Piousness

I think there’s a general consensus within centrist orthodox world that it’s fine for someone to be מחמיר, extra stringent, on themselves, but not to impose this on others. For many years I repeated this mantra, but now I’m not so sure.

The second chapter of ברכות, Berachot, contains a running dialogue about whether or not one is פטור, excused, from reciting the Sh’ma on one’s wedding night.  The fifth Mishna both establishes this principle and then describes Rabban Gamliel, the head of the academy, reciting it nonetheless.  The reason given for this blanket excuse from an otherwise strict twice-daily requirement is that the groom, and remember we’re talking about an often fourteen or fifteen year old boy who hasn’t been exposed since the cradle to the pervasive sexuality of television, internet and advertising, worrying about consummating the marriage.  We’re also basing this ruling on the principle of עוסק במצוה פטור מן המצוה, someone who is already engaged with one mitzva is freed from having to engage in an additional one (unless they’re easily combined). When challenged, Rabban Gamliel replies that he never taught that one can lose the consciousness of the the supremacy of God for any length of time at all.  Presumably, Rabban Gamliel is also declaring that he is able to maintain acute awareness of both obligations at the same time.

The chapter ends with the eighth Mishna stating that whoever wants to recite the Sh’ma on their wedding night is free to do so, although Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, Rabban Gamliel‘s own son, disagrees.  He says that not everyone who might wish to honor The Holy Name is necessarily capable of doing it.  The underlying principle is that properly reciting the Sh’ma requires such a high level of  כוונה, kavvana or concentration, that other driving concerns (such as one’s wedding night) make it almost impossible to achieve this kavvana.  Although Rabban Gamliel and, perhaps, a very few others of his day were able to maintain their kavvana under the pressure of worrying about their wedding nights, most others who would, nevertheless, recite the Sh’ma were really just falsely boasting of their own piety and thus should be discouraged.

Now it becomes interesting, because already in the thirteenth century, the Tosefot, a group of Talmudic commentators centered around Rashi’s sons-in-law and grandsons, ruled that “in our days”, i.e. already by the mid-thirteenth century, most people say the Sh’ma without such a high level of kavvana.  Thus we should all, from then on, say the Sh’ma even on our wedding nights.  In fact, they go on to say that one who, beginning with that historical period, refrains from the Sh’ma is actually bragging that even though no one else can, he says the Sh’ma with what’s considered no-longer-achievable kavvana.

In other words, at least in this case, publicly going beyond the halachic norm, whether in ancient days by reciting the Sh’ma or in modern times, by refraining from it, is no longer about the mitzva, the binding oneself to the Infinite (צו, the root of מצוה, really means to bundle or join) but rather about making a narcissistic show of one’s “piety”.  Leaving aside the argument that artificially raising the bar seriously discourages many from even entering the world of מצות, anything that draws awareness to the self, and therefore away from God, runs counter to the entire point of performing Mitzvot.

My late rebbe, Rabbi B.C.S. Twerski zt”l more than occasionally reminded that our generation is not so strong.  In the spirit of Tosefot, perhaps we should all step back a bit and make sure we’re getting the basic mitzva right rather than finding value in making mitzvot more and more difficult.  God wants our love, not our showing off.  This is authentic Torah, not Judaism Lite.

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2 Responses to Piousness

  1. Sarah Kochav says:

    But is Rabban Gamliel only talking about the wedding night? And why do you assume that boys growing up in the ultra-Orthodox world know little about sex? (Some Brooklyn or Jerusalem movie houses would have you think otherwise.)

    • For one thing, we’re talking about close to two thousand years ago. There were no movies or movie houses, no such thing as denominational divisions, probably very little leisure time and much shorter lifespans. Beyond that, he’s not limiting his thought to a specific instance, but using the wedding night as a paradigm of pre-occupation. What he’s really discussing with that example is the degree of kavana (inner intention) required to properly perform a mitzva, in this case, another paradigm, reciting the Sh’ma.

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