Thursday, August 16, 2012

Berachot 13b: Yes, Being Too Pious is Possible

I notice that I haven't blogged in a while. Plus, the re-commencement of the Daf Yomi cycle made me want to see how often I can crank out some thoughts on a recently-read Talmudic portion. If it occurs frequently enough, I might have to have a separate blog for Talmudic thoughts. But for now, I'll just shoot for once a week, b'li neder.

Tonight, I was fortunate to be able to have a Skype study session with a good friend on yesterday's Talmud portion of Berachot 13. We're at that point where the rabbis discuss whether to say the Shema with kavannah, in which language, and even the appropriate posture in which to say the Shema. The Talmud is a highly tangential text. Some of the tangents are very close to the initial Mishna's argument; others are way out in left field. There was one tangent of peculiar interest in Gemara 13b. Symmachus (סומכוס בן יוסף) says that one who extends the ד in the word אחד while saying Shema is rewarded where his days and years are extended. This passage is followed by a story of where Rabbi Yemera was seated before Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba:

ר' ירמיה הוה יתיב קמיה דר' [חייא בר אבא] חזייה דהוה מאריך טובא א"ל כיון דאמליכתיה למעלה ולמטה ולארבע רוחות השמים תו לא צריכת

Essentially, R. Chiyya bar Abba was excessively extending the ד. Rabbi Yemera's response was "Once you have crowned Him in your thoughts over everything above, in Heaven, below, on earth, and in the four corners of the heavens, you need not extend any further." In other words, "enough is enough," or as I like to put it, "There is too much of a good thing, even piety." Jews need to serve G-d out of love and should not accept moral passivity. I'm certainly not going to argue that. However, there is a point where one can take noble intentions too far. It's a problem we see in today's Orthodox Judaism, and one of its primary manifestations is replacing chumra (strictures) with din (law). This is not the mindset of every Orthodox Jew, to be sure, but it has become more prevalent over time. When piety is set as the baseline, it becomes virtually impossible to adequately practice Judaism according to the standards set today.

Rabbi Yochanan is later mentioned in the Gemara during the discussion on whether one can lay on one's back while reciting the Shema. The normative ruling is that it is prohibited. However, R. Yochanan was able to recite it while lying down while slightly leaning because he was corpulent (i.e., really, really overweight), and any other posture would have caused him much duress. Based on the aforementioned mentality, I would metaphorically wager that if R. Yochanan were around now, he would have to "toughen up" and get out of bed to say the Shema.

When realizing that there is too much of a good thing, we not only have to remember that there are certain times when leniencies are acceptable (and yes, at times, preferable), but also remember that halacha is the means by which a Jew serves G-d, not an end in itself. In short, a Jew is supposed to do as many mitzvot without going overboard. Given the status quo, I guess that's easier said than done.

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