Study of Ritual – Study as Ritual
We do not study Torah primarily to find out what God wants us to do, and we certainly do not study our sacred texts to learn history, or medicine. The act of Talmud Torah, the studying of Torah, is itself a mitzvah, a command. As with many commandments (eating matzah, putting on tefillin, etc), there is a berakhah, a blessing, that precedes the act. In Siddur Sim Shalom: A Prayerbook for Shabbat, Festivals, and Weekdays (4), we find three linked blessings about Torah. The third of these is the familiar blessing recited by those called for an aliyah to the public reading of the Torah. The first of the series is in the normal formula, “Asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav, vetzivanu . . . ” (God has made us holy with commandments, and has commanded us . . . ), but the conclusion that we might expect (“ . . . to study Torah”) is absent; instead, we find the expression “ . . . la’asok bedivrei Torah”(“ . . . to occupy ourselves with matters of Torah”). The Hebrew verb is precisely the verb used for describing the way in which we earn a living in the world, our professions and crafts. This blessing invites us to see engagement with Torah as a profession, a craft, no less than anything else that occupies our lives.
The second of the three blessings (“Ve-ha’arev na”) begins with an unusual request; usually blessings of petition ask for things that can be touched and observed, such as successful harvests, good health, peace in the world, etc. This blessing ends with praising God as “the One Who teaches Torah to the People Israel,” but it begins with an experiential request. It does not ask that we should all be “A” students, mastering a full page of Talmud each day—and a couple of irregular verbs a well. It asks, instead, that we find the words of Torah to be “lovely in our mouths and in the mouths of our children.” We do not pray for successful learning, we pray for delightful learning.
This blessing lasts all day; we do not generally need to say the blessings again each time we turn to study Torah. The blessing is followed by a ritualized act of study (5) as we read the words of the Priestly Blessing from the book of Numbers and a short passage from the Mishnah and Gemara, affirming the radical view that rabbinic texts are Torah no less than words from the Five Books of the Written Torah. Even if we know these excerpts by heart, they are still repeated each day. The growing familiarity with these short passages engages us in a ritual of study; reflecting on these texts and on the words of the siddur guides us on the journey from ritual study to study as ritual. (Next week we will look at the more extensive selections on sacrifice, hermeneutics, and righteous deeds.)
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at email@example.com.