Life Interrupting Prayer

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom Parshat Vayigash – פרשת ויגש January 4, 2020 – ז טבת תשפ Life Interrupting Prayer The reunion of father and son after a lengthy period apart will, inevitably, be an emotional moment for each. The commentators are, accordingly, baffled by the Biblical verse that describes the aged Jacob’s first encounter with Joseph after twenty-two years of forced separation. “And Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen; and he presented himself unto him, and fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck a good while (Genesis 46:29).” Only one of them wept. The text does not indicate that the other participant displayed any emotion. It is not ambiguous about that. It is ambiguous in identifying which of the two men cried. Was it Joseph or Jacob? The use (solely) of pronouns in the second half of the verse obscures his identity. Ramban suggests three reasons why the text should be understood to mean that it was Jacob who cried on Joseph’s neck: (a) As a matter of filial piety, Joseph would first have ceremonially bowed down to his father, or kissed his father’s extended hand, before weeping on Jacob’s neck. (b) The expression וירא אליו indicates that Jacob did not, at first, recognize Joseph. With Jacob’s vision dimmed by extreme old age (as was true of Isaac when he conferred his blessing upon Jacob instead of upon Esau), and Joseph’s appearance having changed considerably from what it was several decades earlier, it would be only after Joseph had presented himself up close that that Jacob would have been able to recognize him. Only after ascertaining that the royal official standing before him was indeed his son Joseph did Jacob weep. (c) Logic would dictate (הדבר ידוע) that in a meeting between an elderly, bereaved father and a politically powerful son, tears would flow more readily from the eyes of the father. The consensus of the commentators does not accord with Ramban’s view. That consensus is that it was Joseph who wept. In the Minor Tractates, it is suggested that Jacob would not permit Joseph to kiss him -- not just in the meeting at issue but ever again. Jacob was convinced that, after having spent so many years in the licentious land of Egypt, Joseph must have committed sexual transgressions. According to Rava, Joseph derived physical pleasure from his encounter with Potiphar’s wife (Kallah Rabbati 3:15). Support for this theory can be found in the fact that, on his deathbed, Jacob kissed Joseph’s sons but did not kiss Joseph (48:10). Only after Jacob’s death does Joseph finally have the unimpeded opportunity to kiss his father (50:1). Elsewhere in the Minor Tractates, the following ethical dictum is set forth: “Put aside your will and the will of your fellow in favor of the will of Heaven. So we find with Jacob, who did not kiss Joseph (Derekh Eretz Zuta 1:10).” Left unexplained is why it would be the will of Heaven for Jacob to refrain from kissing his beloved, long-lost son. (Likely the original version of the text offered clarification; the surviving text is defective.) Under this view, however, Jacob, the human being and father, wanted very much to embrace his son, but Jacob, in his role as the servant of God, felt the need to hold back. Rashi, citing “our rabbis,” writes that Jacob was unable to express emotion because he was in the midst of reciting the Shema רבותינו אמרו שהיה קורא את שמע. The will of Heaven is understood as uninterrupted fulfillment of liturgical obligations. Interestingly, this idea is not expressed in Talmudic or Midrashic literature ספרות חז"ל. For centuries, readers of Rashi’s commentary must have wondered what the source of this unusual interpretation was. In 1864, nearly 800 years after Rashi, Jacob Mussafia published an edition of Geonic responsa in which this explanation is cited in the name of Rav Yehudai Gaon (Teshuvot Ha-Ge’onim Mahadurat Lyck, 45). Rashi’s comment, if taken literally, does not satisfactorily answer the problem of Jacob’s emotional coldness. The Shema, a Pentateuchal text, did not exist in the Patriarchal time in which Jacob lived. Moreover, the Shema as part of our liturgy did not originate before the late Second Temple period. Rashi’s comment here, consistent with his notes to Genesis 26:5, embraces the facially anachronistic view that the Patriarchs fulfilled all 613 commandments. That approach may be suitable for homiletics דרש; but in my view it cannot be used to determine the plain meaning of the text פשט. Abandoning hyper-literalism, we can explain that Jacob felt the need to proclaim the sovereignty of Heaven קבלת עול מלכות שמים upon seeing his beloved son and realizing