The Mishnah in Berachot (4:2) relates how R' Nechunya ben Hukana used to recite a prayer when he entered a Beit Midrash. The Gemara in Berachot (29b) elucidates the complete prayer. Contained in the prayer is R' Nechunya's plea that Hashem should help him “avoid an incorrect ruling that would make [his] peers joyous…And that they should not err that [he] should be happy”.
This prayer begs two questions: Firstly, how could R’ Nechunya’s friends rejoice at his mistakes? They were accomplished scholars who were fearful of misrepresenting Halacha. Would not such action be totally inappropriate for such great rabbis? Secondly, the Tiferet Yisrael asks why R’ Nechunya did not first pray that his friends should not err? The order of his prayer seems selfish in that he was primarily concerned that he should not make a mistake. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate for a person of such high moral standard to first pray for his peers.
The Maharsha punctuates the prayer in a different way thereby answering the first problem. He reads the prayer as saying, “May I not slip up, and may my friends be happy because of me.” He interprets the two phrases as separate pleas. R’ Nechunya is first praying for Hashem’s guidance in decision making and then he prays that his Torah teachings be of a high standard that will enlighten his peers thus making them happy. The Beit Yosef adds that the other sages would rejoice because Torah study brings genuine happiness to those who delve into it.
The Tiferet Yisrael answers the second question by explaining that we must read the wording of the prayer such that the word “not” not only applies to the first plea regarding ruling, but also to the second plea against laughing, i.e. “There shouldn’t be…happiness amongst my friends (because of my failure).” Consequently, R’ Nechunya really did pray for his friends first.
However, the Tiferet Yisrael maintains that one should only pray for another person first in matters of physical wellbeing, however, regarding spiritual matters it is proper for one to first pray for oneself. For example, if two people have the opportunity to perform a positive commandment, it makes no sense for one to say that, out of brotherly love, he will not perform the mitzvah and leave it to his friend. Even a son need not act in such a manner towards his father despite the many other sacrifices that a son must make. Furthermore regarding a negative commandment, we learn in Messechet Shabbat (4a) that a person may not sin to enable his friend to do a mitzvah. If this is the case, why did R’ Nechunya put himself in a position conducive to sinning to save his peers from being in that position?
We can bring at least three answers.
According to Tosfot Yom Tov, R’ Nechunya’s peers included his rabbi. He therefore felt it inappropriate to eagerly pray that his rabbi should not make a mistake because suspecting such an event appears disrespectful. However inserting it after a plea recognising his frailty may have been more appropriate.
Since R’ Nechunya was more conscious of the danger that he may feel joyous at the stumbling of his friends, he felt a greater need to pray for his friends.
The Tiferet Yisrael answers this question by citing Bava Kama (92a) that teaches that a person who prays for others has his own prayers answered first! Therefore we find that R’ Nechunya did selflessly pray for his peers first. However, this selflessness made him worthy of having his own prayers given first priority.
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