Today’s daf takes up the discussion of a person’s ideal position when praying. At baseline, the text teaches that one should pray facing east toward Jerusalem, where the Temple once stood. But what if a person can’t determine the cardinal positions? What if they are already in Jerusalem? Or east of Jerusalem as opposed to west?
The text paints a map and then draws a conclusion:
One standing in prayer in the east turns to face west, and one standing in the west, turns to face east. One standing in the south, turns to face north, and one standing in the north, turns to face south; all of the people of Israel find themselves focusing their hearts toward one place, the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
Rabbi Abin (and some say Rabbi Avina) then asks: What text confirms this? As is often the case, the rabbis seek a biblical verse to ground their claims in scripture. A verse from Song of Songs is brought as a prooftext: “Your neck is like the tower of David built with turrets (talpiyyot)” (Song of Songs 4:4).
At face value, this verse has no connection to the question being asked. The trick lies in the deconstruction of the word talpiyot (תלפיות). The Talmud explains: “The elevation (tel or תל) towards which all mouths (piyyot or פיות) turn.”
The Tower of David referred to a military installation, but Rabbi Abin wants to use the verse as a prooftext for why Jews should turn their hearts toward the same sacred place when they pray. So he engages in some word play, breaking the word talpiyyot into two smaller words: tel piyyot, an elevation of mouths, a hill of language.
Through his scriptural re-reading, Rabbi Abin trades weaponry for prayer. Prayer is not force, not the amassing of weapons to form a tower in a castle. Rather, prayer is our collective turning toward a higher source, and every Jew in the Diaspora was charged by the Talmud to take part in this unified act.
Such feats of exegetical gymnastics are central to the way the rabbis interpreted Torah. Verses are twisted, bent and flipped over, creating wild new meanings and making the Torah infinitely flexible, its language accommodating vast new possibilities. Reframing and even subverting scriptural authority in this manner enabled the rabbis to chart a way forward after the destruction of the Temple, enabling the Jewish people to survive within the foreign empires ruling over them.
Abin wasn’t interested in promoting a culture of militarism, but rather in forging a new paradigm that affirmed the goal of rabbinic Judaism: to create autonomous Jewish communities, sparked by the power of ideas and language.
Read all of Berakhot 30 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 2, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.