Twice a day, when the Jew addresses his Maker, the highly choreographed movements of the prayer service pause for a moment, allowing for something older and rawer to raise its head—or, more precisely to lower it. This pause and the way the Talmud chooses to explain it tell us something significant about the power of speech and prayer. It also tells us something about how Jewish law itself operates and how the relationships between the individual and the community, on the one hand, and the individual and the Almighty on the other, operate in relation to the letter of the law.
The prayer in question is today known as Taḥanun, usually translated as “supplication” from the Hebrew root meaning grace. Omitted on Sabbaths and even the most minor of holidays, Taḥanun follows immediately after the Amidah, or standing prayer, whose nineteen blessings constitute the centerpiece of the morning, afternoon, and evening services. In the Ashkenazi liturgy, it consists of the sixth psalm and an assortment of other verses. But the most unusual aspect of this prayer is the posture in which part of it is recited: with one arm outstretched, and the head resting upon it. It isn’t just the mere recitation of words, or the experience of inner devotion, but an intense physical gesture of begging for God’s mercy.
To understand fully the significance of this prayer, we must look to one of the Talmud’s most famous stories, which pits the sages against God Himself—and in which the sages emerge victorious. This tale’s connection to Taḥanun is generally overlooked because both its preface and its coda are usually omitted in the retelling. Looking at the passage in its entirety, it becomes clear that this isn’t only a story about the contest between human and divine authority, but about the power of prayer.
The story appears in the talmudic tractate Bava Metsia, amidst a discussion of how one may cause emotional distress, in Hebrew, ona’at dvarim (“oppression of words”)—that is, by humiliating someone. The punishment for this sin is greater than almost any other. As one sage puts it, “It is more appropriate for a man to have intercourse with a woman who may be married than to make his friend’s face blanche in public.”
To underscore the severity of public humiliation, this bold statement is followed by a story of King David complaining that people would try to humiliate him when he taught the law. They’d come and ask him seemingly innocuous questions relating directly to his indiscretion with Bathsheba. For instance: “David, what is the death penalty for an adulterer?” The king would answer, “His death penalty is by hanging, but he has a portion in the world to come. But whoever makes his friend’s face blanche in public has no portion in the world to come.”
Making the face of your friend blanche, injuring his dignity, is a sin that you cannot recover from. To shame another person is to lose your connection to God. How can that be? Because, the Talmud answers, God has a unique kind of sympathy for the person who’s been shamed:
Rabbi Eliezer said: From the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of heaven were locked [to our prayers], but even though the gates of heaven were locked, the gates of tears were not locked. . . .
Rabbi Ḥisda said: All gates were locked except the gates of distress.
This—the power of human distress when channeled into prayer—is the set-up for our story: for distressing another person makes it possible for the victim’s deepest wishes to be heard on high, to slip past all locked gates. When we recite the formal prayer with its nineteen prescribed benedictions it is a stand-in for Temple offerings, an attempt to recreate something destroyed, something lost that cannot be recovered. But when a person prays in distress that historic event is reversed, and he finds a way to communicate with the Almighty.
With all that as context—the rabbinic sensitivity to emotional distress, and the consequent power that the distressed person has to make his desires known to the Author of creation—the Talmud now introduces the debate that pitted the same Rabbi Eliezer, son of Hyrcanus, against all his rabbinic colleagues. Eliezer, like his rival in this story—Rabbi Yehoshua (whom we have met previously)—was a disciple of the great Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, who reestablished the study of the Torah in the Galilean city of Yavneh after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. These two rabbis and their colleagues were confronted with a technical problem of Jewish law: an oven had contracted ritual impurity, so its owners cut it into sections and then filled up the spaces between the sections with sand. Eliezer argued that the oven had effectively been reconstituted as a new object, and thus rendered pure, but the other sages disagreed, and argued that it retained its impurity.
The Talmud then continues:
It’s taught: That day Rabbi Eliezer put forth all the rebuttals in the world, but they would not accept them from him.
He told them: “If the law accords with me, let this carob tree testify.”
The carob tree uprooted from its place 100 yards, and some say 400.
They told him: “We bring no proofs from carob trees.”
He told them again: “If the law agrees with me, let this aqueduct testify.”
The water in the aqueduct ran backwards.
They told him: “We bring no proofs from an aqueduct.”
He told them again: “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the study hall testify.”
The walls of the study house leaned enough to collapse.
Rabbi Yehoshua chided them, and said: “If sages butt heads with one another over law, what’s it to do with you?” They did not collapse, out of deference to Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten, out of deference to Rabbi Eliezer. And they are still tilted and standing to this day.
Here is one of those asides in the Talmud that indicates that the meaning of the story goes far beyond the debate at hand. Whether you believe these miracles happened or not, what transpired that day had a permanent impact on the nature of law making in Judaism. The walls of the study hall remain tilted between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer, askew for eternity.
He said to them again: “If the law agrees with me, let Heaven testify.”
And a voice from heaven said: “What quarrel have you with Rabbi Eliezer, whom the law agrees with everywhere?”
Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12).
What is meant by, “not in heaven”? Rabbi Jeremiah said: “Since the law was already given at Sinai, we no longer take notice of heavenly voices, because You wrote in the law at Mount Sinai: ‘Follow the majority’ (Exodus 23:2).”
Rabbi Nathan ran into Elijah the prophet and asked him: “What did the Holy One Blessed be He do that moment?” He told him, “He smiled and said: My sons have beaten me, My sons have beaten me.”
