Talmud pages

Taanit 25

The origins of Avinu Malkeinu.

Today’s daf continues to present incredible stories about times that people prayed to God to intercede and prevent a disaster — and what happened. Why does God choose to avert some tragedies and not others? Why does God seem more willing to answer some people and not others? The rabbis have no single answer, no grand theory that explains or predicts exactly what will happen. Instead they present stories, many stories, that offer different perspectives.

In fact, there is a story on today’s page in which the sages themselves don’t even understand exactly why one prayer was answered while another was not. It also happens to be a story that explains the origins of one of the most iconic prayers of the High Holidays.

There was another incident involving Rabbi Eliezer, who descended to serve as prayer leader before the ark on a fast day. And he recited 24 blessings, but he was not answered. 

Rabbi Akiva descended before the ark after him and said: Avinu Malkeinu — our Father, our King — we have no king other than you. Our Father, our King, for your sake, have mercy on us. And rain immediately fell.

As the sages were whispering, a bat kol (divine voice) emerged and said: It is not because this one is greater than that one, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. 

If you have ever stood in a synagogue on the High Holy Days (or perhaps listened to Barbra Streisand’s classic rendition or this cult favorite interpretation by Phish) Rabbi Akiva’s words likely sound familiar to you. Avinu Malkeinu is one of the iconic prayers of the season of atonement. Avinu Malkeinu (our parent, our sovereign), we cry out, asking for a good year, for forgiveness, to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life

In our story, God’s response was immediate. The rain began to fall. Notice that the rabbis themselves did not know why this was. When Rabbi Akiva’s prayer was answered, the assembled sages began to murmur among themselves in surprise. Why, they wondered, did God answer Rabbi Akiva, but not Rabbi Eliezer? Is he wiser? More pious? Did he say more blessings? (It was seem not! Rabbi Eliezer offered 24 to Akiva’s 1!) Initially, they did not know why Rabbi Eliezer’s prayers failed. But thanks to the bat kol, the heavenly voice, they (and we) come to understand: Rabbi Akiva was answered because he was the most forgiving. It is clear that God is responding not to the words themselves, but to the character, and behavior, of the person speaking them.

How Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer prayed in that moment of crisis, it seems, did not matter at all. God’s decision to answer Rabbi Akiva was based entirely on his behavior outside of prayer. Rabbi Akiva was not answered because he was the most learned, or the most pious. He was answered because he was the most forgiving. God was less concerned about how these supplicants approached the divine than about how they interacted with other humans. In the end, that is how their merit was measured. What God most wants is that we treat one another well.

These words worked out for Rabbi Akiva, and so have become an indelible part of Jewish liturgy. We use Rabbi Akiva’s words to this day every year when we pray Avinu Malkeinu. But when we offer these words on the High Holy Days, we close with this plea: Avinu Malkeinu! Favor us and answer us for we have no accomplishments; deal with us charitably and kindly and deliver us. We recognize that we may not deserve forgiveness, and we say this to God, but we are asking for it anyway, and we are counting on divine kindness and mercy to come through.

Read all of Taanit 25 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 7th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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