that everything was part of God’s master plan (Rav Yehuda Amital). But there is yet another problem with Rashi’s interpretation. Jewish law permits one to interrupt the recitation of Shema for the purpose of greeting others. “In the middle, one may greet out of fear and return a greeting out of honor. At the breaks, one may greet out of honor and return a greeting to any person (Mishnah Berakhot 2:1).” Thus, even assuming arguendo the notion that Jacob was indeed reciting the Shema, still, and in order not to snub or cause pain to his beloved son Joseph, Jacob should have temporarily suspended that recitation so as to behave the way any normal father would have under the unique circumstances of the Jacob-Joseph reunion. The interpretation of Rav Yehudai Gaon and Rashi is, therefore, not in agreement with normative rabbinic halakhah. It is, however, in perfect conformity with a lesser-known trend of Jewish piety dating back to the late Second Temple and Tannaitic periods. The Hasidim, or Men of Deeds אנשי מעשה, were individuals renowned for the efficacy of their prayers, for their faith-healing, and for their concern for the social welfare of the masses. At the same time, they under-emphasized the laws of ritual purity and of intensive study of Torah. Hasidim had their own literary tradition and unique halakhic practices. The Rabbis respected the Hasidim, even turning to them in moments of crisis. But the Rabbis never fully countenanced the alternative Judaic path on which the Hasidim trod. (Berakhot 34b). The Mishnah teaches that Hasidim would meditate for an hour before commencing statutory prayer. The text continues, “Even if the king salutes a man, he may not return the greeting; and even if a snake was twisted around his heel, he may not interrupt his prayer (Mishnah Berakhot 5:1).” The Talmud was troubled by these last two rules. Preservation of life takes precedence over all religious matters except for the three cardinal sins of murder, illicit sexual relations, and idolatry. Disregarding a poisonous snake or ignoring a king (who has the power to impose the death sentence at his whim) needlessly jeopardizes life. Out of perceived necessity, therefore, the Talmud creatively re-interprets the Mishnah to refer to a Jewish king who has respect for the laws of prayer, and to a non-poisonous snake. The matter of פיקוח נפש is skirted, albeit weakly (תירוצא דחוקא), and by departing from the true intention of the Mishnah. The correct understanding of the Mishnah was that it set down a stark directive: One had to endanger one’s life rather than interrupt one’s prayer. But that version of halakhah was meant only for the Hasidim. Somehow it managed to find its way into the body of the Mishnah, and so the Amoraim dealt with it by interpreting it away within the framework of their own system of legal reasoning. The editors of the Babylonian Talmud tacitly acknowledge this by citing stories of Hasidim who risked their lives, in violation of normative Jewish law, and yet lived. For example, one Hasid at prayer purposely failed to return the greeting of a Roman official, while Hanina ben Dosa knowingly placed his heel on a serpent’s hole (Berakhot 33a). The idea that Jacob could not weep on Joseph’s neck because he was reciting Shema fits the religious viewpoint of the Hasidim. All three Patriarchs are, by definition, deemed to have been individuals elevated far above the rest of Jewry. Analogously, Hasidim stand apart from “ordinary” Jews. They are the spiritual elite. Congregational rabbis who supervise the distribution of honors during High Holy Day services know how difficult it is to refrain from incidental conversation during the lengthy prayer service. Laymen also find that difficult, if not impossible. And so normative rabbinic law reflects that reality. It sets more reasonable and relaxed standards, because it is intended for ordinary Jews, not for those breathing rarified spiritual air. Communing with one’s Maker in prayer is – and always must be -- a serious matter, undertaken with as much kavvana as one can muster. But the world does not come to a screeching halt just because one is praying. Events of tremendous personal or other significance (even if far below the emotionally fraught level of discovering a long-lost son) can occur at any moment. (One simple example would be that of a physician with patients on the critical list, where he might be summoned by pager or equivalent to return instantly to the hospital.) And so the Talmud wisely understood that, for all but the most pious of us, sometimes life does -- and is permitted to -- interrupt prayer. If you would like to sponsor an upcoming essay, please contact me at