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Daf 4b - Redeeming Prayers

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan



In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.



Lecture 12:  Daf 4b

Redeeming Prayers



In the previous passage we read a baraita that advocated saying the Shema at night in the synagogue before the evening prayer.  In the context of this passage, the main reason for doing is to ensure that one actually gets around to saying the Shema rather than falling asleep first.  Now the Gemara suggests that there may be a more fundamental reason for this practice:


The Master said:

'Let him recite Shema and say the Tefilla 

This accords with the view of R. Yochanan. 

For R. Yochanan says:

Who inherits the world to come?

The one who follows the Geula immediately with the evening Tefilla. 

R. Yehoshua b. Levi says:

The Tefillot were arranged to be said in the middle. 


This passage introduces a basic principle in the laws of prayer, semichut Geula le-Tefilla.  This principle obligates or, at least, recommends reciting the Shemoneh Esrei (the Tefilla) immediately following the blessing of redemption, Geula, which is said following the Shema.  This blessing focuses on God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt.  I would like to consider the meaning and implications of this dictum before going on to discuss our passage.


Rashi cites a mashal, a parable, from the Jerusalem Talmud on this matter.  The parable draws on the famous scene at the beginning of Shir Ha-shirim, Chapter Five.  The Jerusalem Talmud compares one who does not link Geula with Tefilla to the lover of a king who knocks on the king’s door, but leaves before the king opens the door.  So too, the one who fails to link Geula with Tefilla has effectively squandered his opportunity.  Rather, one should first find favor with God by offering Him praises regarding the Exodus and then, while still in a state of closeness with God, one should make requests before Him.  According to Rashi, the Geula blessing is an opportune introduction to the Shemoneh Esrei; it increases the efficacy of one’s prayers. 


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) in his classic essay, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” (Tradition, Spring 1978) suggests a different approach.  He argues that the processes of redemption and prayer are fundamentally parallel; prayer is actually a type of redemption.  For the Rav, redemption is moving from a state of powerlessness and anonymity to one of activity and identity.  Prayer, similarly, is a response to the experience of suffering.  At first, the individual cannot comprehend the nature of his suffering; he feels only undifferentiated pain.  He is mute, only able to cry out without words.  Prayer is the process of becoming aware of one’s needs and learning to articulate them.  For the Rav, this awareness is redemptive.  The creative act of prayer makes a person fully human. The alienation of pain and suffering is transformed into a means for self-consciousness and understanding.


Along similar lines, I would like to suggest another commonality between Geula and Tefilla.   Many have pointed out that the three paragraphs of the Shema, as well as the three blessings that surround them, correspond to the three basic ways in which God relates to the world - creation, revelation, and redemption.  These categories are formulated by the early 20th century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosensweig in his book, The Star of Redemption.  Redemption, unlike like the other two categories, involves God’s involvement in history.  The blessing of redemption, Geula, as well as the last paragraph of the Shema, focus on God taking the Jews out of Egypt, the most prominent example of Divine intervention in human affairs.  Similarly, the prayer of the Shemone Esrei addresses a God who is involved in human affairs and can meet the individual and collective needs of the Jews and all humankind.  Geula and Tefilla thus go together.


Alternatively, perhaps there is no particular connection between Geula and Tefilla.  Rather, we place the two next to each other in order to forge a link between the Shemone Esrei and the larger unit of the Shema and its blessings.  Shema and Shemone Esrei were two separate prayers, with different sources and purposes, governed by two different, but overlapping, timeframes.  We are obligated to say the Shema upon waking up and going to bed.  We are obligated to say the Shemone Esrei in the first and last part of the day, as well as at night.  By propounding the rule of linking Geula with Tefilla, the Rabbis forge these two prayers into a single service, creating a unified system of daily prayer.  We generally experience these prayers as a unified whole. The terms Shacharit and Maariv refer to the entire package of the Shema and Shemoneh Esrei.


In contrast, R. Yehoshua b. Levi says, “The tefillot were arranged to be said in the middle."  This statement suggests that R. Yehoshua did not dispute bringing together Geula and Tefilla in the morning, but only at night.  In his view, the two daily recitals of the Shema are meant to bracket the three daily recitals of the Shemoneh Esrei. 


The Gemara now turns to the logic behind these two positions:


What is the ground of their difference? —

If you like, I can say it is [the interpretation of] a verse,

and if you like, I can say that they reason differently. 

