Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 25 June 2022 / 26 Sivan 5782

The Amidah (Part 15) Blessing Against Heretics (Part 1)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

“Prayer is not a miracle. It is a tool, man’s paintbrush in the art of life. Prayer is man’s weapon to defend himself in the struggle of life. It is a reality. A fact of life.” ( Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer)

The twelfth blessing reads: “And for slanderers let there be no hope; and may all enemies be cut down speedily. May You speedily uproot, smash, cast down and humble the wanton sinners, speedily in our days. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who breaks enemies and humbles wanton sinners.”

The twelfth blessing has an intriguing history. Originally, the everyday Amidah comprised eighteen blessings: the three opening blessings, twelve requests, and three closing blessings. The number eighteen is so integral to the Amidah’s identity that this main prayer was, and still is referred to as the Shmoneh Esrei, which means eighteen. In its initial arrangement, this twelfth blessing did not appear, and the Amidah went from the previous blessing, for the restoration of justice, straight to the next blessing for the righteous. In fact, our blessing was composed and introduced into the Amidah only some five hundred years later, after the destruction of the Second Temple.

What was the cause of adding another blessing and why is the blessing worded in such an uncompromising way? After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish People found themselves in an almost untenable situation. They had lost their autonomy and were subject to the cruel whims of the conquering Roman Empire. To compound matters, there were powerfully connected Jews who had not only forsaken their heritage for other beliefs but who had a vested interest in converting others to their dogmas, which, for the most part, meant denying the Divinity of the Oral Torah and the symbiotic relationship between it and the Written Torah.

Whether it was the Sadducees, Boethusians, Essenes or the early Christians, they pushed their agenda aggressively, and, when realizing they would not succeed in persuading their fellow Jews with theological arguments, they resorted to harassment and persecution by exploiting their excellent connections within the Roman governor’s inner circle. The situation became quite dire and Rabban Gamliel II, the Nasi (spiritual head) of the Sanhedrin based in Yavneh immediately after the destruction became concerned about the spiritual future of the Jewish nation. This led him to request for a special prayer to be composed, specifically against the heretics and the informers who were “flourishing” at that time. This was not a decision that Rabban Gamliel took lightly.

But Rabban Gamliel felt that the spiritual future of the Jewish People was so fragile, and that the situation was so fraught. He knew that dealing with it took precedence over all other considerations despite the fact that the Torah commands us to do everything we can to maintain peaceful relationships with all those around us (see Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 2:1).

The Talmud recounts (Berachot 28b) that from all of the members of the Sanhedrin, Shmuel HaKatan (“Shmuel the Small”) was the only one qualified to compose such a complex blessing with the correct sensitivity and intent. Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Falk (1680-1756) was one of the most brilliant Rabbinical leaders of his generation. His magnum opus called Pnei Yehoshua has always been regarded as a benchmark for Talmudic scholarship. He writes that Shmuel HaKatan’s understanding of the esoteric dimensions was such that he was the only Sage who was able to combine the Hebrew letters in such a way that their impact would be felt throughout all the physical and spiritual realms. But, it was not just his insight into the holy letters that qualified him for the task. Our Sages teach that Shmuel HaKatan was humble and self-effacing, bearing no animosity to anyone. Hence his designation was HaKatan — “the small” — because he regarded himself as insignificant compared to his peers. Only such a selfless individual was capable of composing a blessing that could be incorporated into the Amidah for posterity. In fact, Shmuel HaKatan was so exceptional that the Talmud relates (Sanhedrin 11a) that a Heavenly voice was heard proclaiming that he was worthy of having the Shechina (Divine Presence) rest upon him.

What remains to be understood is why our blessing has remained a part of the Amidah now that the belief systems of those days no longer pose the danger they once did. The Talmud seems to be describing a particular period in our national history that necessitated such a drastic reaction. But the moment passed, and so why is the blessing still with us? One of the saddest aspects of Jewish history is how, over the generations, we have been our own worst enemy, in a sense. There is a pithy maxim that Jews have been at the forefront of every “ism” throughout history except for one: Judaism. Or, as a wise Rabbi once commented about Leon Trotsky, whose original name was Lev Bronstein and was the Marxist revolutionary who was one of the most influential ideologues before, during and after the Russian revolution: “The Trotskys made the revolution, and the Bronsteins paid the bill.”

It seems that the unfortunate truth is that the blessing composed by Shmuel HaKatan some two thousand years ago has never lost its relevance, which is why it is still an integral part of our Amidah today.

To be continued.....

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