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Friday, May 26, 2017

Dressing for Prayer — BT Shabbat 10a (#1) — #81

Rava bar Rav Huna would put on fine shoes and pray. He said, “Prepare to meet [your God, O Israel] (Amos 4:12).” Rava (Abba b. Yosef bar Chama) would cast off his cloak, clasp his hands, and pray. He said, “[One should dress for prayer] like a servant before his master.” Rav Ashi said, “I saw Rav Kahana [do the following]: When there was suffering in the world, he would cast off his cloak, clasp his hands, and pray. He said, ‘One [should dress for prayer] like a servant before his master.’ When there was peace, he would get dressed, covering and wrapping himself, and pray. He said, ‘Prepare to meet [your God, O Israel].’”

Fashion changes quickly but in any age clothing communicates many things: socio-economic status, profession, respect or disrespect. The story of Tamar in Genesis chapter 38 makes it clear that when she donned the clothes of a prostitute, her father-in-law Judah failed to recognize her on the road; he saw only her clothing.

Similarly, body language communicates many things. Consider what these gestures communicate: arms crossed over the chest, clenched fists, fake smile, looking down at the ground rather than making eye contact, furrowed eyebrows 

Prayer is conceived by the Rabbis as one’s time to communicate with God. The Amidah, in particular, was conceived by the Sages as a time, metaphorically, when one has a private audience with God in the divine Throne Room.

It seems that every generation, as fashions change, some older folks object to the way some younger folks dress, accusing them of wearing “inappropriate” or “disrespectful” clothing. We all learn as youngsters what is considered appropriate, but times, standards, and sensibilities change. The Talmud reminds us that clothing and body language communicate to the beholder, but also reflect the thoughts and feelings of one who presents them—hence there is no one right way.

The Gemara compares the differing prayer styles of two Babylonian rabbis, both named Rava. Rava bar Rav Huna was a third generation amora, the son of Rav Huna who headed the academy of Sura. The second is Abba b. Yosef bar Chama (known throughout the Talmud as just “Rava”) a fourth generation amora who lived and established a yeshivah in Machuza. Rav Ashi, born the year Rava died, headed the academy in Sura. He attempts to reconcile the two divergent views.

Rava bar Rav Huna dressed up for prayer, donning fine shoes. Why shoes? Perhaps because shoes, hidden beneath a long robe, are the least visible sartorial item. If he paid so much attention to shoes, imagine how scrupulous he was about everything else he wore for prayer? In quoting the prophet Amos (4:12), he yanked the verse out of its context. Amos warned the people to prepare themselves for the coming punishment that God would inflict on the northern tribes. For Rava bar Rav Huna, however, “Prepare to meet you God” means dress as you would to meet a president or king—express respect through dress because talking to God is a great honor.

In contrast, Rava did the opposite. He removed his g’limah (a cloak that signaled his status) and clasped his hands together as one who is helpless in the face of a far greater power. Rava explained that for him, the experience of prayer was akin to that of a servant appearing before his master. Updating a bit: One would not appear before one’s boss wearing far dressier or costlier clothing and behaving as if the employee were the boss in the relationship.

Rav Ashi followed the model of Rav Kahana, who followed the models of both Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava, depending upon the circumstance. When times were bad and people were suffering, he adopted the humble style of Rava, removing his g’limah and clasping his hands in petition. When times were good, however, Rav Kahana followed the model of Rava bar Rav Huna and dressed up to pray. Rav Ashi confirms that there is no one single appropriate way to pray—either with respect to clothing or body language. Circumstances and needs change—and vary with individuals—and prayer should be a sincere expression of the one who utters it. 


  1. There was a time when people dressed up to attend a synagogue service. Many still do, but today many congregations encourage people to “come as you are” in casual dress. What do you think is gained by loosening the requirements? Is anything lost? 
  2. In Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava’s day, Jews conceived God on the model of a powerful king. Today, Jews conceive God in widely divergent ways. How does your conception of God influence your thoughts about clothing and body language during prayer? What prayer experience (e.g. liturgy, venue, rituals) or style (e.g., meditation, movement, music, chanting) is most meaningful to you?
  3. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Ein Eyah vol. 3) explains that differing styles of Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava reflect two types of prayer: Petition and Praise: “Rava emphasized the aspect of prayer that corresponds to Yirah, the awe and reverence of a self-effacing servant before his master. Rava bar Rav Huna, on the other hand, stressed prayer as an expression of Ahavah, out of love for God. He conducted his prayers in the manner of a loving and favorite son, proudly wearing his finest clothing before his father.” Yirah instills humility and makes the worshiper aware of God’s kindness and mercy; Ahavah lifts up the soul and makes the worshiper receptive to spiritual truths. What are your thoughts on Rav Kook’s interpretation of this Talmudic passage?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Are You a Good or Bad Guest? — BT Berakhot 58a (#2) — #80

