Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Return of the Service

We say: retzei hashem elokeinu be-amecha yisra-el uvesefilasam vehasheiv es ha-avoda lidvir beisecha ve-ishei yisra-el usfilasam be-ahava sekabeil beratzon us-hi leratzon tamid avodas yisra-el amecha. Translated roughly, this says something like this: Be accepting, Hashem our G-d, of Your Jewish people and of their prayers; and restore the service, and the sacrificial offerings of the Jewish people, to the sanctum of Your house. Accept their prayers with love; and may the sacrificial service of Your Jewish nation always be accepted.

It occurs to me to comment that, seemingly, this embodies a redundancy: a duplication of expression. The second sentence appears to be a mirror-image of the first.  In the first it is asked: a) that the Jewish people’s prayers be accepted, and b) that the sacrificial service be restored to the holy Temple. The second sentence, though changing some of the wording, seems to ask for these very two things, in parallel.

What it occurs to me to suggest is that: they are indeed parallel. In both are prayer and services the subjects of request. The difference is temporal. In the first we are placing ourselves in our current location in exile and asking to be restored to yerushalayim with the coming of mashiach. We seek to be returned, so that we may perform the prayer service and, also, the sacrificing service in their designated place. By contrast, in the second sentence, we are placing ourselves in the period after the redemption has occurred. We are situated in yerushalayim, and we have the beis hamikdash in our midst. Inhabiting that setting, we ask that the prayers and the sacrifices that we actually do offer should receive acceptance by G-d.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reading Birchas Hazan

In birchas hamazon we say hazan es ha-olam kulo betuvo… I understand this as meaning the following. [G-d] Who feeds the whole world with His goodness, with kindness, and with mercy. He gives bread to every fleshen creature, for His kindness is everlasting. In His immense goodness, He has never deprived us. Nor, because of His great Name, will He ever deprive us of food. For He is a G-d Who feeds; and He supplies provisions unto all. And He does good unto all; and He puts food within reach of all of His creatures, the ones which He has created.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Note: The just concluded series on the nusach hatefila consists of the seven preceding posts. The first in the series is designated Form and Content; the last, The Paradigmatically Fleeting Request.


In Korach, people gange up on Moshe and Aharon and accuse them of illegitimately appropriating high office for themselves, whereupon they are eradicated from the face of the earth. Then it says that Hashem tells Moshe to do such-and-such in order to demonstrate plainly that the tribe of Levi has been designated as holder of high office, and that to it exclusively has performing the associated duties been assigned. No longer will there be room to question it.

I asked: Didn’t taking this step supply the people who were obliterated with a (posthumous) defense? Didn’t it imply that, until the commanded demonstration would be carried out, there had, in fact, been a basis for thinking that the Levite’s didn’t legitimately hold office? Didn’t it suggest that the actions of those who ganged up defiantly on Moshe and Aharon may have been excusable, after all, and that these people were not wholly culpable? Didn’t it, then, somehow legitimate their actions? After all, they hadn’t had the benefit of the demonstration that was first now going to be performed.

I thought to answer and to explain that no: it didn’t provide a retroactive defense of these people. The situation had changed. The before and the after were not the same. In the original situation, it had been inexcusably wrong to commit such an atrocity. Moshe had been the undeniable leader and teacher: he rightfully commanded the people’s trust. There had been every reason to abide by his dictate in this matter. Consequently, the people who committed the offense were held to account: they were deemed culpable, punished, and rightfully destroyed. The state of the world at that time called forth this higher level of conscience.

However, once they had committed their act of rebelliousness (and the consequences ensued), the situation had changed. It was inevitable that it should because, after all, actions affect the world. Offenses and wrongdoings have their impact; they leave traces behind them; and these traces are transformative. As a result, the world had undergone a spiritual metamorphosis. The hitherto unthinkable had henceforth become (more) thinkable: the world had deteriorated. From this point onward, people could no longer be held culpable for this particular offense, without first having been shown a palpable demonstration that to the tribe of Levi did higher office veritably belong.

This is what I thought to say.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Paradigmatically Fleeting Request

At this point, we encroach upon the berachos of teka beshofar, hashiva, viliyerushalayim irecha, and es tzemach. They share something important in common, thematically speaking. They are all concerned with the geula asida. As such, they do not represent perennial bakashos. Let (kiveyachol) the Ribono Shel Olam answer our prayer by sending us mashiach; and we will never enunciate the prayer again. It will have served its purpose – may it be soon. The bakasha is therefore fleeting in the sense previously described; so it is no wonder that the beracha does not bear a ki-clause.

Parenthetically, we earlier lumped re-ei ve-anyeinu with perennial bakashos, seeking to justify its embodiment of a ki-clause. Yet, by our present reasoning, this bakasha would seem to call for the suppression of a ki-clause. After all, the bakasha bespeaks redemption: ugaleinu meheira lema-an shemecha. And its chasima reads: go-el yisra-el. However, the perplexity here is no more than superficial. For Rashi in Tractate Megila makes it plain that the beracha of re-ei ve-anyeinu does not pertain to the ge-ula asida, for which are, as we have seen, already set aside four others of the bakashos of the Amida. It concerns itself, rather, with the day-to-day travails that beset us in our present situation. It asks that we be relieved of, and redeemed from, them. The need referred to is thus definitely general and ongoing; the amelioration sought is repeatable. So the beracha’s embodiment of a ki-clause is consistent with the position we have taken.

This leaves us with but the beracha of shema koleinu to take account of. But hardly anything more needs to be said, considering that shema koleinu obviously addresses a perennial need for the Ribono Shel Olam to hearken to our tefilos, and that it has a ki-clause.


