Sotah 39

Holy choreography.

Today’s daf offers us a set of rules for communal prayer and Torah reading. These rules are about what we are meant to say, but also how and when we are meant to listen. Let’s start with the rules for public Torah reading:

Rava bar Rav Huna says: Once a Torah scroll has been opened, it is prohibited to converse, even about a matter of halakhah. As it is stated: “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood up” (Nehemiah 8:5), and standing is nothing other than silence, as it is stated: “And shall I wait, because they do not speak, because they stand still, and answer no more?” (Job 32:16)

Rava bar Rav Huna proves that we are forbidden to speak while the Torah scroll is open by connecting a verse from Nehemiah that shows the people standing when the Torah is recited with a verse from Job, in which standing is paired with silence. So is the point just to be respectfully silent?

Rabbi Zeira said that Rav Hisda said: We learn it from here: “And the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law” (Nehemiah 8:3).

This second opinion insists that, in fact, silence isn’t enough. You also have to pay attention to the Torah reading. Attention, as we will see, is a key theme on today’s daf.

From here, the Talmud shifts to describing the ritual choreography of the priestly blessing in communal prayer. First recited in the Temple, today the priestly blessing is recited by those descended from the priestly class toward the end of the Amidah, between Modim, the blessing of thanksgiving, and Sim Shalom, the blessing for peace. In the diaspora, the priestly blessing is recited only on major holidays. In Israel, it is usually recited weekly on Shabbat. And in Jerusalem, to this day, it is recited daily. 

Again, Rabbi Zeira says in the name of Rav Hisda:

The one who calls (the priests forward) is not permitted to call out for the priests until amen (to the blessing of thanksgiving) concludes from the mouths of the congregation. And the priests are not permitted to begin the benediction until the statement of the caller concludes from his mouth. And the congregation is not permitted to answer amen until the blessing concludes from the mouths of the priests. And the priests are not permitted to begin another blessing until amen concludes from the mouths of the congregation.

Each part of the prayer must be completely concluded before the next part is started. I called these rules ritual choreography, because they are just like a dance. Each party has to be aware of the other, and responsive to where they are in prayer. Each move deserves the full time it takes to do it correctly. And to truly know where you are in the dance, you have to pay attention. And what attention you have to pay! The priests need to make sure that the congregation — as a whole — has responded amen to their first blessing before they can continue! 

Many people think of prayer as “talking to God.” But the teachings on today’s daf remind us that, for the rabbis, the ideal form of prayer was actually communal talking to God. And while it was important to pay attention to the meaning of the words and one’s intentions in saying them, it was also important to pay attention to the community within which one prayed. To speak isn’t enough, one also has to truly listen.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 7, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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