Tag Archives: 13 Principles of Exegesis

The 18 Decrees of Beit Shammai

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, Moses cautions the Israelites that they should observe every Torah mitzvah that he relayed to them, and not to add or detract from it (Deuteronomy 13:1). This always brings to mind the question of Rabbinic additions, expansions, fences, and stringencies that have been added to Jewish practice over the centuries. In light of the above verse, are such extras valid? Karaite Jews would argue with a resounding “no”, and this is why they stick to a strictly literal observance of the Torah.

The reality is that the Torah does also allow for the leaders and sages of future generations to make new rulings as necessary. Generally speaking, tough, such rulings must be based on something in the Torah itself, and rabbis are only attempting to extract the Torah’s true meaning and practice. Talmudic opinions are almost always supported by a Scriptural verse, even if it sometimes takes a lot of mental acrobatics to see how. We have 13 major rules of exegesis that the Sages followed in deriving rabbinic laws, and the general view is that the Sages did not invent anything new, but only rediscovered something lost:

In one passage, we are told that as soon as Moses passed away, some 3000 halakhot were forgotten (Temurah 16a). The Israelites asked Moses’ successor Joshua to get them back through prophecy, but he countered that no longer can laws be derived through prophecy—lo bashamayim hi! “The Torah is not in Heaven!” (Deuteronomy 30:12) Ultimately, Joshua’s successor Othniel was able to restore 1700 halakhot through the use of the 13 principles of exegesis. In other words, built into the Torah itself is the power to extract its true meaning, and to derive all laws, including rabbinical ones, from it.

That said, sometimes laws are introduced without a Scriptural basis, presumably out of necessity. The most infamous case of this is the time when Beit Shammai took over the Sanhedrin by force and voted in 18 new decrees (see Shabbat 13b-17b and Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:4). It isn’t clear what exactly happened, and how it transpired. It began when the Sages of the day all went to visit one of the leading scholars, Chananiah ben Hizkiya ben Garon, who was ill at the time. (Ben Garon’s greatest achievements were composing a text called Megillat Ta’anit, and ensuring that the Book of Ezekiel remained in the Tanakh at a time when many Sages wanted it removed. He was able to resolve all apparent contradictions stemming from the Book of Ezekiel.)

While in Ben Garon’s attic, it turned out that the disciples of Shammai outnumbered the disciples of Hillel. As this was a valid convocation of rabbis, it would be permitted to vote in new laws. Beit Shammai took advantage of the opportunity, and brought in armed guards to block the entryway to the attic so that Beit Hillel could not escape. Then, they proposed 18 laws and voted them in by majority. The Talmud Bavli says that Hillel was made to sit in submission before Shammai, and this was a most shameful event. The Talmud Yerushalmi goes even further and says things got violent, and disciples of Shammai actually killed disciples of Hillel! Many refuse to believe that Torah sages literally harmed each other, and say the Talmud must be speaking figuratively. Whatever the case, both Talmuds assert that this day was as difficult and terrible for the Jewish people as the day of the Golden Calf. In fact, there used to be a fast day observed in commemoration of this tragedy, on the 9th of Adar (see Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 580).

When did this event happen? There are two possibilities: the first is that it happened in the time of Hillel and Shammai, and this is supported by the language of the Bavli which suggests Hillel and Shammai were themselves present. Hillel’s life overlapped with that of the cruel King Herod. We know from both Jewish and historical sources that Herod persecuted the rabbis, which might explain why they had to make new rulings in secret, in places like the attic of Ben Garon. The other possibility is that it happened during the Great Revolt, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple. By that point, the Sanhedrin could not convene in its proper quarters on the Temple Mount, which might also explain why they had to gather secretly in an attic. Moreover, we know that at the time there were Kanayim, “Zealots”, a faction of Beit Shammai that did indeed take up arms and sought to violently rule the streets of Jerusalem. This is more fitting with the Yerushalmi’s violent account. In addition, the Yerushalmi does not say Hillel and Shammai were there, but does suggest Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer were there. Recall that Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer were students of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the leading sage at the time of the Temple’s destruction.

