THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
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 redemption?”
“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 red.
“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 Yuntif, You Minuval.
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshiva Chipas Emmess