Eilu D'varim: A Shiur for Which There is No Shiur

“Eilu D’varim” “on one foot”:

”Eilu D’varim” is a text from the Mishnah about the actions for which there is no maximum prescribed. It it traditionally said at the beginning of weekday morning services.

A Jewish Joke:

Q: A. Lou Devarim walks into a Paskin & Rabbis ice cream shop, looking for the most interesting flavor he can find. What does he get?

A: Talmud Tort Kneggnog Cool-lime

From The Big Book of Jewish Humor, by William Novack and Moshe Waldoks, farbessered by David Schwartz

(א) אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאֵין לָהֶם שִׁעוּר. הַפֵּאָה, וְהַבִּכּוּרִים, וְהָרֵאָיוֹן, וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה.

(1) These are the things that have no limited prescribed: [Leaving] The corners [of the field], [bringing] first-fruits [to the Temple]; [The offerings brought] on appearing [at the Temple on the three pilgrimage festivals], acts of kindness, and the study of the Torah.

Context: This is the very beginning of the Mishnah Peah, the second tractate of the Mishnah after Brachot. Peah refers to the commandment to leave the corners of one's field unharvested so that people living in poverty could gather food in dignity. This text is said at the very beginning of morning services.

What questions does this text raise for you?

(א) אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאֵין לָהֶם שִׁעוּר. הַפֵּאָה, וְהַבִּכּוּרִים, וְהָרֵאָיוֹן, וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה.

אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוֹכֵל פֵּרוֹתֵיהֶן בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לוֹ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם, וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ, וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם:

(1) These are the things that have no limit prescribed: Pe’ah [corner of the field which, while harvesting, must be left for the poor], Bikkurim [First-fruits that must be brought to the Temple and given to the priest], the appearance-sacrifice [brought to the Temple on Pilgrimage Festivals], acts of kindness, and the study of the Torah.

The following are the things for which a person enjoys the fruits in this world while the principal remains for them in the world to come: Honoring one’s father and mother, the performance of acts of kindness, and the making of peace between one person and another; and the study of the Torah is equal to them all.

Context: This is the full text of Mishnah Peah 1:1. Most siddurim only have the first section, because the second part is covered by the next text in the siddur.

1. Why might the first five things not have a limit? What do they all have in common?

2. What do the second set of actions have in common? How is the study of Torah equal to them all?

3. What does this text teach us about what is expected of us? How can we incorporate these values into our deeds?

(ד) אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוכֵל פֵּרותֵיהֶם בָּעולָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לו לָעולָם הַבָּא. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן. כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם. וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. וְהַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית. וְהַכְנָסַת אורְחִים. וּבִקּוּר חולִים. וְהַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה. וּלְוָיַת הַמֵּת. וְעִיּוּן תפילה. וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו. וְתַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם:

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in time to come: honoring parents; acts of kindness; attending the house of study punctually, morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending the dead; concentrating on the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah is equal to them all.

Context: This text is in the very beginning of the morning section of the prayer book. It has been there ever since Rav Amram wrote the first siddur around 865 CE. The text comes after the blessing for studying Torah -- in order for that not to be a "bracha l'vatala", a blessing in vain, siddurim follow it up with a text from the Torah (The Priestly Blessing, from the Book of Numbers), a text from the Mishnah (Peah 1:1, which we've seen), and a text from the Gemara / Talmud, which is the one we're looking at. This text is adapted from Shabbat 127a.

1. What do these two texts have in common?

2. These texts are in the siddur right at the beginning, even before Birkot Hashachar. Why do we say them before anything else, even before putting on our tallis and tefillin (according to Nusach Ashkenaz)?

3. Some translate the last line as "And the study of Torah is most basic to them all". Which is more important - study or action? Why?

4. How is it that certain actions "yield fruit" now and also after you die?

5. What are some actions you could work into your current routine based on these texts from the siddur?

Generation J, by Lisa Schiffman (1999)

I drove over a hundred miles to Elk [California], a tiny, wind-lashed coastal town up north, where the Navarro River serves as the mikvah…. I walked outdoors with the Elk rabbi, Margaret Holub, whose rural congregation had lacked a synagogue until recently. For years her congregants had carefully placed a Torah scroll in the back of a pickup, stuffed prayer shawls under their arms and prayer books under the seats, driven the dirt roads to a different house each Friday night and Saturday morning for worship. The rabbi and I ended up that morning in the middle of a May Day festival. Around us kids screamed their joy, wrapped rainbow ribbons around the long maypole. She told me that community was based in deeds, not in physical structures.

