Talmud Tips

For the week ending 4 December 2021 / 30 Kislev 5782

Ta'anit 9 - 15

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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How Many Blessings?

“We are taught in a beraita: The only difference on a fast day between the prayer of an individual and the prayer of the shaliach tzibur (the leader, aka chazan) is that the Amidah (main, standing, ‘silent’ prayer) of an individual has eighteen blessings, whereas the Amidah of the shaliach tzibur has nineteen blessings.”

This beraita is taught in the context of certain special fast days when there was a drought and the halachic protocol was that the people fast and add supplications to Hashem to grant them rain so they would have what to eat (from the rain-needy crops) and have water to drink.

Specifically, the additional blessing alluded to on our daf is called “Aneinu,” which literally means “[Hashem,] answer us.” One important aspect of this day is fasting, which helps remove thoughts of physicality and is therefore conducive to teshuva (returning to the way of Hashem). In addition, we also say a special prayer to Hashem, asking Him to please, in His great mercy, grant us the essential needed rain that has not yet arrived despite our being relatively deep into the precious normally “rainy season.”

Rashi explains our beraita in the following manner: An individual says eighteen blessings in his Amidah prayer even on a fast day, as he includes his Aneinu blessing/prayer for rain as part of the already existing “Shomeah Tefillah” blessing, where we turn to Hashem, asking Him to hear our prayers and answer them favorably. The nineteen blessings that the beraita says are part of the shaliach tzibur’s prayer on this day comprise the standard eighteen blessings of the Amidah plus a separate and additional blessing that is said between the standard blessings of “Go’el Yisrael” and “Refa’einu.”

In Rashi’s commentary, addressing the topic of the number of blessings in the Amidah for an individual and a shaliach tzibur on a fast day, he raises a fascinating question regarding the nomenclature and the “mathematics” of the Amidah. Unless specified otherwise, the Amidah is called the “Shmoneh Esrei,” which means “The Eighteen,” an apparent reference to the eighteen blessings that comprise it. However, asks Rashi, we clearly see that there are actually nineteen blessings in the Amidah! (Just open any Siddur!)

Rashi answers that the Amidah’s original composition by the Anshei HaKnesset Hagedolah (the Torah leaders during the Babylonian Exile) consisted of eighteen blessings. This explains its being referred to as the Shmoneh Esrei. And this is the Amidah that existed at the time of the beraita. Some years later, however, an additional, nineteenth blessing was added to the Amidah by the Beit Din of Shmuel HaKatan, as is taught in the Masechta Berachot. The additional blessing is a prayer to Hashem for help against the heretics and slanderers, who pose a serious danger to Jewish lives by falsely portraying the Jewish People as anti-government traitors and rebels.

So, according to Rashi, the original Amida/Shmoneh Esrei consisted of eighteen blessings, as its name implies, and an additional nineteenth blessing was added later by our Sages to be a permanent part of the Amida. The name “Shmoneh Esrei,” however, remained even after the addition and is the prayer’s name today as well, despite its having nineteen blessings.

Yet, there is another manner to explain the nature of the Amida blessings and theShmoneh Esrei name of the prayer, a manner that is quite different than Rashi’s explanation. This alternate approach involves a reexamination of two blessings in particular, which also leads to a practical difference in halacha. What is this second way of viewing the blessings of the Amida?

In examining the individual blessings of the Amida, we nowadays find that there are two separate blessings for the two themes of “the rebuilding of Jerusalem” and the “restoration of the Davidic royal dynasty.” Therefore, we find eighteen blessings even without the blessing addressing the heretic issue. According to the alternate understanding of the Amida’s makeup, these two blessings actually appear as only one combined blessing! This combination is not a “stretch,” due to the overlapping nature of these two themes. Accordingly, the eighteen blessings of the Amida, which include the “blessing against heretics,” exactly reflects the total number of blessings in the Amida/Shmoneh Esrei — eighteen.

This alternate text of the Amida, whilediffering from Rashi’s presentation of the Amida, has a solid basis in Torah sources. However, it is not the text that is used for prayer anywhere worldwide, as far as I am aware. (In particular, I suggest learning the commentary of Rabbeinu Yishaya of Trani, one of the ba’alei Tosefot, who is often referred to “Tosefot Ha’Rid.” An Italian Torah scholar who lived in this world from 1180 to 1250, he offers a rigorous treatment of this alternate manner of understanding the Amida/Shmoneh Esrei, citing sources such as the Tosefta and the Talmud Yerushalmi.)

It is of note that halachic authorities write a fascinating practical halachic situation that can be a result of this text that combines the two close-related themes of the rebuilding of Yerushalayim and the renewal of King David’s kingdom. Although according to the second approach it is ideal to combine these two themes into one blessing, it is possible that even if a person mistakenly (according to this approach, which is not the accepted approach in halacha, it must be stressed) divides these themes into two separate blessings (as we always do in our prayers), he has still fulfilled his obligation to pray the Amida. According to the first approach (i.e. our text), however, if a person mistakenly combines these two themes into one blessing, he has not fulfilled the obligation to pray.

  • Ta'anit 13b

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