Latest update: May 17th, 2013
Question: The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch states that an individual praying selichot without a minyan is not allowed to recite the Thirteen Midot or the Aramaic prayers. What is the rationale behind this halacha?
Answer: The Beit Yosef on the Tur (Orach Chayim 565) explains that the Shelosh Esreh Midot represent a communal prayer and thus a davar she’b’kedushah. A mishnah in Tractate Megillah (23b) enumerates the situations that incorporate a davar she’b’kedusha and require a minyan.
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Now we turn to the matter of the prayers in Aramaic.
The halacha that the Aramaic selichot prayers may only be recited with a minyan is based on a discussion in Shabbos 12b. Rabba b. Bar Hana said, “When we would follow Rabbi Eleazar to inquire after [the health of] a sick person, sometimes he would say [in Hebrew], ‘Hamakom yifkodcha l’shalom – May the Omnipresent remember you with peace,’ whereas at other times he would say [the same prayer in Aramaic], ‘Rachmana yidkerinach lishlam.’ ” The Gemara asks: How could he pray in Aramaic? Didn’t Rabbi Yehuda say that one should never make a request in Aramaic? And didn’t Rabbi Yohanan say that when a person makes a request in Aramaic, the ministering angels do not come to his aid since they do not understand Aramaic?
The Gemara answers that a prayer for a sick person is different since the Divine Presence is with him. Rabbi Anan said in Rab’s name: How do we know that the Divine Presence supports a sick person? Because it is written (Psalms 41:4), “Hashem yis’adenu al eres devai – G-d supports him on the sickbed.” Rava quotes an alternate explanation of that pasuk in the name of Rabbin. He says “Hashem yis’adenu…” also implies that G-d provides sustenance to a sick person. Yis’adenu can mean both help and provision of food.
The Shiltei HaGibborim (ad loc.), quoting the Tur (Yoreh De’ah 335), states that when one is in the presence of a sick person, one should plead on his behalf in any language. However, if not in his presence, one should only make the request in Hebrew. The question is why? Isn’t the Divine Presence with a sick person even if one isn’t praying for him in his presence? Tosafot (Shabbos ad loc. s.v. “She’ein mal’achei hasharet”) ask another question (for which they do not provide an answer): If we posit that the ministering angels are privy to the innermost thoughts of man, how is it possible that they do not understand Aramaic?
Furthermore, as Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edels (the Maharsha) points out in the late edition (“mahadura batra”) of his Chiddushei Halachot on Tractate Shabbos (found at the back of the Vilna Shas), we cannot assume that every person whose life is endangered will be helped by G-d, as evidenced by the verse in Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:29), “Im ke’mot kol ha’adam yemutun eileh ufkudat kol ha’adam yippakeid aleihem… – [Said Moses:] If these die like other men, and the destiny of all men is visited upon them, then it is not G-d who has sent me.”
Korach and his followers were about to be punished for their rebelliousness against Moses. The manner of their death would serve as proof that their rebelliousness was not just directed against Moses, as Korach contended, but against G-d as well. They would not die after an illness, like other mortals whom the Divine Presence visits on their sickbed, but would be swallowed alive by the earth, without any recourse against the decree. This is because by rebelling against Moses they were, in fact, rebelling against G-d, on whose mission Moses had been sent. It is also from this verse that Resh Lakish derives the mitzvah of visiting the sick, as detailed in Tractate Nedarim (39b).
With this in mind, we might also wonder how we are to know when to beseech G-d on behalf of a sick person. When is an ailing person in grave danger, i.e., how do we define “choleh”? Since we do not know the extent of the danger and have to utilize every means at our disposal – including the help of ministering angels who understand only Hebrew – we resort to prayer in Hebrew when we are not in the presence of the sick person.
But this, in turn, raises an additional question. Why would we invoke angels as mediators? Do we not address our prayers directly to G-d? Rashi (Shabbos 12b; also Sotah 33a, where our sugya is tangentially repeated) describes the angels as “bringing our prayers behind the Curtain,” or “delivering our prayers,” which offers us but a glimmer in the way of understanding this phenomenon.
We should note here that there is a clear difference between individual prayer (tefillat yachid) and communal prayer (tefillat hatzibur), as stated by the Gemara (Berachot 8a) quoting a verse from Job (36:5), “Hen Kel kabbir lo yim’as – G-d does not despise the prayer of a congregation.” The Gemara seems to indicate, based on this verse, that the prayers of a congregation are assured of delivery on high. Why is an individual’s prayer not treated likewise?
Discussing whether ministering angels indeed know the innermost thoughts of man, the Noam Elimelech (Parshat Be’ha’alotecha) suggests that the angels in charge of bringing our prayers to G-d have been given the ability to discern between prayers that are pure and those that are tainted with improper thoughts. How are they able to do that if they do not know the innermost thoughts of man? A man’s actions create an aura around him. While bad deeds produce a negative, repelling aura, good deeds create a fragrant emanation similar to incense. Likewise, pure prayers create a good aura and improper prayers produce a negative aura, enabling angels to recognize which prayers are worthy of being brought up to G-d. Thus, it is through man’s prayers that angels are capable of discerning whether man’s thoughts are good or bad.
While this somewhat clarifies how angels understand man’s inner thoughts, we still don’t understand why their detection of man’s thoughts doesn’t apply when people pray in Aramaic. The various interpretations offered result in different rulings among the poskim. The Rif states that tefillat yachid is permitted only in Hebrew, whereas the “chachmei Tzorfat” (the Sages of France) allow an individual to pray in any language, except when he is praying for his own needs. The Rosh opines that even personal requests can be made in languages other than Hebrew – with the exception of Aramaic.
Rabbenu Yona’s commentary on the Rif (7a) at the beginning of the second chapter of Berachot – parallel to the topic discussed in Shabbos 12b and Sotah 33a – furnishes us with the Scriptural source of the angels’ role in the purveyance of our prayers to G-d. It is written (Job 33:23), “Im yesh alav mal’ach meilitz echad mini alef – If there be for him an interceding angel, one of a thousand….”
Rabbenu Yona notes, however, that it is only the individual, not the congregation, who is in need of an interceding angel. This approach also offers us a better understanding of the Noam Elimelech’s interpretation of the angels’ role in regard to prayer, for they judge the validity of prayers on an individual basis and not in a congregational situation.
(To be continued)
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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