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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving — Menachot 43b — #13

It was taught [in a baraita]: R. Meir used to say: A person is obligated to say one hundred blessings each day, as it is written, And now, Israel, what does Adonai your God require of your? (Deuteronomy 10:12) R. Chiyya the son of R. Avia endeavored to compensate on sabbaths and on festivals by using spices and eating delicacies.

The prayer services we are familiar with—both the structure and the non-biblical content—are the handiwork of the Rabbis. The statutory prayer services (Shacharit and Minchah) replace sacrifices that were made morning and afternoon in the Temple in Jerusalem. The evening service was, early on, a matter of disagreement, but the opinion that it is compulsory prevailed, and thus there are three Jewish prayer services daily: Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma’ariv. There are, as well, many blessings crafted for various occasions, such as those for food, wine, and the performance of mitzvot (e.g., tallit, tefillin, lighting shabbat candles, lulav and etrog).

R. Meir tells us that God wants us to recite one hundred blessings each day. How does he arrive at this number? Deuteronomy 10:12 says, What (mah) does Adonai your God ask of you? R. Meir reads “mah” (“what”) as “me’ah” (“one hundred”)—the words sound similar—so that the verse now means “Adonai your God requires one hundred of you.” A very creative reading, but what is R. Meir’s purpose?
Let’s first ask how a person can recite 100 blessings each day. If you recite all the traditional prayers for Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma’ariv you will say approximately 90 blessings. To these, one can add the blessings recited before and after eating, but it’s still difficult to get to 100. On shabbat and holy days, the liturgy has fewer blessings and therefore supplies fewer opportunities to reach a total of 100. For those who do not recite all the traditional prayers each day, it’s trickier to arrive at 100 blessings.
As you can see, in order to recite 100 blessings a day, one would need to say at least several blessings that aren’t part of the liturgical “script.” Tradition supplies blessings to say when one sees a rainbow, or the ocean for the first time, or puts on a new garment for the first time, but not even these are always enough. Perhaps the reason R. Meir set the bar at 100 is that he understood that to recite 100 blessings each day, we have to recite blessings that come straight from our hearts and respond to what is happening in our lives at the moment. R. Chiyya highlights this by noting that special days require us to dig deeper within ourselves.
This teaches us two wonderful traits: mindfulness and creativity. Cultivating a religious soul is about developing a sense of awe: When we pay attention and notice the wonders of the world and of our lives, we can find God in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Creativity comes in when we find words to express our wonder and sense of appreciation, or our joy and desire to share it, or our pain and search for strength, or our fear and need for support.
Here are a few blessings from our tradition that you might like to use:

  • (For the wonders of nature) Blessed are You, God, whose presence fills creation and who makes beauty such as this in the world.
  • (Upon hearing good news) Blessed are You, God, Who is goodness and Who is the source of good.
  • (Traveler’s prayer) May it be your will, our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us, sustain us, and lead us in peace to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten our world. Bless the work of our hands. May we find grace, love, and compassion in Your sight and in the sight of all people. Praised are you, God, Who hears prayer.
Ultimately, all blessings are about gratitude: either for what we have or what we believe we may yet receive. Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Being thankful is powerful. Our ability to express gratitude is the most direct route to our happiness. The research of Dr. Martin Seligman (father of the school of “Positive Psychology” confirms that happiness is not related to what we have—it’s about our attitude toward what we have. Focusing on our blessings generates positive energy for facing the challenges and really tough stuff. Here are two blessings for tough times that you might wish to use at some point:
  • (When experiencing physical and/or emotional pain) Blessed are you, God, who endowed me we more strength and patience than I often realize I have. Help me find these resources within me now and use them for healing.
  • (When experiencing loss) Blessed are You, Source of life, for all that is and has been good in my life, even if I cannot retain the goodness forever. May I always recall the blessings I have experienced and may I be able to help others do the same when they experience loss.


  1. Can you think of five things to be grateful for in your life today?
  2. A Hasidic story tells of a young man who presented his teacher with the gift of water from a spring. The teacher tasted it, smiled, and thanked the student for the sweet-tasting water. His assistant, however, tasted it and spat it out. “Why did you say it was sweet when it’s bitter?” he asked. “Ah,” said the teacher, “you only tasted the water. I tasted the gift.” Do you taste the water or the gifts in life?
  3. Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz wrote, “The Curse of Blessings” about a man who extends his life by reciting a new blessing every day. Try composing a new blessing every day for a month.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Singing in the Rain — Mishnah Ta’anit 1:1 — #12

When do we begin to mention the power of rain? R. Eliezer says: From the first day of the Festival [of Sukkot]. R. Yehoshua says: On the last day of the Festival. R. Yehoshua said to [R. Eliezer]: Inasmuch as rain on the Festival is a sign of a curse during the Festival, why mention it [before the last day]? R. Eliezer said to [R. Yehoshua]:  I did not say to request it but rather to make mention of “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall in its due season.” [R. Yehoshua] said to [R. Eliezer]: If that is so, one should always mention it…

Unlike Egypt, where the Nile reliably overflows its banks each year, insuring fertile fields for planting, a robust harvest in the Land of Israel depends entirely upon rain and dew. In Eretz Yisrael, rain or lack thereof determines whether crops grow and accordingly whether people and animals thrive, or whether drought occurs and famine ensues. 

