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The Music of Halacha: Untying The Knot

“Then Rachel said, ‘naftulei Elokim niftalti,’ ‘The Lord has judged me, He also heard my voice.” (Genesis 30:5) Rashi compares “Naftulei” to, “Dor ikesh u’ftaltol,” “a perverse and twisted generation.” (Deuteronomy 32:5) He understands Tefillah as twisting as in, “I have become crooked and have urged with many urgings and craftiness to become the equal of my sister.” He first quotes Menachem b Saruk who takes a different approach, and understands prayer as a joining or tying, as in, “I have been joined with my sister as a mother by virtue of my prayers.” The Maharzu (Commentary to Bereishit Rabbah) reads “Naftulei,” as being untwisted, or, untying, as in, “God has untwisted my life in response to my prayers.”

Menachem b Saruk understands “Naftulei” as joining. Rashi understands it as a specific form of prayer, twisted and complex. The Maharzu understands prayer as a process of untwisting, and achieving simplicity and clarity.

We are already familiar with the laws of tying. In general, “Matir,” or untying, is understood as undoing any of the Koshair knots: While tying a tight knot or winding a cord – Menachem b Saruk’s  and Rashi’s approach to prayer – is Koshair, untying any such knot, or unraveling a cord – the Maharzu’s approach – is Matir.

However, in some instances, the laws of Matir are more lenient than those of Koshair. Many temporary knots that are Rabbinically prohibited may, under certain conditions, be untied on Shabbat. The Sages did not impose all the Koshair restrictions on the Melachah of Matir.

One may untie a double-knot on Shabbat, even if the knot is intended to last for a short time. Under some conditions, a temporary double-knot may be untied on Shabbat. One may untie a string from around a bundle of fresh laundry. (Shulchan Aruch, O’C 314:8-10; Chayei Adam 27:4) One may remove a string tied around a food package when this is necessary to open them. (The proper procedure depends on the type of knot)

The difficulty in untying the knot can indicate the intention of the one who tied the knot; meaning, if it is super hard to untie, the knot is considered to have been intended to have a permanent status, and would be prohibited from being untied on Shabbat.

When we apply the Shabbat laws to our discussion of prayer we find that the Maharzu’s approach is considered an easier form of prayer: Many of us pray to achieve clarity, or “Seder – Siddur” a sense of order. Some use prayer to achieve perspective on the multiple issues in their lives. Untwisting is Halachically more lenient than twisting. However, the difficulty in achieving clarity will reflect on our mind set as we “tied the knot,” so to speak.

Many of us are committed to different ideas, some of which are contradictory. Parents who insist that a superb secular education is essential will often find that they will confront difficulty in finding the intense Torah learning to which they are also committed. Add in a powerful commitment to Midot development and the equation has become far more twisted and complex.

The parents don’t know which is their highest priority, so they take the Maharzu’s approach to Tefillah and set out to use their prayer to find “Seder – Siddur” in their minds. They will immediately confront the deep commitment they have to each item on the agenda: Torah, Midot, and secular education.

If we take the Shabbat laws one step further, and apply the analogy to a knot, which would be forbidden to untie on Shabbat because “the difficulty reflects on the intention of the knot,” our friends should use a different form of prayer.

In the vernacular, “Tying the Knot,” refers to marriage. The difficulty of untying the knot, the complexity of the divorce can reflect on the original intention of the connection. A difficult divorce keeps the two parties connected.

The same is true of untying a connection to destructive behavior and restoring one’s relationship with God: Teshuvah.

The irony is that most of us are knotted to a specific form of prayer and are uncomfortable changing approaches even when we feel that our current prayers are unproductive. It’s difficult to untie such knots.

The parents described above, the divorcing couple, or the person frustrated in his prayers will have to devote a great deal of effort to formulating a new form of prayer – They will have to turn to Rashi’s approach, which leads us back to Koshair, or tying….

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