This completes the compass of our designated area of investigation. What I want to add in an extra-curricular vein is that the beracha of sim shalom does not, strictly speaking, number among the bakashos of the Shemoneh Esrei. It is, after all, positioned in the third section, designated for expressions of thanks. This notwithstanding, the fact cannot be gainsaid that it seems to ask for something, namely, that the A-lmighty grant us peace. I won’t take up the question of why it is, then, arranged with the berachos of hodo-a rather than with those of bakasha. I will simply assume that it is possible to ask for something in a beracha of hodo-a. The observation I would make, then, is that what is asked for – that peace be on us – is something for which there is a perennial need. This being so, it ought to follow, per our adumbrated understanding, that the beracha would embody a ki-clause. Yet, seemingly it does not. Where is it?

To this I want to offer the suggestion that, perhaps, the last stanza of the nusach embodies a ki-clause, without, however, employing the word ki. It reads: vetov be-einecha levareich es amecha yisra-el bechal eis uvchal sha-a bishlomecha. One may raise the question: why is this (statement) inserted here? Interestingly, the Avudraham weighs in on this, and he wants to interpret the clause as requesting: May it be good in Your Eyes to bless Your people yisra-el at all times with Your peace. In other words, he interprets vetov be-einecha as meaning what would be meant if the word yeheye were inserted: vetov yeheye be-einecha. (And nusach ha-ari actually renders it this way.) However, on the thinking I am proposing, vetov be-einecha may be read in a more literal way, as stating that (kiveyachol) Hashem Yisbarach favors blessing His people with peace. The statement is inserted here to justify, if you will, the request for peace, which is of a perennial nature. It justifies it by appealing to the fact that it is of (kiveyachol) G-d’s character to favor us with peace. It is, then, as if the statement had embodied the word ki.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Year

Re-ei ve-anyeinu and refa-einu fall into the category of what we’ve called perennial bakashos. It is therefore understandable that the formulation (nusach) of the berachos should include a ki-clause. What is, initially, not as understandable is why the following beracha, bareich aleinu, does not similarly end in a ki-clause.

Bareich aleinu is a bakasha for parnasa: material sustenance. The need is perennial, ubiquitous, and ongoing. Why shouldn’t this beracha feature a ki-clause, then? The answer, I suggest, is that the bakasha of bareich aleinu does not ask for sustenance in a general way. It reads: bareich aleinu hashem elokeinu es hashana hazos...uvareich shenoseinu kashanim hatovos. In other words, it is a bracha for a year, one year in particular: this year. It is a bakasha for the year in which we are presently standing, asking that it be good, productive, abundant, sating, and sustaining. The year is an ephemeral interval: it comes and at goes. It is fleeting. When the year has passed, we will no longer be reciting a bakasha for it. Instead we will be asking for the fruitfulness of the new year that will have superseded it. And so on and on.

In sum, confined to one specific year, the beracha is particular rather than general in its reach. I think that substantially the same logic applies to al hatzadikim and velamalshinim. In the former, mention is made of peleitas sofereihem. In the Artscroll, this is rendered “on the remnant of their scholars.” (I don’t have a Birnbaum.) To speak of a remnant is to make specific reference to a given historical era. In this era, there were such remnants. In praying for its tzadikim, an individual community appeals for the special protection of, first and foremost, its leadership, who stand at the forefront and provide direction. The bakasha then proceeds to single out other well circumscribed groups – the elders of the community, the newly converted – for additional safekeeping. By dividing the population and isolating certain of its segments, the signon – tenor – of the bakasha makes it plain that its focus is trained, not on people in general nor on the entire march of history, but rather on the community momentarily enunciating the prayer.

I would venture the speculation that the Yakum Purkan and Mi Shebeirach tefilos that were instituted much later than the Shemoneh Esrei, and that we recite on Shabbos before Musaf for the well being of the congregation: its rabanim, teachers, community leaders, askanim, students, and congregation-members and their families – that it was inspired by the thrust of the bakasha of al hatzadikim that we recite in the Shemoneh Esrei.  If so, then these Shabbos prayers reveal how the later generation conceived the intention behind the bakasha of al hatzadikim. It shows that they viewed it as having a localized community orientation.

Comparable considerations apply to velamalshinim, which was only later introduced in response to the exigencies of the particular period. It singles out a certain segment of the population for doom and seeks amelioration from the travails plaguing a given moment in history. It does not bear a universal mien. It has no ki-clause.


Al hatzadikim is a perplexing beracha. Why do we single out tzadikim from among all other people for special consideration? Don’t we all want and need protection? Also, by the time we’ve gone through the entire beracha, just about everyone has been mentioned (for we say ve-al geirei hatzedek ve-aleinu and, also, vesim chelkeinu imahem). So what is the point of going about it piecemeal, starting from the tzadikim, and working one’s way downstream? Further, why is the remnant of their scribes singled out for special mention? And who, in our day, are these people: the remnant of their scribes? Are there any? B”H our Torah community is growing by leaps and bounds; it is not at all obvious to me that there are any remnants to speak of? Perhaps in earlier generations (perhaps in the generation recently gone by) – but now?! If this is a general, ever-applicable beracha, and if it pertains to a constant, ongoing need, why make reference to peleitim whose presence or absence varies with historical contingencies? Similarly, why do geirim need to be singled out for special mention? Significantly, why do we ask that those who trust in Hashem be rewarded? Keviyachol Hashem is known to reward everyone for every good thing performed? Why, further, do we ask that our lot be cast with theirs – as if to say we ourselves fall short in the area of bitachon (trust in G-d) and need, for favorable treatment, to be tagged along with those who are strong? Paradoxically, we follow up by declaring ki becha batachnu! If this is a general bakasha, all these things seem perplexing.