“The Talmud says these are the deeds whose reward is without measure: honoring your father and mother, burying the dead, taking care of the bride, taking care of the sick, welcoming guests, praying, studying. I often think of this as a checklist for what a community needs. A building, a synagogue — this was never the important thing, at least not for us.”

P. 146-147

1. Do you agree with this as the checklist for a community?

2. How does your community measure up?

Unpacking the References

Pe’ah (Leaving Corners)

(כב) וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶ֞ם אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֗ם לֹֽא־תְכַלֶּ֞ה פְּאַ֤ת שָֽׂדְךָ֙ בְּקֻצְרֶ֔ךָ וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִירְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ס)
(22) And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Leviticus, from "the Holiness Code" in Chapter 19. The idea is that by leaving the corners of your field for the poor to gather food for themselves you are allowing them to get food with dignity. The Torah doesn't specify how much of a corner one must/may leave. The rabbis in the Mishnah, Tractate Pe'ah, say that you have to leave at least 1/60th of your field (Pe'ah 1:2). In the Tosephta on Pe'ah 1:1 it is explained that if you make your entire field Peah, then it's not considered Pe'ah.

What would be a modern equivalent of the Pe'ah system?

Why might there not be a maximum given for this?

Bikkurim (First-Fruits)

(יט) רֵאשִׁ֗ית בִּכּוּרֵי֙ אַדְמָ֣תְךָ֔ תָּבִ֕יא בֵּ֖ית יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ לֹֽא־תְבַשֵּׁ֥ל גְּדִ֖י בַּחֲלֵ֥ב אִמּֽוֹ׃ (ס)

(19) The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, in the section of rules right after the giving of the Ten Commandments. Bringing the first fruits (Bikkurim) of your land is an expression of the Big Idea in Judaism of having an attitude of gratitude. Playing off the Cain and Abel story, where Abel's sacrifice was accepted because he offered something good while Cain's was not because he offered something measly, the Torah says that Bikkurim must be "choice" first fruits.

The Torah says in Exodus (our verse) that one should bring first fruits to G-d. The Torah says in Deuteronomy (26:1-11) that one should bring the first fruits and make a formal declaration about how G-d has provided for our ancestors and thus these first fruits are being provided as a form of thanks (according to Maimonides, this inculcates humility - Guide for the Perplexed, 3:39). The Torah also talks about Shavuot being the time to bring the first fruits (Num. 28:26). The mishnah makes sense of all of this by saying that one should bring first fruits with the formal declaration starting on Shavuot and continuing through Sukkot, but that one can bring them all the way until Chanukah without the history statement (Bikkurim 1:6)

As is also pointed out in the tractate of the Mishnah devoted to Bikkurim/First Fruits, there is a specified amount for various tithes, but no specified amount for Bikkurim. (Bikkurim 2:3) However, Bikkurim are only brought on the Seven Species which the Torah specifically associates with the Land of Israel: Wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut. 8:8).

What would be a modern equivalent of bringing the first fruits to G-d?

Why might there not be a maximum given for this?

Rei'ayon (Appearance-offering)

(טז) שָׁל֣וֹשׁ פְּעָמִ֣ים ׀ בַּשָּׁנָ֡ה יֵרָאֶ֨ה כָל־זְכוּרְךָ֜ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ בַּמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְחָ֔ר בְּחַ֧ג הַמַּצּ֛וֹת וּבְחַ֥ג הַשָּׁבֻע֖וֹת וּבְחַ֣ג הַסֻּכּ֑וֹת וְלֹ֧א יֵרָאֶ֛ה אֶת־פְּנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה רֵיקָֽם׃ (יז) אִ֖ישׁ כְּמַתְּנַ֣ת יָד֑וֹ כְּבִרְכַּ֛ת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃ (ס)
(16) Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place that He will choose. They shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed, (17) but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you.

