Beitzah 17

Science and Health

When the rabbis tackle big ideas, they rarely signal they are doing so. This means that you never know when a mundane halakhic argument will suddenly reveal a much deeper clash. Such is the case on today’s page, when a deceptively innocent debate about a tiny turn of phrase in a blessing reveals a major philosophical divide.

The Amidah, the central Jewish prayer, opens with three standard blessings of praise and closes with three standard blessings of thanksgiving. During the week, there are 13 intermediary blessings of petition, but not on Shabbat. But what about when a festival falls on Shabbat? What intermediate blessings should be recited in the Amidah on that day? The rabbis consider:

Beit Shammai say: One must recite (a version of) the Amidah that includes eight (blessings, including three introductory, three concluding, and two intermediate) — one (intermediate blessing) for Shabbat and a second for the festival.

And Beit Hillel say: One must pray (an Amidah of) seven blessings. One begins the middle blessing with Shabbat and concludes it with Shabbat, and he declares the sanctity of the festival in the middle.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: He concludes this blessing: “Who sanctifies Shabbat, the Jewish people and the seasons.” 

Let’s remember that when Hillel and Shammai disagree, the halakhah (almost) always follows Hillel. So the Amidah for a festival that falls on Shabbat includes not two blessings (one for Shabbat and one for the festival) as Shammai rules, but one long middle blessing that integrates both Shabbat and the festival. Hillel thinks this multi-tasking blessing should start and end with Shabbat, but Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi offers a concluding line for the middle blessing that weaves together both themes by praising God who sanctifies Shabbat, the Jewish people and the seasons (in that order).

Sounds reasonable, right? Not so fast. The Gemara introduces an alternate conclusion to the intermediate blessing:

Tanna taught before Ravina (the last line of the intermediate blessing should instead be): “Who sanctifies the Jewish people, Shabbat and the seasons.”

The content is the same, but this Tanna thinks that the order must be different, starting with the Jewish people and only then moving on to Shabbat and the festival. Now we learn that Ravina disagrees: 

Ravina said to that Tanna: Is that to say that the Jewish people sanctify Shabbat? Isn’t Shabbat already sanctified? Rather, say: “Who sanctifies Shabbat, the Jewish people, and the seasons.”

Ravina insists on the original order we learned from Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi: Shabbat, Jews, festival. 

What is at stake in this argument? Why do we care so much about the order in which these are recited? 

The Gemara thinks that the order in which these three things are mentioned matters because it is asserting a causal relationship. It’s not simply a statement that God sanctifies all three, it’s a declaration that God sanctifies whichever comes first and that, in turn, sanctifies what follows. 

In Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s formulation (which Ravina supports), God sanctifies Shabbat, which in turn sanctifies the Jewish people, who in turn sanctify the festivals. After all, the day of rest was created right after six days of Creation, long before Abraham became the first Jew, and is therefore marked by God as holy — independent of any one nation. On the other hand, the Jewish holidays are only commanded to the Israelites after they’ve been chosen as God’s holy nation. 

The anonymous Tanna, on the other hand, thinks that God created the Jewish people as holy, and then the Jewish people sanctify time, both Shabbat and the holidays. After all, both sacred times are specific to the Jews and do not apply to other nations.

So: Does God sanctify time (Shabbat) which in turn makes us holy? Or does God sanctify us and we make the appointed days — Shabbat and festivals — holy? A deceptively simple discussion about liturgy has turned into a philosophical chicken and egg debate.

In the end, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi wins: Shabbat, Jews, festivals. This phrasing not only reflects the narratives in Genesis, it reminds us that making time holy is a joint project: God sanctified some time (Shabbat) and then tasked human beings with sanctifying the rest (festivals). It makes us partners with God in making every moment meaningful.

Read all of Beitzah 17 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 17th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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