ASARA BE-TEVET 5775: The Power of a Single Word

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by David Strauss



The Gemara in Ta'anit (12b) describes the order to be followed on a fast day as follows:


Abaye said: From morning to midday they look into the affairs of the city; from then onwards they read for a quarter of the day from the Torah and the Prophets and the rest of the day [is spent] in praying for mercy.


The Shulchan Arukh rules:  


On every fast day that is imposed on the community because of distressing circumstances, the court and the elders sit in the synagogue, and examine the townspeople's actions from after the morning service until midday. And they remove the stumbling blocks of sin, and they admonish and preach. And they carry out investigations concerning violent and sinful people, and set them apart, and about mighty people and humble them, and the like.

And from midday until the evening, a quarter of the day they read from the Torah and read the haftara from the Prophets, and during the last quarter of the day they conduct the afternoon service, and sound the shofar and confess and cry out as much as they can. (Orach Chayyim 576:16)


The Magen Avraham (ad loc.) comments on the Shulchan Arukh's ruling:


I wonder why this is not done in our time, as it is known that this is the essence of the fast, as is explicitly stated in Yeshaya, chapter 58, and in the Gemara and the Mishnayot in the second chapter of Ta'anit.


The Magen Avraham's astonishment can be understood as relating to the fact that in our time it is not the customary practice to divide the time from Mincha onward between reading from the Torah and the haftara and prayer. It seems, however, that, according to the simple meaning of his words, the Magen Avraham's astonishment is directed at why we do not examine the affairs of the city for half the day. If, indeed, this is the Magen Avraham's difficulty, it is possible that the reason that today the custom of examining the affairs of the city is not widespread stems from the difference in formulation between what is stated in the Gemara in Ta'anit and what is brought in the Rambam.


The Gemara in Ta'anit opens with a description of "what is the order of a fast," but in the Rambam in Hilkhot Ta'anit, the description is limited to a very specific type of fast:


Whenever there is a fast that was instituted for the community because of distressing circumstances, the [community's] court and [its] elders sit in the synagogue…. (1:17)


According to the Rambam, the order described in the Gemara applies only to fasts that "were instituted for the community because of distressing circumstances." It seems that, in the Rambam’s opinion, occupation with the relevant problems is necessary only on fasts that are instituted against a background of actual problems, but not on fasts that were instituted against a distant historical background.


In any event, the Magen Avraham's astonishment is valid; and therefore, in the spirit of this Talmudic passage, we in Yeshivat Har Etzion devote much of the fast day to discussion groups that consider "the affairs of the city" of our Beit Midrash. (Rav Yitzchak Levi deserves credit for this idea.) I hope that this initiative will also result in practical approaches to dealing with our problems, individually and collectively.


What are these "affairs of the city" alluded to by the Gemara? In the Gemara itself these affairs are not identified. On the other hand, from the details appearing in the Shulchan Arukh and in the Rambam, it would appear that we are dealing primarily with serious offenses between man and his fellow, especially those involving violent and mighty men. It seems to me that in our yeshiva such problems do not exist.


However, does this mean that we are free from the need to examine our actions and conduct, both on the communal and the individual level? Examining "the affairs of the city" requires us not only to practice caution against the commission of transgressions, but also to set a high bar for the service of God, both in terms of quantity and of quality. In this context, it seems that there is certainly much to examine even in the world of the Yeshiva. This is for two reasons: First, because in this area "the sky is the limit," and there is always room to aspire for more; and second, because there are issues in our Yeshiva which definitely need improvement, sooner rather than later. Today, I want to address one of the areas that require examination and improvement: prayer.


We all understand that there is a close connection between Torah study and prayer. On the simplest level this follows from the Sifrei which interprets the verse, "to serve Him with all your heart," as referring to both prayer and Torah study. However, on the more essential level, it seems to me that the connection is even stronger.


From time to time I meet people from the United States, who come to Israel in order to promote peace initiatives for the Middle East. When they come to the Yeshiva, I am not infrequently asked: Where is the Yeshiva's chapel? In the world with which they are familiar, every self-respecting institution has a library for reading and research, classrooms for learning, and a chapel for those interested in praying. Guests from the outside wonder: Is it possible that in a Yeshiva there is no building for prayer?


I explain to them that there cannot be and there must not be a disconnection between Torah study and prayer. On the one hand, the passion that characterizes the experiential aspect of prayer should accompany the maturity and depth, the wisdom and clarity of learning; on the other hand, learning should fill prayer with content and meaning. The Gemara relates that even though there were thirteen synagogues in Tiberias, R. Ami and R. Asi would pray only in the place where they studied Torah (Berakhot 30b). It seems from that Gemara that it is preferable to pray alone as an individual in the place where one studies, rather than to pray with the congregation in a synagogue. The assumption is that prayer should be saturated with thought and understanding, and not only with experience, and that learning should possess an experiential dimension, and not remain exclusively on the intellectual plane.


