Rav Amram said in the name of Rav: “From three sins a man cannot escape every day: sinful [lustful] thoughts, iyyun tefilla, and lashon ha’ra [speaking ill of others].” Do we truly think this about lashon ha’ra? Rather, it refers to the dust of lashon ha’ra [but not to lashon ha’ra proper]. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: “Most people are involved in theft, a few in sexual crimes, and all in lashon ha’ra.” (Bava Batra 164b)
I have not translated iyyun tefilla because there is no neutral way to render it in English. Every translation of this term reflects a different specific interpretation. Rashbam explains it as referring to the belief that one’s prayers, if performed perfectly, cannot fail to bring the desired result. This is religiously problematic, because it makes prayer into a ritual guaranteed to manipulate God. Authentic prayer works with a healthy sense of humility before the inscrutable divine will.
Tosafot object to this interpretation, because the Gemara refers to common sins, and one who approaches tefilla in this fashion is unusual. In fact, many people pray without assuming that their prayers will be answered. Instead, Tosafot explain that the Gemara refers to lack of kavana (intent) during davening. This certainly reflects a constant problem. We can well understand a Talmudic suggestion that this fault applies to everyone.
Why does the Gemara feel compelled to point out the most commonly found transgressions, as if it were keeping score in some kind of competitive sport between sins? On one level, it warns us to take these challenges seriously and to take the time to struggle with such thorny issues. Knowing that a certain issue poses a great challenge can inspire diligent preparation for confronting it.
On another level, this Gemara instructs us not to become overwrought when we fail. Understanding that almost everyone struggles with these issues helps put our own moments of weakness in perspective. Treating every uninspired mincha, or each bit of gossip spoken, as a religious failure of terrifying proportions often leads to intense depression, not religious growth.
Maharal (Chiddushei Aggadot) sees the three frequent problems as reflecting three areas of religious endeavor. Iyyun tefilla refers to our relationship with God. Lashon ha’ra relates to our relationship with fellow humans. Lustful thoughts belong in the category of our relationship with ourselves, because these thoughts assault the dignity of the person having them.
We have elsewhere seen how Maharal utilizes the third category to explain the problem of profanity. I believe that the inclusion of this third category describes an important area of religious life that often goes unnoticed. Certain actions are fundamentally wrong because of their impact on the actor, and what they reflect about the actor, irrespective of whether or not they harm others. It may be a mistake to criticize profanity or looking at dirty magazines as interpersonal crimes. Perhaps what is essentially wrong with these actions is that they degrade the human being performing them.
While Rav Amram does not distinguish among his three ubiquitous crimes, Rav Yehuda underlines the contrasting frequency of three significant transgressions. Rashbam explains that most people become entangled in theft when they withhold someone else’s profits in business dealings. They would not enter someone else’s property and steal what they find there. Yet the same people fail to understand that one can steal in the absence of a dramatic act of taking. Any business involves temptations to more subtle forms of theft.
According to Rav Yehuda, lashon ha’ra is more common than theft and sexual immorality. The Maharal offers a novel explanation for this phenomenon. He points out that both theft and sexual immorality come with a certain degrading quality that embarrasses the sinner. It is hard to work up much self-righteousness about committing theft or adultery. Lashon ha’ra, on the other hand, often involves an element of self-righteousness. The speaker implicitly adopts an air of superiority in talking about the misdeeds of others. The Maharal sees this hidden self-congratulation as the root of the frequency of lashon ha’ra.
A host of themes emerge from this brief aggada. These few lines animate our thinking about prayer, theft, lashon ha’ra, lustful thoughts, and the problems of the most common transgressions. The challenge is to seriously confront our most difficult religious duties and not to see every failure as proof of our utter wickedness.
Adapted from Fresh Fruit & Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggadah by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau.
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