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Shiur #13: The aggada of the praying chassid, the Roman legionary, and other aggadot – part I

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch


  1. Preface

One of the best-known aggadot on the subject of prayer tells of a “chassid” (a pious man) who puts his life in danger by not interrupting his prayer when a Roman officer comes by and addresses him:

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that a chassid was praying by the roadside. An officer came by and greeted him, and he did not return his greeting. So he waited for him until he had finished his prayer. After he finished his prayer [the officer] said to him, ‘Fool! Is it not written in your Torah, ‘Only take heed to yourself and guard your soul’ (Devarim 4:9), and it is also written, ‘Take therefore good heed to yourselves’ (ibid. v. 15)? When I greeted you, why did you not return my greeting? If I had cut off your head with my sword, who would have demanded revenge for your blood from me?’ He replied, ‘Be patient and I will explain to you. If you had been standing before an earthly king and your friend had come and greeted you, would you have responded?’ He answered, ‘No.’ ‘And if you had returned his greeting, what would have been done to you?’ He said, ‘They would have cut off my head with a sword.’ He then said to him, ‘Then all the more so in our situation. If you [would have behaved] thus while standing before an earthly king, who is here today and tomorrow in the grave, then how much more so must I, when standing before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who endures for all eternity?!’ The officer was immediately appeased, and the pious man returned to his home in peace” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 32b).

In this shiur and the following shiurim, we will discuss this story along with others appearing in the same sugya, in the Bavli and in the Yerushalmi. We will try to understand the message of these stories and their function in their context.

  1. The Mishna

Let us start by reviewing the Mishna that is the starting point of our sugya. In Massekhet Berakhot 5:1 we find the following:

“One should not stand up to pray unless he is in a serious frame of mind.

The pious of old (chassidim rishonim) used to wait one hour and then pray, in order to direct their hearts towards God.

[While one is reciting the Shemoneh Esrei,] even if a king greets him, he should not respond to him, and even if a snake is wrapped around his heel, he should not interrupt [his prayer].”

Our Mishna consists of three parts. The first is formulated as a regular law, defining the state in which one should embark on prayer. The middle part speaks of the “pious of old” (chassidim rishonim) – a certain group that maintained particularly stringent practices in some areas of halakha, and who do not represent the halakhic norm. The Mishna describes these chassidim as spending an hour before their prayers “directing their hearts toward God.”[1] In the third part, there is another law with two clauses, indicating – according to the plain meaning of the Mishna – that even in a situation of danger, one is not to interrupt his prayer. A king who greets him is not to be answered, and one should not interrupt even if a snake is at one’s foot.

Thus, the end of the Mishna presents a very strict standard that seems somewhat out of place in its context; moreover, it seems to go against the well-known halakhic principle that the importance of saving a life supersedes all the commandments of the Torah, except for three specific transgressions that cannot be violated.[2]

However, one might argue that the law in the third part of the Mishna is part of the “teaching for the pious” (mishnat chassidim)[3] – in other words, it is meant for the specific group mentioned previously, as a continuation of the second part of the Mishna. Theoretically, one might even propose that the two clauses be read as a single continuum: “The early pious ones used to wait one hour and then pray, in order to direct their hearts toward God; even if a king would greet one, he would not respond to him…” According to this reading, the end of the Mishna is not meant as a normative instruction, but rather as a description of the state of one of these “pious ones” at prayer. Indeed, one manuscript of the Mishna[4] features the letter “vav” connecting the two clauses: “And even if a king….”[5] On the other hand, the transition from the plural in the second part (“The early chassidim used to wait…”) to the singular form in the third part (“… he should not respond to him” and “he should not interrupt”) does not support a reading of the two parts as a single continuum. Likewise, a simple reading of the law in the Mishna would seem to present the third part as a completely standard normative halakhic formulation, and – as we shall see below – the Gemara, too, treats the last part of the Mishna as a law. 

  1. The sugya in the Bavli – an initial review

In the Talmud Bavli, the sugya covering the last part of the Mishna opens with a discussion about the law that “even if a king greets him, he should not respond to him.” Rav Yosef’s interpretation of this law, drawing a distinction between different situations, is more limiting than the plain reading of the Mishna would suggest:

“’Even if a king greets him, he should not respond to him’ – Rav Yosef said: This was taught only concerning Jewish kings, but where kings of the nations are involved, he should interrupt [his prayer]” (Berakhot 32b).

