Jews and Idols

man praying at KoselQuestion #1: May I pray while they meditate?

Yankel is in an overseas airport and would like to know:

“May I daven in the ‘meditation room’?”

Question #2: Idol art

“May one enter a house of idol worship to enjoy the artwork?”

Question #3: Converted church

“May we purchase for our shul an abandoned building that once was a church?”

Answer:

Parshas Re’eih includes several mitzvos that involve idol worship. In addition, when Pharoah asked Moshe to pray to end the plague of Hail, Moshe responded that he would pray as soon as he left the city. Rashi, quoting the Mechilta, notes that he could not pray in the city, because it was full of idols. Thus, we see that one should not pray in a place containing idols. The other questions above also relate to the halachic requirement to distance ourselves from idols and idolatrous practice. (As always, the purpose of this article is not to render halachic decisions, but to familiarize our readership with the background of the issues. We direct each reader to his own rav or posek to answer specific shaylos.)

In a similar context, the Gemara (Shabbos 127b) records that when Rabbi Yehoshua needed to speak to a Roman, he removed his tefillin (which he wore all day) before entering the house, so as not to expose the tefillin to the tumah of the idols that an upper class Roman would have.

Meditation room

Let us begin our discussion by explaining the first of our opening questions. Yankel is traveling on business, and his itinerary allows him to daven in the airport, between flights. However, the bustle of his fellow travelers makes it difficult to find a place where he can daven with any sort of kavanah. There is a “meditation room” in the airport, where he can find a quiet corner, but this room is probably used by idol worshippers for their prayers. May he daven there?

We can actually find a precedent for Yankel’s predicament in a responsum penned approximately six hundred years ago, by the great posek, Rav Yisroel Isserlin, who authored the Terumas Hadeshen (#6). His case is fairly similar to Yankel’s – despite the fact that none of the airports he used sported meditation rooms. The Terumas Hadeshen’s question concerns a traveler who needs to daven mincha. Our traveler sees that his two best options are:

(1) To go to a field that is alongside the road and pray there.

(2) To wait until he reaches the nearest inn, which will be one owned and operated by gentiles, and pray there.

Praying in an open field

The Gemara frowns strongly on someone who prays in an open area (Brachos 34b, Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 90:5). Thus, the Terumas Hadeshen suggests that perhaps it is better to wait until he arrives at the inn and pray there. On the other hand, he notes that praying in a non-Jewish inn, even should he find a quiet corner, involves its own halachic challenges, since the inn will =undoubtably be filled with idols and graven images. The Terumas Hadeshen quotes both the Mechilta and the Gemara mentioned above as proofs that one should not pray in a place containing religious icons. Therefore, the better choice is for our traveler to pray in an empty field, if he can find a place where he will not be distracted. However, if there is no place to daven outside without risking being bothered, he should wait until he arrives at the inn, hoping that he’ll find an undisturbed corner in which to daven.

Thus, we see that the Terumas Hadeshen understands that Moshe left the city to daven because he had an alternative place – but it is permitted to pray in a city containing idols, when there is no alternative.

Based on this Terumas Hadeshen, we should be able to answer Yankel’s inquiry. If there is no better place in the airport where he can daven undisturbed, it would seem that he may use the meditation room. Of course, I suggest that our readers refer this question to their own rabbonim and poskim.

Enjoying the artwork

At this point, let us discuss the next question raised above:

“May one enter a house of idol worship to enjoy the artwork?”

I found that this exact question was asked of two recent halachic authorities, Rav Eliezer Yehudah Valdenberg (Shu’t Tzitz Eliezer 14:91) and Rav Ovadyah Yosef (Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 4:45). Both of these authorities prohibit entering a church as part of a tour, to enjoy the artwork, or to study history. Let us examine the sources on which this prohibition is based.

The Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 1:4) states: It is permitted to be outside a city that contains avodah zarah. If there is avodah zarah outside it, inside the city is permitted.

The Mishnah implies that one may not be inside a city that “contains avodah zarah.” The question is: What is meant by the clause, a city that contains avodah zarah? This is the subject of a dispute among the early authorities. Most rishonim (e.g., Rashi, Avodah Zarah 11b; Raavad, to Hilchos Avodah Zarah 9:9) explain that the Mishnah is prohibiting entering a city on a day that there is a big festival in honor of a deity. One may not visit the city that day, because people may think that he is entering the city in order to buy or sell from those observing a holiday. This is prohibited, because his financial dealing with the idolaters may cause them to thank their god for the commerce that was provided, which means that the Jew caused a gentile to worship idols. According to this approach, one may enter a city that contains idols when no festival is being celebrated.

However, the Rambam understands the Mishnah differently, prohibiting entering any city that contains idols. To quote him:

You should be aware that it is prohibited to travel intentionally through any city in which there is a temple of avodah zarah, and it is certainly prohibited to dwell in such a city. However, we are under their control and we live in their lands against our will… if this is the law regarding the city, it is certainly so regarding the temple building itself. It is almost prohibited for us to see it, and, certainly, we may not enter it (Rambam, Commentary to Mishnayos, Avodah Zarah 1:4). The Rambam rules the same in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 9:9), stating that one may not enter a city that contains an idol.

How do we rule?

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 149:1) rules according to the majority opinion, meaning that it is prohibited to enter a city containing a building intended for idol worship only on a day when there is a festival. The Shach, however, appears to disagree, quoting the Rambam’s opinion as normative halachah. The accepted practice follows the Shulchan Aruch.

However, the Shulchan Aruch is permitting entering only a city that contains an idol. All authorities prohibit entering the house of worship itself. This is based on a passage of Gemara (Shabbos 116a) that states that if someone is being pursued by either a person or a snake that is trying to kill him, he may enter a house of idol worship. Obviously, it is prohibited to enter such a building for any other reason (Shu’t HaRosh 19:17; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 157:3).

Abizraya de’avodah zarah

Thus, the halachic conclusion is that one may not enter a house of idol worship, except when it is a life-threatening emergency. There is an element of halachic novelty to this ruling. Usually, any prohibition associated with avodah zarah, even benefiting from idols, is prohibited under all circumstances, even to the extent that one is required to give up one’s life not to violate it, yeihareg =velo= yaavor. Clearly, although it is prohibited to enter a house of idol worship, it is not included to the extent that it is yeihareg velo yaavor. (The intrepid reader is referred to Shu’t Divrei Yatziv [#74 in the addenda], by the late Klausenberger Rebbe, who discusses why, indeed, the law is not yeihareg velo yaavor.)

We should note that there are authorities who rule that one may not enter a house of idol worship, even to save one’s life (Bach, end of Yoreh Deah 157, quoting Rashba). These poskim, indeed, consider this prohibition to be yeihareg velo yaavor.

Collecting your debt

An early authority, the Sefer Chassidim (Rav Yehudah Hachassid, early 13th century Germany), shared with us the following story, which bears out the same ruling: A priest owed a Jew a lot of money, and he knew that the Jew would not follow him into a church. Whenever the Jew went to collect the debt, the priest went into a church to avoid paying his debt. A different person who was owed money had entered a church to collect the debt, and now, feeling guilty about it, asked a posek how he should do teshuvah for his sin of entering the church. He was answered that on that date every year (the yahrzeit), he should fast, as atonement for the sin (Sefer Chassidim #435). Thus, we see how seriously Rav Yehudah Hachassid viewed the prohibition of entering a church.

In a similar, much later, ruling, the Maharash Engel (responsum #83) prohibited a Jewish carpenter from installing windows in a church (quoted by Shu’t Tzitz Eliezer 14:91). As noted by Rav Ovadyah Yosef, this should be applied to any Jewish workman – such contract work is off-limits. In the above-referenced responsum, Rav Ovadyah speaks very strongly about how severe a prohibition it is to enter a church.

