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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Frame of Mind — M Berakhot 5:1 (30b) — #97 (part 1)

MISHNAH: One should not rise to pray [the Shemoneh Esrei] except with an attitude of koved rosh (in a serious frame of mind). The pious ones of old would wait for an hour and then pray in order to direct their hearts toward God. Even if the king greets [one who is praying the Shemoneh Esrei], that person should not respond to him. Even if a snake curls around his heel, that person should not interrupt [recitation of the prayer].

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, God was worshiped by bringing a complex array of sacrifices ranging from meal offerings to incense to animals to its altar. The sacrificial cult ended in 70 C.E. with the Destruction of the Second Temple, but in its day, it afforded worshipers stunning sights of crowds, animals, and priests; sounds ranging from animals to the music of the Levites; the smell of animal flesh and blood, as well as incense; and often involved the feel and taste of the sacrifices, as well. The Book of Leviticus is devoted to detailing the many required sacrifices, the occasions on which each was to be brought to the Temple, and the precise procedures the kohanim (priests) were to follow. Other portions of the Torah focus on the sacrificial cult, as well. Torah is concerned with the state of mind of the priests offering the sacrifices, but nowhere is the  attitude or state of mind of the ordinary Israelite mentioned. Perhaps this is because the sheer drama of the sacrificial cult—involving all the physical senses—commanded one’s full attention.

In the vacuum left by the Destruction, the Rabbis determined that prayer would function as the primary mode of worship replacing communal sacrifices: Shacharit in place of the morning offering and Minchah in place of the afternoon offering. Ma’ariv, the evening prayers, were initially voluntary, but came to be considered obligatory. Prayer is an entirely different experience than offering a sacrifice. Even when performed communally, prayer is far more private, inward, and contemplative and, arguably, far more difficult. There is no show to watch, no drama unfolding. Prayer requires focus, concentration, and effort. In the mishnah above, the Rabbis discuss the desirable state of mind when engaged in prayer.

The Shemoneh Esrei, the central prayer of the Jewish prayer service, is an amalgam of numerous blessings. On weekdays, it was composed of 18 blessings (now 19)—hence the moniker Shemoneh Esrei (“eighteen”)—organized in three sections: praises, petitions, thanksgiving. It is also called the Amidah (“standing”) because it is recited while standing. 

In the mishnah above, the Sages teach that one should achieve the state of mind they term “koved rosh” to pray the Shemoneh Esrei. Koved rosh is so important that the early Sages spent an hour in meditation to achieve this frame of mind to prepare themselves to pray the Shemoneh Esrei properly. Once achieved, nothing should be permitted to interfere with one’s concentration, not even a king’s greeting or a threatening snake. These are curious examples of the extent to which one should focus on the Shemoneh Esrei. Ignoring the greeting of  a king is politically dangerous; ignoring a snake is physically dangerous. (The Rabbis likely believed that God would protect one engaged in prayer from harm.)

But what is the attitude of koved rosh, which literally means “heaviness of head,” that the Sages adjure us to acquire? Rashi (11th century, Provence) understood the term to connote a mindset of awe and reverence. According to Natan b. Yechiel (11th century, Rome) koved rosh alludes to physical posture: bowing one’s head in prayer. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789–1866), the third rebbe of Chabad offered a creative interpretation based on an alternative meaning of the root kaf-bet-daled, “sweep”: one should sweep from one’s mind all extraneous and worldly thoughts in order to focus only on the meaning of the prayer.  These explanations might be viewed as differing aspects of prayer that could apply simultaneously, or as differing and incompatible understandings of prayer. (You might wish to consider how each of these three explanations of koved rosh aligns with the mishnah’s praise for lengthy preparation for prayer and instruction to ignore the dangers of both kings and snakes while reciting the Shemoneh Esrei.)

  1. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn’s interpretation of koved rosh, which encourages one to sweep away all extraneous thoughts and focus solely on the words of the Shemoneh Esrei, seems to contradict the generally understood purpose of prayer, which is to share with God one’s concerns and request from God what one needs. How do you suppose Schneersohn conceived of prayer? How did he understand God? Is your prayer a conversation with God or a time for meditation? How do the words in the siddur help or detract from your prayer?
  2. The Talmud (BT Yebamot 105b) recounts that R. Chiyya and R. Shimon b. R. Yehudah were sitting and talking. One said, “Those who prays should direct their eyes downward [focused on the Temple]” while the other said, “Those who prayer should direct their eyes upward [toward heaven].” R. Yishmael b. R. Yose, however, said, “My father taught that when praying, we should direct our eyes downward and our hearts upward, fulfilling both requirements.” How do you understand the concerns of the first two sages? Is R. Yishmael’s father’s teaching helpful to you? 
  3. There is a tension in Jewish prayer between keva (formal, fixed prayer) and kavanah (intentional, spontaneous prayer). Keva privileges formality and provides a framework, but spontaneous prayer is often the most heartfelt. Which form of prayer is most meaningful for you? Are you able to combine the two when you pray?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Matchmaker, Matchmaker — BT Sanhedrin 22a (part 3) — #96