Rashi explains this distinction by commenting, “So that [a non-Jewish king] would not kill him.” This suggests that Rav Yosef’s understanding of the law in the Mishna is that a person is not required to put his life in danger by continuing his prayer: if a Jewish king greets him, he should continue his prayer and not respond, since a Jewish king does not present a mortal danger. However, if one is greeted by a non-Jewish king, who will not accept the idea that prayer to the Creator of the universe takes precedence over his own honor, then the worshipper is permitted to interrupt his prayer and respond, thereby saving his own life. Thus, the last part of the Mishna is reconciled with the principle that saving a life takes precedence over all other commandments in the Torah.

We then find a brief discussion arising from the distinction drawn by Rav Yosef in the beraita:

“An objection was raised: If a person is praying and sees a robber coming toward him, or sees a carriage coming toward him, he should not break off his prayer, but rather should shorten it and then move [out of the way]. But there is no contradiction here: in one instance it is possible to shorten [his prayer]; in the other – it is not possible to shorten. Where it is possible to shorten, he does so, and where not – he breaks off his prayer” (Berakhot 32b).[6]

Thus, when it is possible to simply shorten one’s prayer and still be saved from danger, then one should do so. However, in a case where the danger is immediate, one may even break off in mid-prayer in order to save oneself.

This discussion gives rise to two main conclusions:

  1. The Gemara regards the third part of the Mishna as a law like any other, with universal validity (rather than applying only to the “pious ones”), and discusses its boundaries using standard halakhic terms and tools.
  2. The Gemara understands and interprets the Mishna as conveying no halakhic requirement that a person endanger his life in order to continue and conclude his prayer. However, interruptions should be avoided wherever possible. The level of possible danger determines the degree to which an interruption is necessary.

Indeed, this is the Rambam’s ruling, in his Laws of Prayer (6:9):

“One who is praying does not break off his prayer except in the face of mortal danger, and even if a Jewish king greets him, he should not respond to him. However, he may break off for a pagan king, lest he kill him. If he was standing in prayer and saw a pagan king or a robber coming towards him, he should shorten [his prayer], and if he is unable to [since the danger is almost upon him] then he breaks off [in mid-prayer].”

Despite the clarification in the sugya that the Mishna does not require a person to endanger his life in order to continue and conclude his prayer, this halakhic discussion in the Gemara is immediately followed by the story of the chassid and the officer, which carries an opposite message. Before addressing it in more detail, we shall first review the parallel sugya in the Yerushalmi.

  1. The sugya in the Yerushalmi

In the Yerushalmi, too, the sugya surrounding the last part of the Mishna starts with an interpretation that limits the scope of the law:

“R. Acha said: This applies with regard to Jewish kings, but with regard to kings of other nations, one responds to their greeting” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Berakhot 5:1)

Like Rashi’s comment in the Bavli, the plain understanding of the distinction drawn here is that R. Acha does not regard the Mishna as requiring a person to endanger his life in order to complete his prayer. Hence, one should not respond to the greeting of a Jewish king, but one should acknowledge the greeting of a non-Jewish king, who might harm the worshipper if he fails to respond. Once again, this interpretation reconciles the end of the Mishna with the rule that saving a life takes precedence over any religious precept.

However, further on in the sugya we find a story about R. Yochanan that seems to give rise to a different message:

“R. Yochanan was sitting and reciting[7] the Shema in front of the Babylonia synagogue in Tzippori. A Roman official passed by, and [R. Yochanan] did not stand up before him. They [the official’s escorts] wanted to strike him. He [the official] said to them, ‘Leave him alone; he is engaged in showing honor to his Creator.’”

The story records how, for a brief moment, R. Yochanan was in real danger, since the official’s escorts were incensed by his lack of respect, and sought to kill him. However, the “official” himself stopped them, explaining that R. Yochanan was busy “showing honor to his Creator.” The Gemara then goes on to record some more brief episodes involving a Sage who was endangered by an encounter with a non-Jewish authority and was saved. An example is the story of R. Abun:

“R. Abun came before the king. When he left, he turned his back [to him]. They wanted to kill him, but they saw two flames of fire emerging from the back of his neck, in fulfillment of the verse, ‘And all the nations of the earth shall see that you are called by the Name of the Lord, and they shall fear you’ (Devarim 28:10).”

One might debate how these stories included in the sugya are to be read. Is the message that arises from the story of R. Yochanan that a person should be ready to put his life in danger during prayer, or does the story tell us that only certain individuals, of the stature of the Sages mentioned in these accounts, are permitted (or perhaps even required) to do so? Perhaps for such people there is in fact no danger, since they will be saved by virtue of their greatness. In any event, it would seem from the distinction drawn by R. Acha that there is no obligation incumbent on every Jew to endanger himself in this sort of situation.