But if my suggestion is in the right, then, when we recite this beracha, we are representing ourselves and speaking in behalf of our own community (however large or small it be looked at as being). We single out special segments of the community because of our deference to them or because of a special interest in their welfare. It is as if we owe them special recognition, and we want to show that we are solicitous of these people’s well being. The beracha was instituted with an era in which there were peleitim in mind. But we adhere to the original formulation, regardless of era. And because we don’t want to be too bigoted or favoritistic, we seek to be inclusive and say: Amply reward all who truly trust in Your Name. But we are concerned about our entire community, not just isolated segments; so want to be even more inclusionary. Therefore we add: Cast our lot with theirs, because we trust in You.       

Thursday, June 23, 2011

To Ask to Repent

After ata chonein comes hashiveinu; and after that comes selach lanu.

Hashiveinu does not feature a ki-clause: its words of bakasha run up all the way to the chasima. If we are right, this would indicate that what is asked for in this beracha is a one-time favor, and that the need for this favor is fleeting. Yet, what the beracha asks for is that we be returned to Torah; that we be drawn closer to His service, meaning that we be made to serve Him better; and that we be reverted to a state of complete repentance before Him. On the face of it, these are not one-time needs, but perpetual ones. Our devotion to Torah needs to be steadfast, and to persist continually and not let up. How, then, can this bakasha rightfully be construed as having a fleeting nature?

But I think that this line of reasoning misses the point that we are asking for complete return to G-d’s service (teshuva sheleima), and that we are asking for assistance in achieving true teshuva. True teshuva is everlasting; it is not provisional or temporary.

To see this, we need to reflect on the core essence of teshuva. We need to be reminded of the Rambam’s assertion that teshuva incorporates regret and consummate abandonment of the transgression. He characterizes this repulsion-ridden distancing of oneself from one’s erstwhile foibles and offenses as carrying with it a high degree of zeal and intensity. So zealous and determined is the repenter, the Rambam says, that the One Who Knows Things Hidden – (kiveyachol) G-d Himself – can bear testimony on this individual that he will never repeat his offenses, going forward. We may be weak and never entirely sure that we will not succumb to temptation in the future and revisit the flaw – the fault – for which we are now repenting. Nevertheless, what we seek and try to achieve when we engage in teshuva is thorough disassociation from the forbidden act that we performed (or failed to perform, as the case may be). We want our detachment from it to be so consummate, and to embody such finality, that it will be (all but) certain that we will never return to our wanton ways – at least as far as this particular shortcoming/transgression is concerned.

So from the point of view of our thoughts and our intentions, those that are uppermost in our mind as we recite the petition for teshuva (in hashiveinu) – from this vantage point, we are asking for (what we hope will be) a one-time favor. We are asking to be returned to Him so consummately that the need won’t rearise for us to ask for this in the future. It is a fleeting request.

Selach lanu, on the other hand, asks for forgiveness. It is predicated on the realism that people commit transgressions for which they require and seek pardon. Consonantly with the prerogative of bechira, it does not importune for the total eradication of sin. This prayer fully expects people to return to itself over and over. It is a perennial request, asking for something that is repeatedly needed. It thus features a ki-clause.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Favor of Intelligence

Over the course of the past three posts, we’ve drawn attention to an outwardly asymmetry in the composition of the bakashos of the Amida (Amida = Shemoneh Esrei). Some do close with a ki-clause, while others do not. In the previous post, we ventured an explanation, invoking the notions of rationale-giving and appealing to Divine attributes. We distinguished between two kinds of bakasha: fleeting and perennial. And we advanced the suggestion that featuring a ki-clause or not featuring one bifurcates itself along the lines of whether a bakasha expresses a perennial request or a fleeting one. The reader is referred to that post for fuller elaboration. At present, we are saddled with the task of testing our suggestion. If we are right, then any beracha of bakasha that we encounter in the Shemoneh Esrei that includes a ki-clause will be found, upon examination, to ask for something whose need is ongoing, general, and perennial. And conversely, any bakasha, the tenor of which is fleeting, will be observed to omit the ki-clause. On the surface, the test seems simple to administer. Yet, it may turn out to tax our deliberative faculties more than we might have anticipated.


We have already had occasion to observe that the very first bakasha, ata chonein, does not incorporate a ki-clause. The words of bakasha that read, chaneinu me-itecha de-a bina vehaskeil, extend all the way to the chasima, without the intervention of a clause beginning in ki. This immediately poses a formidable challenge to our thesis. It is, after all, quite clear that what we ask for here is something that is needed on an ongoing basis: it is a perennial need. We are asking that we, all of us, always have the capacity to think and to reason and to know. Our cognitive endowment, our intelligence, is our lifeblood; it is what enables us to function as human beings and to experience humanity. It is therefore essential to our very existence. The need, moreover, persists on and on. Having been granted wisdom in the here-and-now, we remain in need of it going forward. Wisdom having been imparted to people in this part of the globe, it continues to be sorely needed by the denizens of other geographic regions. The point is so obvious that it requires no further elaboration. Consequently, according to the tenor of our discussion, the bakasha for da-as ought to conclude with a ki-clause. Yet, it appears not to.

This conundrum has an answer. We jumped too hastily to the conclusion that ata chonein fails to feature a ki-clause. It actually does feature one – albeit in a somewhat concealed way.

Let us observe that the bakasha of ata chonein stands out from among all the other bakashos in that it is prefaced by a declaration: ata chonein le-adam da-as. None of the other bakashos does anything similar. I submit that this opening declaration is a disguised (if you will) ki-clause. Coming in at the opening of the bakasha rather than at its conclusion, it does not employ the word ki. But this notwithstanding, what the beracha does in this opening stanza is justify – and provide the basis for – the request that immediately follows. It explains why a request for intelligence is in order, pinning this request on the fact that the A-lmighty, Kudesha Berich Hu, possess the attribute of favoring man with da-as – wisdom. And since favoring man with wisdom is within the purview of (kiveyachol) G-d’s attributes, we are justified in appealing to Him for His constant, universal bestowal upon us of this kindness.