(Most early authorities conclude that Christianity qualifies as avodah zarah in halachah; see, for example, Rambam, Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 9:4 in the uncensored editions.)

Entering the courtyard

May one enter the courtyard of an avodah zarah, as long as one is careful not to enter the building? A corollary of this question is whether a workman may take a job that includes doing outdoor cleaning or repair work on a church.

The Rema (Yoreh Deah 149:2) rules that when the idolatrous worshippers are gathered outside for some religious observance, a Jew may not enter the courtyard, because of the prohibition of maris ayin: people might think that he is intending to join the worshippers.

At times when there is no such gathering, the Rema quotes a dispute as to whether one is permitted to enter the courtyard. When the courtyard leads somewhere else as well, it is permitted, according to all opinions, to traverse it to get somewhere that is permitted. Even so, it is exemplary practice to avoid entering a courtyard that includes a beis avodah zarah, when he has an alternative route that will not add significantly to the trip.

Converted church

At this point, let us discuss our next question above:

“May we purchase for our shul an abandoned building that once was a church?”

This actual question was asked of Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim I #49). A Catholic church had suffered a fire over twenty years before, and the building was subsequently renovated for use as a school. Subsequently, the school building was destroyed, again, and all that remains of the building now is a shell, with no indication of its previous use. May one purchase the property for use as a shul?

As Rav Moshe notes, the background to the shaylah is not new. Let me provide an introduction.

The halachic authorities discuss the following question: A gentile donated wax candles to his church, but they were never used. May these candles be used in a shul? The Chasam Sofer ruled that they may, since they were never used for idolatrous practice (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #42, quoted by Mishnah Berurah 154:44).

What is the law if these candles had been used in the church, and were then sold by the priest? Is a Jew permitted to use these candles? The authorities rule that one is permitted to use the candles for private, non-mitzvah use, but they may not be used in a shul (Shulchan Aruch and Rema, Orach Chayim 154:11). Why is this so?

Although the candles were used for idolatrous purpose, the fact that the priest sold them constitutes this to be an act called bitul, nullifying the prohibition of avodah zarah, which permits using these candles for secular purposes. However, one may still not use them to perform a mitzvah, such as to kindle them in shul, for the Shabbos lights, the Chanukah lights or to enable someone to study Torah (Magen Avraham; Elyah Rabbah 154:15).

By this logic, it would seem that a converted church should not be used for any mitzvah, and certainly not for a shul. This is, indeed, the conclusion of Rav Moshe Feinstein, although he acknowledges that there are those who disagree, as I will now explain.

May one pray in a church?

A prominent, early acharon, Rav Eliyahu Mizrahi, was asked concerning the following: A shul had been used for some sinful activity, and now people were spreading a rumor that one is no longer permitted to daven there. The Mizrahi, as he is usually called, ruled that this was an error in halachah. In his responsum on this topic, he wrote the following: “What they think is in error. According to their mistaken notion, one would never be permitted to pray in the house of any of the Greeks (his way of referring to the Eastern Orthodox Christians, as opposed to the Moslem population where he lived), since they usually have in their homes statues of Jesus and his mother, with a fire burning underneath, and the smoke rises from the fire, which qualifies as straightforward idol worship… Nevertheless, it is permitted for us to rent houses from them and pray in the houses, notwithstanding the fact that we know that they had worshipped idols in the house previously. If this were prohibited, we would be forbidden to pray in the Beis Hamikdash, since the Greeks brought idols inside, prior to the Chanukah miracle (Shu’t Rav Eliyahu Mizrahi #81).

Indeed, why is it permitted to pray inside the Beis Hamikdash after it was made into a house of idol worship? The Magen Avraham (154:17) explains that this is permitted because the building itself was never worshipped. For the same reason, perhaps a church building can be treated more leniently than the leftover wax, which may not be used for a mitzvah, since the wax itself was used for avodah zarah worship.

However, other authorities prohibit using as a shul what was once a church building (Elyah Rabbah), contending that one may pray in such a building only on an occasional basis. Although the Beis Hamikdash was used on a permanent basis, there is a halachic difference between using a building that was originally intended for idol worship, which one may daven in only after it is no longer being used and, even then, only occasionally, and the Beis Hamikdash, which, although used for idolatry, does not lose its kedushah.

A further question is raised on the opinion of the Mizrahi from a Tosafos (Megillah 6a s.v. Teratiyos). The Gemara there states that the Roman teratiyos will become places used for the public teaching of Torah. Tosafos notes that some explained that these were buildings used for idol worship, and that the correct text of the Gemara should be tartachiyos, which means houses of shame. Tosafos, however, rejects this interpretation, explaining that it is prohibited to study Torah in houses used for idol worship. He explains that the word teratiyos to mean theaters, places that the Roman people gathered for social, but not idolatrous, purposes. This Tosafos appears to hold that a building used for idolatry should not be used for kedusha. (Obviously, the Beis Hamikdash is not the same, although Tosafos does not explain why.)

Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, the great German nineteenth-century posek (often called by the title of his magnum opus, the Aruch Laneir, a classical commentary on much of Shas) was also asked a similar question, which is published in his collection of responsa, called Shu’t Binyan Tziyon. Aside from halachic interest, the teshuvah has historical interest, since it is dated 5618 (1858) to a Rav Avraham Asch of New York City, and would be an unusual instance of a pre-civil-war halachic correspondence.

A community requires the acquisition of a building to use as a beis medrash, and they are having difficulty finding an appropriate facility. They have found a building which was originally built as a residence, but was then sold for use as a church. The many years that it was used as a church, the worshippers did not bring any icon inside the building. The building has now been sold, and Rabbi Asch and his congregation would like to purchase this building for their beis medrash/shul.

The Binyan Tziyon notes that, according to the Mizrahi, this is surely permitted. Nevertheless, based on the opinion of Tosafos, the Binyan Tziyon is inclined to prohibit purchasing this building as a shul. However, he rules that if the situation is extenuating, they may use the building for their shul, relying on a combination of several lenient reasons: (1) the opinion of the Mizrahi, (2) the gentiles never brought an icon into the building, and (3) it was not built, originally, to be a church (Shu’t Binyan Tziyon #63).

The Mishnah Berurah writes that the accepted practice is to permit allowing a church building to be converted into a shul, but only when no icon or idol had ever been brought into the building (Biur Halachah s.v. Neiros). If an idol was ever brought into the building, one may not, subsequently, use this building as a shul.

Rav Moshe notes that although the prevalent practice in America was to purchase church properties and renovate them into shullen, he concludes that this is not permitted. However, he does permit this when the building will require a complete renovation, such that its original structure is no longer recognizable. In this instance, he concludes that the newly renovated building has no stigma.

Conclusion

Our belief in Hashem is the most basic of mitzvos. Praiseworthy is he who stays far from idols and their modern substitutes and directs his heart only to Hashem.

*Although this was an actual question, the name has been changed.

 

Cleanliness Is Next to G-dliness, Or This Is the Way We Wash Our Hands

netilas_yadaim_er

Question #1: I know that after clipping my nails, I must wash my hands. What happens if I hear someone recite a bracha before I have a chance to wash my hands? Do I answer Amen to the bracha?

Question #2: At what age should I have my baby wash negel vasser?

Question #3: Must a caterer insist that his non-Jewish employees wash negel vasser before beginning work?

A person must perform a ritual hand-washing after the completion of certain activities, including upon arising in the morning; before eating bread; after shaving, haircutting, clipping one’s nails, and touching private parts of one’s body; exiting the lavatory; scratching one’s scalp; and touching one’s shoes (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 4:18).