The Amidah, sometimes called Ha-Tefilah (“The Prayer”) or Shemoneh-Esrei (“The Eighteen Benedictions”), constitutes the central prayer of the service. There are two seasonal additions to the Amidah that concern rainfall. First, in Gevurot, the second blessing, whose theme is resurrection, the words “Who causes the winds to blow and the rain to fall” are added from the last day of Sukkot until the first day of Pesach. Second, in the ninth blessing, birkat ha-shanim (“Who blesses the years”), a petition for rain is added: ten tal u-matar (“provide dew and rain”) from early December through Pesach. Both insertions are added during the rainy season in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).

The question under consideration concerns when we should add mention of the power of rain, which means God’s power to bring (or withhold) rain. Both R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua agree that it should begin during the festival of Sukkot, but they differ concerning whether “Who cause the winds to blow and the rain to fall” should be added from the first day onward, or beginning only on the final day of the festival.

What’s at stake? Several things. R. Yehoshua, who says we add the prayer for rain on the last day of the festival, points out that if rain were to fall during Sukkot, it would ruin the festival for everyone. One cannot fulfill the mitzvah of living in the sukkah—eating, sleeping, studying, playing, and socializing—while it rains. Therefore, if it rain falls during Sukkot, R. Yehoshua reasons, it means God is displeased with us (“a sign of a curse”). Why invite something you don’t want?

R. Eliezer, who suggests initiating the prayers on the first day of the festival, doesn’t disagree. Rather, he says that the first addition that R. Yehoshua interprets as a request for rain is rather a theological statement that God holds the power over rain. R. Eliezer holds that the second addition to the ninth blessing (“provide dew and rain”) is the actual petition for prayer.

R. Yehoshua points out R. Eliezer’s inconsistency: If “Who cause the winds to blow…” is merely a theological statement and not a request, it should always be included in the Amidah, yet R. Eliezer agreed that it should be added to the prayers seasonally—corresponding to the rainy season—suggesting that, in reality, it is a request. That being the case, it makes much more sense to add it at the end of Sukkot, the time we genuinely wish for rain to fall.


  1. R. Yehoshua says that if rain falls during Sukkot, it is an unpropitious sign. Rashi is troubled by the terminology, “sign of a curse.” He understands it to mean a divine rebuke. Perhaps he has in mind mishnah Sukkot 2:9, which says that rain during Sukkot is a rebuke from God. In Sukkah 28b, Gemara provides an allegory: “To what may the matter be compared? To a servant who pours a cup for his master, and then the master pours a pitcher in his face.” How do you understand the events of nature? Do you believe that God is pulling the strings? If not, how do you conceive God and God’s relationship with the physical universe?
  2. Rain is a life-and-death matter, and whoever controls the rain determines whether people live or die. Perhaps this explains why a prayer for rain is added to the blessing concerning resurrection. But rain does not bring things back to life — it restores plants to the appearance of life after they have appeared dead to our eyes, but were never truly dead. Could this help us understand resurrection as a metaphor for people whose lives seemed or felt to be over—people who descended in despair and hopelessness, or serious life-threatening illness—yet recovered? Mention of resurrection has been removed from some Jewish prayer books because its literal meaning is incompatible with many people’s beliefs. If we view liturgy as poetry, and remind ourselves that poetry speaks in metaphors, might we “resurrect” the blessing concerning resurrection?
  3. Gemara quotes a baraita (Mishnaic era teaching that is not found in the Mishnah itself) in which R. Eliezer says that one may say, “Who causes the wind to blow…” throughout the year because it is understood that one prays only for rainfall in the appropriate season. This raises several questions: How specific do communal prayers need to be? Phrased another way: How much lee-way is there for the individual to interpret the words for him or herself? And even more: Could we ever have a set of communally recited prayers lacking “wiggle room” for people to bring their own understandings, interpretations, beliefs, and hopes to the process of prayer?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Demons in the Study House — BT Kiddushin 29b — #11

Abaye heard that [Rav Acha bar Yaakov] was coming [to study in his study house]. There was a certain demon in the Abaye’s study house and when two people arrived together—even in the daytime—they were tormented [by the demon]. [Abaye] said to [his students]: Do not invite [Rav Acha] to be a guest [in your home]. Perhaps a miracle will occur. [Rav Acha] went and slept in the study house. A seven-headed dragon-serpent appeared to him. With every bow he made [in prayer], one of its heads fell off. The following day [Rav Acha] said to [Abaye]: Had not a miracle occurred, you would have endangered me!