As to why this beracha places the rationale/justification – the ki-clause – at the beginning rather than at the end, various explanations may be offered. To illustrate just one: it is done as a way of demarcating this (newly entered) section of the Amida, which is occupied in bakasha, from the section that preceded it, which was occupied in giving praise.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Divide and Conquer

THESIS: I maintain that all and only those bakashos that bespeak perennial requests, in the sense explained in the preceding post, are complemented by a ki-clause. Those berachos, on the other hand, that express what I have called fleeting bakashos – they are consistently devoid of such complementation. Let me begin by saying why this should be so.

For what are we entitled (or empowered) to ask? Put simply, the answer is: for the fulfillment of our needs. Therefore, a bakasha that singularly addresses one of our needs is a bakasha we are entitled to make. A fleeting bakasha is such a bakasha. It asks that G-d grant the request for a specific thing. Once the request has been granted, the thing is no longer needed; so the request falls away. It ceases to be invoked.

With a perennial request the situation is different. After the request has been answered, it remains in full effect. And this, in two senses. In the first place, we continue to plead it (without letup). The instance that has, thank G-d, been ameliorated is but one of countless others like it that await Heavenly intercession for the good. We repeat the bakasha again and again, each time prompted by as-yet unmitigated instances of the malady in question. And second, when we make a request like this, we do not do it with merely the one instance with which we are immediately confronted in mind. We generalize the request and formulate it so that it subsumes untold unspecified instances within its compass. We, in effect, ask that G-d fill the need wherever it happens to exist: now, then, here, there. We ask that He persistently relieve us of this (generic type of) distress, whenever/wherever it may (not) be found to occur.

What this means is that, in pleading a perennial bakasha, we extend our sights beyond the limitations of the here-and-now. We transcend the concerns of our current situation and of a particular need. We seek to generalize and universalize, as it were; and we ask the A-lmighty for overall, all-inclusive protection and amelioration. This being so, our entitlement to issue the request is brought into question. After all, we are not strictly confining it to a perceived need. We are venturing out, and seeking protection from suffering or danger that we are unaware of and that may not as yet have arisen. On the principle that we are entitled to daven only for the fulfillment of a need – a real one – there would be a lot to be said for the idea that we are not entitled to make a perennial request. Except for one consideration...

We may ask that G-d give us something that His very attributes indicate that He will give us. We may appeal to an attribute and ask that He favor us with a kindness that arises from it. We may put our request by saying that He should act in accord with that certain attribute. When we do this, the fact that the request is perennial, and that it reaches beyond the present exigency and subsumes non-encountered instances under its aegis, is irrelevant. It is irrelevant because (kiveyachol) G-d's attribute is unbounded. This invocation of a Divine attribute is what the ki-clause represents.

When we ask for something particular whose need is immediately felt, we do not need to rationalize the request. It is something for which we are granted the power to pray. We can utter the prayer straight out. Thus the absence of a ki-clause in a fleeting bakasha. However, when we ask for perennial salvation, we can do so only by appeal to an attribute. We must rationalize our request and say: grant us this, because it is in accord with Your essence (Your mida or attribute) to grant precisely this sort of favor. Offering this kind of rationalization is, I want to suggest, the distinct mission of the ki-clause.

Having come to an understanding of what the ki-clause does and why it is needed, it devolves on us to probe the extent to which our theory is borne out by the data. We already know which of the bakashos feature a ki-clause and which of them do not. At this point we will want to examine them severally, for their conformance – or otherwise – to the principle here enunciated. Let’s hope to do that, bs”d, in the ensuing post.

Monday, June 20, 2011


In the preceding post we talked about the Shemoneh Esrei and we raised a question about the two distinctive patterns that the different berachos of bakasha seem to follow. Some close with a ki-clause and others do not.

We ventured the thought that a ki-clause serves to justify the request we have made by giving a rationale, as it were, for (kiveyachol) Hashem’s intercession in fulfilling the request. Pardon our sins, we say, because You are a pardoning King. And so on and so forth. But we were left with the question of why only certain of the bakashos are singled out for closure with a ki-clause and not the others.

In this post we hope to begin to close in on this question. Let us begin by surveying the terrain and seeing which bakashos do and do not feature an appended ki-cluase. Taking it from the top we find that the first bakasha, ata chonein, appears not to. It reads: chaneinu me-itecha de-a bina vehaskeil. Immediately the chasima follows: baruch ata... So no expression of justification appears to be backing up this request. Next we move on to hashiveinu which, as noted in the previous post, does not embody a ki-claus. Turning to the third, we encounter selach lanu, which as, again, noted, does have a ki-clause. This brings us to re-ei ve-anyeinu. Very patently, it has a ki-clause: ki goe-l chazak ata. The same holds true for refa-einu, the following beracha. When we encounter bareich aleinu, though, we notice at once that it is without a ki-clause. (This, of course, assumes that you are davening in nusach ashkenaz, which you may not be.) Moving on to the next several up the line, we observe that neither teka beshofar nor hashiva shofeteinu nor velamalshinim nor al hatzadikim nor vilirushalayim irecha nor es tzemach has a ki-clause. At this point we encounter the final of the berachos of bakasha, shema koleinu; and immediately we notice that it does have a ki-clause.

This concludes our inventory. Now, with the terrain staked out perspicaciously before us, it will behoove us to ponder it closely and see whether any incipient underlying principle rises to the surface. I would like to claim that, with some due penetration, we may in fact be able to discern the roots of a principle of demarcation that governs the entire spectrum of the bakashos of the Shemoneh Esrei. I hold that at the foundation of this emerging principle of demarcation lies the following kernel of insight.

There are two kinds of thing we may ask for. One is such that, once our request has been answered and the need sought has been provided, the request becomes null and void: it falls away entirely. A request like this holds good only for so long as it has not been met; once it has, it is as if it had evaporated into thin air. It has, we may say, become unfounded. By contrast, other requests are requests for things that are needed on an ongoing basis. A single fulfillment of it does not  deactivate the request, going forward. The request remains in force, seeking repeated acts of fulfillment – in relation to like manifestations of the need, occurring over time and in unforeseen places. They are, if you will, perennial requests...ones that keep reinserting and reasserting themselves. They are distinguished from the fleeting requests, spoken of a moment ago. 