However, the procedure for these different washings is not the same. Some situations require washing each hand once, while others require washing each hand three times. In certain instances one is only required to wash the fingers, whereas others require washing the entire hand. Sometimes water is unnecessary so long as I have cleaned my hands, yet others require water. Some hand-washings require a bracha, others do not. Sometimes one may wash by holding one’s hands under the faucet, and sometimes one must pour onto them with a cup.

What are all these washings about? Why are there so many differences among them?

We can categorize the different types of ablution under three general headings:

1. Those that Chazal instituted so that one’s hands should be clean.

2. Those that create kedusha.

3. Those that remove ruach ra, a spiritual contaminant that might have a negative affect on a person if not removed.

As I will explain, sometimes we wash for a combination of these reasons.

1. CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO G-DLINESS

One must wash one’s hands after scratching one’s scalp, combing out lice, or touching dirt, mud, shoes, feet, or any other parts of the body that are either sweaty or usually covered (Shulchan Aruch and commentaries: Orach Chayim 4:18, 92:7; Yoreh Deah 116:4, 5). However, scratching the exposed parts of one’s hands or face is not considered as dirtying one’s hands and does not require ablution (Shulchan Aruch 4:21). The poskim dispute whether one is required to wash one hands after touching ear wax or mucous (Rama, Orach Chayim 92:7, Gra, Mor Uketziya, Shaarei Tshuvah, and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.)

The ablution after performing any of the activities just listed does not require washing three times or pouring the water from a vessel — as a matter of fact one does not even require water – all that is required is to clean one’s hands properly (Magen Avraham 92:5; Machatzis HaShekel 4:17; Chida, quoted by Kaf HaChayim 4:61). This is because our only concern is that the hands become clean, and therefore any method that cleans them is acceptable.

Someone who touched the parts of his body that are sweaty or usually covered, or whose hands are dirty, may not recite a bracha or learn Torah until he cleans his hands (Magen Avraham 227:2). However if he will not be davening or studying Torah, he need not wash his hands as quickly as possible (Mishnah Berurah 4:41). (Concerning some of the other washings mentioned earlier, the halacha is different, as we will see.)

MAYIM ACHARONIM

Another example of an ablution whose purpose is cleanliness is mayim acharonim. Because of certain safety concerns, Chazal instituted the special takanah of mayim acharonim immediately prior to benching. (It should be noted that some poskim rule that one is not required to wash mayim acharonim unless one used salt from the area of Sodom for one’s meal, and that many people follow this approach. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 181:10.)

2. KEDUSHA

A second category of ablutions are those performed to create more kedusha. Before performing any service in the Beis HaMikdash, the Torah requires the cohen to wash his hands and feet in a specially prescribed fashion. Similarly, the cohen washes his hands until his wrists before duchening. These two ablutions are so important that they both supersede the prohibition of washing on Yom Kippur! Thus, the levi pours water on a cohen’s hand until the wrist even on Yom Kippur (and Tisha B’Av afternoon in Eretz Yisroel), even though washing one’s hands past the knuckles is generally prohibited on these days.

Similarly, a cohen was (and will be) required to wash his hands before he ate (and will eat) terumah or the special challah portion. An extension of this concept of kedusha is that every Jew must wash his hands before eating regular bread.

According to some opinions, one is required to wash one’s hands before every prayer (shmoneh esrei) and even to recite a bracha on this washing (Maasei Rav). Although we do not require a bracha, one should still wash one’s hands immediately before davening, preferably by pouring water from a cup (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 233:2).

3. RUACH RA

Several of the washings that we perform are to remove ruach ra, spiritual contaminants that may be harmful if not removed properly. These include:

A. Washing after clipping one’s fingernails or toe nails, or after giving or receiving a haircut (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 4:18, 19 and commentaries).

B. After leaving the lavatory, bathhouse, or mikveh.

C. After contact with a corpse, such as when visiting a cemetery or attending a funeral.

D. Upon awaking in the morning (negel vasser).

In all of these instances, one should try to wash one’s hands as soon as possible (see Magen Avraham 4:18 and Pri Megadim; Eliyah Rabbah 4:12; Kaf HaChayim 4:63) in order to remove the ruach ra without delay. One should be extremely careful not to touch food without first washing away the ruach ra. However, if one did touch food prior to washing, the food is not prohibited (Shu’t Shvus Yaakov 2:105; Artzos HaChayim in Eretz Yehudah 4:30; Darchei Teshuvah 116:35).

There are different types of ruach ra, some more powerful than others, and therefore some activities require pouring water three times on each hand, while others require pouring only once on each hand (Chida, quoted by Kaf HaChayim 4:61). When the ruach ra requires more than one pouring, one should wash one’s hands alternatively to remove the ruach ra (Kaf HaChayim 4:62, Ben Ish Chai Tolados 16). that is, one washes the right hand first, then one’s left, then one’s right, and so on until each hand has been washed three times. Both right and left handed people should follow this procedure (Mishnah Berurah 4:22).

Even in the cases that require three washings, if one has only enough water to wash once he may touch food afterwards with that hand (Artzos HaChayim; Biyur Halacha 4:2 s.v. yedakdeik).

Leaving a bathhouse or mikveh, clipping nails, and giving or receiving a haircut require only one washing (Eliyah Rabbah 4:12). A person who clips someone else’s nails does not need to wash his hands (Kaf HaChayim 4:92). However, the person whose nails were clipped must wash his hands. Therefore, someone who clips a child’s nails should wash the child’s hands if the child is old enough to touch food (Kaf HaChayim 4:92). A barber needs to wash his hands after giving a haircut, since he touches people’s hair (Kaf HaChayim 4:92).

The poskim dispute whether leaving the bathroom requires washing three times or only once (Magen Avraham 7:1; Eliyahu Rabbah 4:12). There is also a dispute whether one is required to wash one’s hands after leaving our modern bathrooms. Some poskim are lenient since our bathrooms are much cleaner than old-time outhouses (Shu’t Zakan Aharon 1:1; Shu’t Eretz Zvi #110, 111; Shu’t Minchas Yitzchok 1:60). Others contend that we should treat our bathroom as a beis hakisei, the outhouse of antiquity (see Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 3:1). Both the Chazon Ish (Orach Chayim 17:4) and Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 1:114) rule that we should treat our bathrooms as a safek (questionable) beis hakisei. The universal practice is to not recite brachos in the bathroom, but some people are lenient to wash their hands there. Rav Moshe rules that one may not wash for bread in our bathrooms, but one may wash his hands there before davening, although one should dry one’s hands outside the bathroom.

According to those who contend that our bathrooms should be treated the same as those of antiquity, one should wash one’s hands after leaving the bathroom even if one entered there only to retrieve something (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 613:2), and even if only one’s hand was inside the bathroom (Kaf HaChayim 4:65).

AFTER CONTACT WITH A MEIS (A CORPSE)

After attending a funeral, one should wash both hands three times in the above-described manner (Machatzis HaShekel 4:17). The custom recorded by early poskim is that one may not enter a building after touching or escorting a meis without first washing netilas yadayim (Rama, Yoreh Deah 376:5). After this ablution, the custom is to turn the cup upside down and put it down rather than hand it to another person (Eliyahu Rabbah 224:7; Chochmas Odom 158:30; Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Comments to Yoreh Deah 376. None of these sources cite a reason for this practice.)

In many places, the custom is to not dry one’s hands after washing after a funeral, although the poskim are uncertain as to the origin or reason for this practice (Kaf HaChayim 4:78). Many poskim rule that someone who was never within four amos (about seven feet) of the meis does not need to wash his hands (Pri Megadim, Aishel Avrohom 4:21; Kaf HaChayim 4:77) The custom is to wash anyway since the earlier poskim do not make this distinction. It also seems that all poskim would agree that being in the same room as the meis requires one to wash his hands three times.

