A Short Talmud Lesson

MISHNA: Raban Gamiliel says that everyone should pray the “Eighteen (Blessings)” daily. Rabbi Yehoshua says that one should only pray an extract (May-Eyin) of the “Eighteen Blessings” Rabbi Akiva says that if one knows them clearly one should say all eighteen, otherwise one should pray the extract. Rabbi Eliezer says that whoever prays “on automatic” isn’t really praying at all……… The Mishna invites us to a deeper understanding of one of the central pillars of Jewish prayer, the Amida, “The Standing”, also known as the Shemona Esrey, “The Eighteen”. It begins by assuming we’re already familiar with the concept and begins with the injunction to say the complete prayer every day. Remember, this was in a time before printed prayerbooks (or anything else) and so it had to be known by heart. Raban Gamliel, the head of the community, felt it reasonable that this prayer, so important, would be known so well by all that they would eagerly say it completely. Rabbi Yehoshua, perhaps a little more realistic, only required an extract of the prayer. [note: The Hebrew word also means either “from the eye of” or “from the well of”. Thus we’ve just received the hint that something about this prayer is related to the eye (which receives light) and to water (which flows from a well and to which Tora is always likened). Somehow this daily prayer connects us to the Infinite Light as well as to its physical, and thus finite representation, the Torah or, in other words, before we even start we’re now working in both the finite, human domain as well as the infinite]. Rabbi Akiva, considered by many to have been the greatest scholar of all, presents the compromise/clarification that if one can easily handle the full prayer, fine, but if not the condensed version is just as effective. In other words, it’s the involvement rather than the expertise which counts. To emphasize this, Rabbi Eliezer warns that if one is so involved in technical mastery as to lose any real meaning, the prayer isn’t worth bubkes. Prayer, like music, like love, must come from the heart. (In fact, the remainder of the Mishna, in a veiled way, speaks directly to this point!).

GEMARA: On what are these “Eighteen Blessings” based? Rabbi Hillel the son of Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachmani says that they’re indicated by the eighteen times the name of God is mentioned in Psalm 29, “Bring to God, you sons of the mighty”. Rabbi Joseph bases it on the eighteen times God’s name is mentioned in the Shema. Rabbi Tanchum said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levy that the eighteen blessings correspond to the eighteen major vertebrae in the human spine.

Oftentimes a good way to get to know someone/something is to investigate its name. The Gemara jumps in to do just that. Rabbi Hillel the son of Rabbi Shmuel notices that the Divine name is mentioned eighteen times in the 29th Psalm, most often related to Kaballat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath) and reading to Torah. In other words, he’s telling us that our daily prayer corresponds on a very deep level to both the Shabbat and to the Torah. Rav Yosef brings us a new connection, this time with the Shema which also contains eighteen repetitions of the Divine Name. The Shema, as we already know, is the central declaration of the Unity of All. Thus in this prayer we approach all that there is which is now further linked with the realm of Shabbat and with the Torah.

While this is very interesting, it’s still too abstract and removed from our regular experience, so Rabbi Tanchum, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levy, points out another occurrence of “eighteen”, the primary vertebrae as seen in medieval anatomy (in fact there are additional cervical and tail vertebrae, but the largest set actually does contain eighteen!). The spine! The structure that stands us upright, makes us, in a certain way, human. The spine also represents the vav in the Divine Name, the connector between the upper and the lower realms. The prayer of Eighteen engages us as humans, the bridge between the limitless light, the infinite All-ness and the physical world which is our arena for our efforts.

Rabbi Tanchum also said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levy that when praying one should bow until all the vertebrae pop up. Ulla says one should bow until an issar (an ancient coin) can be seen opposite the heart. Rabbi Hanina says that if one merely bows his head that’s sufficient and Raba adds that’s true only if one’s soul is in pain and one can only appear to be bowing.

In a not-unusual sidestep, the discussion slides across to discuss the last topic, the spine, and, in this case, in direct relationship to the Amida since tradition teaches us to bow twice at the beginning and twice at the end of the prayer. Rabbi Tanchum, once again in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levy, defines bowing in terms of the spine. The self-same spine whose uprightness defines us as human, which connects our higher to our lower natures, must be not only leveled but actually bent so the higher rests below the lower. This isn’t what it first seems to be, some kind of debasing groveling. Rather, as we recall Abraham’s words in Genesis, “I am dust and ashes”, we realize that all Creation is really just “stuff”, dust. Thus we joyously experience our unity with the entire physical universe (remember the previous hint of linking the prayer to the Shema?).

Ulla, a great scholar in spite of never having received rabbinic ordination (one needn’t be “certified” to participate in this great, free-wheeling and multi-generational conversation), describes the bow differently, imagining a small coin (the “issur”) lodged in the flesh of the belly where the skin folds when we bow, being greeted by the descending heart. But, for those with a little Hebrew background, the name of the coin, issur is too close for coincidence, actually identical to the word for something prohibited, also issur. Ulla thus suggests that part of this prayer involves bringing our heart to our own shortcomings. And since we’re connected to the All of the Universe, opening our heart to all imperfection.

Rabbi Hanina opens the door for the subtlety of an acknowledging head nod but Raba, also a great (in fact his name translates to “Great”) lay (un-ordained) scholar, explains that’s only if one is so soul-hurt that one can only begin this opening process. In other words, much like Raba and Ulla themselves, one is already invited to participate, no tickets or degrees or titles required.

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