Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia was once traveling with his student. Upon their arrival at the hotel, the rabbi exclaimed, “What a beautiful hotel!”
Thinking his teacher was making reference to the innkeeper, the student responded, “I think her eyes are a little too round.” Shocked at his student’s response, Rabbi Yehoshua gave him the silent treatment. Each day, his student would attempt to make amends, all to no avail.
One day, Rabbi Yehoshua came to shul and decided it was time to accept his student’s teshuvah (repentance). He began praying and was in the midst of the Shema when the student entered. He motioned to him to wait a minute. But the young man had had enough. He picked up the first item he could find and bowed down to it, in an idolatrous act of defiance. Sadly, that student then proceeded to engage in new-fangled practices and developed a following of “Off-the-Derech” (uninspired) young people, enthused by his charismatic leadership.
Mishnah: If one is between the paragraphs of the Shema, he may greet someone out of respect, or return a greeting. If he was in the middle of a paragraph, he may greet someone he fears or respond, this is Rabbi Meir’s opinion. Rabbi Yehuda says: In the middle of a paragraph, he may greet someone he fears or even respond to someone he respects. In between, he may greet out of respect and respond to any greeting.
Gemara: It was similarly taught: One who encountered his teacher or a great person as he was reciting the Shema, between paragraphs he may initiate a greeting to show respect; needless to say, he may respond. In the middle, he may initiate due to fear; and, needless to say, he may respond; this is Rabbi Meir’s opinion. Rabbi Yehuda says: In the middle, he may initiate due to fear, and respond due to respect. In between, he may initiate out of respect, and respond to any greeting.
These two Talmudic lessons appear to provide the same law regarding interruptions during prayer. The only difference between the Mishnah and the Gemara is that the latter defines the greeter as a teacher or a great person. The Mishnah, by contrast, appears to leave it open-ended. In fact, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (MB 66:3) broadens the scope of the permission to interrupt to include even a wealthy individual, who might be offended by your failure to respond to his ‘Good Shabbos.’
Determining who to greet whilst in the middle of davening is not always so black-and-white. What is respect? What is fear? (We’re not talking about life-threatening situations, for which you would obviously pause your prayers). Presumably, had Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia envisioned the consequences of his failure to respond to his student, he would have reacted differently. Knowing he was a little frustrated with his Judaism, the rabbi should have feared what his student might do. We don’t always know the outcome of our behaviour, but when in doubt, we can’t risk alienating people on account of our personal piety.
Tragically, recent acts of terrorism in shuls in America demonstrate that we must be ever-vigilant and on guard to respond appropriately whilst in the middle of davening. We hope and pray that the recent spate of antisemitic attacks cease immediately and that we can, once again, pray and live in tranquillity.
That’s not the fear the Mishnah is talking about. The fear of our Mishnah is that we ignore the spiritual crisis that surrounds us. When our personal piety causes us to fail to respond to our fellow Jews who may be less educated or less inspired, then we’ve missed the point. The recitation of the Shema is a practical application of this duty, but it’s far from the only situation. All too often, we’re so ‘in the midst’ of our own religious experience that we lose sight of those around us. We should be initiating ‘shalom’ to them, inquiring of their welfare (shalom = peace or welfare), spiritually, materially, and psychologically.
If you always interrupt your “Shema” – your religious service – to respond to others, you’ll never be able to focus on your personal spiritual growth. You shouldn’t interrupt the Shema for no good reason. At the same time, however, if you never interrupt your Shema to respond to others, you’ve misunderstood your mission on Earth. The Shema begins, “Hear O Israel,” making it clear from the start that you have to be a team-player. Sometimes in life, we need to ‘stop’ our personal piety to help another in their spiritual quest. May you always strike the right balance between personal spiritual growth and responding to others, even if that means interrupting at inconvenient points in the middle of your ‘Shema’!