Brachot 26: Prayer is Mercy

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

As we transition from the third to the fourth chapter of masechet Brachot, our focus shifts from the mitzvah of kriat shema to that of tefillah or, more accurately, the amidah. That which we say before the amidah—be it songs of praise, or the acceptance of the kingdom of G-d, i.e., the shema—is said as preparation for tefillah, i.e., the amidah. And that which is said afterwards is what we might call a “cooling off” period, as we slowly depart from the presence of G-d.  

These two central mitzvot of Jewish life are very separate mitzvot. According to most views, the reciting of kriat shema is a biblical mitzvah, whereas the obligation of tefillah is rabbinic in nature. We daven three times a day, yet recite the shema only twice. We may daven shacharit until one third of the day has passed, but recite shema only up until one quarter of the day has passed. Even our dress code is much different. While one may say shema even while sitting in a mikvah, one must be fully dressed for the amidah.

Most importantly, when we say the amidah we are in the presence of the King of kings. We take three small steps forward as we approach the King, with a “heavy head”, i.e., with great humility. “Even if a king enquires to his welfare or a snake is curled around his ankle, he must not interrupt his prayers” (Brachot 30b). It is not only that when one is before the King of kings, one mustn’t engage in other activities, even with a king. One’s focus during davening should be such that one does not even notice when people greet him, or that a snake is hovering around one’s ankles. 

Kriat shema could not be more different. As Rashi (Brachot 25a, s.v. aval) explicitly notes, when reciting “kriat shema, we are not standing before the King[1]”. The second chapter of Brachot begins with a detailed discussion of what interruptions are allowed in between the paragraphs of the shema and what interruptions are allowed in the middle of a sentence of the shema. That one can interrupt in order to greet people is a given; the debate only relates to the details and limits of such. Accepting the yoke of heaven is important, but that is no excuse to potentially ignore another.  

Similarly, “Workers can read [the shema] on top of a tree…which they are not allowed to do for tefillah” (Brachot 16a). Standing on top of a tree is not exactly conducive to much kavanah. It is certainly not a place where one can—or should!—be oblivious to one’s surroundings. Hence, when one says the amidah, one cannot be holding a child, money, or a knife (see Brachot 23b). Either one will be unable to fully concentrate on one’s tefillot while holding onto something or, even worse, one will be able to, thereby putting the child at risk. 

While the boss must come back to solid ground before saying the shema, such is not necessary and hence, not allowed for kriat shema. Accepting the yoke of heaven is important, but that is no exucse to take time off work. 

As we have previously discussed, the shema can be said b’lechtecha baderech, as we walk on the way, while carrying on our day-to-day activities. We can say it while walking, while at work, sitting, standing or lying down. Accepting the yoke of heaven is something we can, and should, do in whatever activity we may be involved with. Unlike tefillah, we need very little specific kavanah when saying the shema. The amidah may be likened to a formal meeting with the King. The shema is our informal rendezvous with G-d. We accept His authority and commit ourselves to following His laws even when we are not in His presence. 

Shema is a less formal—but more powerful—statement of our relationship with G-d. Anyone can be on their best behaviour when visiting a palace; it is when we are working on top of a tree, or walking to the store, or lying down before falling asleep, or any one of hundreds of ways we may accept the yoke of heaven and the yoke of commandments, that our fidelity to the King is truly manifest. 

There is a second motif to prayer, that of mercy. It is because our Sages equate prayer with mercy that women are as equally obligated in prayer as men; women need mercy no less than men. These two motifs, standing in the presence of G-d and approaching G-d for mercy, are really one. As the Rambam notes in a beautiful passage—one that if we could internalize would revolutionize our attitude towards prayer—“The entire matter of prayer is not at all an obligation. But it is from the attribute of kindness of the blessed Creator who hears [our prayers] and responds to all our callings out to Him” (Sefer Hamitzvot #5). 

What right do we have to approach a king day in and day out, three times a day no less, and ask him over and over and over again to give us what we want? How dare we think we can approach the King of kings with our requests? 

It is only because of G-d’s kindness that we can do such. Sadly, we generally do not think of prayer in this light; but imagine if we saw prayer as the wonderful gift from G-d that it is! Our prayers are just not the same when we see them as a duty we must fulfil. “One who makes their prayer kevah, fixed, his prayers will not be [proper] supplication” (Brachot 28b). As Rashi explains, this refers to one who sees prayer as a fixed obligation and prays only to fulfil that obligation. 

Kriat shema, on the other hand, has a motif of strict justice. “One is obligated to recite a blessing for the bad just as one recites a blessing for the good, as it is stated: ‘And you shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Devarim 6:5)…‘With all your soul’—even if G-d takes your soul…‘With all your might’—with every measure [good or bad] that He metes out to you” (Brachot 54a). Is it any wonder that so many went to their deaths with the words of the shema on their lips?

Our practice is to say the shema just before we daven. Before we approach G-d in prayer, we accept His kingship. May we merit that G-d accept our prayers and bestows upon us great mercy. 

 

[1] While we must “always place G-d before us”, and while we are always in His presence, it is clear that when we stand before Him during prayer, we are more acutely in His presence. Similarly, when in the land of Israel, and even more so the Temple, one is even closer to G-d. There is good reason our rabbis derive the source of prayer from the Temple sacrifices.