Mercy Extended to the Bird Nest

Daf 33. Summary. A man who has ignored the greeting of an army commander so as not to interrupt his prayer appeases the commander by explaining the importance of prayer. Even if a snake is wrapped around your heel, you should not interrupt your prayer unless the snake becomes agitated. For scorpions one always interrupts. It is more complicated in the case of oxen. Rabbi Hanina Ben Dosa’s piety is such that when a snake bites him, it is the snake that dies.

Mishnah. Blessings may sometimes be incorporated in Amidah, including Havdala.

Gemara. The gemara asks why blessings mentioning the “might of the rain” are incorporated in some prayers. Rav Yosef said such rains are “equivalent to the resurrection of the dead.”

The gemara discusses the blessing of wisdom. Rav Ami says “anyone without knowledge, it is forbidden to have compassion upon him.” It is noted that the place of Havdala has shifted over the generations, depending on the fortunes of the people; regardless, it is debated as to whether it must also be recited over the cup of wine.

Mishnah. When a prayer leader introduces certain “innovations,” he must be silenced.

Gemara. It is clear why most of the innovations are problematic, but why does this apply to “your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest”? Answer: Because it is a misstatement to credit God with mercy in this case, where the Scriptural source is a commandment to man to show mercy. Rabbi Hanina suggests that the “innovations” that add to God’s praise are ineffectual, pale reflections of the formulas provided by Moses and the members of the Great Assembly.

Comment. This daf presents a typical tension in considering when to perpetuate tradition and when to accept innovation. There is acknowledged difficulty in reconstructing the evolution of Havdala related to Amida, which reflects both the loss of knowledge (the corruption of memory) and the tradition of innovation. Yet we are also forbidden to have compassion on one who lacks knowledge and commanded to silence the innovator. Of course, there is nuance to these apparent contradictions. The compassion we are forbidden to extend to the one without knowledge is not forbidden to the bird nest, where we are commanded to show mercy. The prohibition against innovation is directed against innovation meant to influence God but not against innovation that shows mercy because of the altered circumstance of the people. Thus, there is a distinction between those of us who remain in the nest (community) and those of us who think we can fly alone.

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4 Responses to Mercy Extended to the Bird Nest

  1. elenizl says:

    No one can fly alone forever but flying solo for some time is necessary …

    My earliest nest was perhaps not the best place for a baby bird. I flew away (not even knowing I had to fly!) before my wings were as sturdy as they might have needed to be. HaShem was merciful and somehow my solo flights led to many rich experiences despite the “near misses”. But they also led me back to the nest to see it for it it was so that I might make another one — sturdy and beautiful and true. Now I build that nest so that others may leave it and to return when the time is right, stronger, sturdier, more compassionate and more.

    • neillitt says:

      Your response suggests to me a situation I had not considered in my original post: the baby bird who flies away because she cannot find mercy in the nest. May God have mercy on the ones who would build such a nest and fail to fulfill the commandment of showing mercy to the baby bird!

  2. charleshollander says:

    It seems to me that Rabbi Hanina’s rebuke in 33b to the prayer leader who adds extra praises teaches us something important about prayer, how bold it is–to coin a phrase, the audacity of hope. He tells us that we would not be permitted to recite even “hagadol, hagibur, v’hanora” had not Moses and the Great Assembly instituted the text of the Amida. Prayer is audacious; we can only dare to pray in the congregation the Sages’ text. Private prayer is another matter, but there too we can see the presumption involved. George Herbert’s sonnet “Prayer” has some very strong phrases–“Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower, Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,” but ends on a consoling note: “The land of spices, something understood.” I recommend the poem.

    • neillitt says:

      I agree. And we see the riskiness even more clearly in daf 34, wherein the efficacy of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa’s prayers of healing depends on the “fluency” of his mouth. When he stumbles over his words, the result is deadly. No wonder the “bad omen” falls on those who choose the “wrong” prayer leader.

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