Outreach by Prayer
“Why do you think it’s good to pray like that, that they should die?”
This poignant question was posed by the righteous and scholarly Beruria, wife of Rabbi Meir, to her husband. Certain local people were causing considerable distress to him, and he prayed to Hashem for mercy that they should meet their death. Beruria expressed her disagreement with his course of action, and she offered two supporting textual reasons for her view, based on the same verse that she knew to be the basis for Rabbi Meir’s view. In Tehillim 104:35 it is written: “Chata’im will be destroyed from the earth, and rasha’im (evildoers) will be no more.” The word chet means transgression, and Rabbi Meir seemed to interpret the word chata’im to mean “transgressors” (as Rashi in Tehillim likewise explains this verse). These transgressors, he reasoned, should be removed from the world, and he therefore prayed that Hashem would take them.
Beruria, however, contended that the word chata’im in the verse actually refers to “transgressions,” but not to the transgressors. Accordingly, the correct path to take would be to pray for the transgressors to repent, thereby removing their transgressions from the world. Instead of praying that the transgressors die, she argued, one should pray that the transgressors repent and “delete” their transgressions. Upon hearing Beruria’s words, Rabbi Meir retracted his former view and instead prayed to Hashem that the transgressors would repent — as Beruria taught. The gemara concludes that Rabbi Meir prayed for their repentance and, indeed, they did teshuva.
This sugya raises a number of questions. What was the nature of the halachic dispute between Rabbi Meir and Beruria? In addition, how can the prayer of one person for the repentance of another person be effective? We are taught, “Everything is determined by Hashem except for a person’s fear of Hashem.” The fear of Heaven and teshuva need to emanate from the person himself, and not from an outside source.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes a beautiful explanation of the nature of the halachic dispute between Rabbi Meir and Beruria. Beruria taught that there is a halachic distinction between chot’im and chata’im. The former are people who transgress on occasion, but are not intrinsically evil. Chata’im, on the other hand, are people who are mired and constantly steeped in wrongdoings. The verse that mentions that transgressors should die refers to chata’im but not to chot’im. If the people causing distress to Rabbi Meir were in fact chata’im (according to this definition), then Rabbi Meir would be justified in praying for Hashem to take their lives. However, Beruria correctly asserted that only Hashem can determine if one is actually in the category of chata’im. Therefore, we should consider them as mere chot’im and Rabbi Meir should pray that they repent — which he did upon hearing Beruria’s wise words. (Writings of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, vol. 7, p. 423, “Regarding Education”)
A fascinating reason for not praying for the demise of transgressors is found in the Zohar Hakadosh (Vayera) and cited by Rabbi Akiva Eiger. There we find Rebbi saying, “It’s forbidden for a person to pray for transgressors to be removed from the world, because if Hashem had removed Terach from the world as an idol worshipper, Avraham Avinu would never have been born; the Tribes of Israel, King David and Mashiach would never come to be; the Torah would never be given; and all the tzaddikim, chassidim and prophets would never have come into the world.”
Now we turn to the second question we posed above, regarding how one person can effectively pray that Hashem will return another person in teshuva. Teshuva, by definition, needs to be the result of a person with free will choosing to do teshuva. The Maharsha asks this question in our sugya, without providing an answer. A possible approach to answer this question is found in the responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He suggests that Rabbi Meir’s prayer to Hashem was to remove all trials, tribulations and enticements that were present in the transgressors’ lives and leading them on a very bad path. Furthermore, he prayed that Hashem should send a righteous agent to make contact with the transgressors and help lead them to choose to follow the path of truth, the path of the Torah. (Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, 4:40:13)
- Berachot 10a