In Light of Obligation

Halacha is law; the obligated Jewish life. To live without halacha is impossible. To live with it is risky— from a lecture by Rabbi David Hartman.

When halachic man looks to the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the first light of dawn and the glowing rays of the rising sun, he knows that this sunset or sunrise imposes on him anew obligations and commandments—Halachic Man, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

For Rabbi Soloveitchik’s halachic man, it is the renewed cycle of prayer obligations that makes evening and morning skies glorious. Neither clouds nor storms, neither blindness nor imprisonment can dull the radiance of the halachic sunset and sunrise. Halacha—law, fixed procedure—is beauty captured in obligations to the correct hour and to the precise word. Such prayer, as glorious as it can be, carries an inner tension:  If one’s prayer is fixed, that prayer is not supplication, said Rabbi Eliezer.

The light of obligation casts shadows. The life of halachic prayer can be risky.

Is there a way for prayer to be fixed and faithful while also being fluid and flexible? Rabbi Hiya bar Abba, quoting Rabbi Yohanan, said:  If one does not pray in the dimdumei hamah—at the late afternoon and early morning time—then that person’s prayer has become a fixed prayer.

What is the power of the dimdumei hamah such that they keep prayers from becoming fixed? The Hebrew dimdum carries shades of red/dam, of silence/d’mamah, of stillness/dom, and of imagining/domeh.

Prayer fixed in the shifting light remains supple, said the Babylonian sages. Shade the words with red, shape them from silence, speak them in stillness, and steep them in imagination; then prayer can become more than its words.

In the land of Israel they were not willing to risk waiting for late afternoon light:  One must not pray at the times of dimdumei hamah! Why? Because one might miss the hour. Wait for just the right light and one might wait too long.

Yet, it might be worth the risk in order to realize prayer in its best light. Supple prayer is living matter that responds to the arc of the sun. According to one tradition, each patriarch blossomed into prayer at a different moment of the day’s shifting light. Jacob responded to the evening. Abraham was the morning glory. Isaac’s prayer flourished in the afternoon, as the day made its turn towards evening. Temple ritual—evening, morning, and noon—shared the instincts of the patriarchs.

One’s prayer is only fixed, said Rabbi Ya’akov bar Iddi, if one imagines the prayer to be a burden. Prayer that carries the lives of patriarchs and priests is no burden. It is lighter than the weight of its words. Fixed is not in the language, but in the inflection. When word and world conspire, routine is not rote.

The prayer of halachic man need not be rote. But obligation can obscure animation. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman certainly knew halachic obligation. But, in addition, he taught that one must voice the uncertainties and hopes illumined and shaded by the changes of the day:

In the evening, one should say:  May it be your will to bring me forth from darkness to light. In the morning, one should say:  I am grateful to you that you have brought me from darkness to light. In the afternoon, one should say:  May it be your will that just as I have merited seeing the sun in its rising, so may I merit seeing it set.

Pray in light of obligation. But don’t forget the light.

(Click here for Midrash and here for Talmud resources)

This entry was posted in Midrash, Poetry, Prayer, Talmud. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In Light of Obligation

  1. Dan Alexander says:

    A prose poem if ever I read one! Such an artful way to enter into an ancient conversation about routine and spontaneity, real issues for one who seeking a non-arid but patterned religious life.

  2. Merle feld says:

    Very nice – thank you Steve. Wishing you a sweet and rich new year.


  3. BL Litwack says:

    I do love the references to all Lights according to time.

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