The rabbis of the Talmud often quote biblical verses to support their positions. Most of the time, these verses are known to us. But sometimes not.
On today’s daf, the rabbis quote a verse that not only doesn’t speak precisely to the topic at hand, but is also impossible to find in the original. The context is the continuation of a discussion we encountered yesterday about how much intoxication renders a person incapable of properly fulfilling their religious obligations, in the course of which we encounter this teaching:
Rav Hiyya bar Ashi said that Rav said: Anyone whose mind is unsettled should not pray, as it is stated, “When distressed, one should not issue decisions.” Rabbi Hanina, on a day that he was angry, would not pray, as he said that it is written, “When distressed, one should not issue decisions.”
Rav and Rabbi Hanina make the same general point — don’t pray when you are upset — and they cite the same text as proof. But as several commentaries note, there is a bit of a disconnect here: The rabbis teach us to refrain from praying when upset, but the verse is talking about legal decisions. So how does the verse support the teaching?
One way to find the answer is to look up the verse, but that turns out to be a problem too. Here’s what Rashi says:
I checked for this verse and could not find it in the entire Bible, perhaps it is from Ben Sira.
Rashi says the verse might come from Ben Sira, also known as Ecclesiasticus, an extra-biblical work found in a collection known as the Apocrypha. This work was known to the rabbis, some of whom prohibited it because they found its content problematic (see Sanhedrin 100), while others deemed it acceptable. Verses from it are quoted here and there in the Talmud.
But looking up a verse in Ben Sira can be problematic. Although originally written in Hebrew, Ben Sira was preserved throughout the centuries in Greek and Latin, and the Hebrew versions we have today are retranslations of these sources. Which might be why the exact verse as quoted on our daf can’t be found there.
The great 20th century Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz suggests that the verse is Ben Sira 7:10, which in one Hebrew 1798 translation is rendered as follows: “When distressed, do not lengthen your cries for help.” While the language of the verse does not perfectly parallel the quotation in the Talmud, it does fit our context. It’s not hard to see how Rav and Rabbi Hanina could interpret “cry for help” as prayer. So while this might be our closest match, it is not a perfect one.
Some manuscripts of the Talmud resolve this issue by eliminating the quotation entirely, while others introduce it with “as the master stated,” suggesting that the quote comes from a rabbi and not a verse. While this may indicate that the verse was added later, scholars advise us to assume that a text with a difficulty is more likely to be the original while the “corrected” versions were produced by scribes looking to sidestep that difficulty.
So how can we make sense of all of this?
One resolution is presented by the Tosafot, which states that the Talmud sometimes quotes verses in shortened form. This might account for the fact that we couldn’t find the exact verse, but it doesn’t explain the disconnect between prayer and rendering decisions. How does Tosafot explain this? Easy: It would have been better had the Gemara said “don’t pray” instead.
Had it done so, it might have saved us all a little distress.