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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Priorities: Pray or Study? — BT Shabbat 10a (#2) — #82

Rava saw Rav Hamnuna prolonging his prayer. [Rava] said, “Does one forsake the world-to-come and occupy oneself with transitory life?” [Rav Hamnuna] reasoned: The time for prayer is separate from the time for Torah study.
 R. Yirmiyah was sitting before R. Zeira and they were occupied in study. It grew late to pray and R. Yirmiyah rushed to arise [to pray]. R. Zeira applied to him the verse, One who turns away from hearing Torah (lit. instruction), even his prayer is an abomination (Proverbs 28:9).

In TMT #81, we considered the differing prayer styles of Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava.  One dressed up, while the other dressed down, suggesting very different emotional postures and conceptions of prayer. Gemara affirmed both and told us that Rav Ashi, following Rav Kahana, employed both styles as circumstance warranted. The account of Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava is followed immediately by the exchanges recounted above concerning the competing time demands of prayer and Torah study.

Were we immortal—and hence, time an infinite resource—we would not feel the daily pressure concerning how to spend our time and order our priorities. For the Rabbis, the obligations of Torah both study and prayer loom large and compete for that most limited of  resources—time. Devoted as they were to Torah study—their life blood and sacred mission—some rabbis saw anything that interfered, including even prayer, as an unwelcome intrusion. The passage above is one such hint.  Other sages readily acknowledged the value of the more “mundane” pursuits of life, especially those that put food on the table and support a family—all the more so, a sacred task: prayer.

R. Akiba taught: If there is flour (i.e., sustenance), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. (Pirkei Avot 3:21) Life requires both the pursuit of Torah and the mundane; they reinforce one another.

All four sages mentioned lived in the fourth century of the common Era. Rava (Abba b. Yosef bar Chama) and Rav Hamnuna were both Babylonian sages. R. Yirmiyah and R. Zeira are sages in Eretz Yisrael (R. Zeira was born in Babylonia, but famously made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael). Juxtaposing two similar conversations—one set in Babylonia, the other in Eretz Yisrael—reinforces the universality of this concern in the fourth century rabbinic world.

Rav Hamnuna takes prayer seriously, investing his time in prayer to make it meaningful. Some people can switch gears quickly and focus their minds on prayer without much ado, but others cannot. For this reason, the siddur provides a lengthy assemblage of psalms and prayers to “warm up” before the formal prayers of Shacharit, the morning service. This section of the service, which comes before Barchu, called Pesukei de-Zimra (lit. “verses of song/praise”), affords one the opportunity to prepare spiritually for the core prayers of the service. Whether Rav Hamnuna is engaged in preparation for prayer, or simply elongating and relishing the core prayers is unclear, but also irrelevant. He takes prayer seriously as a spiritual practice, not merely as a statutory obligation. 

Rava, however, responds to Rav Hamnuna’s practice contemptuously, accusing him of trading his portion in the far superior life of olam ha-ba (the world-to-come) for life in this inferior, transitory world. Clearly, for Rava, the key to life in olam ha-ba is Talmud Torah: the more Torah study, the greater likelihood of attaining olam ha-ba. In a sense, this is the inverse of what we learn in Pirkei Avot, the “the more Torah, the more sustenance.” Rav Hamnuna responds (calmly, at least as I imagine the discussion) that there is sufficient time for both, meaning that prayer deserves the time allotted to it, and should not be seen as competing with Talmud Torah for scarce temporal resources: God desires both and rewards both.

In Eretz Yisrael, R. Yirmiyah and R. Zeira hold a similar conversation centered on the same disagreement. While engaged in study together, R. Yirmiyah, realizing that the window for prayer is closing, hurries to say his prayers within the prescribed interval of time, angering R. Zeira who resents interruption of their studies. R. Zeira quotes Proverbs 28:9, which says that one who avoids hearing and, we are to understand, heeding, God’s instruction so deeply offends God that even that person’s prayer—presumably a sincere attempt to connect with God—is rejected by God and deemed an abomination. The thrust of the verse seems to be that if you willfully ignore God’s instruction, God will ignore your prayers. R. Yirmiyah understands the verse to say that God is offended by one who turns away from learning to pray. This is a surprising comment given that prayer is considered a mitzvah—one of God’s instructions. 


  1. Have you known someone who is wholly devoted to one endeavor that is the core and substance of their life? Does it seem to you they neglect other important facets of life?
  2. What elements of Jewish life do you find most meaningful? How do you prioritize study, prayer, rituals, celebrations, holy days, community events, and the arts, among others. Have you had to sacrifice something to pursue these priorities?
“The reemergence of God as a dominant force in world affairs, shaping both the fates of nations and the daily existence of ordinary individuals, poses fundamental questions about the role of religion in human life. One of the most significant…is this: What does faith in God do to a person? That is, when God enters the conversation and dictates human ethical and social norms, is it a force for good or evil? For action or complacency? For moral progress or moral corruption?”
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Putting God Second, pp. 4-5
  1. This passage inspires broader questions about the priorities religion inspires and instills. Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute argues that the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), while claiming to value peace, have at times championed immoral ideas and committed violence because of an “autoimmune disease” whereby they prioritize God over people blindness. Do you agree?

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