It seems that this disagreement is precisely parallel to another one about the source of the daily prayers: “It has been stated: R. Yosi, son of R. Hanina, said: The prayers were instituted by the patriarchs. R. Joshua ben Levi says: The prayers were instituted to replace the daily sacrifices” (Berachot 26b).
According to R. Yosi, son of R. Hanina, Shacharit was established by Abraham, Minchah by Isaac, and Ma’ariv by Jacob. According to R. Joshua ben Levi, Shacharit corresponds to the daily morning sacrifice, Minchah to the afternoon sacrifice. On the face of it, the disagreement has no practical consequences. But in fact it does.
If the prayers were instituted by the patriarchs, then their origin is prophetic. If they were established to replace the sacrifices, then their provenance is priestly. Priests were forbidden to act spontaneously, but prophets did so as a matter of course. Someone who saw prayer as priestly would, like Rabban Gamliel, emphasize the importance of a precise text. One who saw it as prophetic would, like Rabbi Eliezer as understood by the Talmud Yerushalmi, value spontaneity and each day try to say something new.
Tradition eventually resolved the matter in a most remarkable way. We say each Amidah twice, once privately and silently in the tradition of the prophets, then a second time publicly and collectively by the shaliach tzibbur, the reader’s repetition, in the tradition of a priest offering a sacrifice at the Temple. (It is easy to understand why there is no reader’s repetition in the Ma’ariv service: there was no sacrifice at nighttime.) During the silent Amidah we are permitted to add extra words of our own. During the repetition we are not. That is because prophets acted spontaneously, but priests did not.
The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu is that they made the mistake of acting like prophets when they were, in fact, priests. But we have inherited both traditions. For without structure, Judaism would have no continuity, but without spontaneity it would have no fresh life. The challenge is to maintain the balance without ever confusing the place of each.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).