Another question that arises concerning R. Yochanan is whether he was aware of the fact that the Roman official was passing by, and chose consciously not to interrupt his acceptance of the yoke of Heaven because of a mortal king. Alternatively, R. Yochanan may have been so engrossed in his recitation of the Shema that he failed to notice what was happening around him, and had no idea that he had been in danger and was saved. It is difficult to answer with certainty, because the story of R. Yochanan is told in such concise terms. However, the situation is set down more explicitly in a different story, which appears in the second part of the sugya in the Yerushalmi, discussing the second clause of the final part of the Mishna - “Even if a snake is wrapped around his heel, he should not break off”:

“R. Chuna taught in the name of R. Yossi: This was taught only concerning a snake, but in the case of a scorpion, one breaks off his prayer. Why? For [a scorpion] stings, and stings again.

R. Ila said: The Sages spoke only of [a snake] ‘wrapped’ [around his heel], but if it is threatening as it approaches him, he may hide himself from it, only he should not break off his prayer.”

R. Chuna, like R. Acha above, starts the discussion by drawing a distinction between a snake and a scorpion, thereby distinguishing between a situation where there is a threat to one’s life and a situation where there is no threat. The Penei Moshe interprets the expression “stings and stings again” (literally, “strikes and strikes again”) as meaning that a scorpion will always sting, and in such a situation one breaks off his prayer in order to get away from it. Further on, R. Ila adds a further distinction concerning the snake: if it is already coiled around his foot, then apparently it does not present a danger and one should not break off his prayer. If the snake “threatens as it approaches” him, then he may move out of harm’s way, but should continue his prayer as he does so.[8]

At the end of the sugya, we find a story about R. Chanina ben Dosa:

“It was said concerning R. Chanina ben Dosa that once, as he stood in prayer, a [poisonous] lizard came and bit him, but he did not interrupt his prayer. They went and found the lizard lying, dead, over the entrance to its hole. They said, ‘Woe to the man who is bitten by a lizard, and woe to the lizard that bites R. Chanina b. Dosa.’

What is the particularity of that lizard? When it bites a person, if the person reaches water first, the lizard lies; if the lizard reaches water first, the person dies.

[R. Chanina b. Dosa’s] students said to him, ‘Rabbi, did you not feel it?’ He answered them, ‘May something of my intention [literally, “the direction of my heart”] during my prayer befall me if I felt [anything].’

R. Yitzchak bar Elazar said, ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, created a spring beneath his feet, in fulfillment of the verse, ‘He fulfills the desire of those who fear Him; He also hears their cry and saves them’ (Tehillim 145:20).”

Here, too, the story told about R. Chanina b. Dosa conveys the opposite message from the sugya in which it appears: the dangerous lizard bites R. Chanina, and R. Chanina does not interrupt his prayer. In this story, we find an explicit explanation for his ignoring the danger: R. Chanina is so engrossed in his prayer that he fails to notice the lizard’s approach, nor does he feel its bite. His piousness prevents the lizard from harming him. Since the lizard’s ability to cause harm and still survive is dependent on its reaching a source of water before its victim does, God creates a spring for R. Chanina right beneath his feet; R. Chanina is immediately connected to the water and is saved, while the lizard dies. Interestingly, R. Chanina’s choice of expression – “the direction of my heart as I prayed” recalls the middle part of the Mishna: “The pious of old… in order to direct their hearts….”

In any event, the sugya presents the model of a chassid who is so intent on his prayer that he has no sense of being exposed to danger or harm. It also shows that, in truth, these dangers do not present any threat to him. This model contrasts with the first part of the sugya, which addresses the normative level and addresses itself to the general public, not to individual “chassidim.” On this level, the sugya clarifies that there is no obligation – in fact, it may be forbidden – to endanger oneself by continuing the Amida prayer or by staying in the same position. However, the fact that the sugya does include the story forces us to pay attention to it: even though the sugya explains that a person should break off his prayer in order to save himself from danger, it also recognizes the legitimacy of the choice of the “chassid” who ignores dangers or prays in such a way that he is not even aware of it. It is difficult to say with certainty whether the sugya is actually recommending this course of action. From the way in which the Sages and the chassidim are saved from danger it would seem that perhaps it is meant only for those who can be sure that their righteousness will save them from all sorts of threats – and these are singular individuals. Indeed, R. Chanina b. Dosa is known from other stories in the Talmud, too,[9] as a uniquely righteous figure, and it is difficult to conclude anything from his behavior that can apply to regular people.[10] Perhaps the choice of this particular figure, known to be a saint who frequently experienced miracles, indicates that this model is certainly not meant for the general public.

In any event, the story of the chassid in the Yerushalmi presents a very interesting model of prayer. It is an experience of such intense concentration and engagement that the subject is detached from the world around him. This detachment causes him to be unaware of the acute dangers surrounding him.