On this foundation, I want to say, does the difference between those bakashos that culminate in a ki-claue and those that do not rest. The explication of this is what I’ll want bs”d to come to in the next post.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Form and Content

In the Shemoneh Esrei, we recite eighteen berachos. The prayer in its totality is divided into three parts. The first, consisting of the first three berachos, enunciates praises of G-d. The last, consisting again of three berachos, expresses thanks to G-d. In between are sandwiched what were originally twelve but then grew into thirteen berachos of bakasha – supplication. In these latter, we beseech G-d for the fulfillment of our various needs, each such need being attended to in one of these berachos.

In what follows, I will focus on the middle berachos, those of supplication (bakasha). I want to suggest that the format in which these bakashos are encased follows one of two different patterns. One format expresses bakasha from beginning to end. (My discussion pertains to the part of a beracha – or bakasha – that precedes the chasima, beginning in baruch ata.) Its content is fully occupied in bakasha per se. The other, though occupied preponderantly in bakasha, adds something to the bakasha before closing. What it adds is what, formally speaking, I will call a ki-clause. As I understand it, the function of a ki-clause is, if you will, to rationalize the baracha. It is to provide a justification for asking for whatever it is that we ask in that beracha. It seems to embrace the presumption that, unless we can justify asking for something, we are not well positioned to ask for it. In this sense, a ki-clause lends external support to the bakasha. It empowers us to make it, if you will.

What I have been saying can best be brought out by illustration. The second of the berachos of bakasha is hashiveinu. Its formulation (nusach) reads as follows: hashiveinu avinu lesorasecha vekareveinu malkeinu la-avodasecha vehachazireinu bishuva sheleima lefanecha. These words exhaust the content of the bakasha, running all the way to the beracha’s chasima. It will be noticed that nothing is said that does not bespeak bakasha per se.

This, then, illustrates a bakasha formulated according to the first pattern. Now consider the very next bakasha. It reads thus: selach lanu avinu ki chatanu mechal lano malkeinu ki fashanu ki mochel vesole-ach ohta. We observe that the bulk of the bakasha is indeed devoted to expressing our request to G-d for forgiveness. However, before it draws to a close, it appears to divert from its thrust and invokes an extraneous statement, specifically: ki mochel vesole-ach ata. These appear to be words of rationale or justification. It is as if we were saying: “Why, Kiveyachol, grant us forgiveness?” “Do it because You are a forgiving and pardoning King.”

Now, go through all the berachos of bakasha, and you will find that they fall into either one these patterns: either they exhibit a ki-clause or they do not (and that those that do not do nothing other than articulate the bakasha). The question is, therefore, why this divergence of formulation? Why the absence of thoroughgoing consistency in formulation? Why should we need to justify our request in this manner? Why couldn’t we make it without resorting to such justification? What, further, is the nature of the justification we offer? And if indeed a justification is called for, why then not append it to each and every request we make throughout the entire range of bakashos? Why are some singled out for this sort of supplementation, with the other ones remaining unaffected at all? In other words, what principle of differentiation is operative here?

(Please stay tuned for the next post, bs”d.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

To Recapitulate

So far, we’ve touched on the Gra’s test for learning Torah lishma; Manoach’s distrust of his wife’s intelligence; the difference between buttons and a necktie as far as gartl-substitutes are concerned; the question of the uniqueness of the twelve months; the difference between posting mareh mekomos well in advance and posting them at the last minute; the idea that the whole system of breaking up the text of the Torah into pasukim, as we know them, is founded on the mesorah of the keri, as opposed to that of the kesiv; the assimilation of davening unthinkingly to idle talk; methods of parsing the formulation of Baruch She-amar; the definition of a congregated body of Jewish people; and the ideal of being faithful.

And in this particular post, we’ve touched on the enumeration of the various things that this blog has, bs”d, so far touched on.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Acting in Good Faith

This story is adapted from one cited by the Aruch and attributed to the amora Rav Chanina or the amora Rav Ami, depending on the girsa.


Lovely looking and adorned in enchanting jewelry, a girl was on her way home to her father, when she began to lose her bearings and feel faint. She needed something to eat or drink. Wandering about, she spotted a well, to which was affixed a bucket hanging from a rope. She grabbed the rope, hoping to lower the bucket into the water and fill it. But in the event, she was pulled down by the weight of the bucket and made to fall into the well. She had had her fill of water and sought to make her way out of the pit. But she was confronted with the reality that there was no way for her to maneuver her way out. Out of sheer desperation, she then let out cries and screams.

This went on for some time, when suddenly a passerby caught wind of the girl’s agonizing cries. He drew himself close to the source of the shouts but could not make out the identity of the being emitting them. It was too dark. He yelled into the pit, addressing himself to the being emitting the cries, and asking whether it was human or otherwise. The girl rang back that she was indeed human and desperately needed help in finding her way out of the pit. The passerby, in turn, was determined to discern whether this was in fact the case. He demanded of her that she swear to the verity of her statement, with which demand she complied and swore. He thereupon inquired with her as to how she had gotten down there and received her candid retelling of the turn of events. At which point he asked her whether she would be willing to be wedded to him, if he should pull her out of the pit. Immediately thereupon, she indicated her agreement to do so.

But no sooner had he pulled her out and caught a glimpse of her than he developed an urge to couple with her forthwith. Sensing this, she hesitated not a moment to ask him from what people he hailed. Answering her, he told her that he was a Jew from such-and-such a place and, also, a kohein. Responding in turn, she gave the location of her home, adding that – like him – she was a member of a highly reputable Jewish family. Then she scolded him, complaining that someone who is holy and exalted enough to have been designated by G-d for special status (as a kohein) among all the Jews – that someone like this should not be acting in so animal-like a fashion and trying jump right into (illicit) relations while circumventing the legitimate process of chupa and kidushin.

