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Monday, November 20, 2017

Giving Thanks — BT Sotah 40a — #92

While the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) is reciting Modim (“We give thanks”), what do the people say? Rav says: “We give thanks to You, Adonai our God, that we can give You thanks.” And Shmuel says: “God of all the living, that we can give You thanks.” R. Simai says: “Our Creator, Who created everything, that we can give You thanks.”[The sages of] Nehardea, in the name of R. Simai, say: “Blessings and thanks to Your great name, for you have kept us alive, sustained us, so that we can give You thanks.” Rav Acha bar Yaakov would complete it thus: “May You give us life and be gracious to us, and collect and gather our exiles into Your holy courtyards in order to observe Your laws and fulfill Your will with a whole heart, so that we can give You thanks.” Rav Pappa said, “Therefore, we should recite all of them.”

The Rabbis who crafted the daily Amidah imagined that we approach God in prayer as one would approach a powerful earthly sovereign. They designed a liturgy and accompanying choreography for the Amidah, which replaces the daily Temple sacrifices, accordingly: Upon entering the sovereign’s throne room (take three steps forward), we bow (during the first blessing), then address the sovereign with words of praise, petition, and thanksgiving, bow again (during the penultimate blessing, Modim, which is the subject of the passage we are studying), and lastly walk backward out of the throne room so as not to turn our backs on the sovereign (hence three steps backward at the end of the Amidah). Accordingly, the Amidah consists of three blessings praising God, followed by thirteen petitions, and ending with three blessings of thanksgiving. Initially, the Rabbis stipulated the themes and order of the blessings; in time, final versions of all nineteen blessings were composed and approved by the Rabbis.

Before books and literacy were ubiquitous, a shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) would stand before the congregation and recite the prayers. Those who knew them by heart could say them with him, but most people probably listened to the prayers and said, “Amen” after each blessing, affirming its meaning and thereby fulfilling their obligation to say it. For one of the nineteen blessings—Modim—it struck the Rabbis as insufficient to merely say, “Amen.” Modim, the blessing of general thanksgiving, afforded the worshiper the opportunity to personally express gratitude to God. How could a shaliach tzibbur express thanks for anyone but himself? Therefore, the Rabbis ordained that while the leader recites a Modim, each worshiper expresses his own thanks to God. Our passage begins with a query concerning personal prayers of thanksgiving.

Five sages are quoted in response to the query. Rav, who is quoted first, establishes that for him the ultimate thanks is meta-thanks: being thankful that one can express thanks. This is a remarkable idea: while one can be thankful for particulars of life, such as health, family, livelihood, friends, and so on, Rav elevates the idea of gratitude from the material (itself entirely respectable!) to the spiritual. Indeed, his thinking is well substantiated in our day by the work of psychologists whose research affirms that expressing gratitude can powerfully effect one’s life to: “lower blood pressure, improve immune function, promote happiness and well-being, and spur acts of helpfulness, generosity, and cooperation” (Robert Emmons and Robin Stern). Rav and his colleagues understood intuitively that our goal extends beyond being thankful for the particular blessings in our life: we seek to be grateful for our ability to feel and express gratitude.

(It should be noted that most translations render this passage: “We give thanks…that we are inspired to give You thanks” or “…for the merit of giving You thanks.” The Talmud does not include words that connote “inspiration” or “merit” in this passage. It appears these translations  derive from the theological beliefs of those who wrote them.)

Shmuel, R. Simai, the sages of Nehardea, and Rav Acha all repeat Rav’s words. What, then, distinguishes their prayers from one another? The sages differ in how they address God, and hence the aspect of God they have in mind, which in turn hints at the nature of the thanks they have in mind. The first observation we might make is that each appellation of God is longer than the previous one. Further, the four offerings seem to be arranged in two pairs: Shmuel thanks the God of life, but R. Simai thanks the God of all Creation; the latter is more expansive and inclusive. The sages of Nehardea thank God who keeps us alive and sustains us, but R. Acha bar Yaakov adds a specific and particularistic petition-in-disguise that God bring Jewish exiles back to a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem where they will be able to bring sacrificial offerings to the altar as they once did (in a sense, “sneaking” a petition into an expression of thanksgiving).

Rather than choose one as the canonical prayer for all to say, Rav Pappa wishes to include and honor each version. He tells us we should recite them all. Perhaps he intends us to choose the version that fits our emotional state during the moment of prayer, or perhaps he is advising us to to say what our hearts prompt.