Rabbi Eliezer, who was stringent and more of a Shammai at heart (even though his main teacher Rabban Yochanan was a disciple of Hillel), believed that the 18 decrees of Beit Shammai were a good thing. They had “filled the measure”. His more lenient colleague Rabbi Yehoshua believed it was a terrible thing, and not only did they not fill the measure, they “erased” the measure! He thought that more stringencies were counterproductive, and instead of being a fence that preserves Judaism, would make Judaism too difficult to observe and drive people away. Not only will the unlearned majority stop keeping rabbinic laws, they will throw off the yoke of Torah entirely and stop keeping even Scriptural laws. In short, the masses will “throw out the baby with the bathwater”. Rabbi Yehoshua’s observation was prescient, and it seems history has confirmed his fears.

With that long introduction, what exactly were those 18 decrees?

“A Nation That Dwells Alone”

There are vast differences in opinion regarding the nature of the 18 laws. Both Talmuds present multiple lists, with varying items. Most of them tend to focus on purity laws that applied in Temple times but are not so relevant today. The list that is most applicable for us is given in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:4) by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, as follows:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: On that day they decreed about [1] their bread, and [2] their cheese, and [3] their wine, and [4] their vinegar, and [5] their fish brine, and [6] their muries, and [7] their preserves, and [8] their parboiled food, and [9] their corned food, and [10] on split grain, and [11] on ground food, and [12] on peeled barley; [13] on their speech, and [14] on their testimony, and [15] on their gifts, [16] on their sons, and [17] on their daughters, and [18] on their firstlings.

First is the law of pat israel, to only consume bread that was made by Jews, or that a Jew participated in making at some point in the process. This is a stringency still observed by many today. Similarly, the second law was against gevinat akum, the “cheese of idolaters”. Until then, all cheese was considered kosher by default, since it can only be made from cow or goat milk (although there is a question regarding the kosher status of rennet). Henceforth, only cheese made by Jews or closely supervised by Jews would be kosher. This, too, is a law that is widely observed today. (Having said that, Italian Jews typically did not observe this stringency, and consumed all cheese.)

The related law of chalav israel—not consuming gentile-drawn milk—is derived by the Sages from this one about cheese, and the Talmud goes on to say that we are concerned cow or goat milk will be mixed with milk from non-kosher animals (like horses). For much of history, Jews in many locales were lenient with chalav israel, and typically did consume gentile milk, especially if it came from a trusted source. Today, because government bodies regulate milk in most developed countries, people have become even more lenient regarding milk and it is common to consume chalav stam.

The most widely accepted and well-known of the 18 is the prohibition against yayin stam, gentile-made wine. The Torah itself only forbids yayin nesech, wine that was used in idolatrous libations. (More accurately, the Rambam explains in his Sefer haMitzvot [Negative Mitzvah #194] that even the Torah itself does not prohibit idolatrous wine explicitly, but it is derived from a verse in parashat Ha’azinu where God admonishes the people for drinking idolatrous wine.) In that Ben Garon attic, Beit Shammai forbid all gentile wine. This has become standard halakhic practice today.

The Talmud Bavli concurs that gentile-made wine was one of the 18 decrees (Shabbat 17b). It also adds gentile-made oils. Oils are mentioned in the other Yerushalmi list, too. The oil ban is discussed in other places in the Talmud, where the Sages say that the prohibition on oils didn’t take effect because it was just way too difficult to keep (Avodah Zarah 36a). On the same page, the Talmud suggests that the ban on gentile wine and oil actually dates back to the prophet Daniel, though he had taken these stringencies only upon himself. Whatever the case, the one rule that all lists agree on without a doubt is the prohibition on “their daughters”, presumably meaning intermarriage. But wait, wasn’t intermarriage already forbidden from the Torah?

