Dec 21, 2009

The Way of Response: A Comment on Mishnah Berachot 2:2

The Way of Response: A Comment on Mishnah Berachot 2:2
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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A friend entered minyan recently, and arrived right in the middle of the Shema.  This Mishnah came to mind:

"In between paragraphs [of the Shema] one may greet someone ("sho'el/inquire") and reply due to respect;
in the midst of a paragraph one may greet and respond due to awe - these were the words of Rabbi Meir.
Rabbi Yehuda teaches that in the midst of a paragraph one may greet due to awe and respond due to respect;
in between paragraphs one may greet due to respect and respond to anyone.
(Mishnah Berachot 2:2)"

There are times when the flow of prayer demands intense devotion, to the exclusion of other things.  But the specific language of the Mishnah, not just its general teaching, can be instructive as well.  There are three varying levels of urgency in different moments of encounter (a good example of the responsive case-law system which is Halacha): 

  • Someone who evokes Kavod/Respect
  • Someone who evokes Yirah/Awe
  • Kol Adam/Anyone

What do these distinctions between people indicate? 

Traditional responses have suggested that Yirah/Awe points to either a person who causes the davener to fear for their life (Rashi on TB Ber. 13a, Rambam Hil. KS 2:15) or, alternatively, parents and teachers, who evoke a different kind of awe (Rosh on M.Ber. 1:15).  Comments on Kavod/Respect also vary, with Rambam pointing to parents and Rashi pointing to "a respected person worthy of inquiring as to their well-being."  Rabbi Yosef Karo, in the Shulchan Aruch rules that Kavod/Respect points to an "adam nichbad/someone respected. (see also Mishna Berurah 88:3, which suggests that Karo was refering to an elderly, wise, or a wealthy person.)"

There is an apparent difference in severity between "greeting," the davener's initiated interruption of the Shema, and "responding", in which the davener responds to someone else's inquiry.  But, while there is a social difference between prominent leaders and everyone else, and a traditional Jewish reverence for parents and teachers, what should my response to my friend have been?  Does it make a difference that we are friends?  That he might have money?  That he might be older, or wiser than I am? 

Greeting in the midst of a paragraph of the Shema is the most grevious of interuptions presented.  For Rabbi Meir, it should only occur due to Awe, and for Rabbi Meir one may greet in this circumstance due to Awe and Respond due to respect.  When my friend entered the minyan, both Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Meir would have had me greet him only if he demanded Awe from me.  He hadn't greeted me, and so the action was mine to take (or not).

Here is why I greeted him:  Showing up is an act of inquiring, of meaning-seeking.  My choice in that moment was to either focus intently on my own recitation of the Shema, interpreting the prayer-moment as more commanding than my friend's presence, as more awe-some than my friend, who (i know) showed up seeking meaning, and requiring help orienting himself in community and siddur.

Elsewhere in the Mishnah, a solution might be suggested:  "Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua would say: Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own. Let the honor of your friend be equal to the respect due to your teacher. Let the respect due to your teacher be equivalent to the reverence due to heaven. (M.Avot 4:12)"

Martin Buber wrote: "He who loves brings God and the world together. (Buber, The Way of Response)"  The rules matter; they are the evolving guidelines we have embraced as a living Jewish community.  They open an awesome way of response.

May this be the way we respectfully cherish each and every other as we pursue intense devotion.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.