torah

Hearing words that can define all of His praises

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Our parasha, Eikev, contains a phrase, familiar to many, that is found in the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei: “He is the great (hagadol), mighty (hagibor) and awesome (v’hanorah) G-d.” If this is acceptable, one might think it is permissible to add other descriptions of the Almighty during the recitation of the Shemoneh Esrei.

This approach was undertaken by an anonymous shaliach tzibbur who, to his surprise, was strongly criticized by Rabbi Chanina bar Chama, as recounted in Talmud Bavli, Berachot 33b: “A certain [reader] went down in the presence of Rabbi Chanina and said, ‘G-d, the great, mighty, awesome, powerful, mighty, awe-inspiring, strong, fearless, steadfast and honored.’ When he completed [his prayer] he said to him, “Have you concluded all the praise of your Master? Why do we want all this?”

Rabbi Chanina summarily rejected the shaliach tzibbur’s personal additions, asking him the rhetorical question, “Have you concluded all the praise of your Master? Why do we want all this?”

Moreover, in the continuation of our Talmudic passage, Rabbi Chanina further teaches that even the three praises would not have been included in the Shemoneh Esrei by the Anshei Kenneset HaGadolah “had not Moshe Rabbeinu mentioned them in the Torah.”

The Rambam codified this position of the Gemara: “A person should not be profuse in his mention of adjectives describing G-d, and say: ‘The great, mighty, awesome, powerful, courageous, and strong G-d,’ for it is impossible for man to express the totality of His praises. Instead, one should mention [only] the praises that were mentioned by Moshe, of blessed memory.”

The Rambam’s reasoning as to why one is proscribed from adding new descriptions of Hashem in the Shemoneh Esrei is clear: “For it is impossible for man to express the totality of His praises.” Quite simply, finite man is incapable of properly depicting the majesty and greatness of the Almighty. Therefore, our praises must be limited to the Torah’s own words, no matter how language-adept we may be.

Both Rabbi Chanina’s position and the Rambam’s halachic conclusion were anticipated by Dovid HaMelech in Tehillim 106:2: “Who can speak of the mighty deeds of the L-rd? [Who] can make heard all His praise?” As Rabbeinu Ibn Ezra explains in his commentary on Sefer Tehillim: “[Dovid HaMelech] provides us with the rationale as to why we laud Hashem, even though no one has the ability to [accurately] praise His mighty deeds and make known His true degree of greatness, but rather, only a portion thereof.”

Closer to our own time, the Malbim’s gloss on this verse echoes this interpretation by emphasizing our inability to apprehend Hashem’s essence and the magnitude of His grandeur: “This means we praise Hashem because He is wholly good and His kindness is forever, and not He, Himself [as His essence eludes us], since it is impossible to speak of His mighty deeds m’tzad atzmam (as they are in reality).”

With Hashem’s endless beneficience, may we be zocheh to grow ever closer to Him. May we realize His goodnesss and recognize that His kindness endures, forevermore. V’chane yihi ratzon.

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