For R. Yochanan argues:

Though the complete deliverance from Egypt

took place in the morning time only,

there was also some kind of deliverance in the evening;

whereas R. Yehoshua b. Levi argues

that since the real deliverance happened in the morning

[that of the evening] was no proper deliverance.


The first explanation of the dispute argues that attaching Geula to Tefilla is a result of the relationship between redemption from Egypt and the Shemone Esrei.  This explanation, however, does not specify how the two are related.  According to this opinion, the two rabbis argue about the significance of the redemption from Egypt that occurred at night.  Clearly, the Jews did not leave Egypt until the morning.  However, according to R. Yochanan, the beginnings of the redemption, that occurred the night before, count as redemption.  According to R. Yehoshua, these events are overshadowed by the redemption that occurred the next day.  It is not obvious how these arguments explain the original dispute about Geula and Tefilla.  It would seem that if the redemption at night was not significant, the blessing of Geula, or perhaps the last paragraph of the Shema, should be omitted at night.  Perhaps this is R. Yehoshua’s intent, since if we don’t say Geula at night, in his opinion, the whole principle of connecting Geula to Tefilla does not apply at night.


Alternatively, even R. Yehoshua agrees that we say the Geula blessing at night, but for some reason connected to the historical timing of the original redemption from Egypt, the rule of connecting Geula to Tefilla does not apply at night.  I am not sure what this reason would be. 


Next, the Gemara presents an alternative explanation of the dispute:


Or if you like, I can say it is [the interpretation of] a verse. 

and both interpret one and the same verse, [viz.,]

When thou liest down and when thou risest up. 

R. Yochanan argues:

There is here an analogy between lying down and rising. 

Just as [at the time of] rising, recital of Shema precedes Tefilla,

so also [at the time of] lying down, recital of Shema precedes Tefilla. 

R. Yehoshua b. Levi argues [differently]:

There is here an analogy between lying down and rising. 

Just as [at the time of] rising,

the recital of Shema is next to [rising from] bed, 

so also [at the time of] lying down,

recital of Shema must be next to [getting into] bed.


In this understanding, the rule of connecting Geula to Tefilla reflects a larger desire to link the recitation of Shema and Shemone Esrei.   Both rabbis agree that this is the case in the morning, and they both agree that the verse, “When thou liest down and when thou risest up,” suggests a parallel between the morning and evening Shema.  According to R. Yochanan, the parallel is the order in which the Shema and Shemone Esrei are said.  In both cases, the Shema and its blessings should precede the Shemone Esrei, thereby connecting Geula to Tefilla.  R. Yehoshua, on the other hand, derives from this verse that just as the morning Shema is said immediately upon waking, the nighttime shema is said immediately before going to sleep.  Hence there is no possibility of linking together Geula and Tefilla. 


Finally, the Gemara seeks to resolve some technical impediments to the linking of Geula and Tefilla:  


            Mar b. Rabina raised an objection. 

In the evening, two benedictions precede

and two benedictions follow the Shema.

Now, if you say he has to join Geula with Tefilla,

behold he does not do so,

for he has to say [in between], 'Let us rest'?

I reply: Since the Rabbis ordained the benediction, 'Let us rest',

it is as if it were a long Geula. 

For, if you do not admit that,

how can he join in the morning,

seeing that R. Yochanan says:

In the beginning [of the Tefilla] one has to say:

O Lord, open Thou my lips [etc.], 

and at the end one has to say:

Let the words of my mouth be acceptable? 

[The only explanation] there [is that] since

the Rabbis ordained that O Lord, open Thou my lips should be said,

it is like a long Tefilla. 

Here, too, since the Rabbis ordained that 'Let us rest' should be said,

it is like a long Geula.


The Gemara notes that the Mishna requires a fourth blessing, Hashkiveinu, following the Geula blessing at night.  This requirement seems to make it impossible to link Geula and Tefilla at night.  Similarly, R. Yochanan requires that before beginning each and every Shemone Esrei, one should recite the verse “O Lord, open Thou my lips…” Once again, the introduction of this verse seems to make the linking of Geula and Tefilla impossible in all cases.  The Gemara answers that once the rabbis introduced these innovations, they effectively became part of the Geula blessing and hence do not interfere with its linkage to the Shemone Esrei.  This explanation makes most sense if we understand the linkage of Geula and Tefilla as facilitating a larger joining of the Shema and the Shemone Esrei into a single unit. 