WASHING UPON ARISING

After waking in the morning, one washes for all three reasons:

To be clean: Because a person touches private and sweaty parts of his body while sleeping.

For kedusha: Every morning a person is like a cohen who must wash from the Holy Laver before he begins doing his daily service (Shu’t Rashba #191).

To remove ruach ra: According to the Zohar, (Parshas VaYeisheiv) a ruach tumah descends upon a person while he sleeps that remains on his hands until he washes it off with three rinses.

Before presenting the unique features of this morning washing, usually called negel vasser, I need to explain the halachic differences that result from the different types of washing.

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WASHING TO REMOVE RUACH RA AND WASHING TO REMOVE DIRT?

There are several halachic differences between ruach ra washings and cleanliness washings:

(a) Although one may not recite a bracha, learn Torah, or daven when one is dirty, one may recite a bracha or daven after coming in contact with ruach ra. Therefore the Magen Avraham (227:2) rules that someone who entered a bathroom without using the facilities and without touching usually covered body parts may recite a bracha, even though he should wash his hands as soon as possible because he has been contaminated by the ruach ra of the bathroom. (We mentioned before that some contemporary poskim contend that the modern bathroom does not contain ruach ra.) Similarly, someone who clipped his nails, took a haircut, exited a mikveh, or was in contact with a meis, may recite a bracha even though he or she has not yet washed his or her hands.

(b) Removing ruach ra requires washing specifically with water. It is uncertain whether one can remove ruach ra by dipping one’s hands into water, or whether it is removed only by pouring the water onto one’s hands. Someone who cannot pour water on his hands may immerse his hands into water and then daven, learn Torah or recite brachos (Shulchan Aruch 4:12). Furthermore, someone who has no water to wash after ruach ra should wipe his hands clean in the meantime. However, he should wash his hands at the first available opportunity (Pri Megadim, Aishel Avraham 4:17).

ARE THERE HALACHIC DIFFERENCES BETWEEN WASHING TO INCREASE KEDUSHA AND WASHING TO REMOVE EITHER DIRT OR RUACH RA?

We do not recite a bracha al netilas yadayim when washing one’s hands to remove ruach ra or to remove dirt. This is because washing away ruach ra is a protection, and just as one does not recite a bracha when fastening one’s seatbelt or washing mayim acharonim, so one does not recite a bracha upon removing a dangerous contaminant from one’s hands.

Out of all the numerous times we wash our hands, we recite the bracha of al netilas yadayim in only two cases:

1. Prior to eating bread.

2. When washing our hands in the morning upon arising

WHY DO WE RECITE A BRACHA WHEN WASHING OUR HANDS IN THE MORNING?

As I explained before, washing one’s hand to remove either dirt or ruach ra does not require a bracha. If so, why do we recite a bracha when washing our hands in the morning?

The Rashba (Shu’t #191) explains that a person is considered a new creation every morning and therefore washes his hands like a cohen who washes his hands before performing the daily service in the Beis HaMikdash. According to this reason, someone who stayed awake all night or slept with gloves recites a bracha when he washes his hands in the morning. Furthermore, someone who woke up before halachic daybreak (alos hashachar) should wash again after halachic daybreak since the primary reason to wash is because a new day has begun. However, someone who slept in the daytime should not recite a bracha upon washing his hands when he awakes.

The Rosh (Berachos 9:23) explains a bit differently, contending that before morning davening one washes one’s hands with a bracha since while asleep his hands may have touched the private parts of his body. According to this approach, someone who remained awake all night or slept with gloves does not need to wash his hands in the morning and certainly should not recite a bracha, unless he relieves himself. On the other hand, someone who slept in the daytime should wash his hands with a bracha upon awaking before he davens since he may have touched his body while he slept.

HOW DO WE PASKIN?

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 4:13, 14, 15) concludes that in all of these disputed cases one should wash one’s hands, but not recite a bracha (see also Artzos HaChayim and Biyur Halacha 4:13 s.v. im). Therefore, someone who was awake all night, slept with gloves, slept during the daytime, or woke up early and washed negel vasser, should wash his hands after halachic daybreak (alos hashachar) without a bracha.

According to most poskim, someone who relieved himself before davening recites a bracha al netilas yadayim when he washes, according to both the Rosh and the Rashba, even if he did not sleep all night (Mishnah Berurah 4:30; Biyur Halacha 4:13 s.v. kol). Others contend that one should preferably have someone be motzi him with the bracha al netilas yadayim, since the Ari z”l contends that one recites a bracha on netilas yadayim only if one slept (Rav Moshe Sternbuch, Hilchos Gra Uminhagav, pg. 7).

If no cup is available, one may wash negel vasser without a cup. When one later locates a cup, one should wash again three times using a cup (Shulchan Aruch 4:7). Negel vasser must be poured into a vessel of some type or in some other place where people will not walk (Shulchan Aruch 4:8), because the ruach ra remains on the water (Be’er Heiteiv 4:8). For this reason, one may not receive any benefit from this water (Shulchan Aruch 4:9). Some have the practice not to recite a bracha or learn Torah while facing the negel vasser (Shaarei Teshuvah 4:8).

According to the Zohar, one should be careful to dispose of the water used for negel vasser carefully because it could damage people. This is different from the water used for cleaning, for netilas yadayim before eating a meal, or for mayim acharonim, which may be poured onto the floor. Therefore, when camping one should pour the negel vasser onto a slope or onto earth that will absorb it (Mishnah Berurah 4:21).

Most poskim rule that one does not need to dry one’s hands after washing negel vasser. Therefore, one may recite the bracha before one dries one’s hands. This is different from washing before eating, in which case one is required to dry one’s hands afterward.

A child who might touch food should have his hands washed with negel vasser three times (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 4:7; Mishnah Berurah 4:10). Many wash a child’s hands at a younger age. (Siddur Rav Yaakov Emden and Graz record washing a boy’s hands from when he is eight days old; Ben Ish Chai [Tolados, 1:3] does not mention an exact age.

One does not need to be concerned about a gentile who touches food, since there is no ruach ra on a gentile’s hands (Mishnah Berurah 4:10).

We can now address our original questions:

Question #1: I know that after clipping my nails, I must wash my hands. What happens if I hear someone recite a bracha before I have a chance to wash my hands? Do I answer amen to the bracha?

Answer: The answer is that ruach ra on my hands does not prevent me from reciting a bracha or answering amen.

Question #2: At what age should I have my baby wash negel vasser?

Answer: One should begin washing a child’s hands when he/she is old enough to begin touching food.

Question #3: Must a caterer insist that his non-Jewish employees wash negel vasser before beginning work?

Answer: One need not insist that the non-Jewish employees wash negel vasser since their touching food does not create any ruach ra.

Just as the cohanim washed their hands in the Beis Hamikdash in order to prepare themselves to perform the Divine service, so washing our hands whenever they are dirty, to remove ruach ra, or for kedusha, reminds us that we too are also constantly involved in serving Hashem.

Proper Prayer Rejoinders, or To Brich or not to Brich

Yaakov, a relative newcomer to Yiddishkeit, visited a new community and davened each prayer at a different shul. He noticed that in each shul, the responses to Kaddish were different, which he found surprising. His rabbi explained to him the background.

When hearing Kaddish, we say “Amen” at several places in addition to saying the very important “Amen, y’hei shmei rabba mevorach le’olam ule’almei almaya”. (The poskim dispute whether one should also add “yisbarach to this sentence, the Shulchan Aruch [Orach Chayim 56:3] ruling that one should, and the Gr”a ruling that one should not.) In addition, Ashkenazim respond to the words, shmei dekudsha brich hu, His holy name, blessed is He, by repeating the Chazan’s words brich hu. (Nusach Sefard and Sefardim say Amen at this point.) However, most people do not realize how late this response of brich hu came into practice and also are not familiar with the halachos regarding it; many times one may not recite this response as it constitutes an interruption. The goal of this article is to explain both the historical background of brich hu, and when we should and should not recite it. We will also discuss when to respond to the other responses of the Kaddish.

