The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #24: R. Nechunya's Prayer and the Dangers of the
By Rav Yitzchak Blau
R. Nechunya ben Hakaneh would pray a short prayer upon entering
and leaving the beit midrash. They said to him: "What is the
nature of this prayer?" He said to them: "When I enter, I pray that no mishap
should occur because of me, and when I depart, I give thanks for my lot."
The Rabbis taught: What does he say when he enters? "It should
be your will, the Lord my God, that no mishap should occur because of me, and I
should not err in a halakhic matter and my colleagues will rejoice over me, and
I should not declare the impure pure or the pure impure, and my colleagues
should not err in a halakhic matter and I will rejoice over them."
What does he say when he leaves? "I am thankful to You, the
Lord my God, that You have placed my lot among those who dwell in the beit
midrash and not with those who hang around street corners. They arise early,
and I arise early. I arise early for words of Torah, and they arise early for
idle matters. I toil, and they toil. I toil and receive reward, and they toil
and do not receive reward. I run, and they run. I run to the life of the world
to come, and they run to the pit of destruction." (Berakhot 28b)
As with many gemarot, this passage lies somewhere
along the boundary-line between halakha and aggada. Rambam, in his
commentary on the mishna, understands this prayer as a concrete obligation
incumbent upon each individual who enters the beit midrash. He tries to
draw proof from the formulation of the beraita's opening question –
"Ma hu omer," or "What does he say," as opposed to "Ma haya omer,"
or "What would he say." This indicates that the beraita is not merely
describing the personal practice of R. Nechunya, but rather establishing an
obligatory recital for all. The Ritva, on the other hand, sees this as a
voluntary prayer. Those of us who do not recite the prayer rely either upon the
Ritva's position or upon the theory advanced by the Arukh Ha-shulchan
(O.C. 110:16) that the prayer is obligatory only for poskim
attempting to render halakhic decisions.
Turning to the meaning of the prayer brings us closer to
the aggadic realm. Why do the sages ask, "Ma makom le-tifila zo"
(translated above as, "What is the nature of this prayer")? One could
explain that they simply wanted to hear the text and themes of the prayer. Rav
Kook (Ein Aya), however, suggests a deeper interpretation. We often
associate prayer with an appeal to God in situations of physical or spiritual
danger. The sages saw R. Nechunya praying before entering the study hall and
they wondered what could possibly be so threatening about the time spent
learning. After all, he is entering a holy place to perform an important mitzva.
However, R. Nechunya understood that the beit midrash also poses its own
religious and ethical challenges. Indeed, yesh makom le-tefila
R. Nechunya expresses his concern that he might err in
halakhic judgment. He then adds a request that his colleagues will "rejoice over
him," which Rashi explains as further expression of R. Nechunya's fears. He is
afraid that his peers might laugh at and ridicule him for his errors in halakhic
analysis. Then, he will have not only distorted the given halakha, but also been
the cause of his friends' improper behavior. In a slightly different vein,
Maharsha suggests that this "rejoicing" refers to part of what R.
Nechunya prays for, not what he fears. Namely, R. Nechunya prays that his
friends react with joy to his success at expounding the halakha.
Perhaps we can best appreciate this point by envisioning
an academic conference, during which some professors dedicate all their energy
assailing the theory of rival scholars. At some point, we must conclude that
personal pettiness has supplanted the intellectual search for truth. Let us also
admit that such things are not unknown in the world of the beit midrash.
Rashi emphasizes an environment in which people do not take pleasure in
others' mistakes. Maharsha goes further and aspires to an atmosphere in
which people take active joy in the achievements of others. It behooves us to
think about how to generate such an atmosphere in our own places of learning.
The Ahavat Eitan adds another suggestion in his
commentary, found in the Ein Yaakov. He notes that mistakes are
usually an indispensable part of the learning process. Indeed, the gemara
(Gittin 43a) explicitly states that "a person cannot understand matters
of Torah unless he first stumbles in them." Yet the one who recites R.
Nechunya's prayer would like to avoid even the initial error. The method for
doing so, the Ahavat Eitan contends, depends upon "yismechu bi
chaverai." Only a positive collective learning environment, in which
different scholars complement the strengths of others, helps avoid the errors
inherent in any solitary individual's approach to a topic.
Finally, let us analyze the prayer of thanksgiving
offered upon leaving the study hall. We can certainly appreciate the feeling of
contentment over engaging in meaningful activity, rather than frivolously
killing time. At the same time, we might question the phrase "they toil and do
not receive reward." Surely, many people involved in foolish activities
nevertheless receive some reward, financial or otherwise, for their efforts. The
simplest answer might be that the reward mentioned in this prayer refers
specifically to otherworldly compensation. If so, we can understand why only
those engaged in more meaningful work receive it.
The Chafetz Chayim offers a different answer (see
Chafetz Chayim al Hatorah, beginning of Bechukotai). He admits that both
groups who toil receive some type of reward. However, one group's reward rests
solely in the results, while the other receives reward for the effort involved
in the process. The card shark on the street corner measures success solely in
terms of the amount of money pulled in on a given day. The toil, per se, is not
grounds for reward. By contrast, the person struggling for understanding in the
beit midrash views the endeavor as inherently valuable even if on a given
day comprehension remains elusive. In this sense, the person leaving the study
hall can truly declare: "I toil and receive reward."
Many of us do not recite this tefila, but the
themes inherent in both parts should animate all of us who spend time learning.
Following our learning session, we should appreciate our fortune in engaging in
significant activity rather than wasting the day in mindless entertainment.
Prior to learning, we should think about both the necessary seriousness of
purpose in trying to understand the peshat, and about setting the correct
interpersonal tone for the give-and-take of academic discourse. Without denying
that pride in Torah achievements has its place in the study hall, we can and
must avoid an atmosphere in which the clash of egos supplants the sincere
milchamta shel Torah.