Talmud Tips

For the week ending 25 January 2020 / 28 Tevet 5780

Berachot 16-22

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Personal Prayers for Everyone

The text for the prayers we say nowadays was formulated by the Anshei Knesset HaGedola — the Men of the Great Assembly — who led the Jewish People during the time of exile following the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash. These people were great Torah scholars, and among them were a number of prophets as well. In their immeasurable wisdom they composed a standard text for our prayers, a text that we still use today.

The gemara in our sugya cites a variety of personal prayers that a number of the Talmudic Sages were accustomed to say at the conclusion of their individual Shmoneh Esrei prayers(the “standing prayer,” which is said quietly). It is fascinating to note that some of their individual prayers have been incorporated into our own prayer services, although not all of them are said at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrei.

For example, the Sage Mar, the son of Ravina, would say at the end of his Shemoneh Esrei: “My G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; and let my soul be like dust to everyone. Open my heart to Your Torah, then my soul will pursue Your commandments… As for those who design evil against me, speedily nullify their counsel and disrupt their design.” He would conclude his additional prayer with the following verse: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, G-d, my Stronghold and my Redeemer.” (Tehillim 19:15). This personal prayer that this great Sage added to his prayer forms the basis for an additional personal prayer that we add each time we say the Shemoneh Esrei (the exact complete text can be found in any Siddur).

The gemara also records an additional prayer that Rebbi would say for Heavenly protection from dangerous arrogant people. Although we do not say this at the end

of the Shemoneh Esrei, as Rebbi did, it has become part of our prayer service that is recited following bircot hashachar, a series of blessings we say in the morning. In a similar fashion, we find that the additional prayer that Rav would say after his Shemoneh Esrei, we now say as a prayer before Musaf on “Shabbat Mevarchin” — the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh. It is a beautiful and inspiring prayer that Hashem will grant us only goodness in the coming month. Rava’s special prayer, that Hashem should accept our confessions of sin, is now part of our prayers on Yom Kippur.

A person who learns the texts of these personal prayers as they are written in our gemara, might have a basic, but seemingly troubling question. How is it that we are privy to know the words that our Sages would add? Their additions were made at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei, and the Shemoneh Esrei is to be said quietly, in a manner that no one else except for the person praying can hear (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 101:2, and the Mishnah Berurah there). Therefore, how did anyone, including the compilers of the gemara, know what these Sages actually said in their personal and private prayers that only they and Hashem could hear?

One answer was suggested to me by a Rabbi in Jerusalem. Torah is taught from generation to generation, from father to son, from Rabbi to talmid. And not just the Torah that is found in the Chumash, the Mishna, the Gemara and the other classical Torah sources. Every aspect of Divine wisdom that relates to our ability to grow closer to Hashem and go in His path is certainly considered Torah and must be taught. Therefore, all of the Sages undoubtedly taught their talmidim their personal additional prayers as part of their Torah study. Whether or not the talmidim would also say these prayers, or compose others that were more suited to their individual needs, was up to them.

Berachot 16b-17a

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