The Gemara (Brachos 3a; Sotah 49a) mentions Kaddish and lays special emphasis on responding Amen, y’hei shmei rabba mevorach le’olam ule’almei almaya with fervent feeling. The poskim accentuate the importance of not talking while someone is reciting Kaddish. One should pay careful attention to the recital of the Kaddish and know to which praise of Hashem one is responding (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 56:1).

CHRONICLE OF A RESPONSE

What exactly is brich hu?

The words brich hu, are Aramaic for “blessed be He,” and are a repetition of two of the words of the Kaddish just said by the chazzan at that point viyis’halal shmei dekudsha brich hu li’eila min kal birchasa ve’shirasa… da’amiran be’alma ve’imru amen, exalted be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He Who shall be praised… beyond all blessing and song… that are declared in the world. And respond: Amen.

When did responding brich hu become a standard part of davening? Surprising as this may seem, no early poskim mention a custom of responding with just these two words. The custom started about four hundred years ago when it was not unusual to find people responding at this point of Kaddish with a refrain similar to the one we recite. The Taz (Orach Chayim 56:3) reports a practice to accentuate the praise of Hashem by joining the Chazzan at the point when he reaches the words shmei dekudsha, His holy name, by accompanying him when he recites the three words brich hu li’eila, which means that the Congregation recited words that translate as Blessed is He above. The Taz condemns this practice harshly since these three words may imply an unintended blasphemous statement — that Hashem is blessed only above, but not below. Therefore, the Taz rules that one should continue by reciting the subsequent three words, thus resulting in the following praise, brich hu li’eila min kal birchasa, which translates as Blessed is He above all blessing. This clarifies one’s intent and removes any concern about blasphemy. However, contemporary Ashkenazic practice does not recite this elongated response, but instead reduces the response to the two words, brich hu, blessed be He, which also accomplishes praising Hashem with no hint of blasphemy. Some Hassidic circles indeed follow the advice of the Taz and recite brich hu li’eila min kal birchasa.

This explains the origin of the custom to recite brich hu to Kaddish. What we still do not know is when we may not recite it. Explaining these halachos requires some introduction.

BARUCH HU UVARUCH SHEMO

The response brich hu is similar to our response Baruch Hu uvaruch shemo, blessed is He and blessed is His name, which we recite upon hearing Hashem’s name articulated as part of a bracha. The first halachic authority to mention this practice is the Rosh about 800 years ago. The Tur (Orach Chayim 124) states, “I heard from my father [the Rosh] that every time he heard a bracha he would say Baruch Hu uvaruch shemo. He based this practice on the pasuk that states, “When I call Hashem’s name, bring forth greatness to our G-d” (Devorim 32:3), thus upon hearing Hashem’s name, one should add a praise of one’s own. The Rosh added another halachic source for this practice based on the following translation of the pasuk, “Remember a tzadik for blessing” (Mishlei 10:7). This verse teaches that even when mentioning the name of a righteous human being one should bless him; if so, one should certainly bless Hashem when mentioning His name.

Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 124:5) rules that one should respond Baruch Hu uvaruch shemo whenever one hears a bracha. Nevertheless, one may not answer this refrain during birchos keriyas shma or during pesukei dezimra (Magen Avraham 124:9; Mishnah Berurah 124:21). Why not?

WHAT RESPONSES ARE PERMITTED WHILE RECITING THE BIRCHOS KERIYAS SHMA?

The part of davening following Borchu until the shmoneh esrei is called the birchos keriyas shma, because it consists of the brachos established by the Anshei Keneses HaGedolah (the leaders of the Jewish people in the era of Ezra, Mordechai and Esther, during the period prior to and the beginning of the second Beis HaMikdash) before and after reciting Shma. The Mishnah (Brachos 13a) teaches that although usually one may not interrupt these brachos, certain circumstances warrant disrupting them. For example, one may greet an unfamiliar person if one suspects that the person may become angry if one does not welcome him (Bach and Magen Avraham, Orach Chayim 66:2).

However, there is one place during this part of the davening that is so important that one should not interrupt unless it is a life-threatening emergency. This is while saying the pesukim of Shma Yisroel and Baruch shem kovod malchuso li’olam va’ed (Shulchan Aruch 66:1).

==It is not clear cut what the halacha is regarding responses to davening while one is davening. The Rishonim dispute whether one may respond to Borchu, to Kedusha, and Amen yehei shmei rabba to Kaddish during the birchos keriyas shma. The Rosh (Berachos 2:5) disputes with his rebbe, the Maharam Rotenberg, who prohibited this practice. Those who prohibited this practice contended that one may not interrupt the brachos of keriyas shma for the sake of a different praise, such as responding to Kaddish or Kedusha. Those who permitted held that responding appropriately to Hashem’s praises is no worse than responding to the greeting of a person, which is permitted under certain circumstances, as mentioned above.

The poskim conclude that one may answer the following responses while reciting the birchos keriyas shma:

A. “Amen, y’hei shmei rabba mevorach le’olam ule’almei almaya” in Kaddish.

B. “Amen” to the Chazzan’s da’amiran be’alma in Kaddish, but not at the other places in Kaddish (Chayei Odom 20:4).

C. One answers “Boruch Hashem hamevorach la’olam va’ed” to Borchu, whether the Borchu before birchos keriyas shma or the one that precedes an aliyah (Magen Avraham 66:6).

D. “Kodosh kodosh…” and “Boruch kvod Hashem mimkomo” in Kedusha. However one should not respond to the other parts of Kedusha we traditionally say, even the sentence beginning Yimloch (Ateres Zekeinim).

E. “Amen” to the brachos of Ha’Keil Hakadosh and to Shma Koleinu (Rama 66:3).

F. The words “Modim anachnu Loch” recited in response to the Chazan’s saying Modim in the repetition of Shmoneh Esrei (Rabbeinu Yonah, Brachos 7b; Mishna Berurah 66:20).

HALLEL AND MEGILLAH

The Gemara (Brachos 14a) discusses whether the same rules that apply to interrupting the birchos keriyas shma also apply to the full Hallel and recital of the Megillah. The Gemara questions whether the rules governing the birchos keriyas shma should be stricter than those for Hallel and Megillah, since the requirement to recite keriyas shma is min haTorah, whereas the mitzvos of Hallel and Megillah are only rabbinic in origin. Alternatively, the Gemara suggests that since both Hallel and Megillah publicize miraculous events, perhaps the rules of interrupting them should be stricter. The Gemara concludes that we should treat the rules of birchos keriyas shma Hallel and Megillah the same. Thus, all the responses listed above are recited when one is in the middle of Birchos keriyas shma, Hallel, or hearing the Megillah.

The poskim debate whether someone holding in the middle of the birchos keriyas shma may respond amen when he hears someone recite the brachos before or after an aliyah. Magen Avraham (66:6) rules that one should recite Amen to these brachos, whereas the Pri Megadim questions this practice. The Mishna Berurah (66:18) concludes that he may recite amen if he is between two of the brachos, such as he has just completed “Yotzeir HaMeoros” or “HaMaariv Aravim.”

This dispute is based on an interesting story. Someone was once delayed in davening, and was in the middle of the birchos keriyas shma when he was called up to the Torah for an aliyah. May he recite the brachos on the Torah even though it is an interruption in the middle of birchos keriyas shma?