If we ask ourselves where we stand in relation to prayer, it seems that many of us have greater enthusiasm, devotion and ambition in our learning than in our prayer. The percentage of the students in the Yeshiva who learn Torah not only because they are obligated to do so, but because they love it and desire it, is higher than the percentage of the students who pray not only out of obligation but out of inner desire.


Rav Soloveitchik z”l once said: "The average Jew doesn’t want to daven; he wants to be oisgedavent [he doesn’t want to pray, but to have fulfilled his obligation to pray]." If so, the question that each individual must ask himself is to what extent does he pray for the sake of his soul, and to what extent does he do so merely out of obligation and as part of his daily routine? Here arises a piercing question: To what degree do we succeed in building an integrated system, saturated with both passion and understanding, that in the place of prayer there be the song of Torah, and that in the place of the song of Torah there be prayer?


From here, I want to move to a specific point regarding prayer. If there is one specific area where I sense a certain laxity in relation to prayer, I think I can narrow it down to one word, even though it repeats itself many times during the prayer. I refer to that word of many uses, the applications and various meanings of which are discussed by the Gemara in Shevuot (36a) – "Amen."


The Gemara in Shabbat expands upon the potency of saying "Amen":


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: He who responds, "Amen, May His great Name be blessed," with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up….

Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Even if he has a taint of idolatry, he is forgiven….

Resh Lakish said: He who responds "Amen" with all his might, has the gates of Paradise opened for him. (Shabbat 119b)


What force, what power and what meaning, do Chazal attach to this "Amen"! By responding "Amen," one is even forgiven for a taint of idolatry. A removal of the barriers separating man from God and the building of a bridge between him and God – all because of one word!


If we perceive the word "Amen" as a tool to open gates and achieve forgiveness, it is no wonder that Chazal understood that this "Amen" should be uttered at a certain level and with a certain quality. The Gemara in Shabbat speaks of "Amen" pronounced "with all one's might." Rabbeinu Yona explains that the reference is not to might on the physical level, but rather in terms of intention – "with all one's might" means “with full intention.”


Here we must ask: What is the intention referred to here? In the sentence: "Amen, May His great Name be blessed," it is not difficult to understand the essence of the required intention; but does "with his full intention" apply in the case of an ordinary "Amen"? The Gemara in Shevuot (29b) states that the pronouncement of one word can reconstruct an entire sentence: "Shemuel said: He who responds Amen after an oath, it is as if he uttered the oathwith his own mouth." A person can accept upon himself everything that was said to him, all with a single "Amen."


If so, "with one's full intention" demands of a person that he relate to the "Amen" not merely as a random word or as something meaningless issuing from his mouth, like a cough or a sneeze, but rather as the encapsulation of a statement, as if he had pronounced the blessing himself – indeed, as if he had taken an oath! For this, intention is undoubtedly necessary, full intention!


The Rambam teaches that there is another dimension to saying "Amen." As we have seen, "Amen" can accompany a solitary blessing uttered by a person. But alongside this, according to the Rambam, "Amen" draws together those who recite communal prayer or the Grace after Meals. This is evident from the fact that the Rambam discusses and expands upon the meaning of "Amen" only in the ninth chapter of Hilkhot Tefilla, in the chapter beginning with the words: "The order of communal prayer is as follows":


The order of communal prayer is as follows: In the morning, [while] all the people are sitting, the leader of the congregation descends before the ark in the midst of the people and recites the Kaddish. Everyone responds with all their might: Amen. Yehei shemeih rabba mevorakh le-alam ul-almei almaya. They answer "Amen" at the end of the Kaddish. Afterwards, [the cantor] declares: Barkhu et Hashem ha-mevorakh, and they answer: Barukh Hashem ha-mevorakh le-olam va'ed. He then begins by reciting the Shema and its blessings out loud. They answer "Amen" after each blessing.


And then in the continuation in the description of the cantor's repetition of the Amida prayer:


He begins and prays in a loud voice from the beginning of the blessings, in order to fulfill the obligation on behalf of those who did not pray. Everyone – both those who did not fulfill their obligation [to pray] and those who fulfilled their obligation – stands, listens, and recites "Amen" after each and every blessing.


This is not an "Amen" through which the responders fulfill their obligation to recite the prayer, utilizing the rule that “one who hears a statement is treated as if he had uttered it.” Despite the fact that during the prayer all of the congregants are standing very close to each other, when they do not all respond "Amen," each person is considered an island of prayer. If only because of this, one should make sure to respond "Amen" in the proper place. It unifies the congregation into a single entity of prayer.


If so, while "Amen" is indeed a small detail, a small word, it is so very saturated with meaning and content, and so very connected to "the affairs of our city" that require repair and improvement. Let us examine "the affairs of our city" and learn how to improve ourselves!



(This sicha was delivered on Asara be-Tevet 5768.)