Risky Business

Daf 34. Summary. Mishnah. When a prayer leader errs, he must be replaced immediately. The Mishnah suggests procedures a prayer leader should follow to avoid error.

Gemara. Normally one should not appear too eager when asked to lead prayers: “There are three things that are harmful in excess but beneficial when used sparingly: leavening in dough, salt in a cooked dish, and refusal for the sake of propriety.” However, as the Mishnah says, one should not hesitate to replace a prayer leader who has erred. The gemara debates where one resumes the prayer following an error, where it is appropriate to insert prayers requesting one’s own needs, what constitutes excessive length or excessive brevity in prayer, and when it is appropriate to bow while praying.

Mishnah. If one errs in prayer, it is a “bad omen.” If a prayer leader errs, it is a bad omen “for those who sent him.” When Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa prayed for healing, he announced afterwards who would recover and who would die.

Gemara. Does an error in a particular blessing result in a bad omen? The gemara debates the relative merits of the penetent and the righteous.

Comment. Prayer appears to be risky business. When a prayer leader errs, he must be replaced immediately. Whoever is selected must not hesitate to accept, but should he err, then the bad omen falls on those who selected him. Moreover, the omen may result in the loss of life, as when Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa is requested to offer a prayer of healing and his “fluency” fails him; he knows immediately following his prayer who will survive and who will not. Clearly, there is a risk to offering sloppy prayers. It is expressed in stark and vivid terms in the Talmud. Our contemporaries are more inclined to find different paths to sublimate our feelings of helplessness and survivor guilt (if/when we survive!), but we are not immune from the feelings.

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One Response to Risky Business

  1. elenizl says:

    Prayer is only a risky business when it is communal and there is a shaliach tzibur (ie prayer leader). The text is pointing to the immense responsibility of the shaliach tzibur to “get it right” not so much for God’s sake (God understands) but lest someone in the community be misled inadvertently. Individual prayer has none of these dangers … as God always understands our mumblings as God understood Hannah’s.

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