One minority opinion in the Yerushalmi suggests that the ban on “their daughters” is metaphorical, and actually just means on eating their eggs! In other words, there may have been a time when Jews only consumed eggs from Jewish-supervised hen houses. While intriguing, this is not the accepted opinion. Instead, the Sages explain that when the Torah banned intermarriage, it only meant specifically with the seven Canaanite nations. Beit Shammai decreed a ban on all intermarriage. In that case, what do we make of Ezra’s pronouncement for the Israelites returning to the Holy Land after the Babylonian Captivity to get rid of their foreign wives?

Some interpret the Torah to mean that it was originally forbidden to intermarry with Canaanites even if they converted to Judaism. All other nations were permitted to marry as long as they converted. Ezra’s pronouncement was against the wives that didn’t convert, or refused to convert. According to this view, Beit Shammai would have banned all intermarriage, even with converts. This really cannot be accurate. Bartenura (Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro, c.1445-1515) comments on Shabbat 1:4 that “their daughters” refers specifically to Samaritans, and it was intermarriage with Samaritans that was prohibited.

A different interpretation is given in the Talmud Bavli (Avodah Zarah 36b). Here we read that the ban on “their daughters” was not referring to marriage, but to any sexual intimacy with gentiles, even outside the context of marriage. In other words, before Beit Shammai’s decree, a Jewish man may have been allowed to be intimate with a gentile woman, and this is what was banned. The Talmud continues with a long series of back-and-forth arguments to show that truly, this was all prohibited already in the Torah itself. What Beit Shammai did was only to prohibit intimacy with gentiles even in private quarters and in secret—and this had already been instituted once before by the Hasmonean Maccabees, of Chanukah fame.

The Talmud adds here that the reason Beit Shammai made these decrees is to separate Jews from non-Jews and to lessen mingling between them. The ultimate goal was to prevent Jews from assimilating or falling to idolatry. (Keep in mind that at this time, two thousand years ago, “gentile” and “idolater” were basically interchangeable, since there were no other monotheistic religions around.) Beit Shammai banned gentile wine and bread so that Jews don’t go to non-Jewish parties. They made decrees on purity to further solidify the separation between Jews and idolaters. Perhaps Beit Shammai wanted Israel to live up to Bilaam’s words in the Torah that Israel is “a nation that dwells alone”. This was necessary because the Roman Empire was a huge melting pot, and many Jews were becoming Romans. (Including the Jewish-Roman general that destroyed the Temple, as explored in the past here.)

Having said all that, the rule in Judaism is that the law always follows Beit Hillel, so why were the decrees of Beit Shammai accepted at all?

“Halakhah K’Beit Hillel”

Presumably, the decrees of Beit Shammai were accepted because they were voted in by majority in a Sanhedrin-like council. However, the Talmudic narrative makes it quite clear that it was not a legitimate Sanhedrin. Beit Hillel were forced to vote, and perhaps were even violently suppressed. Beit Shammai took majority through an inappropriate ruse. How could such laws ever be passed or accepted? I think it is a likely possibility that they weren’t accepted.

If we date the event to the time of the Great Revolt—which makes more sense altogether—we can understand why Beit Shammai pushed these laws. Not only did they want to separate between Jews and Romans, but they also wanted to weed out Roman sympathizers and collaborators. They became uncharacteristically violent because they felt desperate times called for desperate measures. It is possible that this event led directly to Rabban Yochanan’s exit from Jerusalem. He got permission from Vespasian to establish a new school in Yavne. Rabban Yochanan was a Hillelite, as were his disciples. Now we can better understand why, henceforth, Beit Shammai basically ceased to exist.

However, there were among Rabban Yochanan’s students those who favoured more stringencies, like Rabbi Eliezer. They personally upheld the decrees of Beit Shammai, inspiring others to do the same. Over time, the stringencies became more and more commonplace, and some did become universally accepted. Since they became accepted, that became normative halakhah. The question for us today is: should we continue to observe these Shammaian practices, and should we encourage people to take on these stringencies? Do we side with Rabbi Eliezer, or with Rabbi Yehoshua? Shammai or Hillel?