Our bizarre story is preceded by a baraita (Mishnaic era teaching) that tells us that if a man has insufficient financial resources to educate both himself and his son, he takes precedent over the son. R. Yehudah, however, expresses the opinion that if the son is quicker and more intelligent, the son’s education should take priority. Gemara cites, as an example, Rav Acha bar Yaakov, who sent his son, R. Yaakov, to study in Abaye’s house of study but upon learning that his son did not excel in his studies, Rav Acha told him to stay home and went in his stead to study with Abaye.

For those still in the Halloween spirit, you’ll enjoy knowing that Abaye’s study house is haunted by a demon. Babylonian culture was rife with demons and spirits, and the Babylonian Talmud reflects the belief that largely invisible demons and spirits present a ubiquitous and continual threat to decent people: they inhabit the air, water, trees, roofs, and even privies. One is most vulnerable to malicious demons at nighttime and when alone. This is precisely Rav Acha’s situation in Abaye’s study house. The demon who haunts Abaye’s study house is particularly virulent: he threatens the students even when accompanied by a friend, and even in daytime.

Abaye instructs his students not to offer Rav Acha home hospitality, although tradition and courtesy require that they should. Abaye knows that without lodging for the night, Rav Acha will stay in the study house, where he will root out the demon by virtue of his famous and outstanding piety. As predicted, Rav Acha spends the night alone in the study house where he is confronted by a seven-headed dragon-serpent. Rav Acha’s piety to the rescue! He spends the night in prayer; each time he falls to his knees, one of the seven heads falls off. His genuflections are spiritual fencing lunges against the demon and his words are decapitating swords. Rav Acha vanquishes the demon—just as Abaye hoped. Recognizing a setup, Rav Acha is understandably annoyed with Abaye for knowingly placing him in a dangerous situation. He attributes his success to a miracle, that is, to God’s intervention.

Ancient cultures are not alone in their fascination with malicious spirits, be they demons, dybbuks, or dragons. Carl Jung wrote about the Shadow archetype of the unconscious mind, a mosaic of basic animal instincts and repressed ideas and desires that includes the best and the worst within us. He suggested that the Shadow appears in dreams and visions (primarily nighttime phenomena), often taking the form of a demon, dragon, snake, or some dark and frightening figure, a projection of what we suppress or dislike in our animal nature. We cannot eject evil from our psyches and our lives, so we project it outward onto imagined external monsters. If we view the story of Rav Acha through a Jungian lens, a fascinating image appears.

On one level, when Rav Acha finds himself alone in the dark, his human compulsions and inclinations arise and manifest in the form of a seven-headed dragon-serpent, threatening to destroy his intention to study Torah. He disempowers (kills) his Shadow dragon, his dark animal instincts, by immersing himself in prayer. But what about Abaye? There is something inherently contradictory here. Abaye wants Rav Acha to rid the study house of the demon that haunts Abaye and his students—by teaching them to repress their animal instincts through prayer?—yet in telling his students to deny hospitality to Rav Acha, Abaye gives in to the demon by failing to do what is right (extend home hospitality) and by placing him in a dangerous situation.


  1. Jung wrote about the connection between the Shadow and artistic creativity: at times an artist can see “…the figures that people the night-world—spirits, demons, and gods; he feels the secret quickening of human fate by a superhuman design…he catches a glimpse of the psychic world that terrifies the primitive and is at the same time his greatest hope.”(1) If the demon is a projection of what Abaye and his students dislike about themselves, how might they—and we—come to terms with our “demons” and put them to constructive, and even artistic, use?
  2. Concerning the connection Jung makes between evil and artistic creativity, Rollo May writes: “…evil can’t be put out of human life, as Jung noted that one could not erase the Shadow. And if one tries to put it out, then the rage is put out with it and the capacities to create are thrown aside with the so-called evil.”(2) May then quotes Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust: “I am that which always does evil which turns into good” (Part I, Lines 1335-37). We might be inclined to quote a story from the Talmud which tells of a time that the people were able to immobilize the Evil Inclination and, as a result, all generativity came to a grinding halt, threatening the future of life on earth (BT Yoma 69b). Do you think Rav Acha’s decapitating the dragon is meant to connote “erasing” the demon, or seizing control of him and using his powers for creativity and good (note what he says to Abaye)?
 (1)  Jung quoted by Christian Gaillard in “The Arts” in The Handbook of Jungian Psychology, ed. Renos K. Papadopoulos, p.360.
(2)  “Creativity and Evil,” in Facing Evil: Confronting the Dreadful Power Behind Genocide, Terrorism, and Cruelty, ed. Paul Woodruff and Harry A. Wilmer, pp. 73-4.