We seek not revenge, but fulfilment of His Will
How many brachos are in the Shemoneh Esreh? According to our tefillah’s namesake, the answer is clearly 18. However, a quick tally reveals that there are in fact 19 brachos. What is this extra brachah and why was it not included in the original calculation of 18?
Chazal instituted a precise number of brachos for the Shemoneh Esreh. The Gemara (Berachos 28b) teaches that the 18 brachos of the tefillah correspond to the 18 spinal vertebrae that provide us with physical stature and stability. Rav Chaim Friedlander explains that just as our 18 vertebrae are our physical supports, the 18 brachos of the Shemoneh Esreh provide our spiritual scaffolding; they address every one of our myriad needs, funneling them upward to Hashem. The correlation between the two takes on greater meaning when we bow during the Shemoneh Esreh and assume a posture that flexes every single one of the 18 vertebrae, demonstrating complete physical subjugation to and dependence on Him.
Clearly, if the number of brachos in our tefillah was deliberately selected, there must have been an unusually compelling reason for the addition of a 19th brachah. The 19th brachah is called “Bircas Haminim,” the brachah of the apostates, and is also referred to as “V’lamalshinim,” the informers. The Gemara (ibid.) teaches: “The brachah of the minin was established in Yavneh… to what is this brachah analogous? To the smallest of vertebrae of the spinal column.”
Presumably, even if there was a convincing reason to add this brachah, Chazal only allowed an addition that had a common precedent, a supernal connection, with the other 18 that are compared to the vertebrae.
What was the impetus for the brachah’s inclusion?
Yavneh, a city in Eretz Yisrael, hosted the Sanhedrin in the post-Churban era. Rabban Gamliel, the nasi at the time, determined the imperative to add a brachah against Tzedukim (Sadducees), the shameless deniers of Torah shebe’al peh. “In the days of Rabban Gamliel, the deniers within Yisrael multiplied and caused harm to Yisrael, enticing them to turn away from Hashem…” (Rambam, hilchos tefillah 2:1). According to Rabbeinu Manoach, this occurred when Yeshu and his followers rose to prominence, suggesting they were the primary catalysts for this brachah. In both instances, renegade factions in Klal Yisrael crusaded against traditional Torah observance and interfered in Jewish political affairs.
A Rare Individual
Whether as a plea for the downfall of the Tzedukim, or for the demise of other antagonists, Chazal recognized the essentiality of this brachah. But who could be tasked with crafting an addition to the Shemoneh Esreh, the holy 18? Of particular consideration was purity of motive, as this was a supplication pitted against a prominent group within Klal Yisrael themselves. The brachah’s author had to guarantee his intentions were wholly for Hashem and His honor, absent of any personal vendetta. Who would assume this sacred duty?
“Shmuel Hakatan ascended and instituted [the brachah]” (Berachos 28a). Who was Shmuel Hakatan, the small one, and why was he worthy of this task?
Pirkei Avos (4:19) teaches: “Shmuel Hakatan says, ‘Do not celebrate the downfall of your enemies, let your heart not rejoice in their stumbling.’ ” Though the instinctive response to our enemy’s demise is joy, Shmuel Hakatan was the rare individual who rose above base impulse and demanded of himself more. The humility articulated by his name, “the small one,” and evident in the saying attributed to him, is underscored by the fact that this saying was not his own, he was simply quoting a pasuk in Mishlei. The Bartenura explains that this pasuk was Shmuel Hakatan’s constant companion, he regularly exhorted his contemporaries to follow its dictum.
Indeed, this was the person worthy of adding the brachah “V’lamalshinim” to the Shemoneh Esreh. Only Shmuel Hakatan, whose allegiance to kevod Shamayim and abhorrence of any personal stake in our enemy’s downfall could undertake this responsibility. His utter lack of ego and total absent self-interest ensured the brachah would be crafted with requisite holiness and purity.
Imagine if we could adopt a modicum of Shmuel Hakatan’s approach when dealing with our adversaries, particularly in matters of the spirit!
V’lamalshinim opens with the letter vav, a conjunction joining our brachah to the previous one. The previous brachah expressed yearning for the return of our true judges and leaders who will reinstate the Torah’s jurisdiction. As a direct consequence of their reinstatement, malshinim will cease to exist.
The connection between the two brachos highlights a central aspect of V’lamalshinim: We ask Hashem to destroy the malshinim so His Will can be done, not in order to exact revenge on our foes. The reinstatement of Torah is the goal, the malshinim are an impediment, therefore we ask that they be removed. This aligns precisely with the persona and pristine motives of Shmuel Hakatan, the brachah’s author.
We see this theme repeated in the continuation of the brachah, “V’chol harisha k’rega toveid — and all evil will immediately vanish.” We ask that evil, not evildoers, disappear. This sentiment is supported in the Gemara (Berachos 10b). When commenting on the phrase “Yitamu chata’im min ha’aretz — may sins be eradicated from the earth,” the Gemara explains that we ask for sins to be destroyed, as opposed to sinners.
This approach seems to apply uniquely to the malshinim within Klal Yisrael. The continuation of our brachah references “oyvecha,” Your enemies. Here, when we recall the nations of the world who seek our destruction, we have no qualms in asking for their utter destruction — “may they be speedily demolished.” We don’t bother splitting hairs over the doer versus the deed, rather we ask for our enemies demise.
Teshuvah is the Goal
The brachah then pivots back to our internal detractors, the members of Klal Yisrael who seek to harm us. “V'hazeidim,” those who sin intentionally, b’meizid, “se’akeir u’seshabeir u’semageir — may Hashem uproot, shatter, and pulverize them.” Although this seems contradictory to our original intentions of banishing the sin, not the sinner, the continuation of the brachah clarifies this contradiction by explaining the purpose of these destructive actions: “V’sachniyeim — and they will surrender.” Our goal in breaking the adversaries within our own ranks is not to annihilate them, chas v’shalom. Rather, we want to induce them to a state of humility whereby they’re forced to recognize Hashem and repent from their misdeeds.
On a personal note, the insights I gleaned in researching this brachah were a true paradigm shift for me. For decades, I understood this brachah as a legitimate place to ask Hashem for the destruction of those terribly misguided Jews who sought to obliterate Torah and mitzvos. Shmuel Hakatan’s instructive, to avoid rejoicing in the downfall of others, reminds us that there is always a chance for repentance, even for the most extreme sinner. Rather than rejoicing in their downfall, let us channel our emotion toward tefillah that all of Klal Yisrael “sachniyah,” be humbled before Hashem to serve Him wholeheartedly.
Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for nearly 20 years.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 868)
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