The Talmud itself affirms that we never accept Beit Shammai (Berakhot 36b). In fact, the language there is that we don’t even consider their opinion to be valid! So why observe their decrees, especially in light of the horrible way they voted them in? It is intriguing to note the position of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who spoke about this issue at length, explaining that Beit Shammai is all about potentials and not realities, and is rooted in the mystical side of Gevurah and Din, not Chessed—hence the reason for the complete rejection of Shammai (see, for instance, Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, on Beshalach/Tu b’Shevat). Yet, Lubavitch is quite strict regarding things like chalav israel and gevinat akum! (Some explain it by finding other sources and explanations. However, it doesn’t change the fact that it is a Shammaian law!)

Another argument might be based on the oft-repeated idea that in the Messianic Age, the law will switch to follow Shammai. Since we are approaching that era, should we take these extras upon ourselves? Or should we do the very opposite, and rule on the side of Chessed at a time when the world clearly needs it.

A final note to keep in mind is that the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 36a) suggests that the 18 decrees of Beit Shammai actually cannot be repealed, even by the future Sanhedrin of Eliyahu! How could this be? (And, in that case, how was it that the prohibition on oils was rescinded?) And how do we make sense of all this in light of the famous Heavenly Voice that proclaimed, after three years of ceaseless debates, that the halakhah should always follow Beit Hillel? (Eruvin 13b)

I leave these questions unanswered, and will instead conclude with one more teaching of the Sages. A Tosefta in Eduyot 2:2 states that there are 24 instances where Beit Hillel is actually stricter than Beit Shammai. (The Jewish Encyclopedia counted 55 instances!) The Sages conclude by stating the following:

Forever the law follows Beit Hillel. One who wishes to take stringencies upon himself and follow the stringencies of both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, of him it is said: “A fool walks in darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:14). However, one who takes on both the leniencies of Beit Shammai and the leniencies of Beit Hillel is wicked. Rather, one should either follow Beit Hillel—with their leniencies and stringencies—or follow Beit Shammai—with their leniencies and stringencies.

לעולם הלכה כדברי ב”ה והרוצה לעשות להחמיר על עצמו ולנהוג כחומרי ב”ה וכחומרי ב”ש על זה נאמר (קוהלת ה) והכסיל בחשך הולך התופס קולי ב”ש וקולי ב”ה ה”ז רשע אלא או כדברי ב”ה כקוליהן וכחומריהן או כדברי ב”ש כקוליהן וכחומריהן.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Little-Known Purpose of Deuteronomy

‘Moses Speaks to Israel’ by Philippoteaux (19th century)

This week we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim, literally “Words”. This book is distinct from the others, for it is written from the perspective of Moses. It records Moses’ final words to the nation over his last 37 days of leadership. Devarim serves, in many ways, as a summary of the Torah, and is therefore traditionally referred to as Mishneh Torah, a “repetition” of the Torah. In fact, when our ancient Sages first translated the Torah into Greek (at the behest of King Ptolemy), they called the book Deuteronomion, “repeated law”, ie. the Greek translation for Mishneh Torah. Having said that, Deuteronomy introduces a number of new mitzvot previously unmentioned in the Torah, and contains some of the Torah’s most significant passages, including the Shema and Ha’azinu.

The reader will quickly notice that Deuteronomy has a totally different tone from the rest of the Torah. Its language is far more similar, not to the books of Torah that precede it, but to the books of Tanakh that follow it: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. (Secular scholars actually combine these books and label them the “Deuteronomistic history”.) Thus, the fifth book of the Torah plays a critical function: it concludes the Five Books of Moses while simultaneously introducing and segueing into the rest of the Tanakh. One who reads the conclusion of Deuteronomy and immediately starts Joshua will hardly notice that they’ve changed books. For instance, the former ends with Moses telling Joshua to be chazak v’ematz, “strong and brave” (Deuteronomy 31:7, 23), while the latter picks up with the same exact phrase multiple times (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9, 18).