Context: This comes from the Biblical Book of Deuteronomy, with a similar text in Exodus (23:14-17). This text is the basis for the idea of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (Shalosh Regalim - Three Feet). Three times the Israelites were supposed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and come with an offering. In the Torah, this offering is not defined. In tractate Hagigah in the Mishnah, this requirement is discussed and there is a dispute between the School of Shammai (Beit Shammai) and the School of Hillel (Beit Hillel) regarding what the minimum is that one must pay for an offering each time one comes to Jerusalem (1:2).

We can give of ourselves to G-d through the 3 Ts - Time, Treasure, and Talent. What are some specific examples?

Why might there not be a maximum given for this?

G'milut Chasadim (Deeds of Lovingkindness)

(ב) שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:

(2) Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the worship, and the deeds of lovingkindness.

Context: This comes from Pirkei Avot, a Talmudic collection of quotes from rabbis who lived between 300 BCE and 200 CE. While "Shimon the Righteous" is often dated to 332 BCE, recent scholarship identifies him with Simon the Maccabee, which puts him around 165 BCE.

Why are all of these things necessary for sustaining the world?

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: בִּשְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים גְּדוֹלָה גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים יוֹתֵר מִן הַצְּדָקָה. צְדָקָה — בְּמָמוֹנוֹ; גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים — בֵּין בְּגוּפוֹ, בֵּין בְּמָמוֹנוֹ. צְדָקָה — לָעֲנִיִּים; גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים — בֵּין לָעֲנִיִּים בֵּין לָעֲשִׁירִים. צְדָקָה — לַחַיִּים; גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים — בֵּין לַחַיִּים בֵּין לַמֵּתִים.

The Sages taught that acts of kindness are superior to charity in three respects: Charity can be performed only with one’s money, while acts of kindness can be performed both with one's person and with one's money. Charity is given to the poor, while acts of kindness are performed both for the poor and for the rich. Charity is given to the living, while acts of kindness are performed both for the living and for the dead.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah, which is about Sukkot (as one might guess). The mishnah talks about how the Sukkot offerings were done in the Temple, and in supporting one of those aspects with a Biblical verse, another interpretation of that verse was also brought up. This led to a discussion of charity and acts of lovingkindness. Note that in the Talmud charity is given a maximum (one can only give up to 1/5th of one's money, lest one become destitute - Ketubot 50a) but nowhere is there a maximum given for the amount of kindness one can do.

Do you agree that acts of kindness are superior to charity?

Why might there not be a maximum given for acts of kindness?

Talmud Torah (Study of Torah)

(ח) לֹֽא־יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵפֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֙עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכָל־הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי־אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל׃
(8) Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.

Context: This comes from the very beginning of the Biblical Book of Joshua. Moses has just died and G-d is now speaking to Joshua, saying that Joshua should lead the Israelites into the Land of Israel, but remember the teachings (Torah) that Moses passed down to him. Because this verse says to be mindful of the teachings (Torah) day and night, the Rabbis interpreted to mean that there was no limit on the amount of "Torah" study one should do. Incidentally, this verse is probably the source of the phrase "yomam valaila" in the prayer "Ahavat Olam".

Practically speaking, how would one implement this verse, assuming one wanted to have other undertakings beyond reciting the "Torah"?

Why might there not be a maximum given for this?

וּכְבָר הָיָה רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן וּזְקֵנִים מְסוּבִּין בַּעֲלִיַּת בֵּית נַתְּזָה בְּלוֹד נִשְׁאֲלָה שְׁאֵילָה זוֹ בִּפְנֵיהֶם תַּלְמוּד גָּדוֹל אוֹ מַעֲשֶׂה גָּדוֹל נַעֲנָה רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן וְאָמַר מַעֲשֶׂה גָּדוֹל נַעֲנָה רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא וְאָמַר תַּלְמוּד גָּדוֹל נַעֲנוּ כּוּלָּם וְאָמְרוּ תַּלְמוּד גָּדוֹל שֶׁהַתַּלְמוּד מֵבִיא לִידֵי מַעֲשֶׂה

In connection to the mishna’s statement about the importance of Torah study, the Gemara relates the following incident: And there already was an incident in which Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nit’za in Lod, when this question was asked of them: Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, but not as an independent value; rather, it is greater as study leads to action.

