Friday, April 16, 2010

the peddler and Rav Yanai

The Midrash tells of a rochel, a peddler, who wandered the streets and neighborhoods in Tzipori calling out, "Who wants life?" R' Yanai followed to observe what this unusual hawker was selling. When a crowd gathered, the peddler revealed his secret. He pulled out a sefer Tehillim and read, "Mi ha'ish he'chafeitz chaim -- Netzor leshoncha me'ra..." If you want life, guard your tongue from evil speech. Rav Yanai declared that although he read the pasuk many times, he never realized its import until this peddler taught it.

We’ve discussed this Midrash before, but I want to add a little point (a little break from the heavy topic of miktzas ha'yom k'kulo). Everyone asks what impressed Rav Yanai so much -- all the peddler did was read a pasuk -- but I want to start with a simpler question before getting to that concluding line. You would think that in wandering from town to town and delivering this shpiel this peddler would have memorized his lines and have his act down cold. Why then does the Midrash specifically mention that the peddler, "hotzi sefer Tehillim...," he took out his Tehillim to read the pasuk? Even if you don't know the song, surely this one pasuk is not too much to remember by heart when you repeat it so many times?

But that gufa I think is the point. Even though this peddler went from town to town doing the same shtick over and over, even though he probably knew that pasuk backwards as well as forwards, every time he gave his performance he pulled out that sefer Tehillim and he read the pasuk again as if it was the very first time he was seeing it.

This explains Rav Yanai's astonishment as well. Rav Yanai of course knew the pasuk before the peddler taught it, but it was precisely because he knew it so well that he had the most to learn from the peddler. Who gives a second though to what they know cold? Who sees the words of Hodu, of Ashrei, of Shmoneh Esrei as fresh, as inspiring, as meaningful, when we see these same words every day, multiple times a day, and know them backwards and forwards? You want to see davening? Walk into a first grade classroom and watch the kids slowly read pesukim that we could recite in our sleep. Rav Yanai saw "hotzi sefer Tehillim" to read a simple pasuk and realized that even though he knows that pasuk cold, he can still read it with a sense of wonder and excitement as if he had never heard it before.

The lesson of the peddler is not just about how to read pesukim. As we know, the affliction of leprosy came as a punishment for slander, gossip, evil speech. Of course there is harm in speaking ill of a coworker, neighbor, friend, but even worse is speaking badly to a spouse, a child, someone one is close to. Often in these cases one does not even give the words a second thought; we take the attention and forbearance of those we are speaking to for granted. Hotzi sefer tehillim means not letting words go stale and unnoticed; it means greeting one's spouse on the 10,000th time walking through the front door with the same tone and expression that you used during sheva brachos week. This is a very high level to reach, one which I make no claims to being near to achieving myself. But at least this Shabbos we can pause a moment to think about the lesson of the peddler and Rav Yanai and try to point ourselves in the right direction.


  1. First off, kol hakavod. Good post.

    But I have two rejoinders as to why the peddler pulled out the sefer t'hillim.

    1) He held that you're not allowed to recite psukim by heart

    2) He was a sefer t'hillim peddler and was demonstrating his wares at the same time!

  2. See Tosfos Temurah 14b - reciting mizmorim by heart (esp. well known pesukim) is permitted.