The Sefer HaManhig ruled that he should accept the aliyah and recite the brachos (Tur 66). Not accepting an aliyah when one is called to the Torah is an insult to Hashem’s honor, and certainly Hashem deserves at least as much honor as the honored individual discussed earlier. Therefore reciting the brachos has the same status as greeting a person who deserves honor and may be recited during the birchos keriyas shma. The Magen Avraham apparently holds that answering amen to these brachos has the same halachic status as the Sefer HaManhig’s aliyah case and therefore one should recite this amen even in the middle of birchos keriyas shma. The Pri Megadim disputes with the Magen Avraham feeling that this amen is no different from amen to any other bracha.

However, the Rashba (Shu”t HaRashba 1:185) disagrees with the Sefer HaManhig’s conclusion, ruling that someone in the middle of this part of davening who is called to the Torah should not go up, but someone else should take his aliyah instead (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 66). The Shulchan Aruch (66:4) follows the latter opinion, whereas most other opinions rule that he should take the aliyah and recite the brachos, but be careful not to interrupt in any other way (Magen Avraham 66:8).

A THUNDERING BRACHA

The poskim also dispute whether he may recite the bracha on thunder while in the middle of birchos keriyas shma. Magen Avraham 66:5 rules that one should, whereas the Bechor Shor (Brachos 13a) disagrees, contending that one should interrupt one praise of Hashem, the Shma, with another, the bracha on thunder. The Chayei Odom reaches a compromise, ruling that one should recite the bracha if he is between the brachos of keriyas shma, but not in the middle of a bracha. This last dispute remains unresolved (Mishna Berurah 66:19). Thus, if someone hears thunder while reciting Hallel or the birchos keriyas shma, or reading or hearing the Megillah, it is his choice whether to recite the bracha or not. He might want to ask his posek in advance what to do.

Although usually one should recite the bracha Asher Yatzar immediately after washing one’s hands when leaving the lavatory (see Shulchan Aruch 165:1), one should not recite it during birchos keriyas shma but should postpone its recital until after Shmoneh Esrei (Mishna Berurah 66:23). The same policy should follow during Hallel or Megillah; he should wait to recite Asher Yatzar until after Hallel and Megillah and their concluding brachos are completed.

The poskim dispute whether one may recite amen to a different bracha that one hears when he is between two brachos of birchos keriyas shma. Some contend that he may recite amen after hearing any bracha, since he is currently between brachos (Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 66:7). Others contend that he may only recite amen to the bracha that he just recited, such as he heard the end of the bracha from the chazzan or from a different individual (Chayei Odom 20:4).

TALIS AND TEFILLIN

What if someone did not have talis and tefillin available before davening, and they become available during birchos keriyas shma? May he recite a bracha prior to donning them or does the bracha qualify as a hefsek during the brachos?

The Rishonim debate this issue. Rashi’s rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak the son of Rabbi Yehudah indeed recited the bracha before donning both his talis and his tefillin, and brought proof to his actions from the Gemara (Brachos 14b):

The great Amora Rav once began reciting keriyas shma and its brachos without having tefillin. Immediately after he completed Shma, his messenger brought him the tefillin, so Rav immediately donned the tefillin prior to reciting Shmoneh Esrei, and presumably recited the bracha before putting on the tefillin even though he was in the middle of the birchos keriyas shma.

Similarly, Rabbi Yitzchak the son of Rabbi Yehudah reasoned that in a similar situation when he first received talis and tefillin immediately before Shmoneh Esrei he reasoned that he should recite the bracha before donning either one. Tosafos (ad loc.) however disagrees with Rabbi Yitzchak the son of Rabbi Yehudah, reasoning that one is required to wear tefillin while davening and therefore donning them is a requirement of the tefillah. As such the bracha before also is not an interruption. However, one is not required to wear a talis during davening, and therefore the bracha before donning it should not preempt the laws of hefsek.

How do we conclude?

The Shulchan Aruch (66:2) rules like Rabbi Yitzchak the son of Rabbi Yehudah that he should recite both the bracha on the talis and the bracha on the tefillin; this is the practice of the Sefardim. The Rama rules like Tosafos that he should only recite the bracha on the tefillin but not on the talis.

WHAT RESPONSES ARE PERMITTED DURING PESUKEI DEZIMRA?

The Anshei Keneses HaGedolah established that one should recite daily praises written by Dovid HaMelech at the beginning of davening (Zohar, Parshas Terumah). We introduce these passages of praise, Pesukei Dezimra, with the bracha of Baruch She’amar and conclude them with the bracha of Yishtabach. The bracha of Yishtabach does not begin with a bracha begins it is linked directly to the bracha of Baruch She’amar. Because these two brachos are linked, one may not interrupt between the two brachos for anything that is not part of the davening. For this reason, it is strictly forbidden to talk during the Pesukei Dezimra (Tosafos, Brachos 46a s.v. kol; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 51:4). Similarly, it is forbidden to answer Baruch Hu uvaruch shemo during this part of davening (Magen Avraham 124:9; Mishna Berurah 124:21). Although it is appropriate to praise Hashem this way when His name is mentioned, one does not interrupt praising Him to do so.

Some poskim contend that interrupting Pesukei Dezimra is halachically equivalent to interrupting the birchos keriyas shma; according to this opinion, one who hears a bracha from someone else during Pesukei Dezimra may not answer Amen to the bracha (Mishkenos Yaakov #68). Other poskim contend that one may answer Amen to any bracha while in the middle of Pesukei Dezimra, and even while in the middle of the bracha of Baruch She’amar (Magen Avraham 51:3). The consensus is that although it is clearly forbidden to talk during the Pesukei Dezimra, answering Amen to any bracha is permitted. Furthermore if someone needs to recite Asher Yatzar, or to recite the bracha on thunder or lightning, one may do so during Pesukei Dezimra and one may certainly answer the responses listed above in Kaddish, Borchu and Kedusha during this part of davening (Mishna Berurah 51:8. Nevertheless, Chayei Odom [20:3] rules that one should not recite Asher Yatzar until after Shmoneh Esrei.). However, reciting brich hu during Pesukei Dezimra is similar to reciting Baruch Hu uvaruch shemo and constitutes an interruption during Pesukei Dezimra. Thus, although many people are unaware of this halacha, someone in the middle of Pesukei Dezimra when the chazzan begins reciting Kaddish may not answer brich hu to the Kaddish or to the amen at the beginning of Kaddish. On the other hand, although he should answer Amen, y’hei shmei rabba mevorach le’olam ule’almei almaya and the amen at da’amiran be’alma. He may answer amen to the bracha of Yishtabach.

AFTER YISHTABACH

One may not interrupt between completing Yishtabach and beginning the next part of the tefillah (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 51:4), although if one needs to recite a bracha it is better to do so after completing Yishtabach before answering (or saying) Borchu then during the Pesukei Dezimra. For this reason, if someone did not have tzitzis or tefillin available before davening, and they become available during davening (or if he must begin davening when it is too early to recite a bracha on them) he should put them on immediately after Yishtabach and then recite the brachos on them. Better to recite these brachos between Yishtabach and Borchu (or the beginning of the next bracha) then to do so afterwards.

WHEN MAY ONE NOT SAY BRICH HU

We have seen that although it is a mitzvah to recite baruch hu uvaruch shemo upon hearing Hashem’s name said as part of a bracha, one may only say it in a place where one may interrupt. One may not say these words when one is in the middle of Pesukei Dezimra and certainly not once he has begun the brachos after Borchu. Brich hu, which is of later origin, should be treated the same way. Therefore, one may not recite this refrain when one is in the middle of Pesukei Dezimra or in the middle of birchos keriyas shma. Thus someone who is lagging behind the tzibur and has not yet completed Yishtabach when the Chazan begins the Kaddish should answer Amen Yehei Shma Rabba..., and the amen at the completion of the Kaddish, but should not recite “Brich hu.” In addition, since the Amen at the end of “shmei rabba” (and in Nusach Sfard after “meshichei”) is only custom, he should not recite these either while in the middle of Pesukei Dezimra and certainly not while in the middle of the birchos keriyas shma.