Context: This comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, which is about marriage. The mishnah starts off talking about marriage, then goes into talking about men, women, and mitzvot, then just talks about mitzvot, and then, because mitzvot are good actions to do, it also talks about study being good to do too (it eventually does return to marriage). The rabbis notice that the mishnah (1:10) likes both actions and study and so it asks which one is better.

Where do you stand on the study vs. action question?

Honoring One's Parents

(יב) כַּבֵּ֥ד אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּ֑ךָ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִכ֣וּן יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ (ס)
(12) Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the LORD your God is assigning to you.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, from the Ten Commandments (#5).

What does this look like?

Why might this be something where one enjoys the fruits in this world and the principal in the world to come?

Making Peace

(יב) הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה:

(12) Hillel and Shammai received [the oral tradition] from them. Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.

Context: More Pirkei Avot. Hillel lived around the year 1 (BCE and CE).

What does it look like to love peace and pursue peace?

(ג) ... וכן שני בני אדם שעשו מריבה זה עם זה הלך אהרן וישב אצל אחד מהם אמר לו בני ראה חברך מהו אומר מטרף את לבו וקורע את בגדיו אומר אוי לי היאך אשא את עיני ואראה את חברי בושתי הימנו שאני הוא שסרחתי עליו הוא יושב אצלו עד שמסיר קנאה מלבו. והולך אהרן ויושב אצל האחר וא״ל בני ראה חברך מהו אומר מטרף את לבו וקורע את בגדיו ואומר אוי לי היאך אשא את עיניו ואראה את חברי בושתי הימנו שאני הוא שסרחתי עליו הוא יושב אצלו עד שמסיר קנאה מלבו. וכשנפגשו זה בזה גפפו ונשקו זה לזה לכך נאמר (במדבר כ) ויבכו את אהרן שלשים יום כל בית ישראל:

(3) ...When two people were fighting with one another, Aaron would go and sit next to one of them and say: My son, look at the anguish your friend is going through! His heart is ripped apart and he is tearing at his clothes. He is saying, How can I face my old friend? I am so ashamed, I betrayed his trust. Aaron would sit with him until his rage subsided. Then Aaron would go to the other person in the fight and say: My son, look at the anguish your friend is going through! His heart is ripped apart and he is tearing at his clothes. He is saying, How can I face my old friend? I am so ashamed, I betrayed his trust. Aaron would sit with him until his rage subsided. When the two people saw each other, they would embrace and kiss one another. And that is why it says (Numbers 20:20), “And the entire House of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days” [after his death].

Context: This comes from Avot D'Rabbi Natan, a text that is basically a commentary on Pirkei Avot (Pirkei Avot being one of the few tractates of the Mishnah which does not also have a tractate of Gemara associated with it). This text is explaining the previous text from Pirkei Avot (1:12).

Is this model one which can be emulated?

Why might making peace be something where one enjoys the fruits in this world and the principal in the world to come?

Attending the House of Study

"Arriving early for study, morning and evening"

The Rabbis understood this to convey enthusiasm and earnestness. It is not sufficient to merely attend; one's full attention is required.

- Rabbi Yoel Kahn, Temple Beth El in Berkeley

Context: Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the rabbi of Beth El in Berkeley, CA, not to be confused with the Rabbi Yoel Kahn who was the assistant to the Lubavitch Rebbe.

How can we bring this full attention to bear in our lives?

Why would this yield fruit in our lives and also in the world to come?

Providing Hospitality (Hachnasat Orchim)