R. Alexandri said, “For a man whose wife dies the world is darkened, as it says, The light in his tent darkens and his lamp fails him (Job 18:6).” R. Yose bar Chanina said, “His steps will be shortened, as it says, The steps of his strength will be shortened (Job 18:7).” R. Abahu said, “His advice fails, as it says, His own advice will cast him down (Job 18:7).”
Rabbah bar bar Chanah said in the name of R. Yochanan, “It is as difficult to make a match [for marriage] as the splitting of the Reed Sea, as it is said, אֱלֹהִים מוֹשִׁיב יְחִידִים בַּיְתָה מוֹצִיא אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת God restores the lonely (or: singles) to their homes, sets free the imprisoned, safe and sound (Psalm 68:7).” Do not read “אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת / sets free the imprisoned” but rather “כּאֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת as if [God] sets free the imprisoned.” Do not read “בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת / safe and sound” but rather “בכי ושירות / crying and singing.”
Is this really so? Didn’t Rav Yehudah say in the name of Rav, “Forty days before the formation of an embryo, a heavenly voice announces: ‘The daughter of this one [is intended to marry] this one’?”
There is not difficulty (i.e., no contradiction between the claim of Rabbah bar bar Chanah and the claim of Rav Yehudah). This [the claim of Rav Yehudah] concerns first marriage and this [the claim of Rabbah bar bar Chanah] concerns second marriages.

In 1611, Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who formulated the laws of planetary motion, found  himself widowed, with children, and in need of a wife. He drew up a list of eleven women and set out to interview them all, but not one passed muster. His experience inspired him to ask, “Was it Divine Providence or my own moral guilt which, for two years or longer, tore me in so many different directions and made me consider the possibility of such different unions?”

The secret of a good marriage is forgiving your partner for marrying you in the first place.
—Sacha Guitry

In a world in which one’s family chooses one’s spouse, is it more or less difficult to achieve a good and lasting marriage? One might argue that those whose partners are assigned to them have different expectations of the marital relationship, perhaps lower emotional and romantic expectations. In the world of the Rabbis, parents contracted matches for their children, but this did not prevent people from hoping for a deeply loving and satisfying relationship. Realists to the core, the Rabbis comment on just how difficult it is to achieve this goal.

The mishnah that introduces the discussion above did not concern marriage (see TMT-94), but rather the dignity of the king. The Rabbis jump immediately to the relationship between David and Avishag and from there, the heartbreak of the dissolution of a marriage through divorce or the death of a wife: above, three sages weigh in the trauma of losing a spouse: depression (his world “darkens”), physical deterioration (“the steps of his strength will be shortened”), loss of a good advisor (his source of advice fails him). Acknowledging the momentousness of the loss inspires the realization of just how remarkable a good marriage is, so much so that they attribute it to God’s intervention. But more: Rabbah bar bar Chanah  tells us that even for God, making a good match takes extraordinary effort, comparable to the parting of the Reed Sea, among the most impressive miracles recounted in the Torah. The Rabbis support this claim not by referencing Exodus 14-15, which tells the story of the splitting of the Reed Sea, but rather based on the sound of the words in a verse from Psalm 68 to make the connection between the story of God’s awesome might and intervention and God’s role in making matches. 

Rav Yehudah, however, has a tradition that God designates people to marry one another before they are even born, which undermines the claim that matchmaking is difficult. How are the competing and conflicting claims to be reconciled? By assigning them to two different situations: Making first matches—when people are young, flexible, enthusiastic, and romantic—is an easy task. Making second marriage—when people are older and more set in their ways—is far more of a feat.


  1. Do you agree that finding a compatible mate is easier the first time one marries than the second time, or do you see it the other way around? Why?
  2. Given that few young people in the ancient world chose their own spouse, and they therefore had to abide by their parents’ choice, is there an advantage to claiming that God had a hand in  making the match and, even more, put enormous effort into insuring the right match?
This mathematician’s efforts at making a match rivaled—or perhaps exceeded?—God’s! 
This guy hacked OkCupid.
  1. In the 1960s, mathematician Martin Gardner famously published a matching algorithm that came to be known as the “The Marriage Problem” (for matching) or the “The Secretary Problem” (for hiring), but more properly called “The Optimal Stopping Theory” (see Remember Kepler’s conundrum? The algorithm says that if you have n candidates to consider, you should interview 36.8% of them (for those who like math, the precise number is 1/e) without accepting any of them, and then choose the very next candidate whose qualities exceed all the applicants interviewed thus far. (NB: The theoryWhile the theory is couched in terms of heterosexual matchings, it is equally applicable to homosexual matchings.) How much trust would be required to follow this algorithm? How is it different from trusting a matchmaker?