Relics for the Present is a collection of thought-provoking mini-essays that explore the parameters and depths of prayer. Using Tractate Berakhot as the foundational text, Rabbi Cooper utilizes a unique combination of Talmudic wisdom, rabbinical commentary and Hassidic lore, transforming ancient teachings into inspiring vignettes for everyday life. Relics can be used to understand the meaning of the liturgical text, the prayer experience as a whole, or as a page-by-page companion to Tractate Berakhot.
The second half of Tractate Berakhot is presented in Relics for the Present Vol. II . The second volume contains the following excerpt from today’s daf: 58.
Berakhot 58a – Blessing of the Masses
The Talmud records the appropriate blessing to be recited upon seeing a multitude of Jews: “Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, the sage of secrets” (B. Berakhot 58a). This benediction gives expression to the Almighty’s knowledge of the secret thoughts of every single individual in the crowd despite each person’s individuality. Our sages say that just as their faces are different to each other, so too their thoughts are different to each other.
The Talmud defines a multitude of Jews as an assembly of at least 600,000 people. The commentators explain that the number 600,000 represents all possible types of people. Despite the diversity of people’s minds, thoughts, opinions, and personalities, the Almighty knows the secrets of them all. When we see such a throng of people it is appropriate to recall God’s infinite awareness. That is the thrust of the mandated benediction (Ramban).
Other commentators offer a different explanation for the blessing. The presence of so many people ensures that cumulatively there will be great brainpower present. Yet there are still some ideas that are beyond the human ken; concepts and views to which only the Almighty is privy. The blessing over the multitude was instituted in recognition of God’s unlimited capability and knowledge as opposed to the finite capabilities of humans and their limited knowledge (Meiri).
The Talmud reports how one sage, Ben Zoma, was situated on a step of the Temple Mount. From this vantage point he could see crowds of people ascending to Jerusalem for the thrice-yearly festival pilgrimage. When confronted with this sight, he dutifully recited the required blessing over a multitude. Ben Zoma was then moved to say an additional blessing: “Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, Who created all these to serve me.” The Talmud goes on to explain the reasoning behind this additional blessing. It is a variation of an idea that Ben Zoma was wont to say: “How much effort did Adam, the first human, exert before he had bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he gathered stalks, he threshed the stalks, he winnowed the chaff from the grain, he separated the waste from the grain, he ground the grain into flour, he sifted the flour, he kneaded the flour into dough, and he baked it. After all that, he ate the bread. But as for me,” – said Ben Zoma – “I wake up in the morning and I find all this already prepared before me.”
Ben Zoma continued: “How much effort did Adam exert before he had clothing to wear! He sheared the wool, he cleaned it, he disentangled it, he spun it into threads, and he wove the threads. After all that, he had a garment to wear. But as for me, I wake up in the morning and I find all this already prepared for me.”
“Indeed,” concluded Ben Zoma, “All tradespeople diligently come to the entrance of my home, and I wake up in the morning and find them all before me.”
Let us return to Ben Zoma’s startling blessing: “Who created all these to serve me.” While Ben Zoma may have been a prominent sage, it hardly behooves him to suggest that he is the centre of the world. Moreover, the Talmud describes Ben Zoma as someone with Mosaic qualities, to the extent that like Moses he deserved to have the Divine Presence rest upon him. The only reason Ben Zoma did not actually have such a connection with the Almighty was that the generation in which he lived was undeserving (B. Sanhedrin 11a). Moses is described in the Bible as the most humble human being alive (Numbers 12:3). This makes comparing the apparently haughty Ben Zoma to the humble Moses all the more bizarre!
Despite his seemingly nondescript name, Ben Zoma – meaning the son of Zoma – and his lack of rabbinic title, he is described as someone who was totally devoted to the service of the Almighty. Ben Zoma was so staunch in his commitment to God and Torah study that he was never able to commit to marriage (B. Kiddushin 49b; Rashi). His scholarly accomplishments were lauded by his colleagues. Ben Zoma was recognised as one who had intimate knowledge of the esoteric Torah (Bereshit Rabba 2:4). He was also one of the four sages who entered the mystical realm known as Pardes (B. Hagiga 14b).
Seeking to understand Ben Zoma’s declaration, the commentators grapple with the image of an accomplished and respected sage suggesting that the whole world was created for his own personal benefit.
The most popular explanation suggests that his words should be read as an expression of appreciation, not haughtiness. Moreover, Ben Zoma acknowledged that leaders are only as good as their followers. As mentioned, the reason he did not reach the spiritual heights that Moses had attained was because the generation was undeserving. Seeing the masses stream to the Temple, Ben Zoma nonetheless recognised that his achievements were thanks to the people.
In a similar vein, one contemporary commentator, Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel, suggests that Ben Zoma’s declaration should not be read as showing conceit. Rather, Ben Zoma’s words should be understood as an expression of appreciation for the contributions of the people to his life. Rabbi Tzuriel expands on the importance of acknowledging what others have done for us, going so far as to call this trait a fundamental of Judaism. Ben Zoma, according to Rabbi Tzuriel, was a positive example of someone who thanked others for their part in his life.
Thus when Ben Zoma saw masses of people and recited the appropriate benediction over a multitude, he added an extra blessing acknowledging how so many people contributed to his own survival, well-being, and achievements. Instead of focusing on what he did not achieve, Ben Zoma unreservedly acknowledged the contribution of those around him to what he did achieve, and he publicly expressed gratitude for their efforts.
Often we are quick to blame others for our failures. Ben Zoma reminds us that we should be more conscientious in crediting others for our achievements.
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