Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Nitsavim 5764

You stand this day before Hashem your G-d (Devarim 29,9).

The Zohar says that 'this day' refers to Rosh Hashana.[1] With this in mind, let us discuss how one stands in prayer before Hashem on this Day of Judgment.

Say before Me the verses of kingship in order to make me King over you (Rosh Hashana 16)

The liturgy of Rosha Hashana is unique in that it centers around the verses of Malchiyous (Kingships), Zikhronos (rememberances) and Shofaros (shofar blowing). Rosh Hashana 32a requires the Musaf prayer to be arranged around 10 verses that contain these concepts. Does it mean ten in total, divided in groups of three Mlachiyos, three Zikhronos, three Shafaros (and presumably a closing verse as well to complete the set of ten) or does it mean ten of each? R. Yehuda says three of each and R. Yosi requires that for each of the categories we must start with 3 verses from the Chumash, follow with three verses from Prophets and three from the Kesuvim and close with one again from the Torah. There is no great difficulty in finding appropriate verses for Zikhronos and Shofaros but there are only three such verses in Chumash for Malchiyous. We have no verse left to close the set of the ten of Malchiyos.

R. Yosi in Rosha Hashana 32b solves this difficulty by proposing that the Shema is also a verse of Malchiyous and that we close with it; R. Yehuda objects that Shema is not a verse of Malchiyos at all (as it does not contain within it an idea of Kingship).

R. Yehuda's opinion appears most reasonable; after all there is no mention of Kingship in the Shema?

An explanation may arise from another disagreement of R. Yosi and R. Yeshuda on the same page. They argue about how many Malchiyos are contained in Tehilim 24:7-9 and 47:7-8. Both agree that "G-d is King over nations; G-d sat on his Holy throne" is considered one expression of Kingship.

Consideration of the parallel passage in the Yersushalmi suggests that what is in question is how clear and unambiguous must the expression of kingship be in order to be used as such in prayer. R. Yehuda is content with a general reference to G-d as ruler[2] while R. Yehuda insists on a more precise definition - one that explicitly expresses reign over the affairs of the world. For example, in the Yerushalmi they disagree whether verses that use the name E'lokim rather than an appellation King can be used for kingships.

The Shema contains within it the idea of G-d as sovereign over our world for He is Hashem Elokeinu. At the same time, the idea is not well developed; in fact, the Rabbis placed an explanation immediately after the first verse of the Shema that makes this idea explicit - Blessed Be the Glory of the Name of His Kingdom…. While Name, Glory and Kingdom have specific meanings in this context[3], the Kingdom is over the world in which we live and function.

R. Yosi and R. Yehuda followed their general principles in determining whether the Shema can be used for Malchiyos. R. Yosi requires clarity and rejects the first verse of the Shema as not specific enough; R.Yehuda , in accordance with his view that does not strive for absolutely explicit definition of kingship, does accept it as adequate.[4]

The methodology that explains a disagreement between two Sages based on their views elsewhere, is called in the language of Talmudic learning - leshitoso, or, 'according to his own opinion'. Emblematic of such an approach is a recently published work that connects and explains every position of R. Shimon Ben Yochai in the Talmudin accordance to his previously cited view. This style of learning has lost ground in the 'Lithuanian' yeshiva world over the past century but can still be seen and heard in the Chassidic communities of Hungarian origin. At its worst it can be forced and inauthentic; at its best, little can compare to it for grandeur and beauty of expression.

May Hashem bless all for you with goodness, health and sweetness in the coming year and may we merit to see Him assert his Kingship in the year to come.

1 See Likutei Torah for an elaboration of a deeper connection between this verse and Rosh Hashana liturgy.

2 One might see this disagreement as one about Deism, a system of thought that believes in G-d as benevolent Creator but does not accept Him as actively involved in the affairs of the world. R. Yehuda does not find it necessary to be concerned about a possible Deisitic misinterpretation of Rosh Hashana prayer but R. Yosi does.

3 See the next footnote.

4 This approach is explained and referenced at greater length in M. Levin, With all your heart: The Shema in Jewish worship, practice and life, Tagum/ Feldheim, 1996. A different explanation of the disagreement is found in Pachad Yitshak, Rosh Hashana 22. Another explanation of the disagreement may be based on Vilna Gaon's comments to Sifra D'Tsniusa. He explains that there are two kinds of Kingship. The first one is expression of G-d's authority through miracles and signs and the other - man's acceptance of Him as Ruler and King. The Rabbis disagree whether the Shema which is only an expression of the latter, can serve as the verse of Kingship for purposes of prayer.