Bowing in Prayer: Two Anecdotes

Nov 26, 2014

Rav David Feinstein, zt”l and Rav Chaim of Tzanz, zt”l

In “Developing Humility,” we discussed how concrete acts help develop and intensify the character traits they are related to. The many times we bow during Shemoneh Esrei every day help strengthen our humility before G-d, for bowing, according to a number of sources, signifies utter nullification of one’s self before G-d. We now add 2 anecdotes and some reflections on them.

1. Rav Moshe Feinstein’s great-grandfather, Rav David, supervised the estate of a wealthy non-Jewish landowner (referred to as a “poritz”). One day the poritz was bragging to his drinking buddies about what a tremendous Jewish supervisor he has. He also spoke about his piety and holiness, and he bragged that he prayed the afternoon service in the fields with such concentration that even if a gun went off he wouldn’t flinch. The poritz and his friends had been drinking for quite a while and, quite worked up, he bet that even if you would shoot a gun at him while bowing during prayer, he wouldn’t even notice. The whole group grabbed a gun and went out to the field around sunset and there was Rav David standing in prayer. They snuck up behind him, waited until he bowed, shot at directly where his head had been, and, sure enough, he didn’t flinch. The poritz won his bet [and the story apparently came to us through the talk of the non-Jewish section of the town]. (The story appears in Rav Mordechai Tendler’s and Rav Shabbtai Rappaport’s biography of Rav Moshe Feinstein that introduces the 8th volume of Igrot Moshe.) Some reflections on the story: It obviously demonstrates how intensely Rav David concentrated during prayer, and how Hashem watches over his servants. It seems particularly significant, though, that the bullet whizzed over his head as he bowed during Shemoneh Esrei. The following drash has been made on the expression, “Mei’ayin yavo ezri”. It is usually translated as “My assistance came from out of nowhere.” However, some read “mei’ayin” as “out of a sense of my utter nothingness” and see the message of the pasuk as, “The Divine assistance came when I arrived at a sense of total dependence on Him and total nothingness before Him.” It is striking that Rav David was miraculously saved at the moment he was bowing and experiencing his subjugation before G-d.

2. Bowing is one physical expression of total negation before G-d. The ideal of one’s total physical makeup being in tune with the Divine Will is exhibited in the following anecdote (heard from Rav Michel Twerski shlit”a of Milwaukee) about the great Chassidic leader Rav Chaim of Tzanz: Another Chassidic rebbe was visiting Rav Chaim of Tzanz for Shabbat. One of the chassidim brought some cooked carrots from the kitchen to the table where the rebbes were sitting. The other rebbe ate the carrots, but Rav Chaim just picked up his fork, started to move to take the carrots, but then retracted. After a while the attendant noticed that Rav Chaim was not eating his carrots and approached him. “Is there something wrong with the carrots?” he asked. Rav Chaim replied, “I don’t know. Maybe check out where they came from.” He went back into the kitchen and investigated the source of the carrots. Eventually the following story emerged. When a delivery boy had done damage to the house of the rebbe, the kitchen staff ran after him and took his bag of carrots as payment for the damage caused. The chassid went back to Rav Chaim and told over the whole story. The whole assemblage was very impressed by the whole episode, and everyone was talking about the ruach hakodesh (special mystical insight) of the Rebbe. One person was upset, though – the visiting rebbe. “Tzanzer Rov,” he asked, “if you knew that the carrots were stolen why did you keep the information to yourself? Isn’t my eating the carrots just as problematic as your’s? Why did you let me eat them?” Rav Chaim replied, “You should know, I didn’t know the whole story about the carrots. However, a person doesn’t move unless it is for the service of Hashem. I felt that my hand was not moving towards the carrots, and realized after a number of attempts that eating them was not part of my service of Hashem. When they checked it out I found out why, but I was not, G-d forbid, holding back information from you.” Rav Chaim is an example of someone who took the ideal behind bowing during Shemoneh Esrei, total subjugation before Hashem, and carried it through to his entire behavior. He so conditioned his body to service of Hashem that he did not move unless it was for the sake of the Divine.

On stories of extreme piety: We often find it difficult to relate to stories like those of Rav David Feinstein and Rav Chaim of Tzanz. Those tzaddikim, we say, are in such a radically different place than ourselves – and our prayer and our eating. However, these anecdotes are helpful in two ways:

  1. They present models of ideal behavior to strive for. Though we’re not there yet, we are at least pointed in the right direction.
  2. Telling them over helps us internalize the values behind them – albeit on our own level.
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