Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is Gd my concierge?

I have often wondered about our Mi sheBeirach l'cholim, the prayer we recite for people who are ill. Why do we mention specific people?

We enumerate the names of רחמנא ליצלן relatives, friends, people whose condition is made known to us via email, etc. And then, we add a catch-all בתוך שאר חולי ישראל, asking Gd to heal them along with all of the others who need healing. So why do we first enumerate “our own” people?

The question becomes particularly relevant when shuls try to figure out a way to handle their ever-growing lists of people who are ill. The lists grow, the lines up to the bimah grow, the crowd gets restless... so some shuls tell people to say the names privately while the gabbai pauses, others ask for names to be submitted in advance, and so on – but why name names at all?

We find a similar idea in the gemara at the end of Taanit, in which shifts of pray-ers (אנשי מעמד) prayed on different days for specific groups of people, such as sailors. Why not pray for everyone?

For that matter, why enumerate our requests in the amidah – why not just ask Gd to provide us with everything we want/need? (And if one will say we don't know what's best for us, the prayers we do recite do not avoid that problem!)

One might suggest that the point is for the davener – we concentrate more intensely when we think about the needs of a specific person, or about our own spelled-out desires.

But the other day I saw a comment by Tosafot (Bava Metzia 106a “l'nisa”) presenting a different view. Tosafot said that Gd is more likely to respond to a farmer who says, “Please help my wheat grow well” than to a farmer who says, “Please help everything I do.”

Regarding the general request he says דבסתמא לא היה מקבל הקב"ה תפלתו של זה שיצליח כל מה שיזרע אם לא שיעשה לו נס, but regarding a specific request he is willing to apply ותגזר אומר ויקם לך.

From the language of Tosafot, it seems to me that there is an issue of being too demanding, too taking-it-for-a-given, too mechutzaf, too treating Gd as a concierge at our beck and call. To say “Take care of all of this” is to display a cavalier attitude toward the help we are getting. Better to be specific, to note all of the specific ways in which Gd helps us.

In a sense, it's the converse of Dayyenu. Just as thanks must be specific, highlighting each element of assistance, so the request itself should show respect for the favors we are receiving.

Just a thought.


  1. There's much to talk out here but I don't type well so just a few thoughts for starters

    1.iirc btoch shaar is formulated so as to be asking for others as well - with the implication that this will help our specific request

    2.better imho question is why do people (unless they are kabbalists) think mumbling a name makes a difference (vs. doing acts of kindness etc.)

    3. There's also the theory that asking for specifics should at least be modified by a general request (e.g. I'd really like XXX to happen but if in your omniscience you know this is not best for me, I'll go with your judgement)

    Joel Rich

  2. Your Friend Who You Never Speak ToAugust 12, 2009 at 11:57 AM

    Ha. I was just thinking about this exact question and that tosfos is a good mareh makom. As far as your mi shebeirach question though- the answer is that it's stupid and getting out of hand. I have one simple criterion. I only daven for a specific person if I am in a position to know whether they got better or died. I refuse to pray for someone when I know that I could be saying their name for months or even years after the end. Email has made a mockery of the whole thing.

  3. Your question reminds me of a Rashi in Parshat Chukat (21:1) which I never understood.

    The parsha talks about the war against the Kananites, but Rashi says that they were Amalekites dressed as Kananites so that Am Yisrael would daven for victory against the wrong people and our Tfilla would be rejected.
    (Rashi says that we outsmarted them by offering a generic prayer without mentioning the name of the enemy)

    Is that really how Tfilla works - if you are praying for someone who is sick (for example), and get the name wong by mistake than the Tfilla will automatically be rejected?

    And based on the "solution", it looks like the moste effective prrayer would eb a generic prayer (similar to "Please help me with everything and cure all sick people)

    As I aid I never understood this Rashi.

  4. It is an interesting relationship that we have with G-d. Schizophrenic at times.

  5. Joel-
    1. I'm not sure that fits in b'toch sh'ar; when we daven for others by name, we are already "asking for others." Cf Berachos 5b on הוא נענה תחילה.
    3. As I see it, the לטובה idea is not about being more general, it's about recognizing that we don't really know what's best for us.

    YFWYNST (Moshe?)-
    You are cold-blooded.

    I also never understood it, and I don't think my post helps much in that regard.

    Only "at times"?