(א) וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃ (ב) וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃ (ג) וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃ (ד) יֻקַּֽח־נָ֣א מְעַט־מַ֔יִם וְרַחֲצ֖וּ רַגְלֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִֽשָּׁעֲנ֖וּ תַּ֥חַת הָעֵֽץ׃ (ה) וְאֶקְחָ֨ה פַת־לֶ֜חֶם וְסַעֲד֤וּ לִבְּכֶם֙ אַחַ֣ר תַּעֲבֹ֔רוּ כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֥ן עֲבַרְתֶּ֖ם עַֽל־עַבְדְּכֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֵּ֥ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּֽרְתָּ׃ (ו) וַיְמַהֵ֧ר אַבְרָהָ֛ם הָאֹ֖הֱלָה אֶל־שָׂרָ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר מַהֲרִ֞י שְׁלֹ֤שׁ סְאִים֙ קֶ֣מַח סֹ֔לֶת ל֖וּשִׁי וַעֲשִׂ֥י עֻגֽוֹת׃ (ז) וְאֶל־הַבָּקָ֖ר רָ֣ץ אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקַּ֨ח בֶּן־בָּקָ֜ר רַ֤ךְ וָטוֹב֙ וַיִּתֵּ֣ן אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וַיְמַהֵ֖ר לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת אֹתֽוֹ׃ (ח) וַיִּקַּ֨ח חֶמְאָ֜ה וְחָלָ֗ב וּבֶן־הַבָּקָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וַיִּתֵּ֖ן לִפְנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהֽוּא־עֹמֵ֧ד עֲלֵיהֶ֛ם תַּ֥חַת הָעֵ֖ץ וַיֹּאכֵֽלוּ׃
(1) The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. (2) Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, (3) he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. (4) Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. (5) And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.” (6) Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” (7) Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. (8) He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Genesis, after Abraham had circumcised himself at the age of 99. It is one of the paradigmatic texts for "Hachnasat Orchim", welcoming guests. Note that between verses 1 and 2 Abraham appears to ask G-d to wait while Abraham provides hospitality - this is a pretty strong message about what's most important.

How can we provide this hospitality in our lives, whether or not we can physically welcome people into our houses?

Why would this yield fruit in our lives and also in the world to come?

Visiting the Sick (Bikkur Cholim)

(א) וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃
(1) The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Genesis. Right before this Abraham had given himself a circumcision at age 99, so the Rabbis interpreted G-d's action as "visiting the sick".

How can we do this in our lives today, whether or not we can physically go into a hospital room?

​​​​​​​Why would this yield fruit in our lives and also in the world to come?

וְאָמַר רַבִּי חָמָא בְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא מַאי דִּכְתִיב אַחֲרֵי ה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ וְכִי אֶפְשָׁר לוֹ לְאָדָם לְהַלֵּךְ אַחַר שְׁכִינָה וַהֲלֹא כְּבָר נֶאֱמַר כִּי ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵשׁ אוֹכְלָה הוּא אֶלָּא לְהַלֵּךְ אַחַר מִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מָה הוּא מַלְבִּישׁ עֲרוּמִּים דִּכְתִיב וַיַּעַשׂ ה׳ אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כׇּתְנוֹת עוֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם אַף אַתָּה הַלְבֵּשׁ עֲרוּמִּים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בִּיקֵּר חוֹלִים דִּכְתִיב וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה׳ בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא אַף אַתָּה בַּקֵּר חוֹלִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא נִיחֵם אֲבֵלִים דִּכְתִיב וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אַבְרָהָם וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ אַף אַתָּה נַחֵם אֲבֵלִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא קָבַר מֵתִים דִּכְתִיב וַיִּקְבֹּר אוֹתוֹ בַּגַּי אַף אַתָּה קְבוֹר מֵתִים

And Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “After the Lord your God shall you walk, and God shall you fear, and God's commandments shall you keep, and unto God's voice shall you hearken, and God shall you serve, and unto God shall you cleave” (Deuteronomy 13:5)? But is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? But hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and one cannot approach fire. He explains: Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be God. He provides several examples. Just as God clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, visits the sick, as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: “And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, buried the dead, as it is written: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah, which is about the punishment for adultery (based on Numbers 5:11-28). The punishment for somebody who was guilty was to be commensurate with the action, and this leads the mishnah (1:8-9) to take a detour and talk about other people who were punished or rewarded according to their actions. The reward for Moses's greatness was that G-d buried Moses, and this leads to a discussion in the Gemara about other things that G-d did which we should emulate.

If G-d is the Ultimate Role Model, and G-d visits the sick (i.e. Abraham), what does that tell us about how we should behave?

Helping the Needy Bride

וְהַיְינוּ דְּאָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר, מַאי דִּכְתִיב: ״הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם מַה טּוֹב וּמָה ה׳ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ כִּי אִם עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱלֹהֶיךָ״. ״עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט״ — זֶה הַדִּין, ״וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד״ — זוֹ גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, ״וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱלֹהֶיךָ״ — זוֹ הוֹצָאַת הַמֵּת וְהַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה לַחוּפָּה. וַהֲלֹא דְּבָרִים קַל וָחוֹמֶר: וּמָה דְּבָרִים שֶׁדַּרְכָּן לַעֲשׂוֹתָן בְּפַרְהֶסְיָא, אָמְרָה תּוֹרָה ״הַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת״, דְּבָרִים שֶׁדַּרְכָּן לַעֲשׂוֹתָן בְּצִנְעָא — עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה.

