our God and the God of our fathers,

that the Temple be built quickly in our days,

and there we shall serve in awe, as in the olden days and ancient years.

 

 

 

Now, we have really finished. But since there is still time for one more shiur, I shall discuss a non-verbal aspect of the Shemoneh Esrei - bowing, stepping, etc. So we still have one more week ahead.