THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
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On the Essence of Prayer
This week I respond to a shailah from a conscientious talmid
concerned about the essence of his Tefilois.
David C. writes:
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I took special notice of the
inclusion of the pussuk "Shehaim Mishtachavim LaHevel VaRik
Umitpallelim El El Lo Yoshiyah" in the Alenu prayer. Apparently,
some people include this verse in their daily prayers, while others
do not. What should I do?
First, let me complement you on such a wonderful and insightful
shailah resulting from what is obviously a high level of
attentiveness during tefillah. You have only been davening for how
many years, and you first noticed that there are parentheses around
this passuk?! Next thing, you'll ask if it is common that people
should stand silently like schmucks for five minutes during
Shacharis, Mincha and Maiyriv, and you'll wonder why everyone sits
down towards the end of Shacharis and Mincha, grabs a hold of their
jacket, and smells their underarms. Very observant. Shkoiyach.
With regard to your question, the passuk you refer to translates
as "They bow to emptiness and pray to a diety that will bring no
salvation." There is indeed a great machloikess – rabbinic debate –
about the passuk's inclusion in contemporary prayer, as it was
originally removed to allay friction with the Catholic Church. And
indeed, the BACH holds that the pussuk is in fact an indictment of
the worship of Yushka Pandra. However, the TAZ notes that the BACH
probably made this statement as a reflection of his resentment
towards Catholicism, a resentment brought on by the BACH's hot
shiksa secretary consistently refusing to, err..., play "hide the
tzaylem" with him, Rachmana Letzlan.
However, the actual intent of the reference of the
word "Shehaim", "They," is nisht azaiy pashoot, not so simple. Who
does the pussuk refer to when it says that "their" prayers are for
naught? Chazal expended much effort on this theme, used up a few
reams of paper, and were even compelled to change an ink cartridge
on their printers.
According to the RAMBAN, the word "they" refers to Muslims. Says the
RAMBAN, anyone who can strap suicide bombs on their men and dress
their women in burkas that cover up 98 percent of their luscious,
hot Mediterranean bodies won't be having their prayers listened to
by Hakkadoshboruchhu anytime soon.
But according to the Hai Goyn, the term "Shahaim" actually refers to
women. They spend all day talking about their clothing, their
architectural plans for the house, and the latest romance novel they
read, while at the same time complaining about all they have to do
regarding taking care of the kids, managing the household, and
pursuing their careers. And at the end of a long day, they insist
that you come home to have a gefilte fish party, if you know what I
mean, while they continue to have no interest in getting fleishig by
snacking on the party weenies. If they only channeled some of their
ceaseless energy to better use, they could take on a third job so
you and I could work less and study more Toirah.
However, according to Reb Yoisaiph Cairo, the "they" refers to
Ashkenazic Jews, with their matzoh balls, their pale skin and their
big noses. They think they created Yiddishkeit, and hold up as
fundamental tenets of their faith the notions that Moishe Rabbeinu
was an accountant, Eliyahu Hanavi was a pediatric gynecologist, and
Yankif Avinu spoke with a Lithuanian accent (Voos?!) Do you think
that Hakkadoshboruchhu would ever want to listen to them? If their
wives won't, why the hell should He?
According to the RAMAH, the pussuk actually refers to Sephardim,
with their swarthy looks, their hairy backs, and their siddur that
the Aimishteh Himself couldn't follow along in. Question: Why does
a Sephardi eat rice and beans on Peysach instead of eating only
Shmurah Matzoh like a real Jew? Answer: So he can save money in
order to buy magic oil amulets from his turban-wearing-Rabbi. Says
that RAMAH, Sephardim aren't even Jews – between their ululations
(Lululululululu!!!!) and their henna parties, they are either Shiite
or Hindu, but they certainly aren't Yiddin.
Finally, according to the Vilna Goyn, the work "Shehaim" refers to
Chassidim. Why would the Reboinoisheloilum want to spend any time
listening to men who wear fur hats in ninety degree weather anyway?
And what's with that gartel thing? Koolay almah lo pleegee --
everybody holds, Misnagdim and Chassidim alike – that the elastic
waistband in a person's underwear functions as an adequate
separation between his upper body and lower body during prayer. So
why do Chassidim wear a gartel at davening? Very simple – because
they don't wear underwear! And do you think that Hakadoshboruchhu
will listen to someone with his schvantzlach hanging out?