This signifies the fluid, continuous chain of transmission, starting with Moses, passing on directly to Joshua, then the Elders, down through the rest of the Prophets, to the Men of the Great Assembly, and to the Sages that followed (Avot 1:1), up to the rabbis of the present day. Herein lies the true purpose of Deuteronomy: it holds together all of Judaism, including both the “Written” and “Oral” Torah. We may think of Deuteronomy as “Written”, but a careful reading shows that it is quite clearly more “Oral” in nature. One of the most puzzling things about it is that with all of the key narratives that it repeats, it appears to change the details!

For example, in the Ten Commandments recorded in Exodus, Shabbat is to commemorate the world’s Creation in six days, and God’s resting on the seventh (Exodus 20:11). In the Ten Commandments of Deuteronomy, however, Shabbat is to commemorate that God took us out of Egypt and we are no longer slaves who must work around the clock (Deuteronomy 5:15). Which is it? Another example is the Sin of the Spies: in Numbers 13 we read that God commanded to send spies to scout the Holy Land; in Deuteronomy 1:22, it is the people themselves that request it of Moses. What was it? Even more problematic, in Deuteronomy 10:6, Aaron dies in a different place and at a different time than that presented in Numbers 33:38! How do we make sense of these discrepancies?

The classic answer is that Deuteronomy is Moses’ own recollection of past events. After all, the book begins by saying Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe—these were specifically the words of Moses himself. The Zohar (III, 261a) says that unlike the rest of the Torah which was dictated to Moses by God, “Mishneh Torah was spoken from Moses’ own mouth” (משנה תורה משה מפי עצמו אמרן). As such, included within it were Moses’ own interpretations of the Torah and the law. And this, therefore, serves as the foundation for the entire Oral Tradition. Moreover, this is why we always refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moses our rabbi”. He is the first rabbi, the first to analyze and interpret the Torah, extracting its deeper meanings and uncovering the hidden wisdom of God buried in the plain text—in the words of the Zohar, the chokhmah ila’ah (חכמה עלאה) buried inside.

The Zohar concludes that Deuteronomy is the Oral Torah! It is from Deuteronomy that we learn about the need to interpret the Torah and extract the wisdom within it. The Zohar adds that this is why the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy have a seemingly superfluous vav before them (וְלֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָ֑͏ף׃ וְלֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ וְלֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה) whereas the Ten Commandments in Exodus do not (לֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָ֑͏ף׃ לֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה). The extra vav, which means “and”, serves to teach that this is the command and, hidden inside, all the other additional laws one can extract from it! The Zohar gives an example: In Exodus we are told only not to covet a fellow’s wife (לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ), but in Deuteronomy we are told not to covet and not to crave (וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֑ךָ וְלֹ֨א תִתְאַוֶּ֜ה). Rabbi Yose explains that based on Exodus alone one might think the law is only not to actually abduct a woman, or conspire to do so, but from Deuteronomy we further learn that one is forbidden from even craving another, whether in thought or desire, even without acting on it. The Zohar gives other examples, showing how the purpose of Deuteronomy is actually to extract the true meaning of the previous four books of the Torah.

In that case, Moses the rabbi was the first to reinterpret the Torah and extract new layers of meaning from it. It is in Deuteronomy that he lays out the rabbinic system, and in Deuteronomy that the 613 mitzvot of the Torah are completed. Beautifully, the numerical value of Moshe Rabbeinu (משה רבינו) is 613. It has further been pointed out that the system Moses laid out in Deuteronomy, relayed specifically over his last 37 days, correspond to the 37 tractates of Talmud, solidifying the link. So, we see that Deuteronomy accomplishes two things: first, weaving smoothly into the rest of the Tanakh, and second, bridging to the Oral Torah. It is no coincidence that the first official written work of Oral Torah is called the Mishnah, a direct link to Moses’ Mishneh Torah.