[Ben Zoma] used to say: What does a good guest say? “How much trouble my host went to for my sake! How much meat he served me! How much wine he served me! How many cakes he served me! Every effort this host expended was only for my sake!” But what does a bad guest say? “How much trouble did this host go to for me? I ate one serving of bread. I ate one piece [of meat]. I drank one cup [of wine]. Every effort this host expended was taken only for his wife and his children.” Concerning a good guest, what does [Scripture] say? Remember, then, to magnify his work concerning which people have sung (Job 36:24) Concerning a bad guest, it is written, Therefore people fear him (Job 37:24).

Hakarat ha-tov means “recognition of the good”—in other words: gratitude. In TMT 79, Ben Zoma’s blessing upon seeing a crowd of people at the Temple revealed his unique sense of  gratitude for his blessings. Talmud juxtaposes another saying of Ben Zoma concerning gratitude under very ordinary circumstances: You are invited to someone’s home for a meal. Do you marvel at everything you are served and revel in the efforts of your host? Or do you minimize—or worse, denigrate—your host’s efforts? As recounted in the Talmud, attitude distinguishes a “good guest” from a “bad guest,” but clearly there is much more to the distinction Ben Zoma draws. Ben Zoma’s comparison of the “good guest” and “bad guest” demonstrates both how to cultivate gratitude and how to express it. We come to realize that feeling and expression appreciation are inextricably intertwined. In expressing gratitude, we come to experience it. In experiencing it, we learn to articulate it.

When Ben Zoma compares the “good guest” and the “bad guest,” we are to assume both received the same food and service, but reflected their experience differently. The distinction is not in the facts of what occurred, but in their attitude and response to the experience.

The “good guest” appreciates every effort the host goes to, and explicitly expresses: (1) appreciation for each item on the menu; (2) gratitude for the generous quantity of each dish served; and (3) the generous presumption that the effort expended by the host was for the guest, in particular.

In contrast, the “bad guest” undervalues everything by focusing on how little the host needed to expend to feed him, and presumes that the host’s efforts were expended primarily for his own family, not for his guest. In this way, the guest need not feel any appreciation at all since, “He hardly did a thing for me.”

The subject of each sentence uttered by the “good guest” is the host: He went to so much trouble; he served me meat, wine, and cakes; he went to this trouble for my sake alone. The subjects of the “bad guest’s” sentences are both “I” and the host: He went to little trouble. I barely ate anything.  He was more concerned with his family than with me. Good guests believe they receive more than they deserve; bad guests believe they receive less than they deserve.

Having recounted Ben Zoma’s description of the “good guest” and “bad guest,” Gemara supplies proof texts from the ever-enigmatic biblical Book of Job. There is not unanimous agreement about the inherent meaning of these verses (and hence how they ought properly be translated) nor how they function here to bolster Ben Zoma’s teaching. Job 36:24, the verse associated with the “good guest,” seems to support praising one’s host’s efforts (even though the original speaker, Elihu, had praise of God’s deeds in mind). Job 37:24 suggests that just as people cannot see and fully appreciate God, so, too, the “bad guest” fails to fully see all that the host does for the guest and therefore fails to feel gratitude and express appreciation.

Gratitude rejoices with her sister, Joy, and 
is always ready to light a candle and have a party. 
Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of 
Boredom, Despair, and Taking Life for Granted.
—Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov


  1. Compare the order of food and drink items, and the language used to describe them, recited by the “good guest” and the “bad guest.” Note that the “good guest” states that s/he is served meat, wine, and cakes, while the “bad guest” names only bread and then claims to have consumed only trivial quantities of meat and wine. What does this reveal about the attitude of each? When are you a “good guest” and when are you a “bad guest”?
  2. The “bad guest” is someone who ignores a salient part of reality: his host certainly expended effort on his behalf, and not merely for the sake of his spouse and children. The “bad guest” manages not to see or acknowledge all that was done to make him comfortable and happy. But is the “good guest” entire honest? Didn’t the host expend effort for his own family as well  as for his guests? If we cannot see the full picture of reality, on which side should we err? What are the advantages to us and to others of erring on the side of the “good guest”?
  3. Might Ben Zoma have in mind that we are guests in God’s home, the world God created? If so, the difference between being a “good” guest and being a “bad” guest concerns how we experience God’s blessings, evaluate them, and respond to what we have. When are you a “good guest” and when are you a “bad guest”?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Thank you, thank you! — BT Berakhot 58a (#1) — #79

Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: One who sees a crowd of Israelites should say, “Blessed is [God] who discerns secrets,” because the mind of each is different from that of the others, just a s the face of each is different from that of the others. Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on a step of the Temple Mount. He said, “Blessed is [God] who discerns secrets, and blessed is [God] who has created all these to serve me”—because [Ben Zoma] used to say, “How hard Adam must have labored so that he could eat a piece of bread; he had to plough, and sow, and weed, and tend, and harvest, and thresh, and winnow, and sift, and grind, and mix, and knead, and bake, and after that he could eat, whereas I am able to wake in the morning and find all this already done for me. And how hard Adam must have labored so that he could have a garment to wear; he had to shear the sheep, and bleach the wool, and beat it, and dye it, and spin it, and weave it, and wash it, and sew it, and after that he could be clothed, whereas I am able to wake in the morning and find all this already done for me. How many workers wake up every morning to stand at the door of my house? I wake up in the morning, and find all these things before me.”

The tractate Berakhot concerns prayer. Prior to the account above, the Talmud has been discussing blessings to recite over various kinds of foods, as well as blessings to say under special  circumstances, e.g., hearing good news or bad news, seeing a rainbow, seeing a king or scholar, or being in a place where a miracle occurred. These special blessings are one way in which people can cultivate in themselves an appreciation for all life’s blessings. By noticing, naming, and thanking God for them, we feel grateful and are probably a good deal happier. 

In the midst of Gemara’s discussion of blessings of thanksgiving, the Rabbis bring a baraita (oral teaching from the first two centuries of the Common Era) that says when one is in the midst of an enormous crowd, one should say, “Blessed is God who discerns secrets,” a blessing recognizing the uniqueness and individuality of each soul. Ben Zoma has his own unique take on this blessing.

Gemara records that Ben Zoma was amidst an enormous crowd of Jews. Standing up on a step in the Temple Mount, he was able to view this enormous crowd, presumably assembled to celebrate a festival. This, in itself, is strange because Shimon ben Zoma, a contemporary of R. Akiba, was likely born after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and hence this is not an experience he would have had. Nonetheless, he would have heard older colleagues, including his teacher, R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah (as suggested by Nazir 8:1), who did live when the Temple existed, recount the awe-inspiring sight of vast crowds of Jews gathered at the Temple for pilgrimage festivals. Ben Zoma marvels not only at the individuality of each person—with distinct minds and thoughts— but also reflects on the blessings he personally enjoys thanks to others.

We might be inclined to understand “who has created all these to serve me” as a hubristic statement, but it is not meant this way. Perhaps a better (though less literal) translation would be,  “who has created all these people from whose labors I benefit.” To illustrate his insight, Ben Zoma compares his life with that of Adam. Adam and Eve, the only human beings, did not benefit from the labor and skills of others. For two of the most basic elements of life—food and clothing—Adam had to engage in every task of the long, elaborate, back-breaking process of turning wheat into bread, and wool into a garment. Ben Zoma, however, lives in city where people with special skills put them to constructive use to support themselves and their families and whereas he merely walks outside in the morning and finds bread and clothing for sale.

Ben Zoma cites the mundane facets of life—think bread and t-shirts—and finds cause for enormous gratitude. It is altogether easy to take much in our lives for granted. Ben Zoma not only reminds us to feel and express appreciation, but also to be keenly aware of not only the “stuff” that enhances our lives, but all the many people who contribute to making the “stuff”we enjoy.


  1. Many psychologists, pointing out the emotional, physical, and social benefits of gratitude, recommend keeping a “Gratitude Diary” or “Blessings Journal” to record what we are grateful for, from the pleasure of a chocolate bar, to getting a good night’s sleep, to having a job, to the love of friends and family. What would you write in your journal today? Try keeping a journal for a month—write something brief two or three times a week—and gauge its effect on your happiness and well being. Reflect, as did Ben Zoma, on what life would be like without the blessings you enjoy.
  2. The blessing over bread (Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz / “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth”) is a peculiar blessing. After all, bread does not come forth from the earth. In fact, it requires many skilled people to work cooperatively to produce bread. In that sense, it is a blessing not only over bread, but over society, through which we make available to one another our skills and combine them to produce life-sustaining bread. Consider the next time you recite the blessing: does it enhance the flavor and enjoyment of your bread?
  3. The podcast “Planet Money” explored how a t-shirt is made from scratch, from harvesting cotton through sewing it together—including the hundreds or thousands of people around the world involved. You can listen here. Does it give you a new vantage point on your wardrobe?