So what does it all mean? What and who does the pussuk of "Shehaim
Mishtachavim" refer to?
The Tefillah of Aleynu is considered to be quite old, and there is
even the suggestion that the prayer goes back to the time of the
Bais Hamikdash and was a central prayer in the Avoidah. So the
Tefillah itself predates Christianity, Islam, the geographic
splintering of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and certainly the
establishment of Chassidoos. The Tefilla doesn't pre-date women,
chass v'sholom, but given that women were not allowed into the Bais
Hamikdash, the Koihain Gadol would not have wanted to mention them,
lest he incur the wrath of the Aimishteh, who, we are told in
Beraishis Rabbah, is a complete misogynist. So the pussuk cannot
refer to any of the above-mentioned groups.
However, we may be able to detect a clue from the pussuk in question
itself. The latter clause of the pussuk, "Umispallelim El El Lo
Yoishiyah," is a direct quote from a pussuk in Sefer Yishayahu,
Perek Mem Hey, Pussuk Chuff (Isaiah, Chapter 45, Verse 20). If we
look at the original context, Yishayahu HaNavi makes a prophecy
addressed to the Persian King Koiresh. Now, how Yishayahu, who lived
at the time of Chizkiyahu HaMelech during Bayis Rishoyn, can be
speaking to a Persian king who lived two hundred years after him, I
have no idea. Maylah, maybe he had a time machine. Or maybe Koiresh
heard the prophecy in a podcast on his Royal I-Pod.
In any case, the original context of the Perek in Yishayahu upon
which the pussuk in Aleynu is based is a contrast between the
monotheistic faith of Klal Yisroel and the Pagan faiths of their
neighbors (not including Persians, who, via Koiresh, are viewed as
heroes). It is a rejection of pagan prayer vessels, e.g., idols, but
also specifically rejects pagan beliefs and philosophies, such as
creation of the world as "Chaos." Consequently, the world described
in the pussuk is not the world of today. It is a world of classical
avoidah zorah, a world that no longer exists, at least outside of
770 Eastern Parkway.
I personally do not recite this pussuk, just in case the guy
standing next to me in shul is secretly a devil worshipping pagan
sent to spy on Klal Yisroel for the purposes of shmad, or is a
Buddhist working for the IRS. So should people who choose to say the
pussuk continue to do so?
I am reminded of a beautiful vort given by Rabbi Nachman MiBreslov.
Rabbi Nachman was visiting Minsk one Shabbos. On of his followers, a
short Jew names Shloimi came up to him and asked, "Rebbi Nachman, is
it true that if I say the letters of your name over and over again,
it will bring about the geulah?"
Rebbi Nachman smiled and put his arm around Shloimi. Then he hugged
him. Them he started humming a tune, a special niggun usually sung
before drinking shots of vodka on a Friday night.
After a few minutes, Shloimi looked up and asked, "so, Rebbe, what
is the answer to my question."
Rebbi Nachman let go of his follower and looked at him. "Reb
Shloimi, you tell me: Does it make sense that saying my name, the
name of a flesh and blood being, again and again, will bring about
"No," Shloimi responded.
"And you figured that one out all by yourself, you schmendrick?"
"Yes." Shloimi's voice cracked as he began to turn a bright shade of
"Then why ask such a question in the first place? Use a bit of
common sense, for Chrissakes! I am your spiritual advisor, but if
what you really need is someone to make every decision for you, go
home to your mother. Toirah requires you to use your brain and is
not a substitute for your mother's teat!"
So, my beloved Reb Duvid, I must say the same thing to you. It seems
rather obvious that this pussuk is not relevant to today, certainly
as a contrast to the Christian and Muslim worlds, both of which have
adopted forms of Monotheism rooted in our great tradition. Moreover,
this pussuk denies the essence of the Neshama with which all human
beings were created, Jews and non-Jews alike, and by which we are
all linked to Hakadoshboruchhu. But if it makes you feel better to
say the pussuk, gizunteh heit. After all, the Aimishteh probably
isn't listening to you anyway.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.