APPRECIATING KADDISH

For the many years Reb Zalman Estolin spent as a slave laborer in Soviet Siberia, he obviously had no minyan, nor any opportunity to answer Amen, y’hei shmei rabba. Upon his redemption from the Soviet Union, he moved to Eretz Yisroel as an old, ill man. The very first morning in Eretz Yisroel, he arose early to walk to shul on his crutches, full with the excitement that he would be davening with a minyan for the first time in decades!

Two hours after davening should have been over, Reb Zalman had not yet returned to his host’s home. The concerned family sent someone to look for the older man, and discovered him sitting in the shul. When asked why he was still there, Reb Zalman answered, “When my minyan ended, another began. And then another. I just could not bear to miss the opportunity to recite Amen, y’hei shmei rabba one more time.” (Just One Word by Esther Stern.)

We should always be zocheh to recite Amen, y’hei shmei rabba with this type of enthusiasm!

Pesukei Dezimra: Fulfilling Hashem’s Only Desire

Ron Goldstein, who is seeking to find his way into observant Judaism, is having a casual conversation with Yosel Schwartz, an Orthodox accountant who often invites him over often for Shabbos. As usual, Ron is peppering Yosel with questions:

“Recently, I began praying daily, and I have even begun to attend synagogue occasionally. I have many questions regarding both the prayers and the practices I see there.”

Of course, Yosel is more than happy to answer Ron’s questions.

“I would really appreciate it if you could provide me with background to some of the prayers. I see that there is a lot of structure and that various sections of the prayer are very dissimilar from one another. Some parts are consecutive blessings, others include extensive Biblical passages; some are praises, others are straightforward supplications. I have been told that the two most important parts of the morning and evening prayers are the Shma and the Shemoneh Esrei, and I have been reciting these parts for a few months now. But at this point I would like to understand some more about some of the other parts of our prayer. Could you help me?”

“Certainly; where would you like to start?”

“I am really curious to know more about the Psalms we read towards the beginning of the prayers. Psalms are really inspiring. But I also know that the Book of Psalms is fairly large. Why do we always recite the same ones every day; why not just read consecutive passages each day as an introduction to the prayer? This would familiarize people with the whole beautiful book.”

It is interesting that Ron noticed the beauty of the Psalms David Hamelech bequeathed to the Jewish people. Indeed, it seems that David Hamelech was aware of the tremendous responsibility Hashem placed upon him to provide a link between Man and Hashem. This is evidenced in the following verse: “For an eternal covenant He placed in me” (Shmuel II 23:5). Although most commentaries explaing that this verse refers to the eternity of his royal dynasty, which will soon return with Moshiach, it certainly also alludes to David’s unique role as the Psalmist of mankind.

Tehillim Each and Every Day, makes Certain we do not Stray

Yosel points out to Ron that the Psalms have indeed been organized into daily readings that enable one to complete them every week or month. Ron sounds interested in making this a regular practice, certainly a laudatory observance. Yosel points out that the purpose in reciting parts of Tehillim during davening is not to create familiarity with the entire book, but something else altogether. In Yosel’s own words:

“To answer your question, I need to provide you with some background to this part of the prayer, which is called Pesukei Dezimra, Verses of Song. Two Talmudic references provide the earliest basis for this part of our daily prayer.  One source teaches that reciting Psalm 145 every day guarantees one a share in olam haba, the World to Come (Berachos 4b).” (Yosel is aware that an alternate reading [girsa] of this Gemaraattributes the reward to someone who recites this psalm three times every day. This is why we recite Ashrei, which includes this Chapter of Tehillim, three times a day, twice in Shacharis and once during Mincha.Yosel did not want to sidetrack the conversation with this information.)

Hashem Provides for All, even those without Wherewithal.

“What is unique about this Psalm that its recital merits such a special reward?” Ron inquired.

“The Gemara explains that this Psalm includes the verse beginning with the words Posayach es yodecha, which praises G-d who opens His hands to provide for all creatures. One must make sure to recite this verse with much focus (Tur, Orach Chayim 51), as we thereby internalize the fact that Hashem supervises over all his creatures and provides all their needs.

“In addition, the alphabetical acrostic of this Psalm demonstrates that King David intended that it be easily memorized and utilized by all of mankind (Rav Hirsch, Tehillim 25:1).

“The verses of this chapter that follow Posayach es yodecha also include many basic tenets of Judaism. They note that Hashem’s deeds are also justified; and that He is close to all who seek him truthfully, fulfills their desires, and protects them. It is critical to recite these passages with full focus on their significance. One who recites the verse Posayach es yodecha without thinking about its meaning is required to read it again, since he has missed the message of the passage. Some authorities conclude that if he completed the Psalm, he should repeat from the words Posayach es yodecha to the end of the Psalm (Mishnah Berurah 51:16).”

Begin the Day with G-d’s Praise, so that we Merit the Sun’s Rays

Ron replied: “This is really a nice, meaningful passage, and it certainly sets the tone for devotion and interacting with G-d, which is one of the beauties of Judaism. However, according to my references, this is only one Psalm among several others that we read.”

Yosel continues his explanation: “True. In another Talmudic passage, the great scholar, Rabbi Yosi, mentions his yearning to receive the special reward granted to those who recite the Pesukei Dezimra daily (Shabbos 118b). Also, reciting these praises with the proper awareness guarantees that our subsequent prayer will be accepted (Abudraham).

“The early authorites dispute how many Psalms Rabbi Yosi included in his Pesukei Dezimra. While Rashi mentions only Psalm 148 and Psalm 150 (presumably in addition to 145), the Rambam includes all of the last six Psalms of Tehillim as the kernel of Pesukei Dezimra. Accepted halachah follows the Rambam (Tur, Orach Chayim 51), and therefore we recite all six Psalms, but in extenuating circumstances we follow Rashi’s opinion. For example, someone with insufficient time to recite the entire Pesukei Dezimra with the tremendous focus it deserves and still be ready to begin the Shemoneh Esrei together with the congregation may omit the three extra Psalms that the Rambam includes and rely on Rashi’s opinion. We actually rule that one may delete even more sections of Pesukei Dezimra to enable one to begin the Shemoneh Esrei together with the congregation.”

Together we shall Pray, and then look Forward to a Wonderful Day!

“Why is it so important to begin the prayer together with everyone else?”

“Unfortunately but realistically, we sometimes do not focus when we recite our prayers. In reality, prayers recited without proper thought should accomplish nothing and may even be harmful. Imagine someone who has the opportunity for an audience with a human king and arrives late, out of breath, and distracted. If his conversation is unfocused, he will probably be thrown into a dungeon for his disrespect! How much more so when talking to the King of kings!

“When our prayers fall short of what they should be, we deserve to have them rejected. There is one consolation, however. When a community prays together, G-d always accepts their prayers (Gemara Berachos 8a).”

Concentrate on Ashrei, and we will Focus while we Pray

“I now understand why Ashrei is an important prayer,” said Ron, “But I see in my Siddur that besides Psalm 145, that the Ashrei prayer also includes three other verses from Psalms, two before Psalm 145 and one after.”

“I see you’ve been paying a lot of attention to the prayers.”