This is as far as most people go when telling this story, but in truth we haven’t yet reached its climax. If you go to Yavneh today you will find a museum of rabbinic history and a recorded re-enactment of this story which ends right at this point, celebrating the development in Jewish legal history when we left those pesky prophets behind and acquired the luxury of ignoring miracles and even the voice of the Almighty. Only it’s not so simple, because the story goes on, and it is here that Rabbi Eliezer is treated in such a way as to make him feel distress, and his distress is sufficient to make him pray. And as we’ll see, illustrating the principle the tractate previously explained, Eliezer’s distress will have wide-reaching significance.
Following the debate over the oven, the sages gathered all the items Eliezer had ruled to be pure, declared them impure, and threw them into a fire. They then took a vote to excommunicate him—precluding him from teaching the law altogether. Thereupon Eliezer’s student Rabbi Akiva paid him a visit, and told him, “it seems to me your colleagues are keeping their distance from you.” Eliezer’s response was the very definition of a mourner’s behavior: “He tore his clothes and shed his shoes and slipped down and sat upon the ground.”
It seems, however, that God isn’t content to stay out of rabbinic disputes. So dangerous was this act of excommunication that all those forces of nature which were happy to testify at Rabbi Eliezer’s behest revolted at his distress. And the threat went right to the top, to Rabban Gamliel, the scion of the first-ever rabbinic dynasty, the head of the Yavneh academy, and one who, as many talmudic stories show, was insistent in demanding that the other sages defer to his judgments. Gamliel was not present at the argument over the oven, but his authority underwrote it. At the time he was aboard a ship, with a tidal wave about to drown him:
He said: “It appears to me this is only for the sake of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.”
He stood on his feet and said: “Master of the universe, it’s clear and obvious to you that I did not do this for my dignity, or the dignity of my father’s house, but your dignity, that there should be no more disputes in Israel.” The sea rested from its rage.
Note again that Rabban Gamliel stood to assert his legal position, as did Yehoshua that day when he argued with Eliezer in the study hall. Contrast this to what we will learn about Rabbi Eliezer’s posture. And here’s where the discussion brings us back to the Taḥanun prayer, the somewhat obscure origins of which we must now examine more closely.
Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), writes in his foundational legal code, the Mishneh Torah, that, after completing the nineteen blessings, one “sits on the ground and falls on his face and pleads all the pleas he should desire.” So he seems to envision it as a space for free-form, personal requests to the Almighty after the scripted Amidah. But where does it come from, and what’s this about “falling on his face”?
If we go back to the earlier stratum of the Talmud known as the Mishnah (Tractate Tamid 7:3), we find, unsurprisingly, a precedent in the Temple service. After the daily morning sacrifice was brought, the Levites, assembled into a choir, would sing a psalm in three parts. After each part, trumpets would be blown and the spectators gathered in the courtyard would prostrate themselves—that, is they would kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground, literally falling on their faces.
The current practice, of resting one’s head on his arm, is just a pale modern imitation of that more dramatic gesture. Glossing this passage in his commentary on the siddur, Rabbi Yissachar Jacobson explains that the purpose of these pauses for prostration was to allow each person gathered in the courtyard to address a private plea to God.
Returning to our story, we are reminded of the contrast between Eliezer, falling on the floor in despair, and Gamliel and Yehoshua standing up to assert their opinions. But now Eliezer will invoke the power of the one prayer that is wedded to this particular physical act:
Mother Peace, Rabbi Eliezer’s wife, was Rabban Gamliel’s sister.
After that affair she would not let Rabbi Eliezer fall on his face [to say Taḥanun]. One day she thought it was the first of the month [when this prayer isn’t said], but she didn’t realize that the previous month had been a short one [and it was already the second day]. She forgot [to stop him] and he fell on his face.
She told him: “Up! You’ve killed my brother!”
As she spoke the sound of a shofar came from Rabban Gamliel’s house to announce that he lay dead.
He asked her: “How did you know?”
She told him: “So I received it from the house of my grandfather, [Rabban Gamliel the Elder]: all gates are locked except the gates of distress.”
This prayer, and its peculiar posture, is an expression distress, and as we have seen the ultimate distress is that which a person feels when someone has made his face blanche, as Rabban Gamliel’s associates had so done to Rabbi Eliezer. In the hands of Rabbi Eliezer, the supplicant’s power is lethal.
So, if you read to the end of this story, what are you to make of Judaism’s attitude to the community and its claims on the individual, of the concept of majority rule in decision making, and whether Jewish law is ultimately in the hands of God or humankind?
The fact of the matter is that Rabbi Eliezer behaved like Elijah the prophet on Mount Carmel and called on the Almighty to demonstrate his accuracy. The Lord obliged. And the rabbis ignored Him—not just ignored Him but made a principle of ignoring Him and pulled Elijah himself into complicity by having him report that at that very moment the Almighty “smiled” and acknowledged defeat. But the end of the story is not so pretty. It throws into relief the heartache of the story—can you imagine excommunicating your brother-in-law just because he’s a crank and, even more annoyingly, right about everything? What kind of family dinners can that have made for? And can you imagine living in fear that your husband’s prayers would kill your brother?
When it came to the question of how to make law, the rabbis rejected Eliezer and his appeal to divine authority. But his appeals to the divine remain present in the daily prayer of prostration, when the gates remain open. And woe betide you if you speak unkindly to another human being. Whole herds of pigs can go down your gullet with impunity—the Lord forgives—but speaking unkindly is a whole other world and you do not want to go there. You certainly do not want to see what happens if the person you are unkind to gets to pray a private plea.