Monday, September 25, 2006

Interruptions during Shema- an example of Rambam's seamless integration of Halacha and Theology.

I am learning Hilchot Kryat Shema and I came across what I found to be an exceptionally interesting idea that I would like to share. The Halacha is that one may not interrupt while one is in the middle of Kryat Shema and its Berachot. That means that once one starts the Bracha of Yotzer Ohr through the Amidah one may not interrupt except in a case when a person that one has to respect, such as a parent or Rebbi, enters in which case if one holds between the chapters one may initiate a greeting. One may also respond between the chapters to a greeting offered by any other person. In the middle of the chapters one may initiate a greeting with a person one fears and respond to a greeting from a person one is required to respect. This is based on the Gemara in Berachot 11 and the Rishonim discuss if one should respond for Kedusha, Kaddish and generally Amen on Berachot. Some compare it to responding out of fear, others to respect and by the time we get to the Acharonim it becomes quite confusing. One comes away with a feeling of frustration and it seems to be almost a compulsion with minutiae. Unless one can understand the issues involved it makes little sense to spend so much energy on such an issue.

Rambam totally ignores the question in Hilchot Kryat Shema. In Hilchot Tefilah 10:16 legislates as follows:

ואם התחיל להתפלל קודם שליח ציבור, והגיע שליח ציבור לקדושה--לא יפסיק, ולא יענה קדושה עימהן; וכן לא יענה אמן יהא שמיה רבה מברך, והוא באמצע התפילה, ואין צריך לומר, בשאר ברכות.

If one starts the Amidah before the Hazan and the Hazan gets to Kedusha, one should not stop nor should one respond to the Kedusha with the tzibur. Nor should one answer Amen etc… (for Kaddish) while in the middle of prayer, and of course not (Amen) for any other Bracha.

Just a little quirk in the Rambam’s language gets one’s attention. He seems to be wordy “one should not stop nor should one respond to the Kedusha with the tzibur”. Isn’t responding an interruption? Rambam is always precise in his language and one should pay attention to little nuances.

Rav Kafih in his edition of the Yad points to a Mishna in Avot 2:1:

והוי זהיר במצוה קלה כמצוה חמורה, שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצוות

Be as scrupulous about the lightest command as about the weightiest, for no man knows the result of his actions

Rambam in his Pirush Hamishna explains that this refers to Mitzvot Asseh (positive commandments) and is the basis behind two other rules – Haossek Bemitzvah Patur min Hamitzvah – While one is involved performing a commandment one has no obligation to perform another one even if that one is time sensitive. Furthermore – Ein Ma’avirin al Hamitzvot – While one is engaged in doing a commandment one may not stop this one to pursue another commandment. In other words there is a theological imperative against jumping from one Mitzvah to another because we have no basis for evaluating which Mitzvah is more important. When one is saying the Amidah one is involved in a Mitzvah, responding Amen to another Bracha is a different Mitzvah. By doing that, one shows a lack of understanding about our inability to set values to the different Mitzvot. One shows that one considers answering Amen to be a greater imperative than saying the Amidah. Unlike other Rishonim, Rambam even forbids stopping and being silent, listening to the Hazan saying the Kedusha or Kaddish. That would fall under the prohibition of Ein Ma’avirin al Hamitzvot. One must continue saying the Amidah without interruption. That explains the precise language in the Halacha - “one should not stop nor should one respond to the Kedusha with the tzibur”.

In a Responsa (Blau edition Teshuvah 180) Rambam was asked whether one may interrupt the Berachot before and after Kryat Shema with Piyuttim or make a Bracha for Tzitzit or Tefillin that arrive while he is engaged in saying them or make a Bracha on sound (Thunder) or smell (spices). He answers that it is forbidden, wrong and a mistake to say the Piyuttim. It also does not make sense to interrupt the Birchot Kryat Shema with other Berachot, being that one is engaged in a mitzvah why leave this one for another?

We gained from this discussion an insight into Rambam’s understanding of the issues involved in interrupting while saying Kryat Shema. It is not acceptable to interrupt the performance of a Mitzvah for another. However when we are interrupted by others, where it is an issue of respect to others, where the Rabbis tell us that “Gadol Kevod Haberyot Shedocha Mitzvat lo Ta’asseh Shebatorah”, respect for people is so great that it supersedes a biblical negative commandment, there are detailed rules of behavior.

This understanding is very different from the other Rishonim. To them Mitzvot are of greater value than respect for others. Thus they argue (Rashba, Rosh and Ritba – see Tur Orach Chaim 66) that answering Amen would at least be equal to showing respect to others. Rambam however is consistent in this Halacha with his general philosophy that Mitzvot are not the ultimate goal but rather a tool to be used for self-improvement and for proper Hashkafic development (Moreh 3:54 and other places).

This understanding explains why the Gemara does not discuss the issue of interrupting Shema with Amen and restricts the discussion to interruptions out of respect or fear. It was obvious to the Gemara that it is theologically wrong to do so. Not only does Rambam see Halacha to be consistent with philosophical and theological concepts, he sees that in the Gemara too.

Shana Tova and a Gmar Chatima Tova to all.


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  2. i didn't find the subject matter mentioned on berachot 11a or 11b ?? am i missing something?

  3. sorry it is 13 the mishna at the start of the second perek and the gemara.