  1. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” (A Short History of England, ch. 6) Do you agree? Why or why not? How does Chesterton’s statement relate to the talmudic passage?
  2. The American holiday of Thanksgiving inspires many people to acknowledge the blessings in their lives, which are all too easy to overlook much of the time. What are you grateful for?
  3. With Thanksgiving falling this week, many people are thinking about the ways in which we express our thanks to God and one another. At many Thanksgiving gatherings, it is customary to go around the table and invite each person present to say what they are grateful for.  What is the value—both to the one expressing gratitude and to all those listening—of expressing personal thanks aloud before other people?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Know-It-Alls — BT Rosh Hashanah 21b (part 2) — #91

Gemara: How do we know that the meaning of “alil” is “clarity”? R. Abahu said, “Scripture states: The words of Adonai are pure words, silver purged, clear to the world, refined sevenfold (Psalm 12:7). Rav and Shmuel [disagreed on this matter]. One said, “Fifty gates of insight were created in the world, all of which were given to Moses save one, as it is written, You have made him little less than divine…(Psalm 8:6). Kohelet [in English, Ecclesiastes] sought to find words of delight (Ecclesiastes  12:10)—this means that Kohelet wanted to be like Moses. A bat kol (heavenly voice) issued forth and said to him, That which was written was upright, even words of truth (ibid.) [and] Never again has there arisen from among Israel a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10).” The other said, “Among the prophets [none like Moses arose], but among the kings [such a one] arose. How, then, do I interpret: Kohelet sought to find words of delight? [The verse means that] Kohelet sought to dispense judgment through [reason of] the heart, without witnesses and without admonition. A heavenly voice issued forth and said to him, That which was written was upright, even words of truth [implying] [A person shall be put to death] only on the testimony of two or more witnesses… (Deuteronomy 17:6).”

In TMT #90 we examined the mishnah, concerning the importance of involving witnesses in the declaration of the new moon, that launches the Gemara discussion above. The mishnah asked whether potential witnesses are permitted to travel on shabbat to testify at the bet din (court) in Jerusalem regarding the appearance of the new new moon even if the sky were clear; presumably locals in Jerusalem also saw the new moon and could testify without violating shabbat. The Gemara asks about the meaning of the term “alil, which mishnah uses to connote a clear (as opposed to overcast) sky. This sets the stage for a discussion in the Gemara concerning whether anyone has a “clear” view (i.e. understanding) of Adonai. As it turns out: Not even Moses.

The passage focuses on a disagreement between Rav (175–247 CE) and Shmuel (165–c. 264 CE), leaders of the first generation of amora’im, Babylonian scholars. Rav is the respectful moniker for Abba Arikha, who founded a yeshivah in Sura. Shmuel founded a yeshivah in Nehardea. Rav and Shmuel were colleagues, study partners, and intellectual sparring partners. Here, as elsewhere, they express differing opinions, though we are not told which sage held which view.

The first view holds that even Moses did not have access to all knowledge and every insight, metaphorically described as “fifty gates.” Moses could enter only forty-nine of the fifty gates. The proof text offered is a famous verse from Psalm 8 that describes humanity as “little less than divine.” Hence, even Moses did not have access to all divine knowledge. The claim is additionally supported by quoting Ecclesiastes 12:10, which says Kohelet (understood by tradition to be King Solomon) sought complete knowledge. The sage interprets this to mean Kohelet/Solomon wished to be like Moses, but heaven ordained that this was not to be because while God’s word (Torah) is complete and perfect, never again would there be one like Moses. Hence although Solomon tried he could not understand even as much as Moses.

The second view does not take issue with Moses’s incomplete knowledge (the forty-nine out of fifty gates entered). Rather, he differs with his colleague’s understanding of Ecclesiastes 12:10. He responds that Deuteronomy 34:10 said no other prophet like Moses would arise—but that does not exclude kings. Hence, Kohelet (i.e., King Solomon) is not a counter example to the claim of Deuteronomy 34:10. This is not a surprising inference, given that I Kings 5:11 asserts that [Solomon] was the wisest of all people. 

The Gemara, wishing to uphold Moses as the most insightful and knowledgeable person who ever lived (even over and above King Solomon) then asks how we are to understand Kohelet sought to find words of delight. This suggests he tried, but did not succeed—concurring with the first opinion. The phrase is interpreted to mean that King Solomon dispensed judgment according to “his heart” but not according to halakhah, which requires witnesses’ testimony and adjuration of the witnesses to tell the truth. The Gemara draws a parallel between Ecclesiastes 12:10 and Deuteronomy 17:6. Although not stated here, on BT Makkot 6b, R. Yose interprets Deuteronomy 17:6 to require that witnesses be warned concerning the importance of giving truthful testimony in court. Hence Ecclesiastes 12:10 speaks to the requirement to admonish witnesses to give truthful testimony; it does not affirm that Kohelet/Solomon possessed complete knowledge.


  1. The Rabbis never precisely define what is behind the “fifty gates.” What might the Rabbis be saying about the nature and source of knowledge, insight, and understanding? If even Moses did not have complete knowledge, can anyone today claim it? Could they be warning us not to believe those who do?
  2. What “gate” of understanding do you suppose was closed even to Moses? What does this say about the limits of human knowledge and understanding? Are there “gates” that you feel are closed to you?
  3. While the Gemara makes no reference to the famous case King Solomon adjudicated between the two prostitutes both claiming to be the mother of the same infant (see 1 Kings 3:16–28)—indeed, the Bible reports that this is the case that convinced people Solomon possessed chochmat-Elohim (“divine wisdom”)—do you think the Gemara has this incident in mind? No witnesses were sought or questioned; Solomon proceeded by his heart and intuition rather than following proper procedures. Had you been the judge hearing that case, how would you have proceeded?