And this is what Rabbi Elazar said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord does require of you; only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? “To do justly”; this is justice. “To love mercy”; this is acts of kindness. “To walk humbly with your God”; this is referring to taking the indigent dead out for burial and accompanying a poor bride to her wedding canopy, both of which must be performed without fanfare. The Gemara summarizes: And are these matters not inferred a fortiori? If, with regard to matters that tend to be conducted in public, as the multitudes participate in funerals and weddings, the Torah says: Walk humbly, then in matters that tend to be conducted in private, e.g., giving charity and studying Torah, all the more so should they be conducted privately.

Context: This is also from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah, and it comes right before the other text about how acts of kindness were better than acts of charity. (Also found in Makkot 24a:26.)

How can we help needy brides today?

Why would this be something where one would enjoy the fruits of one's actions both in this world and in the world to come?

Attending the Dead

(א) מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁל דִּבְרֵיהֶם לְבַקֵּר חוֹלִים. וּלְנַחֵם אֲבֵלִים. וּלְהוֹצִיא הַמֵּת. וּלְהַכְנִיס הַכַּלָּה. וּלְלַוּוֹת הָאוֹרְחִים. וּלְהִתְעַסֵּק בְּכָל צָרְכֵי הַקְּבוּרָה. לָשֵׂאת עַל הַכָּתֵף. וְלֵילֵךְ לְפָנָיו וְלִסְפֹּד וְלַחְפֹּר וְלִקְבֹּר. וְכֵן לְשַׂמֵּחַ הַכַּלָּה וְהֶחָתָן. וּלְסַעֲדָם בְּכָל צָרְכֵיהֶם. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים שֶׁבְּגוּפוֹ שֶׁאֵין לָהֶם שִׁעוּר. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁכָּל מִצְוֹת אֵלּוּ מִדִּבְרֵיהֶם הֲרֵי הֵן בִּכְלַל (ויקרא יט יח) "וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ". כָּל הַדְּבָרִים שֶׁאַתָּה רוֹצֶה שֶׁיַּעֲשׂוּ אוֹתָם לְךָ אֲחֵרִים. עֲשֵׂה אַתָּה אוֹתָן לְאָחִיךְ בְּתוֹרָה וּבְמִצְוֹת:

It is a positive rabbinical mitzva to visit the sick and to comfort mourners, to take out the deceased, to bring in the bride, to escort guests, and to take care of all matters at a funeral — to carry the coffin, to walk before it, to eulogize, to dig and to bury — and also to gladden a bride and groom and to provide for them all their needs. These are the acts of chesed done bodily which have no limit. Even though all of these mitzvot are rabbinical, they are included in “You shall love your fellow as yourself” — everything you wish others to do for you, you should do for your brother in Torah and mitzvot.

Context: This is from Maimonides (a.k.a. Rambam's) Mishneh Torah. That was his attempt to reorganize the Talmud without all of the back and forth about what one is supposed to do -- only the bottom line was provided here. This text seems to draw on the text from Tractate Sotah about how G-d buried the dead (i.e. Moses) so we should do so also. Here, Rambam attaches this and other mitzvot to a different Biblical verse - "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). Notice that Rambam connects this to Shabbat 127a about this having no maximum.

How could caring for the dead and comforting the mourner be something that you can incorporate in your life today?

Why are these actions among those where one enjoys their fruit in this world and in the world to come?

Concentrating on the Meaning of Prayer

(יג) רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי זָהִיר בִּקְרִיאַת שְׁמַע וּבַתְּפִלָּה. וּכְשֶׁאַתָּה מִתְפַּלֵּל, אַל תַּעַשׂ תְּפִלָּתְךָ קֶבַע, אֶלָּא רַחֲמִים וְתַחֲנוּנִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (יואל ב) כִּי חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם הוּא אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וְנִחָם עַל הָרָעָה. וְאַל תְּהִי רָשָׁע בִּפְנֵי עַצְמְךָ:

(13) Rabbi Shimon said: Be careful with the reading of Shema and the prayer, And when you pray, do not make your prayer something automatic, but a plea for compassion before God, for it is said: “for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment” (Joel 2:13); And be not wicked in your own esteem.

