Address: 91 Leinster St, Saint John, NB E2L 1J2

(506) 657-4790

Mishna commentary

Shabbat Shalom:
A special treat this week; two commentaries for the price of one.
Bruce Washburn

The Self-Driving Donkey
Ilana Kurshan

Adventures in Mishnah with My Kids
Berakhot 4:5

Matan and I are learning the third chapter of Masekhet Berakhot, which is about reciting the Amidah, known in rabbinic Hebrew as HaTefillah – the prayer. The word Amidah means “standing,” and usually one would stand while reciting this prayer. But what if a person is in a place where it would be difficult to stand? What if a person is, say, riding on a donkey?

I have to confess my intimate familiarity with this question. Often in the mornings, I daven on my walk back from dropping my kids off from preschool. My workday is very short, and I like to sit down at the computer as soon as I get home. So I daven while walking, which works very well until I get to the Amidah. Then I have to stop, get off my proverbial donkey, and retreat into a quiet alley to daven silently.

I wish I didn’t have such a hard time giving up time to daven. It seems to me like prayer—which is modeled on sacrifice—is supposed to be about giving up something precious to us, and there is little more precious to me than quiet time in the day. I decide not to tell Matan about my ambulatory Shacharit.

Matan is still fixated on the donkey-riding davener. “Couldn’t a person just stand up on his donkey when it’s time to daven?” he asks.

“I think that would be a little dangerous, no?”

“Well, then you could also daven that you don’t fall off.”

“Yeah, but the Talmud tells us that a person is not supposed to put himself in a dangerous place and then pray for a miracle. You have to be responsible for your body and avoid dangerous situations.”

“Well, it might be even more dangerous to get off your donkey. I mean, what if your donkey runs away?”

I tell Matan that he has actually anticipated the next line of the Mishnah. What if a person can’t get off his donkey because he has nowhere to park it, or no one to watch it for him? Then, say the rabbis, he is supposed to turn his face toward the direction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Matan, who had been ready to go to sleep, gets out of bed and acts it out.

“This is crazy,” he tells me, as he pretends to hold imaginary reins and gallop. He turns his head back and crashes into his closet door. “You can’t turn your head back while you’re riding a donkey! It’s like driving a car – if you don’t look where you’re going, you’ll crash.”

“Are you sure? Maybe the donkey would be able to find its way?” I propose, thinking of Bilaam’s ass. But Matan has another association altogether.

“Not unless it’s a Tesla donkey.”


“You know, a self-driving donkey. Like a Tesla. That’s the only way you wouldn’t crash.”

I read the final line of the Mishnah to Matan, in which the rabbis explain that if the donkey-rider can neither dismount the donkey or turn his head, then he should “turn his heart” to the Holy of Holies. That is, a person who can’t turn physically can at least direct his attention to the sacred. Matan agrees this is safer, but he warns, “It’s much better to pay attention while driving.” I can’t dispute that.

It’s somewhat reassuring to know that even in ancient times, people tried to multi-task by davening on the road. But I wouldn’t want my own kids to try it. I look up from the Mishnah. Now Matan is riding on his imaginary donkey, facing forwards this time, but with his eyes lifted up to the heavens and his lips moving as if in prayer. He crashes into his closet again. Hmm. Maybe this has less to do with the best way to daven the Amidah than with the fact that it is really time for him to go to sleep….


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Address: 91 Leinster St,
Saint John, NB, E2L 1J2
Phone: (506) 657-4790
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Saint John, NB,  E2L 3T5

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