She sought to egg him on to follow her to where her father and mother were situated, so that she might become betrothed to him in an acceptable (respectable) way. Instead, he offered to enter into a compact with her, committing themselves to one another for marriage. Receiving her commitment, he made it a point to ask her who would bear witness to their pact. Hearing his quest, she felt hard pressed to offer a satisfactory solution. But just at that moment, as if out of nowhere, a weasel suddenly passed by in front of them. Prompted by this, she went on to insist that Heaven, the weasel, and the pit would attest to the fact that nothing deceitful had been lurking between them.

Satisfied, they took leave of each other and went their separate ways. The girl remained steadfastly faithful to her pledge. She received a steady stream of inquiries from would-be suitors seeking her out; but in case after case, she held firm in her declination and wavered not an iota. Things grew increasingly intense, with the pressure mounting for her to acquiesce in the proposals made in behalf of the most admirable of young men. It got to the point where she felt she had no way out, other than to resort to the tactic of warding off her pursuers by feigning lunacy and engaging in modes of conduct unbecoming a true Jewish princess. She would tear at the clothing of anyone who dared to approach her and rent her own clothing as well, resigning herself to lying in tatters.

Before long, the locals had caught on and ceased to entreat her. No longer would they queue up in front of her door but backed off entirely, as ever before. Alone she sat, with barely anyone one with whom to chat, awaiting his anxiously anticipated arrival.

With him, on the other hand, it was an entirely different story. Arriving home, he quickly put what had transpired out of his mind and settled in with the hustle and bustle of ordinary life. He took to a livelihood and gave free reign to his desire to marry. He married a woman who, in due course, became impregnated and bore him a child, a son. Three months had passed, and the child was bitten by a weasel and succumbed and died. She became pregnant again and bore him a son, another one. But this child fell into a ditch and succumbed to his injuries, dying from them. She took her husband aside and said to him that, if their children had died a normal death, she would have recited tziduk hadin and left it at that. But they had both died a death strange in the extreme; and for this there had to be some kind of an explanation.

She sensed that he had a story to tell her and adjured him to let her in on it. Whereupon he recounted for her benefit the whole train of events, commencing with his hearing the cries of the girl coming from the hole and culminating in his agreement to return to her for marriage – with a weasel and a pit bearing witness. Taking a divorce from him, she admonished him to go back to the woman who had been appropriated for him as a wife, by the Creator of the Universe.

He made his way over to her town and inquired with the locals as to her whereabouts. He was told that the woman he was seeking had gone mad and suffered from uncontrollable seizures. He was given to understand what she did to anyone who as much as attempted to approach her. So to her father he went and there and then gave vent to the story in its entirety. He expressed himself earnestly, taking upon himself full acceptance of any defects with which she might be smitten. The father appointed a witness, testifying to all that the man had undertaken. And thus did this kohein venture to approach the sad and forlorn woman, whom he had treated unfairly and of whose trust he had proven himself unworthy.

On being approached, the woman initially reacted in what had become her typical fashion: by trying to rip at his clothing and forcing him to keep his distance, on pain of sustaining damage to anything he might be holding. Undeterred, the man engaged her in conversation and made especial mention of the weasel and of the ditch whose testimony had so much earlier been invoked. She responded in kind, saying to him that she had stood by her word and refused entanglement with other parties, with whose entreaties she had been helplessly flooded. In their minds and in their hearts they found comfort and repose, as they basked in a profusion of calm and serenity. They engaged in procreation and were fruitful and multiplied – with both offspring and an abundance of possessions.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Assemblage of People

Women go to shul, and they stand (or sit) behind the mechitza. The question arises: When they daven standing behind the mechitza, are they performing tefila betzibur? Ostensibly, to daven tefila betzibur, a person has got to be situated in the room in which the tzibur is davening. Place is of the essence: it defines the tzibur, as it were. The question is therefore: when a part of the place – the room – is cordoned off by a mechitza, are the two sides of the mechitza considered the same place (room) as far as defining a tzibur is concerned? Or are they considered places each unto itself?

Seemingly, the resolution to this question will determine the resolution to a related question. If some men stand on one side of the mechitza and other men stand on the other side, and neither side by itself contains a minyan of men, do the men standing on either side combine to form a minyan? A Yes answer to the first question would seem to imply a Yes answer to the second.

In Bemechitzas Rabeinu, it is reported that Reb Yaakov Kaminetzky z”l gave a Yes answer to the first question. He is reported to have said that someone standing behind the mechitza and davening synchronously with the tzibur was performing tefila betzibur.

Someone might think to ask: How could it be otherwise? If the women standing behind the mechitza weren’t technically davening with the tzibur, what would be the point of their coming to shul in the first place? A rejoinder is, however, ready to hand. For it is brought down that, when someone is unable to attend a davening in shul and, therefore, to daven with a tzibur, he should nevertheless endeavor to calibrate the timing of his davening so that it is coordinated – temporally coincides – with the tzibur’s davening. It is the next best thing to actually davening as part of a tzibur. Accordingly, it would make sense for women to come to shul in either case, since, however the situation be in regard to the positional status of the other side of the mechitza, by being in attendance they would be able to effectively coordinate their davening with that of the tzibur.

