Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Blessings and Actions - Berakhot 29

One of the central liturgical text for Talmudic practice is discussed at length in today’s daf (page). Sometimes it is called the Amida (“standing”), because one stands while reciting it. It is also called the Shmonei Esray (18) for reasons explained below, and sometimes just Tefillah (prayer). Traditionally recited in some format every day, its “standard” structure is assumed knowledge in the Talmud’s discussion and the questions discussed here focus on alternatives and variations. The traditional word for the prayerbook itself, Siddur, comes from the word for order (like the Passover Seder).

The Amida is a series of 19 blessings – 3 opening praise blessings, 13 petition blessings, and 3 thanksgiving blessings. This makes sense psychologically – praise someone before asking for something, ask for it, then thank them in advance for their time and attention. The requests are for everything from personal understanding and healing to national redemption through rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple under the Messiah. The reason the “18 blessings” actually have 19 is that one was added to the petitions after the destruction of the JerusalemTemple, as described in yesterday and today’s Talmud pages – a condemnation of the Minim (variously translated as heretics, slanderers, or separatists), that they be quickly destroyed. While one may make a mistake in any other blessing, a mistake in that one raises suspicions of heresy. Fortunately for most modern Jews, the Minim blessing has yet to be effective against its targets.

Today’s Talmud page presents several concessions to reality. Mistakes are made in recitations, even by Rabbis, and can be corrected. There may be times when it is dangerous to stop and perform the complete Amida with all of its attendant rituals and behavior, so alternative abbreviated texts are formulated. And a particular dispute is left unresolved with the admission that it is a kushiya – a difficulty.

The most insightful line in the entire page is part of the abbreviated prayer said in danger, because it really formulates the essence of the Rabbinic prayer system – “the needs of Your people Israel are many, and their knowledge is little.” Many of the requests in the Amida are for good results we all would want to see – understanding, healing, abundance, justice, peace. If our approach is that cited above, we have little hope of doing it ourselves. If we spend our time focusing on and using the power we DO possess, we can move demonstrably closer to our goals.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For more background and summary information on the Amida, visit