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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty-four

This week we have an unusual verse, in that Samuel ha-catan quotes Proverbs 24:17-18 verbatim, so I am using the King James Version rather than any of my usual translations:

Samuel the Small said: Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see [it], and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

Here is a story about Samuel ha-catan: Rabban Gamliel needed seven sages to convene a Bet Din to declare a Leap Year. When he arrived in the meeting house, there were not seven but eight sages! Rabban Gamliel asked who had invited himself in excess of requirements, and Samuel rose, excusing himself for attending, but explaining that he was present only as a student, to learn the appropriate procedures. The Rabbis explain that this was a prevarication, actually, as Samuel wanted to make sure that no other present would be embarrassed and asked to leave. It is Samuel’s humility that got him his name, this story explains, although of course more likely it was just to distinguish him from some older Samuel with a similar patronymic. At any rate: humility, and not only refraining from schadenfreude but working to avoid letting your rivals stumble or fall.

On the other hand, another story about Samuel ha-catan: when the Amidah, the central prayer of the liturgy, came to be set down in its final form, Samuel ha-catan was in the committee who made the decisions. These decisions were, for the most part, defining the eighteen benedictions and placing them in order. One of the names for the prayer is the sh’monah esrei, the eighteen. There are actually, in the traditional liturgy, nineteen benedictions: the eighteen and another, negative benediction, the benediction against the heretics. This calls for the enemies of the Jews to be “cut off”, struck down and humbled: Blessed are you, Master of the Universe, who breaks enemies and humbles sinners. This blessing (called the birkat ha-minim) was written by Samuel ha-catan himself. Note, by the way, that the language is the same as our verse: enemies are oy’vim, so there’s no distinction there (although there is some distinction between stumbling, falling, breaking and cutting down, of course).

So, while Samuel ha-catan is known for quoting Proverbs about not enjoying the downfall of enemies, he is also known for writing and codifying the liturgy praising the Divine for the downfall of enemies. What do we learn from this? The sages tell us that only Samuel ha-catan could be trusted to write this blessing, as we could be sure he was not writing from anger or desire for revenge. Just as we spill wine from our cups at the seder to acknowledge that our celebration holds within it mourning over the deaths of the Pharaoh’s army—necessary but still losses, we recite the birkat ha-minim with the reminder from its author that we are (Proverbially) enjoined against glee at its fulfillment.

If we do recite it. The Reform prayerbook at Congregation Beth Bolshoi leaves it out, as do (I think) the Reconstructionist prayerbooks. I don’t remember if it is in the Conservative siddur these days; I should take a look. Anyway, there is precedent for leaving it out, which is, yes, a third story about Samuel ha-catan: a year or so after the Amidah had been finalized, Samuel ha-catan was called on to lead the prayers. He did so beautifully, it is reported, with one exception: he could not remember the birkat ha-minim. Think about why the Rabbis tell that story.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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