And even this would be nothing to be made light of.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Syntactic Structure

Baruch ata hashem: ha-keil ha-av harachaman hamehulal befi amo meshubach umfo-ar bilshon chasidav va-avadov uvshirei david avdecha nehalelcha hashem elokeinu bishvachos uvizmiros negadelcha unshabeicha unfa-ercha venazkir shimcha venamlichacha malkeinu elokeinu

This excerpt is from Baruch She-amar.  Question: how should it be parsed?  Ostensibly, there are two viable ways.  One is as follows.     
Baruch ata hashem: ha-keil ha-av harachaman hamehulal befi amo meshubach umfo-ar bilshon chasidav va-avadov. uvshirei david avdecha nehalelcha hashem elokeinu. bishvachos uvizmiros negadelcha unshabeicha unfa-ercha venazkir shimcha venamlichacha malkeinu elokeinu.

The other is as follows.
Baruch ata hashem: ha-keil ha-av harachaman hamehulal befi amo meshubach umfo-ar bilshon chasidav va-avadov uvshirei david avdecha. nehalelcha hashem elokeinu bishvachos uvizmiros. negadelcha unshabeicha unfa-ercha venazkir shimcha venamlichacha malkeinu elokeinu.

I’ve seen it done one way in some sidurim, and the other way in other sidurim.

There is also a third method of parsing, found in some sidurim. It goes like this.

Baruch ata hashem: ha-keil ha-av harachaman hamehulal befi amo meshubach umfo-ar bilshon chasidav va-avadov. uvshirei david avdecha nehalelcha hashem elokeinu bishvachos uvizmiros. negadelcha unshabeicha unfa-ercha venazkir shimcha venamlichacha malkeinu elokeinu

But I'm not so sanguine with this one. Two prepositional phrases, uvshirei david avdecha and bishvachos uvizmiros, are modifying the same verb nehalelcha.  That seems a bit unusual.     

Monday, June 13, 2011

Anecdotal Interlude

A disciple approached his master disconcertedly, complaining that it is said that one who refrains from engaging in idle talk for a period of forty days merits witnessing Eliyahu Hanavi’s revelation, and that he had met this condition and, yet, not been revealed to by him. To which his master incisively responded: “Have you not prayed during this forty day period?” The disciple assured him that he had. “Well, then, retorted the master, have you recited all your prayers with the proper concentration?” The disciple thereupon drew a blank, suggesting that he may not have. Whence the master rejoined: “In that case, you would have engaged in idle talk after all. For is not praying without concentration tantamount to indulging in idle talk?!” (Adapted from a story attributed to Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky z”l, in Bemechitzas Rabeinu.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Speaking and Writing

The Aseres Hadibros – which we read on Shavuos – has what is known as a tam ha-elyon (upper cantillation) and what is known as a tam hatachton (lower cantillation). They affect the demarcation of the Aseres Hadibos’ verses and, consequently, the vowelization of their words and the cantillation of the entire running text. The Biur Halacha (494:1) writes that, depending on whether one is following the upper or lower method of conatillation, the demarcation of a verse may or may not coincide with the articulation of a given dibur (or commandment). With the lower method of cantillation, verse structure is independent of dibur articulation. Accordingly, a given dibur may be broken up into several verses (sentences); and, conversely, a single verse may comprise multiple diburim (commandments). By contrast, with the upper method, there is a direct (one-to-one) correspondence between diburim and verses.

The Biur Halacha further explains that tam ha-elyon follows the kesiv (as opposed to the keri). (Note: the kesiv and the keri are both part of the Mesora.) In the kesiv – meaning what is reflected in the way that the Torah is actually written – each dibur constitutes a parsha (demarcated by blank space on either end) in its own right. Look in a sefer Torah, and you will see that even a two word dibur occupies a parsha unto itself, and that, likewise, a relatively long (multi-verse) dibur extends for the full length of a self-contained parsha. According to the Biur Halacha, then, on the level of kesiv, the boundaries of a parsha determine the beginning and end of a verse (and thus how its words are to be vowelized and cantillated). This, then, is why, using tam ha-elyon, each dibur, taken in its entirety, receives expression as an integral verse. On the level of keri, by contrast, verse structure and parsha structure are quite independent. Consequently, diburim and verses follow their separate courses.                        

This is significant, because if we generalize the point and apply it as a principle, it means that the entire system of verses in the Torah holds good only on the level of keri. On the level of kesiv, on the other hand, verses continue until the end of a parsha has been reached.  All the text falling between one parsha and the next counts as one verse. Our whole tradition of parsing the passages of the Torah as we do is due to our adherence to the level of keri. There is one tradition for how to write the Torah (kesiv), and another for how to enunciate the text (keri).


We speak. And we write. In both cases, we use a system of symbolization. In the former case, it is a phonetic system; in the latter, an inscriptional one. Are the two parallel? Or is there an order of priority presiding over them? Might spoken language be prior? In spoken language, sounds serve as symbols. They combine with other sounds and create compounds that have connotations. We hear these symbolic sounds and, also, the larger structures that they form, and we immediately and effortlessly associate them with a meaning.  We apprehend their meaning directly upon hearing them.

More concretely, the constituents of language are words. Words are composed of phonetic sounds. Our language determines which ordered constellation of sounds counts as what word. Then, in writing, we use a system for representing the words we use in speaking. How do we represent, in writing, a spoken word?

There seem to be two possibilities. One is to say that our written words do not represent spoken words as such but, rather their meanings. This is, in effect, to deny that we use writing to represent spoken words. The situation relating spoken and written words is, rather, as follows. A spoken word has meaning; and its written correlate has a corresponding meaning. The two systems are mutually independent: they are not hierarchically arranged with respect to one another. It is rather like having two disparate languages – each using its own linguistic elements to represent a shared collection of meanings.

This is one way of looking at it. At first blush, it is a strange way. It does not account for the fact that there obviously is a systematic relationship between the language we speak and the language we write. Seemingly, our written language would be drastically different if our spoken language were any different from the way it is.  

But there is, it seems, also another of looking at it. It is to say that a written word, unlike a spoken one, does not relate directly to an associated meaning. There is a mediated relation, which works as follows. A written word represents its spoken correlate, which in turn has a meaning. The written word thus comes, indirectly, to acquire that meaning.