Context: More Pirkei Avot. These sayings are by Rabbi Shimon ben Netan'el, one of the students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.

Not saying prayers by rote is super-hard once you know a prayer really well. What are ways to avoid this problem?

Why would concentrating on the meaning of prayers be something for which somebody would enjoy the fruit in this world and in the world to come?

Final Thoughts

ארבעה דברים אדם העושה אותן אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לעולם הבא. אלו הן כבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם. ד׳ דברים אדם העושה אותן נפרעין ממנו בעולם הזה ולעולם הבא. עבודת כוכבים וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים ולה״ר יותר מכולם:

For four things a person reaps the benefit in this world, and the principal reward remains in the World to Come. They are: respect for parents, acts of kindness, bringing peace between two people, and the study of Torah [which] is equal to them all. For four things a person suffers the consequences in both this world and the World to Come. They are: idolatry, sexual transgression, murder, and talking negatively about others (literally: evil speech) [which] is the worst of them all.

Context: This is more Avot d'Rabbi Natan. It is commenting on Mishnah Pe'ah 1:1. Note that there are 3 Jewish rules one cannot break in order to save a life -- idolatry, sexual transgression (rape and incest), and murder -- and these are the ones for which one suffers both in this world and in the world to come.

Why might talking negatively about others be the worst thing possible?

Musical Versions

How do the different settings affect your view of the text? What do they make you think of and how do they make you feel?

Safam: "Talmud Torah"

Context: Safam is a Jewish-American rock band formed in 1974 (www.safam.com). The name means "mustache" because when it started they all had mustaches. This song was written in 1989. This group's members have tended to work at Conservative synagogues (and the members are: Joel Sussman, Cantor Robbie Solomon, Alan Nelson, Dan Funk, and Mark Snyder).


See the children, smiling faces
As the day’s begun
They’re our future, teach them brightly
Blessed every one

Education, obligation
True for everyone
So we study, Talmud Torah
K’neged kulam

And sometimes I know it’s true
You’re too tired to learn
But there’s a spark inside of you
Waiting to return

See the children in those pictures
When this school was young
They’re your parents loved Talmud Torah
K’neged kulam

See the faces of the founders
Proud of what they’ve done
They were children, just like you are
Blessed every one

Feed the hungry, clothe the naked
Honor Dad and Mom
But to study Talmud Torah
K’neged kulam.

Mishnah Peah 1:1–– These are obligations for which no limit is
proscribed: the corner of the field... honoring father and mother,
the practice of kindness... hospitality to strangers, visiting the
sick... but the study of Torah excels them all (talmud torah
k’neged kulam). Dedicated to the Talmud Torah, Edmonton,
Canada and to a dear friend of blessed memory, Bennett Solomon.

Kol B'Seder

Context: Kol B'Seder was started in 1973. It is a Jewish-American folk duo of Cantor Jeff Klepper and Dan Freelander. Kol B'Seder wrote the popular tunes for "Shalom Rav", "Modeh Ani", "Lo Alecha", and "La'asok B'divrei Torah". The members are very active in the Reform movement. This song is on their third album “Spanks of Torah”, from the late 1970s or early 1980s

Hazzan Mordechai Hershman

Context: This is a recording of the version by Chazan Mordechai Hershman, one of the greats of the Golden Age of Chazzanut. According to the Wikipedia article about him, Hershman didn't actually write music, but he gets the credit for the versions which were written for him. The Hershman version of "Eilu D'varim" is popular in the (Ultra) Orthodox world. This recording is of Cantor Ushi Blumenberg singing with the Yedidim Choir.

With appreciation to Liora Alban, Aviva Kaufman, Nicole Auerbach, Eryn London, Rachel Nilson Ralston, AJWS Staff, Noah Farkas, Rabbi Pamela Gottfried, and Phil Fertik (for the sub-title)


How to Pray for Happiness

The prayer Eilu Devarim reflects the seeming paradox that focusing on others more than ourselves makes us happier.


Should we pray for happiness? On the face it, of course we should. Who doesn’t want to be happy?

