Advice from the Talmud

    June 2001            
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Add Years to Your Life

By Avi Lazerson

One of the more interesting parts of the Talmud is the aggada, the homiletic teachings of the Rabbis. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was a sage who lived an exceeding long life, the exact age is not known, but his students, impressed with his longitivity and resilience asked him what was his secret of long life.

He replied that he never would use the synagogue as a shortcut, nor would he walk between the students who would sit on the floor during the lesson in the Beit Medresh, the learning center, and that he, being a Kohain, a descendent of Aaron the high priest who was given the special commandment to bless the Jewish people, would never bless the people with out reciting a blessing to G-d first.

All of this sounds quite simple, of course, yet it arouses the question of what in these three acts was so meritorious that it should bring to Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua such longitivity?

However with the homiletic statements in the Talmud, careful analysis is generally required to arrive at a deeper understanding. The statements in the Talmud were sifted and checked for the necessary depth of thought and proper teaching for the future generations before being included in the Talmud. If this statement was not necessary for us, as well as for other generations, it would not have been included in the Talmud.

The three statements made were:

1. Not using the synagogue as a short cut

2. Not interfering with students' study

3. Not bestowing the blessing on the Jewish people with out first reciting a blessing to G-d.

It is well known from the writings of the Jewish mystics, that there are three basic areas in which man's service to G-d exists. These are known as

1. between man and G-d,

2. between man and man, and

3. between man and his own self.

Each of these three statements relates to one of these spheres of service. The first, not using the synagogue as a short cut relates to that area between man and G-d. The synagogue was a place set aside for devotion and prayer. It was not used as a study hall and it was prohibited to eat, drink, and sleep therein. It's purpose (unlike the synagogue of today) was to permit a worshipper a place of sanctity and quiet to meditate and pray in a manner that would enable the person to be able to achieve a closeness to G-d. Any action that would disturb a worshipper was prohibited. However to use it as a shortcut when no one was in it, who would that bother? And since we see that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua would not use it as a short cut, indicates that others did, and that it was not forbidden.

The answer is simply that it would not bother anyone. Yet Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua would not use it as a shortcut because since the synagogue was a place that was set aside for communicating with G-d, and therefore it possessed an inherent sanctity. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua's spiritual sensitivity was so in tune that he would not even go into a place that was set aside to draw G-d's presence into it.

The second action, that he refrained from walking in the study hall when the students were seated, is also of that vein. This falls in to the category of between man and his fellow man. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua would not enter the study hall if the lesson had started since he did not want to disturb the students from their concentration on the lesson. Yet, had he entered, he certainly would have been justified. Staying outside during the lesson constituted a loss for him! Yet he was willing to chance losing the lesson himself rather than cause others to lose that part of the concentration that was needed to properly understand the lesson. This showed his spiritual sensitivities towards his fellow man.

The third is more difficult to understand. There are three types of blessings that we make: one is on enjoying food, one is prior to performing mitzvoth (divine commandments) such as prior to putting on Talit (prayer shawl) or sitting in a Succa, and one type is to give praise to G-d, such as saying Hallel, a prayer of praise.

But we do not make a blessing prior to making a blessing. As an example, we do not make a blessing to acknowledge that we are making a blessing on a meal that has been eaten with bread. Why? Because the blessing on the meal which the Torah proscribes is enough. We do not make a blessing on a blessing.

Here, the priestly blessing is mandated by the Torah, that the descendants of Aaron should bless the people. During this time period many people were against reciting this blessing before the actual priestly blessing. Yet Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua always made the blessing. Why? Because it was easy to feel that the blessing for the Jewish people was coming from the Kohain. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua realized that this was not true. The Kohain was merely an intermediate, a channel to bring the divine blessing down to the people. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua did not want to take any credit for this blessing. By making a short blessing prior to the priestly blessing, he would be reminding himself that the blessing is not from him but from G-d.

This was the between man and himself. Even in this category Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was a spiritually sensitive individual.

This then, is the lesson for us. Spiritual sensitivity is advised by the Talmud as a means of long life. Where as it may appear as a possible loss in some instances, yet in the long run, it pays solid dividends to the doer.


from the June 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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