Brachot 29: The Simple Jew

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“Our Sages taught: Shimon Hapekuli arranged the eighteen blessings before Rabban Gamliel, al haseder, in order, in Yavne” (Brachot 28b). 

The Gemara (Megillah 17b) notes that the shemoneh esrei was initially composed by the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah. In a rather startling comment, the Gemara then claims that it was then forgotten and hence, the need for Shimon Hapekuli to “arrange them again”. 

While the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah formulated the shemoneh esrei, it seems that it was never widely accepted and at some point, fell into disuse. As we discussed in our last post, as late as the second century, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel debate whether one need actually say the shemoneh esrei, indicating its daily recital was far from universally accepted. Thus we understand why Rabban Gamliel, who felt it should be said by all daily, instructed Shimon Hapekuli to arrange the shemoneh esrei once again.  

It is rather remarkable that the most important prayer we have, one said three times a day, was composed not by a great Sage of Israel but by a simple layman, one whose very name attests to his profession of a pekuli, a cotton merchant. Shimon Hapekuli appears nowhere else in the Talmud save here. His appearance is in keeping with the anonymous Biblical figures who appear but once in the Torah, yet changed the course of history: ”the man” who wrestled  with Yaakov, “the man” who told Yosef where his brothers were shepherding, the unknown midwives Shifra and Puah, or the daughter of Pharaoh. 

Shimon Pekuli is the representative of the simple Jew, the Jew who guarantees the future of the Jewish people and whose prayers reflect the yearning of the simple Jew. It is our great Sages to whom we entrust our understanding of Torah, but it is the simple Jew who is the one who teaches how to approach G-d in prayer[1].

However, Shimon Hapekuli composed only 18 blessings. As is well known, there are 19 blessings in the shemoneh esrei

“Rabban Gamliel said to the Sages: Is there any person who knows how to institute birchat haminim, the blessing of the heretics? Shmuel Hakatan stood and instituted it” (Brachot 28b-29a). Why the need to find someone else to compose the blessing against the heretics? Why not ask Shimon Hapekuli, who clearly did a masterful job with the first 18 brachot? And if not Shimon Hapekuli, why didn’t Rabban Gamliel do it himself? 

Rav Kuk beautifully explains that a very special type of person was needed for the composition of this bracha. The bracha is full of hatred towards those who endanger the Jewish people and Judaism. We ask G-d to have no mercy on the apostates and informers, to uproot and destroy them. Only a person full of love, one who cares deeply for the enemy and is pained when they must be punished, can be entrusted to compose such a bracha

Shmuel Hakatan was such a person; his personal motto was, “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice” (Avot 4:19, quoting Mishlei 24:17). Only he could compose such a bracha, a bracha that of necessity had to be 100% for the sake of heaven, that would ask only for what was absolutely necessary and not one iota more. Only one who goes by the name, “The Small One”, one who is full of humility, could do so. 

I find it fascinating that this is the one and only teaching of his recorded in the Mishna. We know him not just as one who was pained by the suffering of the enemy, but only as one who was pained by the suffering of the enemy. Rabban Gamliel, who had, shall we say, a much rougher approach, understood, to his credit, that he could not be the one to compose such a bracha.  

“The next year, he forgot it”. He forgot it—what a beautiful loss of memory. This was a task that had to be done, but once done, Shmuel Hakatan wanted nothing to do with this blessing. He was too full of love to remember that at times one must, sadly, pray for the destruction of the enemy. 

What follows next in the Gemara defies belief. 

Shmuel Hakatan was the shaliach tzibbur. Having forgotten the birchat haminim, he paused “for two or three hours”, trying to remember it. As it was feared that those who refused to say the bracha were in fact heretics[2], one who skipped the bracha would immediately be removed as the shaliach tzibbur. Hence, the question of the Gemara: “Why did they not remove him?” Why did Shmuel Hakatan get preferential treatment? Perhaps he, too, was an apostate. The Gemara’s response that since “he was the one who composed” the bracha, we can assume he was not a heretic, is rejected. Perhaps he changed course and did, in fact, become a heretic! To Abaye’s suggestion that good people don’t just change like that, the Gemara says, "really? “Isn’t it written (Yechezkel 18:24): ‘And when the righteous one returns from his righteousness and does wicked…’ Didn’t we learn in a Mishna: Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die, as Yocḥanan the High Priest served in the High Priesthood for eighty years and ultimately became a Sadducee?” (Brachot 29a). 

The Gemara comes to the conclusion that the reason, the only reason, they did not remove Shmuel Hakatan was because he had actually started to say the bracha. Having done so, it was clear enough that his stopping was not because he was a heretic, but because he had forgotten the bracha. Had he not begun the bracha, he would have been unceremoniously removed. 

This Gemara may teach us about the threat the minim, apostates, posed to the Jewish people during the time of Rabban Gamliel. But it teaches much more about the worldview of our Sages and how we must relate to them. The most pious of them—and there were few more pious than Shmuel Hakatan—could potentially renounce their commitment to our faith[3]. We trust in God and G-d alone. We can never be certain about man, regardless of his past piety. 

I find this notion both scary and refreshing. Yet this is a two-way street. If a tzadik can become a rasha, a rasha can become a tzadik. We may never have faith in man, but we must never lose hope in the potential goodness of man, either.  


 

[1] As we discussed here, prayer and Talmud Torah are opposite, even contradictory, mitzvot. Talmud Torah requires critical thinking, the ability to assess complex arguments, independent thought, and the willingness to take on all in debate. It is the domain of the learned. Prayer, on the other hand, demands simplicity, modesty, innocence and complete surrender to G-d. It is the domain of the simple Jew. It is the rare person who can excel in both of these domains.  

[2] The scholarly consensus is that the bracha was composed against the early Christians, who at this point were part and parcel of the Jewish community. 

[3] And lest you think that this is no longer an issue, you might be interested in reading Dr. Marc Shapiro’s posts regarding the numerous sefarim written by talmedei chachamim who later apostatized here