Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Before you is a gemara from Masekhet Berakhot that I can only describe as subversive. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.” (Translation from halakhah.com)

 

This gemara presents 4 differing approaches to the question of the effectiveness of prayer, with most of them being quite subversive. I’m still not quite sure what to do with this gemara myself, so for now I would just like to lay out the gemara as I understand it.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

 

Opinion #1, that of Rabbi Hanin and Rabbi Hanina is what I think of as the classical approach to tefillah. Prayer works. If you pray for something you will get a response. If you pray for something and there is no noticeable, presumably positive, response, it is because you are not praying properly. If you want your prayer to succeed, then you have to pray harder. Pray longer. Prayer works, so if it’s not working for you than the problem must be with you/ The flipside is that this means the problem is likely within your power to fix.

 

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

 

Rabbi Hiyya the son of Abba presents Opinion #2, a radically opposite to Opinion #1. Expecting your prayer to work is just going to frustrate you. Tefillah doesn’t “work” in the classical sense. However tefillah is thought to work, it is not a guarantee. It does not itself effect any process in some sort of mechanical way. If you think it does, then prayer will inevitably be a frustrating experience for you. His solution for this frustration is to study Torah, presumably either because A) it is a process the results of which are obvious, thus alleviating the frustration of waiting unendingly for the results of prayer, or, conversely, because B) Torah study is a practice with no expected results, and the change of mindset from result-focused to process-focused relieves the frustration.

 

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

 

The gemara is alive to the fundamental contradiction between the two opinions. The two opinions present opposite results (tefillah works/frustrates) for almost exactly the same process (one who prays long, כל המאריך בתפילתו). The gemara resolves this by focusing on the one difference between the two descriptions of tefillah: “looking for fulfillment,” “המעיין בה.” The gemara thus resolves the contradiction by saying that the two results (works/frustrates) apply to two distinctly different processes.

This provides us with Opinion #3. Tefillah works, but only when you have given up on any thought that it works. If you pray thinking that your tefillah works, that your prayer sets in motion a process leading to the results you desire, then it is seemingly guaranteed that your prayer will not work. If you think tefillah works, then it only frustrates. On a theological level this has its own logic to it. Process A leads to Result A; while Process B leads to Result B. On an existential level, Opinion #3 is asking you to pray without expecting any results from it.

EDIT: It’s important to note, in terms of understanding the Gemara, that at this point one should probably assume Opinions 1 & 2 never existed. They arise in the course of the discussion with a superficial contradiction, but a careful reading by the anonymous voice of the Talmud points out the obvious resolution, leading us to realize that Opinions 1 & 2, then, are really just different facets of one opinion, Opinion #3. My thanks to David Nagarpowers for pushing me to clarify this point.

 

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.”

 

This last piece of the gemara might seem to be technically separate from the previous pieces. It falls outside the immediate argument, but is also about prayer and thus might have been recorded together. However, I think the connection goes deeper than that. Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina (see the author of Opinion #1) gives us Opinion #4, which is somewhere in between Opinions #1 & #3, while rejecting Opinion #2. Rabbi Hama says that tefillah does not work in a strict sense. There is no one-to-one connection between prayer and result. Thus when one prays one should not expect their prayer to work, but nor should they simply expect their desires to be frustrated. Instead, they should hope. Rav Hama invokes a verse which equates praying with “קוה,” which can be translated as “wait” or “hope.” The verse refers to קוה, then to taking courage, then to קוה again. So too Rav Hama says that a person should pray, then they should not be frustrated if their tefillah is not answered, and then they should pray again.

Opinion #4 says tefilla can work even if you think it works, but also says that it may or may not work no matter what you think. But it’s that “may” that makes it distinct from Opinion #2, indeed from all the previous opinions. All those opinions insisted on an absolute approach to tefillah. It either works, or it doesn’t, or either one depending on the specific conditions of the prayer. Opinion #4 doesn’t leave you with a strong sense of certainty, which can be troubling. But it leaves the options open, and leaves you the ability to hope.

 

This gemara presents 4 opinions about tefillah, with one being the classical approach that “Tefillah works” (#1), while the other three range from simply complicating how tefilla works (#3) to rejecting the idea entirely (#2), suggesting, that rather than working, Tefillah frustrates. Even the more moderate final approaches that the gemara concludes with (#3 & #4) are a strong step away from the classical model that the gemara starts with, and thus this gemara can only be seen as subversive. I’m not sure yet what to make of this gemara, how to fit it into a broader picture of prayer, Hazal, Judaism, etc. I am, however, fascinated by it, and I would love to hear if anyone has any different ways of interpreting it.

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