Friday, November 10, 2017

"New Moon!" — BT Rosh Hashanah 21b (part 1) — #90

MISHNAH 1:5 Whether [the new moon] was clearly visible [to everyone] or whether it was not clearly visible, [witnesses who want to come testify before the beit din to having seen the new moon] may desecrate shabbat because of it. 
R. Yose says: If [the new moon] was clearly visible, they may not desecrate shabbat because of it. 
 It once happened that more than forty pairs [of potential witnesses] came through [on their way to Jerusalem to testify before the beit din concerning the new moon] and R. Akiba detained them in Lod. Rabban Gamliel sent [a message to R. Akiba, saying]: If you detain the crowd [from appearing before the beit din], you may cause them to stumble in the future.

There are times when two or more religious obligations, each understood to benefit the community, appear in opposition. The mishnah discusses such a situation and its resolution.

The Rabbis live in the post-Temple era. The earliest generation can recall the rites and rituals of the Second Temple and all of them fervently long for the Temple to be rebuilt and the sacrificial cult re-instituted. To this day, traditional prayerbooks express a longing for the restoration of the Temple sacrifices, which have come to be associated with the advent of the messianic age.

The Hebrew calendar is based on the cycle of the moon. The period from one new moon to the next is one lunar month. Each new moon marks the beginning of a new month, called Rosh Chodesh. The new moon, and accordingly the declaration of Rosh Chodesh, determines the times when holy days falling during that month are observed. Rosh Hashanah falls on the new moon of the month of Tishrei; Sukkot and Pesach fall on the full moons of Tishrei and Nisan, respectively. Priests offered special sacrifices in the Temple for Rosh Chodesh and holy days; hence the declaration of Rosh Chodesh determined when the sacrifices should be offered.

Technically, a lunar month is slightly more than 29.5 days long; hence the new moon becomes visible the following day, somewhere between 30 and 31 days after the previous new moon. In the time of the Mishnah, witnesses would appear before a court in Jerusalem in pairs to provide testimony they had seen the sliver of the new moon. With two reliable witnesses, the court would declare which day was Rosh Chodesh. Since the schedule of sacrificial offerings was determined by the calendar, the Sages ruled that one could violate shabbat by traveling to Jerusalem to offer testimony concerning the new moon on the basis of Leviticus 23:4, which  instructs that sacred occasions be “celebrated each at its appointed time.” After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai ruled that desecrating shabbat in this way was impermissible except to testify to the new moons of the months of Tishrei and Nisan, since these events determine, respectively, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and Pesach.

If the thirtieth day comes and goes without anyone seeing the new moon—for example, if the sky is entirely overcast–the thirty-first day is automatically declared the new moon, since a lunar month could not possibly be thirty-two days long.

Mishnah often records several conflicting opinions. The anonymous first opinion, known as the Tanna Kamma (the first tanna), tells us that people who wish to bring testimony that they saw the new moon are permitted to violate shabbat by traveling on the holy day to the beit din (court) in Jerusalem whether or not the moon is visible. One might argue that if the moon is clearly visible, people in Jerusalem can serve as witnesses without traveling on shabbat; and if the sky is overcast, no one can provide legitimate testimony—so in either case, there is no cause to violate shabbat by traveling to give testimony. Yet the mishnah explicitly permits people to do so.

R. Yose objects to the Tanna Kamma’s leniency for people to travel on shabbat when the moon is clearly visible. He thinks rabbinic law forbids it as unnecessary. People in Jerusalem can provide testimony without violating shabbat.

The mishnah next recounts an occasion when no fewer than eighty people travel on shabbat to offer testimony concerning the new moon. Such a large number of people suggests that the moon is clearly visible that night. R. Akiba, who agrees with R. Yose, stops them in Lod outside Jerusalem, deeming their violation of shabbat unnecessary. However, Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi who presides over the beit din, overrides R. Akiba because his action could discourage people from coming to Jerusalem in the future: After all, who would want to make the effort if they might be turned back before achieving their goal? What is more, on an occasion when the moon is partially visible (perhaps visible where these potential witnesses live but not visible in Jerusalem) they may decide that their effort might be in vain and not bother to come—possibly on an occasion when witnesses are needed in court because Jerusalem is entirely overcast.


  1. Rabban Gamliel concurs with the Tanna Kamma and this view that prevails. Do you agree or disagree with the priorities this view represents? Why? What is Rabban Gamliel’s priority?
  2. Why do you think the Rabbis placed a premium on the participation of witnesses in the process of declaring the new month? What is lost by our use of scientifically calculated calendars? What is gained?
  3. In what ways might we encourage greater participation in important Jewish communal issues? What issues to you believe would benefit from broader participation?