“The Siddur I use notes the Biblical source of every prayer, so it does not really involve a lot of paying attention. Praying the way you are describing does require a lot of concentration. But I am eager to try. After all, for many years G-d meant little in my life – now that I understand how important He is to me, I am trying to pray daily with meaning. I truly enjoy these six Psalms because each one emphasizes a different aspect of G-d’s magnamity. But could you explain why we begin with the verse Ashrei, which is ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere in the book?”

“The Halachah recommends spending some time in quiet meditation prior to praying (Berachos 30b). This makes it easier to focus on the essence of prayer and what we are trying to accomplish.The source cited for this law is the verse Ashrei, usually translated as ‘Happy is he who dwells in Your house; he will continually be able to praise You.’ I would note that Rabbi Hirsch, a great Nineteenth Century scholar, explains the word Ashrei a bit differently. According to his explanation, the verse means: ‘He who dwells in Your house is constantly striving forward in his life; providing his life with more meaning.’ Either interpretation emphasizes the importance of not racing into our prayer, but spending time meditating over the smallness of man and the greatness of G-d before we approach Him with our daily requests.

Pesukei Dezimra Every Day and one’s Concerns will go away.

“My own experience is that involving oneself in Pesukei Dezimra not only helps one daven the entire tefilah on a completely different level, but also rouses one’s sense of bitachon. In David Hamelech’s own words “The G-d of Yisroel told me… the righteous will rule over man, he will prevail through his fear of Hashem” (Shmuel II 23:3).

“In modern Hebrew, bitachon means security or defense; and bituach means insurance. Both of these uses cloud the issue:

Yisrael Betach BaHashem, the Jewish people can trust only in Hashem. Only through arousing our sense of Hashem’s power and providence can we possibly find any comfort. In the words of the Chovos HaLevavos, ‘He who does not trust in Hashem, places his trust in something else.’”

“I certainly identify with this, perhaps more so, since I am so familiar with the way people live ‘out there.’ I find these Psalms extremely powerful.”

Baruch She’amar – A Song of Desire

Ron is ready with his next question: “I notice that while the Pesukei Dezimra contains only Biblical quotes, my Siddur notes no Biblical quotes in the introductory passage.”

“Because these passages are so important and comprise their own special mitzvah of praising G-d, we introduce and conclude with special blessings, just as we recite blessings before and after eating, and before performing mitzvos. The introductory prayer, which begins with the words Baruch She’amar, begins by blessing G-d ‘who said and made,’ a quality unique to Hashem. He both says and performs, whereas all else in the world either orders or acts (Avudraham). Baruch She’amar includes hints to all of Creation by alluding to the Ten Statements with which Hashem made the world. To quote the Tur (Orach Chayim 51): ‘One must recite Baruch She’amar with song and sweetness because it is a beautiful and desirous song.

The concluding blessing of Pesukei Dezimra begins with the word Yishtabach. In order to avoid any interruption between these berachos, one may not interrupt from the time one recites Baruch She’amar until the end of davening (Shulchan Aruch 51:4). The Medrash reports that when the verse speaks of someone ‘who is afraid because he has sinned’ it refers to a person who spoke during Pesukei Dezimra.”

Singing David’s Song will keep us from Steering Wrong

Ron notes that while Baruch She’amar states that we use the songs of David, Your servant, to praise Hashem, not all the verses in Pesukei Dezimra come from Psalms.

“Although a few passages in Pesukei Dezimra are from other authors, the vast majority were written by King David. Even the two sections taken from Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles) are actually quotes of King David that appear in those books.

“Among the notable exceptions is the very end of Pesukei Dezimra where we recite Az Yashir, the Song that the Jewish people sang after miraculously crossing the Red Sea. This epic is considered the song of praise of the Jewish people and therefore merits its special place in the daily Pesukei Dezimra. It is singled out as such a special praise, that halacha requires one to sing  it daily as if one personally  experienced this miraculous manifestation of G-d’s presence.

“Notwithstanding all its wondrous virtues, there is still somehalachic controversy whether it should be recited as part of Pesukei Dezimra or not.”

“How so?”

“The Rambam, perhaps the greatest scholar of the last thousand years, mentions the recital of Az Yashir after Yishtabach, not before. Apparently, since King David did not author Az Yashir, the Rambam feels that it should not be included between the two blessings; only passages that are authored by King David should be included. I am personally unaware of any community that currently follows this practice.”

Hodu – Before Baruch She’amar or After?

Ron is ready with his next question: “I have noticed that some congregations begin Pesukei Dezimra with Baruch She’amar, while others begin with a different passage. What is the rationale behind these two different approaches?”

“King David taught this song to be sung on the day that Aron, which held the Ten Commandments, was brought to the City of David, in the city of Jerusalem (Divrei Hayamim I 16). Later they were sung to accompany the daily offerings in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, until the Beis Hamikdash was built (Seder Olam, Chapter 14). Thus, they are praises that are directly associated with the offerings of the Jewish people and at the same time they are beautiful praises that reflect on the early history of the Jewish nation.

The question is whether we should recite them as part of the regular Pesukei Dezimra, albeit it placing them closer to the part of the prayer when we discuss the offerings, or whether they are said as a sequel to korbanos and prior to Pesukei Dezimra. Ashkenazic practice follows the first approach and Sefardic the latter – two old customs, both cited by early authoritative sources (Tur).”

Pesukei Dezimra: Fulfilling Hashem’s Only Desire

“Could you sum up in a few words what we have learned today?”

“Rather than my words, I will cite a great early scholar, the Ramban: ‘All that Hashem desires from this world are that man should thank Him for creating him, focus on His praise when he prays, and that the community pray together with concentration: Mankind should gather together and thank the Lord who created them, broadcasting: We are your creations!’” (Ramban, Shemos 13:16).

To this Ron replied : “You just mentioned that the community should recite the praises together. In my visits to different synagogues, I have noticed that in the Sefardic community the entire congregation recites these prayers in unison. In many other synagogues, someone begins and ends each passage aloud so that everyone can read from the same place. It seems from your description that this is the proper way one should recite these prayers.

“However, in some shuls that I frequent the prayers seem far more chaotic. Although these shuls are, thank G-d, very crowded and well attended, people arrive at different times and each person starts praying by himself. No one leads the services until after Pesukei Dezimra is complete, and they are certainly not said in unison. I must admit that I do not find this part of the services very attractive. It certainly does not fit the beautiful description you just gave me.”

Yosel shifted uncomfortably, realizing that Ron is absolutely correct. “It is embarrassing to admit that we are not doing what we should be,” he began. “Your criticism is extremely well founded. Would you be willing to come with me and speak to the Rabbi of our congregation about the problem? I admit that the problem has bothered me for a while, but I have not had the gumption to do anything about it. Perhaps you can help me?”

Ron realized that he had turned the tables. He had come as an outsider sharing something that bothered him. He had expected to receive an answer that he would not foresee; similar to Yosel’s other brilliant answers. He did not expect to be the person Yosel would appeal to for help in what appeared to be some type of crusade. But Yosel’s face indicated that he was sincere in his request. Not knowing the rabbi, Ron was uncertain what to expect, but at the meeting hefound the rabbi more than accomodating.

“I have wanted to introduce this in the shul for a long time,” the rabbi said after listening to their complaint. “The old minhag in all communities always included someone leading the services from the very beginning of Berachos. Why and when this practice changed is not for our discussion now, but I would like your help in changing the practice in our shul.”

In Conclusion, the Congregation’s Resolution

Ron became a very active member of the shul, although his attire initially looked fairly dissimilar from most other members. His input as an “outsider” was happily accepted. And as Ron morphed into Reuvein and learned how to use the Hebrew Siddur fluently, his unflagging enthusiasm for Pesukei Dezimra spurred major change not only in himself and in his good friend Yosel, but also to Congregation Bnei Torah. Ultimately, his enthusiasm and initiative spiritually permeated the entire world.