Ta’amei Ha’Mitzvos (Part 5): “Whoever Says” In The Formal State Of Prayer

After having explained the opinions of Rambam and Ramban on the general topic of ta’amei ha’mitzvos, we now return to the original (seemingly troubling) Gemara with which we began this series:

Talmud Berachos 33b:

מתני׳: האומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך ועל טוב יזכר שמך מודים מודים משתקין אותו: גמ׳ בשלמא מודים מודים משתקין אותו משום דמיחזי כשתי רשויות ועל טוב יזכר שמך נמי שמע על הטובה ולא על הרעה ותנן חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה אלא על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך מ"ט פליגי בה תרי אמוראי במערבא רבי יוסי בר אבין ורבי יוסי בר זבידא חד אמר מפני שמטיל קנאה במעשה בראשית וחד אמר מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים ואינן אלא גזרות…

MISHNAH: Whoever says "To a bird's nest do Thy mercies extend" or "For the good be Thy name remembered" or "We give thanks, we give thanks," we silence him. GEMARA: It is good that we silence him who says, "We give thanks, we give thanks," because he makes it appear as though there were two Dieties; and likewise him who says, "For the good be Thy name remembered," the implication being that for the good [we thank God] but not for the bad; and we have a Mishnaic teaching: A man is duty bound to utter a benediction for the bad just as he utters one for the good. But why [do we silence him who says], "To a bird's nest do Thy mercies extend"? Two Amoraim in the West differ [about this]: R Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida, one said: Because he causes jealousy between God's creatures; the other said: Because he makes the ordinances of the Holy One, blessed be He, to be acts of mercy, when they are really simply just [arbitrary] decrees.

While we have already explained how Rambam and Ramban deal with the issue of this Gemara seemingly implying that searching for reasons behind mitzvos is something to be avoided, we shall now briefly examine another fascinating approach as well. In commenting on the phrase “Whoever says,” Rashi adds one word that can completely solve the problem with our Gemara:

Rashi on Berachos 33b:

מתני' האומר - בתפלתו:

WHOEVER SAYS: In his prayer.

The Gemara states that we silence “whoever says” the commandment of shiluach ha’kein was given out of God’s mercy towards birds, since God’s commandments are in reality merely decrees. Rashi understands this statement as referring specifically to “whoever says” such a thing in the context of prayer. After all, prayer is what the rest of the Mishnah — and the rest of the entire tractate — is dealing with. Thus, the Mishnah is only ruling that we silence a person who states things about God’s mercy and reasons for mitzvos specifically while praying. Outside of the formal state of prayer, however, such speculation would seemingly not be an issue. Indeed, the Tosfos Yom Tov takes this same approach to our Mishnah and Gemara:

Tosfos Yom Tov on Berachos (5):

וז“ל רש“י האומר בתפילתו. וטעמייהו דוקא בתפילה שכשאומר בתפילה מחליט את הדבר ולהכי משתקיו אותו. משא“כ דרכ דרש או פשט כי׳.

And the reason [that it is problematic to state the mitzvah of shiluach hakein is due to God’s mercy] is specifically during prayer, as when one says it during prayer he determines the thing and thus we silence him. This is not the case [when explaining a mitzvah] at the level of pshat or drash.

Speculation as to the reasons that lie behind the various mitzvos is problematic only while one is praying. This is because stating such a thing in the formal setting of prayer would purport to make it certain or absolute, when, in reality, our guesses as to the reasons for the mitzvos are nothing more than fallible human speculation. Outside of the official, formal context of prayer, though, there is no reason to silence or discourage such investigating.

R. Abraham Isaac Kook (Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 160) makes this point as well, explaining that prayer is not a time for speculation or guesswork, but is instead a time in which we say only that which we know to be a certain and true. While the rest of our lives we can — and should — speculate and suggest possibilities, it is not appropriate for the time, mood, and purpose of prayer.

Read the other installments in this “Fundamentals” series here.

Parshas Chukas: The Snake Above

Halacha And Kabbalah (Part 3): Acceptance Of Kabbalah Within Halacha