Parshat Re’eh: The Prohibition of Unauthorized Praises

“You shall not do thus to Hashem your G-d.” (Devarim 12:4)

Moshe commands the people that they should uproot all objects of idolatrous worship from the land. He then enjoins the nation not to treat Hashem in this manner. Rashi explains the simple meaning of the pasuk. It is prohibited to destroy any stone of the holy altar of the Temple.[1]

Sefer HaChinuch points out that this mitzvah includes a variety of prohibitions. As explained above, it explicitly prohibits destroying a stone from the altar of the Bait HaMikdash. The mitzvah includes destroying other parts of the Bait HaMikdash. But the mitzvah also includes a prohibition against erasing various names used to refer to Hashem and the destruction of sacred texts.

Sefer HaChinuch explains that these seeming disparate prohibitions are all included in the commandment because they are expressions of a common theme. The altar, the names used to refer to Hashem, the sacred texts and all of the other objects included in this prohibition are associated with Hashem. The common theme is that we are not permitted to destroy something that has this association. So, although the items and objects included in this mitzvah are disparate, they share the key common feature that includes them in this prohibition.

Sefer HaChinuch explains that this mitzvah has an obvious function. We are required to fear Hashem and hold Him in awe. This mitzvah requires that we treat objects associated with Hashem with respect and reverence. This reinforces our sense of awe and fear of Hashem.[2] In other words, in order to encourage us to develop the proper sense of fear and awe towards Hashem, we are commanded to treat with reverence even those objects or names that are closely associated with Him.

There are a number of other mitzvot and halachot that are designed to instill within us the proper attitude of fear and awe for Hashem. One of the most interesting examples is discussed by the Talmud in Tractate Meggilah. The Talmud explains that the Sages created various blessings of praise. We are required to recite these blessings on the appropriate occasions. However, it is prohibited to praise Hashem beyond the blessings and prayers created by the Sages. Precisely, what activity the Talmud is prohibiting is not obvious. Rashi suggests that the prohibition is to recite or establish a blessing not required by our Sages.[3]

What is the reason for this prohibition? After all, we would assume that praising Hashem is a positive behavior! What can be the problem with praise? The Talmud explains that these unauthorized praises are prohibited based on the passage in Tehillim – Who will utter the greatness of Hashem? He who will make heard all of His praise.[4],[5] What is the meaning of this passage and how does it apply to our issue? Again, Rash provides an explanation. He comments that it is not possible for us to praise Hashem in a manner that fully captures or corresponds with His greatness. Therefore, we are required to limit our praises to those constructed by the Sages. The meaning of the passage is that only one who can fully capture Hashem’s greatness has the authority or right to praise Him. The Talmud extrapolates from the passage that we must limit our praise of Hashem to those prayers formulated by the Sages.

The discussion in the Talmud presents a small problem. In order to understand this problem, let us study more carefully one aspect of the Talmud’s discussion. The Talmud posits that it is not appropriate for us to construct or establish new blessings and praises because we cannot fully capture Hashem’s greatness. Why do the limits of our understanding of Hashem, generate a prohibition against creating and establishing blessings? It seems that the position of the Talmud is that because we cannot fully comprehend Hashem’s greatness, any praise that present is really an understatement. Our intent is to praise Him. But instead, our attempts at praise are diminutions of His greatness.

This raises a question. If our praises are really diminutions, why are permitted to praise Hashem using the blessings and prayers formulated by our Sages. Our Sages were great scholars and individuals of remarkable righteousness. But they were human beings. The pasuk from Tehillim quoted by the Talmud seems to indicate that no human being can fully grasp the greatness of Hashem. Our understanding is limited by our fundamental material nature. This limitation applies to our Sages as well as to us.

It seems that the Torah allows us to praise Hashem in order to satisfy our need to relate to Hashem. True, we cannot offer praise that is fully proper. But we cannot serve and worship Hashem if we cannot in any way form a relationship with Him. In order to facilitate the development of a relationship with Hashem, we are permitted and encouraged to offer praise. This praise is not completely accurate or even completely appropriate. But our need to relate to Hashem requires that we offer praise.

This is a remarkable idea. We are not praising Hashem because He needs the praise. Neither does the Talmud regard the praise as accurate or even fully appropriate. Instead, the praise is designed to serve our needs. In other words, we are permitted to inadvertently make statements which are really an attenuation of Hashem’s greatness in order to respond to our spiritual needs.

We can now understand the Talmud’s insistence that we restrict ourselves to the prayers and blessings formulated by the Sages. We must recognize that any praise that we offer is inaccurate. But there are two potential causes of inaccuracy. First, as the Talmud explains, human beings are innately limited in their grasp of Hashem. Second, even within the limits of our incomplete comprehension, we may not be accurate in our understanding of Hashem. If our incomplete comprehension is flawed, the praises that we formulate will reflect this shortcoming. We cannot overcome the innate limitations upon our understanding of Hashem. But we can eliminate any additional flaws that may exist in our concept of Hashem. We can rely upon the praises that were developed by our Sages. In other words, because we are required to offer praise that is as accurate as possible we must rely on the praises formulated by our Sages.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Z”L suggests that this idea is contained in the Baruch She’Amar blessing that introduces Pesukai De’Zimra or Zemirot. This blessing has three parts. It begins with a discussion of Hashem’s greatness. Then, it continues by noting that Hashem has been praised by His nation and His righteous. Special note is made of the Psalms – the Tehillim – composed by King David. Last, we proclaim that we too will not praise Hashem. Rav Soloveitchik suggested that this blessing is an appropriate introduction to the Zemirot we are about to recite. He suggests that we are reminding ourselves of the justification for praising Hashem. The Sages and specifically King David created praises for Hashem. We will rely on King David’s creations!

Rav Soloveitchik proposes that this understanding of Baruch She’Amar explains a custom of Rav Eliyahu of Vilna – the GRA. The GRA insisted on reciting Mizmor Shir Chanukat HaBayit LeDavid after Baruch She’Amar. Rav Soloveitchik suggested that the GRA maintains that Baruch She’Amar provides the justification for offering praise. Therefore, we should not recite King David’s Psalms before we recite Baruch She’Amar. Mizmor Shir is a chapter from Tehillim. Therefore, it is not appropriate to recite this chapter before we have properly introduced King David’s Psalms.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 12:4.

[2] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 437.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Megillah 18a.

[4] Sefer Tehillim 106:2.

[5] Mesechet Meggilah 18a.