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The Importance of Praying in Hebrew and the Push Toward Fixed Prayer

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This is the last of our random sample of places Rambam inserts aggadic material into Mishneh Torah. Next time, I hope to review them briefly to see if any themes or ideas characterize them all. Here, let’s look at his understanding of how fixed prayer came to the Jewish people.

Remember that Rambam held that the Torah obligates Jews to pray once a day (many if not most other authorities held that daily prayer is a rabbinic obligation). To fulfill the Torah’s standard, every Jew must say words of praise, request and thanks, for as long or short as s/he wants or is able to offer (more is better, a fuller service of the heart).

Rambam opens his Laws of Prayer with an explanation of how that model changed into the current one of three prayers on most days, with a set form for those (to which individuals can add requests, but the backbone of which has been set by tradition).

Connecting It to the Return From Exile

Rambam’s answer, in paragraph four, is that when the Jews returned after the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, their exile to Bavel had led to them mixing with Persians, Greeks and other nations, and they had children in those foreign lands. The polyglot environment in which those children grew up taught them several languages poorly, such that they could not fully express themselves in any one language, especially Hebrew.

One of the ramifications was that they could not pray in Yehudit [the word Rambam uses for Hebrew here. It is the word used in the verse in Nechemiah we’ll see below, but it seems to me to stress the connection between language and faith. I say that because Rambam generally uses the word Yehudit as an adjunct to dat, religion. He uses Ivrit for Hebrew in Laws of Other Conveyors of Ritual Impurity 9:7, in contrasting Hebrew to Aramaic. The language’s name, it seems, is Ivrit; but when it expresses particularistic Jewish identity or faith, it’s Yehudit].

That got in the way of people speaking to Hashem as fully and volubly as they (and we) might have wished, unless they mixed in other languages. When Ezra and his court saw that, they set up the Amidah, 18 blessings in order—three of praise, the middle blessings that ask for all of one’s needs, and then three of thanks.

In this way, closes Rambam, the least verbal people could express themselves in a full prayer [those more comfortable in Hebrew would still have an easier time adding thoughts and wishes, as Rambam recommends, but they will have achieved a minimal standard].

The Easily Established Part of Rambam’s View

Two of Rambam’s claims are grounded in texts, but the way he puts those texts together takes us in directions that seem less than necessitated by the texts themselves. It is true that Nechemiah 13:23 describes the Jews as having taken Ashdodite, Amonite and Moabite wives, which led to the younger generation speaking Ashdodit rather than Yehudit. Those nations are all in the region of Israel, but Rambam took that as showing they had intermarried with Persians and Greeks (and Greeks aren’t even close to Bavel)!

The second point of interest is that while the verse supports his assessment of the generation’s knowledge of Hebrew, it does not connect that to prayer. So we need answers to two questions: Why does Rambam think Ezra set up prayer, and what suggested that it was a language issue?

Fixed Form of Prayer Set by Ezra

A first possible source for the idea that Ezra was involved in setting our form for prayer is Megillah 17b. R. Yochanan or a Baraita said that 120 elders, including some prophets, established 18 blessings in order. The Gemara continues with a tanu rabbanan (probably a baraita) that lays out how they decided on this order (we start with a blessing that mentions the Patriarchs, for example, because Tehillim 29 starts with the words “Havu laShem b’nei elim, give [praise] to Hashem, sons of the mighty”; the order and content of the first three blessings are all inferred from Tehillim 29, although the Gemara doesn’t defend its assumption that this havu is telling us the right and best way to praise Hashem. That Talmudic discussion offers essential and enlightening insight into what each blessing of our prayers intends, but this is not the place to review it fully).

The Gemara does not identify the 120 elders as Ezra and his court. In the Introduction to the Mishnah Commentary, Rambam understood Avot 1:1, which speaks of the prophets handing over guardianship of the tradition to the elders, to mean that that generation had both prophets and elders. If so, any group of elders that includes some prophets (as Megillah said) had to be from that era.

In addition, Berachot 33a tells us that R. Chiya bar Abba quoted R. Yochanan that the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, the Members of the Great Assembly, established the forms of blessings, prayers, Kiddush and Havdalah. If Rambam understood a reference to Anshei Knesset HaGedolah to mean Ezra’s generation, that would drive his conclusion.

The Gemara doesn’t link them, though. In Baba Batra 15a, it treats them as separate, in fact, telling us that Anshei Knesset HaGedolah wrote [or edited] Yechezkel and Trei Asar, while Ezra wrote his book and much of Divrei HaYamim. Rambam might have argued they were distinct in writing or editing books of Tanach, but elsewhere functioned together.

By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein

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