With this in mind, there is truly little room to distinguish between “Written” and “Oral” Torah at all. The two are inseparable and intertwined, like the branches of the Tree of Life (to paraphrase the poetic words of the Zohar). The Oral Torah begins in Deuteronomy, and flows through the rest of the Tanakh, before being fleshed out in fuller form in the Mishnah, then the Talmud. There is a continuous historical, chronological, legal, linguistic chain of development. (If considering the ‘Nakh as “Oral Torah” seems strange and counterintuitive, keep in mind how the Samaritans—who deny an Oral Torah—only hold Moshe’s Torah as holy, and have no ‘Nakh at all! They reject the Prophets basically the same way they reject the Talmud!)

It is worth adding one more point here: the first person to actually codify the entire Torah, both “Written” and “Oral”, was the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), “Maimonides”. As the famous saying goes, “from Moshe to Moshe there arose no one like Moshe”, ie. since Moshe Rabbeinu there was none as great as Moshe ben Maimon. In some ways, he completed the Torah process that began at Sinai—at least its legal portion. He summarized and codified all of Jewish law, clearly and succinctly, in a 14-volume masterpiece that he called, not coincidentally, the Mishneh Torah. It remains the only complete code of Jewish law, that covers all aspects of Torah and Judaism. In his introduction, the Rambam boldly states that no other code is required and, quite incredibly, that a person who wants to understand all of Judaism need only read the Torah, and his Mishneh Torah!  

For this (among other things), the Rambam was heavily criticized. He sought to set in stone Jewish law, but Jewish law is not meant to be set in stone. Even the Ten Commandments that were literally set in stone in Exodus were already interpreted differently by Moshe Rabbeinu in Deuteronomy! Jewish law must remain alive and breathing, changing, growing, adapting with the times.

One might ask: if that’s the case, why did Moses say not to add or remove anything from his Torah? (Deuteronomy 4:2) At the same time, he said to listen to the future rulings of the Torah leaders that arise in each generation, and not to veer “right or left” from their decrees (Deuteronomy 17:11). Throughout history, many solutions have been presented to this problem. One way to understand it is to remember that, in Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the soul of each individual Jew. The other four books of the Torah were God’s Word to the nation as a whole. Deuteronomy is Moses’ word to his people, to each person. Thus, in the same way that he says each person should listen to the consensus of the Torah authorities (17:11), so too should each person not add or remove anything from the Torah of their own accord (4:2). Only a recognized majority body of scholars could ever make critical emendations when necessary. This was indeed the case throughout the era of Prophets and the Talmud, when a Sanhedrin existed (it formally ended in the 5th century, see ‘An Eye-Opening History of the Sanhedrin’).

That brings us back to the Rambam. In his Mishneh Torah introduction, he lamented the fact that, due to our exile, individual rabbis have had to make local rulings that were subsequently adopted by others and, over the centuries, Judaism started to fracture because of it, and there was growing confusion regarding the law. The Rambam therefore sought to clarify and codify the actual, universal Jewish law, based strictly on the Torah and Talmud, the only documents that carried the authority of a Sanhedrin or other recognized majority body of scholars. He explains this all in the latter half of his introduction.

While the Mishneh Torah did not end up being the last word on Jewish law, it did launch a trend where the law needed more widespread consensus and recognition. It led to more in-depth codes of law, with more explanation, and more debate regarding the finer points of law. It led to a “virtual” Sanhedrin of sorts, where legal texts attain primacy over time through majority recognition of rabbis separated by thousands of miles. And so, Jewish law continues to evolve, adapt, and grow, as always intended by the first Moses—and the first rabbi—Moshe Rabbeinu.


Click here to read ‘The Untold Story of Napoleon and the Jews’, an excerpt from Garments of Light on Tisha b’Av.

Marriage and Prayer: Why They Are the Same, and How to Succeed in Both

This week’s parasha is Toldot, which begins:

And these are the genealogies [toldot] of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac. And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca… for a wife. And Isaac prayed to Hashem opposite his wife, because she was barren, and Hashem accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived.

The Torah juxtaposes Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca with Isaac’s successful prayer. One of the Torah’s central principles of interpretation is that when two ideas or passages are placed side by side, there must be an intrinsic connection between them. What is the connection between marriage and prayer?

