Friday, May 6, 2011



The nineteen blessing silent Amidah is Jewish prayer per excellence. Twelve of its thirteen paragraphs of petition reflect the general, collective needs of the Jewish community rather than the individual, personal needs of some of its members. Thus, one prays for healing even when one is not ill. One prays for justice even when one is not suffering personal injustice. Indeed, one of these collective petitions, the prayer for rain during the autumn and winter season [birkat ha-shanim], relates to the specific agricultural needs of the population of   Israel rather than to the agricultural needs of Jewish communities elsewhere in the world, whose climate differs from that of Israel. Only the last of the paragraphs of petition, the blessing that concludes with the phrase Who hears prayer [Shome’a tefillah], is the appropriate place for the insertion of individual, personal supplications.

This is the background of an interesting Talmudic passage (B.T. Ta’anit 14b). The Talmud records a question addressed to Rabbi [Judah the Prince] by the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh:

“People like us who require rain even in the Tammuz (i.e. summer) season, how should we conduct ourselves?  Are we halakhically like a mere group of individuals-yechidim- or are we to be halakhically compared to a cohesive community-rabim? If we were to be considered to be like [many unconnected] individuals- yechidim- [we should have to pray for rain in the last of the intermediate blessings of the Amidah—Shome’a tefillah-‘Who hears prayer’- [as is the case with all personal supplications]. Or do we have the halakhic status of a community [rabim], whose need for rain is expressed in the blessing of the years- birkat ha-shanim,?”

 Rabbi sent them the following answer:  “You are comparable to individuals- yechidim-[and should therefore pray for rain in the blessing ] Shome’a tefillah-Who hears prayer.”

The question of the people of Nineveh makes perfect sense.  Their city was located in an area that required rain even in the summer months.  They simply wanted to know whether it was appropriate for them to make their request in birkat ha-shanim, the blessing specifically designed to meet collective agricultural needs.  However, they framed their question in an interesting way, by asking Rabbi Judah the Prince whether they were to be regarded as a mere collection of individuals or as a collective multitude of the Jewish people.  

His answer was astonishing.  He ruled that the vast Jewish community of Nineveh was nothing more than a loose collection of individuals [yechidim], and that its members should pray for their communal requirements as individuals.

 The question was addressed to him during a period of a dramatic decline in the population in Israel.  That community was facing increasing persecution.  The very survival of its teachers was in grave doubt.  So great was Rabbi Judah’s concern for their survival that he broke with a hallowed ancient tradition and edited the Mishnah.  The Mishnah is the written record of the oral Jewish legal tradition that had been handed from generation to generation by great teachers. The oral law was not to be written down, lest its essential dynamic be paralyzed by the authoritative written word.  Nevertheless, Rabbi Judah the Prince decided to break with precedent. He feared the imminent demise of the teachers of the oral tradition. He therefore anticipated the potential loss of the entire body of that tradition, since it was preserved in the memories of its transmitters. Accordingly, he authorized and oversaw its publication in written form.   Indeed, anticipating further decline of the dwindling community in Israel, he sent his brightest disciples to Babylon to establish new centers of Torah learning in a more hospitable and less threatening environment.

 The population of Israel was diminishing, its former glory rapidly fading.  In contrast, the communities of the Diaspora were growing and thriving.  Nineveh was a striking example of this phenomenon.  How could Rabbi Judah the Prince have been so out of touch with reality as to designate the declining community of the land of Israel as the collective multitude [rabim] and the growing Diaspora centers as mere collections of individuals [yechidim]?   What was he thinking?

Rabbi Judah’s answer reflected an abiding Jewish concept.  There is a fundamental difference between individuals and collectives.  Individuals are ephemeral. They are here today and gone tomorrow.  All individual things come and go.  The collective, on the other hand, survives the arrival and departure of its individual members.  People are born and people die, but the authentic collective remains. Rabbi ruled that its size is not the determining factor.  To be sure, the Jewish community in the land of Israel was small and declining.  Indeed, the Jewish community of Nineveh was larger, and growing.  Nevertheless, it was Rabbi Judah’s conviction that the community of Israel was destined to be permanent and therefore met the definition of the collective multitude [rabim], whereas the community of Nineveh was ephemeral and destined to disappear [yechidim].

Rabbi Judah’s judgment was subsequently enshrined in halakhah.  Maimonides ruled that the sanctification of the new moon was the function of the Jewish community of Israel, even were it reduced to a mere minyan of ten men and other populations were to be numbered in the myriads. Only the Jewish community of Israel was to be considered permanent.  Only the population of the land of Israel was a true eternal Jewish collective [rabim].

Jewish history bears testimony to the truth of Rabbi Judah the Prince’s judgment.  There have been many singularly successful and prosperous centers of Jewish life.  The Jewish community of Spain enjoyed unprecedented prominence for seven hundred years, producing scholars, poets, philosophers, financiers and national and international leaders.  Who would have predicted the sudden demise of that great community?    The community of Poland was grated political independence by Boleslav the Pious in the tenth century. It had its own Parliament and the full range of governmental, judicial and civic institutions.  It, too, produced great scholars.  Yet in 1648 this thriving community was decimated and ultimately almost entirely annihilated during the holocaust.

Yet the tiny community of the Holy Land survived and eventually grew.  Its renaissance and the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state within its borders is the great miracle of our times.  It will soon be home to the majority of the world’s Jewish population. Communities come and go.  Great cities flourish, decline and disappear.  Israel alone has proved to be the enduring Jewish collective. 

This week we shall celebrate the sixty-third anniversary of the independence of the third Jewish Commonwealth.  Its achievements are astonishing. .  It is in the forefront of medical and scientific innovation. It is a center of high tech of the very first rank.  It has imported most of its population, acculturated and educated that population in great universities, and established centers of Jewish learning, with greater numbers engaged with Torah than in any other period of Jewish history

But the Jewish State faces unprecedented challenges as it celebrates the inception of the sixty-fourth year of its existence as a modern democracy.  The Palestinian Authority has made common cause with Hamas, which has stubbornly refused to recognize the State of Israel and has rocketed and murdered its citizens.  The so-called peace process has been abandoned and there is a strong likelihood that a hostile Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority will be granted national independence by the anti-Israel United Nations majority.   The new regime in Egypt has resumed ties with Iran, the world’s chief exporter of terrorism and the mortal enemy of Israel.  The Gaza border with Egypt has opened, allowing the free flow of lethal weapons to the hands of Hamas. 

Confronted with this terrifying reality, there may be a tendency to despair.    But, on this sixty-third anniversary of the birth of the new Jewish State, we should be comforted by Rabbi Judah’s answer to the citizens of Nineveh.  Teheran will disappear as Nineveh did, but Israel will endure, because it alone is the collective multitude [rabim], transcending and surviving the comings and goings of other civilizations, capitals and once powerful populations.

Happy birthday Israel!

No comments:

Post a Comment