This raises the question: how does a written word represent its spoken correlate? Not in an arbitrary way: there is a system. Written words are comprised of elements that are letters. Letters represent sounds – or sound-values. An ordered combination of sounds amounts to the complex sound of some certain (sounded) word. The inscription of this word, consisting of an ordered sequence of letters, where the respective sound-values of these letters map onto the sounds that comprise the corresponding sounded word, thus comes to represent this sounded word. In a more derivative way, the meaning that this enunciated word represents is then appropriated by its written counterpart – which may then be said to represent this meaning, too.

There is a progression here that runs as follows. In the first instance, discrete letters represent distinct phonetic sounds. At one remove, a series of letters represents the complex sound created by combining and sequencing their sound-values. This complex is the sound of a word; so the word comes to be represented by this sequence of written (or inscribed) letters. Finally, at yet another remove, the complex of letters whose respective sound-values combine to represent a phonetic word – these letters create an inscriptional rendition of the word, one that represents the very meaning that the phonetic rendition of this word itself represents. This last is, however, only a derivative accretion to the inscriptional form.

This is so interesting that it’s worth repeating and elaborating upon. Spoken words are built of discrete sounds (a series of phonetic elements). In their written correlates, these discrete sound elements are represented by letters. The individual phonetic sounds of which a word is composed have no representational efficacy.  All they have is combinatorial efficacy, meaning: they may combine to form a word that does have representational efficacy. They also serve to provide something for the component letters of a written word, one with which they are correlated, to latch onto. Each of these phonetic elements is represented by another in the sequence of the word’s component letters. It is the combination of these sound-units in a word that creates something – a symbol – that represents, or correlates with, external meaning.

There is, therefore, a little irony here: the sound-components of a sounded word have no representational efficacy; yet, the letter-components of the written word, used to represent the sounded components of a sounded word, do have representational efficacy. They each, individually represent a sound component in the corresponding spoken word. A correctly formulated series of these sounds represents an entire such spoken word. This is how spoken language comes to generate written language.

But notice, to thus grant that a written word represents is not to go so far as to grant that it (directly) represents what its spoken correlate represents, namely, a meaning. The component letters of a word, taken separately or in combination, have no representational efficacy vis-à-vis external meaning. Its spoken correlate is what it represents. It is the spoken correlate, in turn, that relates directly to a meaning. (We may perhaps say that the written representation of the spoken word indirectly represents the meaning that this spoken word represents.)

The first of these two views treats spoken and written language as being on a par. The second puts spoken language on a pedestal and gives it priority. Written language is seen as at a remove. It is as if, first, there was only the spoken word; and subsequently, the written system of words was encoded to facilitate communication where speaker and hearer are separated, by distance or by time. But even with the introduction of written language, it remains subordinate to spoken language, in that it represents spoken language and not what spoken language itself represents (meanings).

On a third way of looking at it, however, the situation is reversed. The written word is primary. It is composed of certain letters. The combination in question of letters defines this word. The letters are given sound-values. The word thus acquires a sound-form. The spoken word arises – and with it comes the evolution of the spoken language.     

Friday, June 10, 2011

Knowing and Being Able to Repeat

Scattered about through the old shtetls of Europe were two kinds of rabbis. Some rabbis really knew how to learn. They were proficient in the intricacies of Talmudic dialogue and had accumulated substantial amounts of Talmudic learning. Others weren’t nearly as sophisticated. They merely managed to get by. They could understand the Talmudic material that they would read in a perfunctory manner; and they could then rehash it for the benefit of the listening public. But they did not innovate or show much in the way of erudition. Now both these types of rabbis held their regular discourses (known as drashos) at the appointed times throughout the year. Shabbos Hagadol was one such designated time, among several others.

It was customary for a rabbi to draw up a list of Sources Consulted, also known as Mareh Mekomos. It displayed the various sources that had been tapped in constructing the treatment of the topic that he (the rabbi) was to deliver. It would be hung up on the wall of the synagogue where everyone could see it – in advance of the actual giving of the discourse. People would consult these sources, so that they would be better prepared to follow the ins and outs of the rabbi’s sometimes mentally wrenching discursive dialogue. However, customs varied as to how much in advance of the discourse the Sources Consulted listing would actually be hung up.

In some towns, they would be hung up well in advance, perhaps as much as two weeks in advance of the drasha date. If, for example, it was a Shabbos Hagadol drasha, the listing might be hung up as early as on Rosh Chodesh Nissan! Typically, rabbis following this custom were from the first category: their learning ability was first rate. Their drashos were truly masterpieces of Talmudic erudition. Being well prepared for them was of the essence, if the people in attendance were to profit from their efforts in following and properly comprehending the flow of the exposition.

In other places, by contrast, the List of Sources would not be posted until the last moment – not much before the discourse was scheduled to be delivered. These were, characteristically, places whose rabbi fell into the second classification: they could scrape together a discourse but not show any profound insights or modes of entanglement. Posting Sources was, for them, merely a formality, and didn’t impact too much, one way or the other, on listeners’ ability to comprehend. Such rabbis might even feel threatened by the prospect of their listeners’ receiving a heads-up in regard to the anticipated content of their drasha.

In the Haggada of Passover we read: yachol merosh chodesh talmud lomar bayom hahu. I assume that the reader is familiar with the literal understanding of this passage. However, homiletically, it may be interpreted as an allusion to the state of affairs just discussed: Yachol, meaning if the rabbi is really capable (he is accomplished and has a great deal of learning capacity), then merosh chodesh, meaning that he will have posted his list of Sources Consulted (as early as) on Rosh Chodesh. However, if talmud lomar, meaning he is merely capable of rehashing Talmudic material that he has come across, then bayom hahu, meaning that he will likely wait until the very day of his drasha before hanging up a list of his Consulted Sources. He is in no hurry.