Berakhot 34

Praying with just enough humility.

The theme of today’s daf is humility in prayer. It might seem like a no-brainer that when standing before God we should adopt a humble disposition, but today the rabbis explore the limits of that humility.

For example: The mishnah tells us that when a person leading prayers makes a mistake, it’s obligatory to jump in and correct them. Such a situation, says the commentator Rashi, is not a time for humility. Once a prayer starts, it has to be finished — and finished correctly.

That said, the sages also caution against excessive eagerness when it comes to leading the congregation. The Gemara says that when someone is asked to lead a prayer, they should first decline. If they are asked again, they should move back and forth like a flickering wick, as if they are about to get up. Only if they are asked a third time should they rise from their place and lead the congregation.

Though the script for our prayers has largely been written for us, these examples show that our conduct in prayer is also significant. A leader who doesn’t approach the task with humility is not the right person for the job, even if the words come out in the most beautiful way. Similarly, the leader must say the words properly — and if they don’t, one shouldn’t be shy about correcting them.

The idea of humility is explored further in a discussion about how often we should bow in our Amidah, an element of choreography which signals our submission. The sages tell us that for most people it should be done only in two places: during the opening blessing that invokes the Jewish patriarchs, and during the later blessing of thanksgiving (the one that begins with the Hebrew word modim). And that in fact is the common practice today.

But the Talmud also offers this teaching:

It is appropriate for a High Priest to bow at the end of each and every blessing; and for a king to bow at the beginning of each and every blessing and at the end of each and every blessing.

The higher a person’s status, the more reminders they need that they are only human. So for priests and especially kings, some extra bowing is helpful.

Read all of Berakhot 34 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 6, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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