From a Discourse Delivered by Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l
Compiled by his Grandson, Harav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a
We are about to enter the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 18a) states that there was a certain family in Jerusalem whose children would pass away at the age of eighteen. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was informed of this and he exclaimed, “Perhaps you are from the family of Eli Ha’Kohen about whom the verse states, ‘All the increase in your house shall die as young men.’ Go toil in Torah study and you shall live!” This family went and studied Torah and they remained alive. They were called “The family of Rabban Yochanan” after him.
Rabban Yochanan be Zakai knew that Torah study would save the house of Eli from death based on the verse, “Behold, I have sworn to the house of Eli that the sin of the house of Eli shall not be atoned for with animal and meal offerings,” and our Sages inferred that although their sin would not be atoned for with sacrifices, it would be atoned for through Torah study because the Torah is more important than all of the offerings!
Indeed, our Sages (Talmud Yerushalmi, Pe’ah, Chapter 1) expounded the following verse regarding Torah study: “She is more precious than pearls and all your objects cannot amount to it.” The words “your objects,” refers to all of one’s material wealth, such as gold, silver, precious gems, etc. for the Torah is more precious than all of these things. Nevertheless, another verse states, “For wisdom is better than pearls and all objects will cannot amount to it.” The word “objects” here refers to even Heavenly objects, such as Mitzvot and good deeds, for all of the Mitzvot in the Torah do not equal even one word of Torah study, for the Torah is greater than anything. Thus, even though the sin of the house of Eli could not be atone for with sacrifices and offerings, Torah study would atone for it, for there is nothing greater than the Torah!
The Talmud Yerushalmi infers something else from the above verse. It states than their sin shall not be atoned for with offerings but it shall be atoned for through prayer. Prayer refers to praying with proper concentration, as one should. Indeed, the Gemara (Berachot 32b) states, “Rabbi Elazar said: Prayer is greater than offerings, as the verse states, ‘Why do I need your multitude of offerings,’” which means that during the period before the destruction of the Temple when the Jewish nation sinned profusely, Hashem did not want their offerings. Then, it became even worse, at which point Hashem said, “When you spread out your palms, I shall turn my eyes away from you; even when you pray copiously, I do not hear,” which infers that prayer is greater than the sacrifices.
Based on the above, we can learn the supreme significance of prayer. Our Sages (Yerushalmi ibid.) recounted that once, after Rav Kahana relocated from Babylon to the Land of Israel, he came to pray Mincha in the synagogue. The synagogue was packed to the brim and Rav Kahana barely managed to squeeze himself in. Rav Kahana stood behind Rabbi Chiya bar Abba (student of Rabbi Yochanan) and began to pray.
When Rabbi Chiya bar Abba concluded his prayer, he wished to take the customary three steps back but to his dismay Rav Kahana was still standing behind him, immersed in prayer. According to the law, he was therefore not permitted to take his three steps back. Rabbi Chiya waited and waited until the Chazzan finished his repetition of the Amida and only then had Rav Kahana concluded his own silent prayer. Rabbi Chiya bar Abba became upset and exclaimed, “Is this your custom in Babylon, to make your rabbis suffer? Why did you stand behind me and pray for so long?!” Rav Kahana replied, beseechingly, “Please, master, do not be angry with me. I am from the family of Eli and I always feel death hovering over me. That is why I prayed for so long, for I have a tradition from my teachers that although the house of Eli cannot be forgiven with offerings, they will be atoned for through prayer.”
Rabbi Chiya heard this and he calmed down. He pitied Rav Kahana and blessed him, “May it be Hashem’s will that you live many long years, until the age of one-hundred!” Rav Kahana quickly answered Amen. Indeed, Rav Kahana did live to a ripe old age to the extent that the Sages said that his nails were as soft as a baby’s due to his advanced age!
It is good that Rav Kahana decided to pray behind Rabbi Chiya, for if he did not, he would not have received his blessing!
We see how powerful and important prayer is. Let us use this period of the Days of Awe to pray in a relaxed manner and pay attention to the words we are uttering. One should focus solely on the words of the prayer and nothing else. In this way, our prayers will be accepted willingly by Hashem, as the verse states, “Prepare their hearts and your ears shall listen.”
We see the importance of these two things, Torah and prayer. It is impossible to fathom how beloved one who studies Torah is to Hashem. One who performs the Mitzvot is certainly good, however, when one studies Torah, he becomes endeared by Hashem.
One should therefore avail himself of whatever time one has during the days of Rosh Hashanah for Torah study, both during the night and during the day. For those who do not know how to learn Torah, they should read the entire book of Tehillim (150 chapters) on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and then again on the second. This amounts to three-hundred chapter, the numerical value of the word “Kapper” (“atone”) and this is an auspicious way to achieve atonement. This is great for those who do not know how to learn. However, if one knows who to learn Gemara, Poskim, and Halachot, this is the very best!
May you all have a happy and blessed new year. May Hashem grant all of your hearts’ wishes for the good and may Hashem renew this year upon us for happiness and rejoicing. May we merit receiving all the blessings of the Torah. Tizku Le’Shanim Rabbot Ne’imot Ve’tovot!