Another central principle of interpretation is that when a word or concept appears for the first time in the Torah, its context teaches the very epitome of that word or concept. The first time that the word “love” is used between a man and woman in the Torah is with regards to Isaac and Rebecca, and the two thus represent the perfect marital bond (a topic we’ve explored in the past; see: ‘Isaac and Rebecca: the Secret to Perfect Marriage’ in Garments of Light).

So, we see that Isaac and Rebecca were very successful in their love and marriage, and simultaneously very successful in their prayers. In fact, our Sages teach that when the Torah says “Isaac prayed… opposite his wife”, it means that the two prayed together in unison, and some even say they prayed while in a loving embrace, face-to-face, literally “opposite” one another. God immediately answered their prayers. What is the secret of Isaac and Rebecca’s success in love and prayer?

Understanding Prayer

It is commonly (and wrongly) believed that prayer is about asking God for things. Not surprisingly, many people give up on prayer when they feel (wrongly) that God is not answering them, and not fulfilling their heartfelt requests. In reality, prayer is something quite different.

A look through the text of Jewish prayers reveals that there is very little requesting at all. The vast majority of the text is made up of verses of praise, gratitude, and acknowledgement. We incessantly thank God for all that He does for us, and describe over and over again His greatness and kindness. It is only after a long time spent in gratitude and praise that we have the Amidah, when we silently request 19 things from God (and can add some extra personal wishes, too). Following this, we go back to praise and gratitude to conclude the prayers.

Many (rightly) ask: what is the point of this repetitive complimenting of God? Does He really need our flattery? The answer is, of course, no, an infinite God does not need any of it. So why do we do it?

One answer is that it is meant to build within us an appreciation of God; to remind us of all the good that He does for us daily, and to shift our mode of thinking into one of being positive and selfless. Through this, we build a stronger bond with God, and remain appreciative of that relationship.

The exact same is true in marriage. Many go into marriage with the mindset of what they can get out of it. They are in a state of always looking to receive from their spouse. Often, even though they do receive a great deal from their partner, they become accustomed to it, and forget all the good that comes out of being married. They stop appreciating each other so, naturally, the marriage stagnates and the couple drifts apart.

Such a mindset must be altered. The dialogue should be like that of prayer: mostly complimenting, acknowledging, and thanking, with only a little bit of request. The Torah tells us that God created marriage so that man is not alone and has a helper by his side. The Torah says helper, not caretaker. We should appreciate every little bit that our spouses do, for without them in our lives we would be totally alone and would not even have that little bit. The Talmud (Yevamot 62a) tells a famous story of Rabbi Chiya, whose wife constantly tormented him and yet, not only did he not divorce her, but he would always bring her the finest goods. His puzzled students questioned him on this, to which he responded: “It is enough that they rear our children and save us from sin.”

A Kind Word

By switching the dialogue to one of positive words and gratitude, we remain both appreciative of the relationship, and aware of how much good we do receive from our other halves. Moreover, such positive words naturally motivate the spouse to want to do more for us, while constant criticism brings about the very opposite result.

Similarly, our Sages teach that when we constantly praise God and speak positively of Him, it naturally stirs up His mercy, and this has the power to avert even the most severe decrees upon us. We specifically quote this from Jeremiah (31:17-19) in our High Holiday prayers:

I have surely heard Ephraim wailing… Ephraim is my precious child; a child of delight, for as soon as I speak of him, I surely remember him still, and My heart yearns for him. I will surely have compassion for Him—thus said Hashem.

Ephraim is one of the Biblical names for the children of Israel, especially referring to the wayward Israelite tribes of northern Israel. Despite the waywardness, Ephraim’s cries to God spark God’s compassion and love for His people.

A kind, endearing word can go very far in prayer, as in marriage. The same page of Talmud cited above continues to say that Rav Yehudah had a horrible wife, too, yet taught his son that a man “who finds a wife, finds happiness”. His son, Rabbi Isaac, questioned him about this, to which Rav Yehudah said that although Isaac’s mother “was indeed irascible, she could be easily appeased with a kindly word.”