Highway to Heaven


The Gemara now presents a discussion of the prayer we call Ashrei, which mostly consists of Tehillim 65, beginning “A psalm of David."  The Gemara states:


R. Elazar b. Abina says:

Whoever recites [the psalm] Praise of David three times daily,

is sure to inherit the world to come.


This line does not seem to conform with traditional rabbinic notions of the world to come and how it is gained.  The Rabbis generally portray the world to come as being earned by the composite deeds of a person over a lifetime.  We mortals do not have the exact calculus for making this determination.  Furthermore, it seems hard to imagine that something so simple as the recitation of a psalm could possible gain one entry into the world to come.  We all know of people who have faithfully recited Ashrei three times daily and yet have committed all sorts of sins.  Is such a person really guaranteed the next world?


Rashi attempts to mitigate this problem.  He understands “the three times a day” as referring to the three daily prayers.  This understanding is difficult to understand considering that we say Ashrei twice in Shacharit and we do not say it at all in Maariv.  The Maharsha explains Rashi as referring to the three times Kedusha is said daily, twice in Shacharit (once in “uva le-zion”) and once in Mincha.  This interpretation at least shifts the focus from Ashrei to a prayer of central cosmic significance.  Yet we still must ask, can one indeed enter heaven simply by reciting the Kedusha three times daily?


The commentator Etz Yosef suggests that this line should not be taken literally.  This statement is a literary exaggeration meant to emphasize the importance of saying Ashrei, not to make serious claims about who goes to heaven and why.


Ein Yaakov suggests another possibility. Praying three times a day is harder than it seems.  Very few people pray three times each and every day with full and proper kavana (intent).  Someone who manages to achieve this throughout his life will have risen to a very high level, and certainly will enter heaven. 


Finally, I would like to suggest another possibility, not raised by the traditional commentaries.  We take this statement at face value, that a simple ritual/liturgical act can guarantee entry into the world to come.  While this notion may seem strange to those familiar with mainstream Jewish tradition, similar beliefs were held by members of other religions in the ancient world.  Is it possible that some Jews similarly attributed such extraordinary, even magical, powers to the recitation of prayers?  I think this is quite possible.  Indeed, we will see very soon that the Gemara agreed that the recitation of the Shema has the power to protect the individual against demons.  Why should not another prayer, when recited regularly, have the capacity to protect one from the fires of Gehenom? Many religious Jews today, similarly, believe that certain psalms, recited in a particular regimen, can have a positive impact in a specific way, whether it is healing from illness, finding a marriage partner, or whatever.


The Gemara now investigates the reason for the special status of this psalm:


What is the reason?

Shall I say it is because it has an alphabetical arrangement?

Then let him recite, “Happy are they that are upright in the way,”

which has an eightfold alphabetical arrangement. 

Again, is it because it contains [the verse],

Thou openest Thy hand [and satisfiest every living thing with favor]?

Then let him recite the great Hallel, where it is written:

Who giveth food to all flesh! 

—    Rather, [the reason is] because it contains both.


The Gemara points to two distinguishing features of Tehillim 65.  One is that the psalm is an alphabetical acrostic, and the other is that it contains the verse, “Thou openest Thy hand and satisfiest every living thing with favor.” The Gemara then notes that neither of these attributes is unique to our psalm.  Tehillim 119 is an eightfold acrostic, and Tehillim 136:25 similarly mentions God’s sustenance of all living things.  The Gemara concludes that Tehillim 65’s special status is because it combines both attributes. 


Of these two attributes, we can more easily understand why the verse, “Thou openest Thy hand,” is significant.  The notion that God provides sustenance for all life on earth has profound spiritual and theological significance in Judaism.  It makes sense that this idea makes Ashrei a particularly significant prayer, which might even have special powers, and that one who truly internalizes the message of this verse is worthy of entering heaven.  The fact that Ashrei is an acrostic does not seem as important.  The importance of the acrostic seems to suggest a magical implication.  Alternatively, the alphabetic acrostic may suggest that the psalm contains a complete and total praise of God, from A to Z, as we would say.  If this is the case, then we can understand why Ashrei has a special status. 


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