This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Gentlemen and Scholars*

Jewish tradition, as is well known, designates blessings or prayers to be recited for more occasions than Hallmark has greeting cards. The Mishnah relates that Rabbi Nehuniah ben Hakkaneh would recite one before going into the house of study.

The Talmud (Berakhot 28b) provides us with the text of that prayer: May it be your will, O Lord my God, that no mishap should occur on my account, and that I may not err in a matter of religious law, that my colleagues may rejoice in me, and I should not declare something impure to be pure, or vice versa; and that my colleagues should not err in a matter of religious law that I should rejoice in them.

The syntax of this lengthy sentence is a bit vague, and it is not entirely clear how the clauses fit together. The simplest reading would seem to be the one proposed by Rabbi Samuel Edels (Maharsha): He would pray as follows: that my colleagues will truly rejoice over the fact that I have not committed any errors, and similarly I will rejoice over them because they have not erred. In this connection Maharsha cites a rabbinic tradition that lists joy among the forty-eight qualities through which the Torah is acquired.

Rashi, however, interprets the passage in a very different, and quite startling, manner. He links the rejoicing to the mishaps and erroneous rulings, and understands the prayer as follows: May it be your will...that I may not err...and that my colleagues may not derive pleasure from my blunder... nor I in theirs.

Rashi goes on to explain that the prayer relates to two distinct and tangible fears that haunt a rabbinical scholar. Of course, a falsification of the Torah in the form of an erroneous ruling is a grave enough matter in its own right. With regard to the colleagues' reaction, however, Rashi's worry is not about the actual humiliation that the scholar will suffer when his error is brought to light, but rather with the fact that his colleagues would be sinning when they take malicious pleasure in it; and the person who provided them with the opportunity for such mean-spiritedness is held responsible for contributing to their sin!

As we might expect, Rashi's explanation stimulated subsequent commentators to try to figure out what was on his mind. Their words provide interesting glimpses into the competitive scholarly culture that existed in the talmudic academies in various Jewish communities.

Typical of these discussions are the words of the moralistic tract Orhot Zadikim (Ways of the Righteous), a work of unknown authorship composed in fifteenth-century Germany, and republished frequently in Hebrew and Yiddish versions. A special chapter of this book was devoted to a scathing critique of the yeshivahs in the author's community. He accused the students of wasting their time in fruitless talmudic dialectics (pilpul), at the expense of other valuable subjects like Bible and science. The Orhot Zadikim found that Rashi's picture of petty scholarly envy dovetailed perfectly with his own experience. Therefore, he had little difficulty in appreciating why Rabbi Nehuniah was impelled to address this malaise in his prayer: because he had observed that this is a widespread phenomenon, that one person takes pleasure in his colleague's mistakes so that he can exult at his expense and thereby promote his own reputation.

And just in case you should think that such pettiness is confined to lesser figures, our author goes on to inform us: And there are even some distinguished persons who are not scrupulous about this matter.

Rabbi Moses Schreiber of Pressburg (the Hasam Sofer) was also disturbed by the implications of Rashi's interpretation, with its insinuation that scholars take pleasure in a colleague's gaffes. God forbid that people of that sort would be found in the company of upright scholars! For that matter, he was puzzled why Rabbi Nehuniah seemed less worried about the actual halakhic error than at the prospect of the colleagues' nasty reaction to it.

Therefore, Rabbi Schreiber proposed to explain the passage by referring to a story, related elsewhere in the Talmud, about(BB 133b) Rav Ilish, who almost issued an erroneous ruling in a complicated question of inheritance law, but his error was pointed out to him in time by Rava. Rav Ilish was initially embarrassed by the incident, but Rava consoled him with the words of the prophet Isaiah(40:22) I the Lord will hasten it in its time; implying that Rava's convenient presence was an act of divine assistance, and Rav Ilish should take pride in the fact that he was found deserving of intervention to rescue him from a serious halakhic mishap. Rava was also proud that he was found worthy of helping Rav Ilish.

The Hasam Sofer quipped that it would really have been preferable if God had allowed Rav Ilish to recognize the truth by himself without having to rely on Rava's opportune presence, and without giving Rava reason to rejoice at his good deed.

This, then, was precisely the sort of situation that Rabbi Nehuniah's prayer was addressing. He was praying that he should not stumble in a matter of law, and therefore would not require a divinely ordained Rava to correct him; even though such a situation would give the colleague a warm fuzzy feeling that he was acting as God's agent in the matter.

Rabbi Schreiber went on to compare Rabbi Nehuniah's prayer with that of another talmudic sage, Rabbi Abba. (Besah 38a-b). When Rabbi Abba immigrated to the holy land, he prayed: May it be God's will that I may say something that is accepted. On his arrival, he met several distinguished scholars, and posed to them a question that he thought was very clever. However, they merely laughed at him, and pointed out the flaws in his reasoning. Evidently, Rabbi Abba's prayer about having his teachings accepted was dismissed as a futile and vain sentiment. But why, asked the Hasam Sofer, should it be treated any differently from that of Rabbi Nehuniah, which earned the approval and admiration of the Talmud's sages?

The Hasam Sofer's solution reveals much about his own personality. He explained that Rabbi Abba's prayer reflected too much concern with other people's opinion. Unlike Rabbi Nehuniah, he wanted to persuade his opponents of the correctness of his views and to obtain their approval. This, declared Rabbi Schreiber, is an inappropriate objective for a true scholar. A scholar's exclusive concern should be with arriving at the truth. He should make no effort in marketing that truth in order to make it more acceptable to others. If people do not recognize the truth on its own merits, then that is their problem; but the scholar should not demean himself with efforts to make his case more attractive.

This attitude epitomizes the Hasam Sofer's intransigent positions in his relentless struggle against modernity. He saw himself as a lone voice crying in the wilderness, and often surprises us with his indifference to public opinion.

Another insightful perspective on Rabbi Nehuniah's prayer was proposed by Rabbi Abraham Maskileison, a nineteenth-century Russian commentator who examined the text in light of other talmudic observations about pedagogic methodology. The sages had remarked that a person never fully understands the words of Torah until he has stumbled over them. Rashi equated the stumbling with the issuing of an erroneous ruling. After being once bitten by the embarrassment of such a mistake, a person will thereafter be twice shy when issuing decisions, and will never again dare to pass judgment unless he has thoroughly studied all the relevant factors.

Learning from your embarrassing mistakes, noted Rabbi Maskileison, might be one way of learning, but it is not the ideal one. It is possible to achieve the same result by assiduously doing your homework in the first place.

Accordingly, he proposed that Rabbi Nehuniah's prayer should be understood in light of those two learning styles. Upon entering the house of study, it is natural and appropriate for a scholar to aspire that he should be worthy of arriving at correct decisions through diligent preparation, rather than be exposed to the awkwardness of learning from one's mistakes.

Fortunately, in the world of academic scholarship in which I operate, we are completely free of any taint of jealousy or ill will, and my learned colleagues invariably treat one another with respectful courtesy.

Anybody who claims otherwise is an incompetent and laughable quack.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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