Judging the Self

The Hebrew word for prayer l’hitpalel, literally means “to judge one’s self”. Prayer has a much deeper purpose: it is a time to meditate on one’s inner qualities, both positive and negative, and to do what’s sometimes called a cheshbon nefesh, an “accounting of the soul”. Prayer is meant to be an experience of self-discovery. A person should not just ask things of God, but question why they are asking this of God. Do you really need even more money? What would you do with it? Might it actually have negative consequences rather than positive ones? Would you spend it on another nice car, or donate it to a good cause? Why do you need good health? To have the strength for ever more sins, or so that you can fulfill more mitzvot? Do you want children for your own selfish reasons or, like Hannah, to raise tzadikim that will rectify the world and infuse it with more light and holiness?

Prayer is not simply for stating our requests, but analyzing and understanding them. Through proper prayer, we might come to the conclusion that our requests need to be modified, or sometimes annulled entirely. And when finally making a request, it is important to explain clearly why you need that particular thing, and what good will come out of it.

Central to this entire process is personal growth and self-development. In that meditative state, a person should be able to dig deep into their psyche, find their deepest flaws, and resolve to repair them. In the merit of this, God may grant the person’s request. To paraphrase our Sages (Avot 2:4), when we align our will with God’s will, then our wishes become one with His wishes, and our prayers are immediately fulfilled.

Once more, the same is true in marriage. Each partner must constantly judge their performance, and measure how good of a spouse they have been. What am I doing right and what am I doing wrong? Where can I improve? How can I make my spouse’s life easier today? Where can I be more supportive? What exactly do I need from my spouse and why? In the same way that we are meant to align our will with God’s will, we must also align our will with that of our spouse.

The Torah commands that a husband and wife must “cleave unto each other and become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The two halves of this one soul must reunite completely. This is what Isaac and Rebecca did, so much so that they even prayed as one. In fact, Isaac and Rebecca were the first to perfectly fulfil God’s command of becoming one, and this is hinted to in the fact that the gematria of “Isaac” (יצחק) and “Rebecca” (רבקה) is 515, equal to “one flesh” (בשר אחד). More amazing still, 515 is also the value of “prayer” (תפלה). The Torah itself makes it clear that marital union and prayer are intertwined.

One of the most popular Jewish prayers is “Nishmat Kol Chai”, recited each Shabbat right before the Shema and Amidah. The prayer ends with an acrostic that has the names of Isaac and Rebecca. The names are highlighted to remind us of proper prayer, and that first loving couple which personified it.

Confession

The last major aspect of Jewish prayer is confession. Following the verses of praise and the requests comes vidui, confessing one’s sins and genuinely regretting them. It is important to be honest with ourselves and admit when we are wrong. Among other things, this further instills within us a sense of humility. The Talmud (Sotah 5a) states with regards to a person who has an ego that God declares: “I and he cannot both dwell in the world.” God’s presence cannot be found around a proud person.

In marriage, too, ego has no place. It is of utmost significance to be honest and admit when we make mistakes. It is sometimes said that the three hardest words to utter are “I love you” and “I am sorry”. No matter how hard it might be, these words need to be a regular part of a healthy marriage’s vocabulary.

And more than just saying sorry, confession means being totally open in the relationship. There should not be secrets or surprises. As we say in our prayers, God examines the inner recesses of our hearts, and a couple must likewise know each other’s deepest crevices, for this is what it means to be one. In place of surreptitiousness and cryptic language, there must be a clear channel of communication that is always wide open and free of obstructions.

To summarize, successful prayer requires first and foremost a great deal of positive, praising, grateful language, as does any marriage. Prayer also requires, like marriage, a tremendous amount of self-analysis, self-discovery, and growth. And finally, both prayer and marriage require unfailing honesty, open communication, and forgiveness. In prayer, we make God the centre of our universe. In marriage we make our spouse the centre of our universe. In both, the result is that we ultimately become the centre of their universe, and thus we become, truly, one.