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.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?