These stories about R. Yochanan and R. Chanina b. Dosa bring us back to the Mishna that introduces the sugya, and raise an interesting question as to its reading. On the plain level, we understand that the words “he should not respond” and “he should not interrupt” at the end of the Mishna command a conscious decision on the part of the worshipper to continue his prayer despite the danger. In other words, the Mishna demands a courageous, deliberate act of restraint on the part of the worshipper. Even according to the way in which the sugya interprets the Mishna, that when faced with real and immediate danger one may interrupt his prayer, we still understand the Mishna as referring to a conscious decision not to interrupt in those situations where there is no real danger to life. However, it may be that in light of these stories in the Yerushalmi sugya there is also another possible reading, according to which the final part of the Mishna is referring to the desirable state in which one should pray: a person should be so engrossed in his prayer that he is unaware of any danger. After studying the Yerushalmi sugya, it would seem that the language of the Mishna supports both readings. In light of the first part of the sugya, that states that the normative requirement is not to risk one's life for the sake of continuous prayer, it would appear that the second reading that we have proposed does not replace the plain, normative meaning, but rather represents an alternative reading meant for “chassidim” who following in the path of R. Chanina b. Dosa and his colleagues.

In the next shiur, we will examine the stories that appear in the Bavli, and see whether they present a similar model to that arising from the Yerushalmi.

(To be continued)

Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]  The relationship between this “directing one’s heart toward God” and the “serious frame of mind” mentioned in the first part of the Mishna deserves a separate discussion; our focus here will be on the third part of the Mishna. It would seem, in any event, that “directing one’s heart toward God” connotes a more profound and meaningful state than the more general “serious state of mind.”

[2]  As we find, for example, in Tosefta Shabbat (15,17): “… The commandments were given to Israel only that they might live by them, as it is written, ‘That a man may do them and live by them’ (Vayikra 18;5) – ‘to live by them,’ not ‘to die by them.’ There is nothing that takes precedence over saving a life, except for [the prohibitions against] idolatry, sexual immorality, and killing….”

[3] For an understanding of the term “mishnat chassidim” in Chazal’s teachings see Midrash Bereishit Rabba 94,9.

[4]  MS Kaufmann

[5]  Some scholars have argued that the final part of the Mishna was indeed originally meant as part of the “mishnat chassidim.” See S. Safrai, “Mishnat Chassidim be-Sifrut ha-Tannaim,” in “Ve-Hinei Ein Yosef,” a volume published in memory of Yosef Amorai by his family and friends, Tel Aviv 5733, pp. 147-151; S. Naeh, “Borei Niv Sefatayim”: A Study on the Phenomenology of Prayer Based on Mishna Berakhot 4:3; 5:5,” Tarbitz 63 (5754), p. 210.

[6]  The wording of the Gemara here is in accordance with the Tikkun Massoret ha-Shas.

[7]  The Aramaic term “kri” may refer to either the recitation of the Shema or Torah study involving the reading of verses etc., but is not usually used with reference to prayer. The Penei Moshe interprets the term here as “study” – i.e., R. Yochanan did not interrupt his study. Based on the words of the ruler at the end of the story, it would seem that R. Yochanan was reciting the Shema. Perhaps this was the most appropriate incident that the Yerushalmi could find to record in this context, and therefore it appears here, even though the subject of the sugya is prayer rather than study. As to the recitation of Shema, the Mishna states explicitly, at the beginning of Chapter 2, that one is permitted to interrupt his recitation if he is fearful [of some danger]. But this only amplifies the exceptional case of R. Yochanan, who did not interrupt even his recitation of Shema; perhaps, then, he would have considered it even more important to continue in the event of being caught mid-prayer.

[8] There is room for discussion as to the relationship between the two statements. Most of the commentators (Penei Moshe along with Rishonim who comment on the Yerushalmi here, as cited by the Penei Moshe in his “mar’eh ha-panim” ad loc,) seem to suggest that R. Ila is adding a further distinction, over and above that drawn by R. Chuna. Theoretically, one could also view him as disagreeing with R. Chuna and arguing that even in a case of clear and immediate danger (such as a scorpion), one should not halt his prayer, and is only permitted to move from his place.

[9]  See, for example, Mishna Berakhot 5:5; Mishna Sota 9:15; Bavli Ta’anit 24b-25a.

[10] It is important to clarify that this shiur presents only a theoretical discussion of the various voices arising from the sugya, rather than a discussion of the practical halakha or any sort of recommendation to follow one course of action or another – certainly if any danger is involved. The level of practical halakha involves deliberation by poskim, such as the ruling of the Rambam cited above; we shall not elaborate further here.