But something about word “happiness” strikes Jews in the wrong way. There’s the old joke about the Jewish telegram: “Start worrying…details to follow.” Our default is often guilt rather than happiness. It is as if we have been programmed to see anxiety around every corner, to be more comfortable in the familiar “oy” over the risky “joy.”

Happiness is also an odd English word. It comes from the Middle English hap, as in happenstance and haphazard. This origin suggests that a happy life is a result of randomness and luck. Prayer has nothing to do with it.

In our consumerist culture, happiness is also frequently confused with pleasure, and praying for pleasure can feel self-indulgent. But happiness and pleasure are different.

Pleasure is short-term, like getting a massage or eating a sumptuous meal. Happiness is long-lasting. It is flourishing, which is a word preferred by the founder of the scientific study of happiness, Professor Martin Seligman. According to Seligman, flourishing contains five key components: positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning, and accomplishment. An easy way to remember them is the acronym PERMA.

The Jewish happiness prayer, as we will see below, promotes flourishing. It is the happiness experienced through a life of meaning and purpose.

What is the happiness prayer? It is a series of verses from the Mishnah we recite as part of the morning worship service. It is found in many prayer books as part of the traditional series of morning blessings.

The prayer begins with the words Eilu Devarim (“These are the Words”). The Hebrew word devarim also means actions or deeds. So the happiness prayer is a series of words describing actions that promote happiness.

The prayer contains ten actions in total, which I have translated as follows:

These are the deeds with infinite benefits.

A person enjoys their fruit in this world,

and in the world to come. Guide me in embracing these sacred practices:

Honor those who gave me life

Practice kindness

Learn Constantly

Invite others into my home

Be there when others need me

Celebrate life’s sacred moments

Support others during times of loss

Pray with intention

Forgive those who hurt me and seek forgiveness where I have others

Commit to constant growth.

This translation is not literal. For a few of the practices, I chose to convey the value expressed in the specific practice itself. For example, the Hebrew phrase that literally means “provide for a bride” I have rendered as “celebrating life’s sacred moments.” Providing for a bride reflects the importance of marking sacred moments with ritual, and these moments are not limited to weddings. Today they include anniversaries, baby namings, even graduations. Finding ways to participate in and create communal celebrations around those life events makes us happier.

The academic discipline of positive psychology has reinforced the message of the happiness prayer. Indeed, even though the rabbis who wrote this prayer were not familiar with positive psychology, their teachings intuit it. The actions this prayer calls upon us to take fit squarely within the PERMA framework noted earlier.

For example, celebrating life’s sacred moments incorporates positive emotions, relationships, and meaning. Praying with intention is a act of engagement, and prayer itself encompasses a worldview that life has meaning. Knowing how to pray — the words, the rhythm, the melodies — gives us a feeling of accomplishment. When we look at the Eilu Devarim prayer as a guide to happiness, we can see each of its practices as an expression of some aspect of PERMA.

Saying the prayer also promotes happiness in other ways. First, it pushes us outside of ourselves. Almost all of the ten practices involve other people. Inviting others into our lives, practicing kindness, and comforting mourners, are just the most direct examples. The rabbis understood the seeming paradox that focusing on others more than ourselves makes us happier. As Victor Frankl put, “the door to happiness opens outward.”

Frankl’s observation helps us see a second source of happiness in this prayer. It roots us in a religious worldview. Its opening verses remind us that we are reading more than a list of good deeds. They are a series of practices that echo through eternity. We feel their effects in this world and in the world to come.

Put differently, embracing a religious worldview makes us happier. We can speculate on why this is true. But I suspect part of the reason is that faith is a mindset that pushes us — in some cases, even obliges us — to do things that may not feel great in the short term, but that enhance our lives in the long term. These are the things we do that we can look back on a year later and feel happy to have done.

Every year, I fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. To do so is a commandment found in the Torah and has been a Jewish tradition for more than 4,000 years. Since I am working all day — delivering sermons and leading my congregation in eight hours of prayer — fasting is the last thing I want to do. Yet it enhances my experience of the day and my connection to others. It does not feel pleasurable in the moment. But when I look back, I know I experienced the power of the day.

This is the kind of commitment faith has always nurtured, and ignoring the role of faith in the search for happiness is like going to search for a treasure and throwing away an old map leading directly to it. The Eilu Devarim prayer is such a map. May it guide us on our journey.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL. He is the author of the “The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today.”