Yishma’el’s 13 Principles

Torah study is a constant theme throughout our daily prayers found in the traditional Siddur. Within these prayers we speak of our desire to attach ourselves to the Torah and we beseech HaShem to whet our appetite for Torah study.  While a full description of Rabbi Yishma’el’s thirteen principles of Torah study is beyond the scope of this introduction, we do wish to understand and appreciate why they are included as part of our daily morning prayers.

Born in 90 CE, twenty years after the Second Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yishma‘el ben Elisha lived during the last decades of the revolt against Rome, a turbulent period which included the Bar Koḥbah rebellion and the final national defeat at Masada.  Of the House of Shammai, he was a contemporary to Rabbi Akiva (during the period of the Tanna’im) and a prominent member of the Sanhedrin at Yavne.  He is also thought to be one of the Ten Martyrs lamented during Yizkor on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Yishma’el’s 13 principles provide a consistent framework within which we can glean halaḥah from the words of Torah.  Greater in detail than the earlier 7 Rules of Hillel, the structure provided through his principles bring to mind the analytical training inherent to law school studies.

The focus of the 13 principles is specifically for determining halaḥah as the framework for building the nation of Israel with Torah as our constitution.  In Parashah Yitro (Shmot chapter 18) we see the implementation in our recently born nation of a multi-tiered court system in which simple cases are resolved locally, more difficult cases move up the system, and the most difficult cases are brought to Moshe.  This is the formal beginning of our national halaḥah – how we, as a nation, determine together how to “live” Torah.  

The natural inclination of anyone not raised within observant Judaism is to graft a bit of Torah into their existing lifestyle.  By contrast, the nation of Israel was formed in the wilderness by Torah – resulting in a worldview and culture unique from all others.  In addition to providing the socioeconomic structure for our nation, Torah observance builds “G-d consciousness” by infusing our daily lives with verbal and physical expressions of our love and dedication to HaShem.  The Torah is our instructions for living a life pleasing to HaShem.  This is our national heart’s cry.

“All scripture is G-d breathed and is valuable for teaching the truth, convicting of sin, correcting faults, and training in right living; thus anyone who belongs to G-d may be fully equipped for every good work.” 

2 Timothy 3:16-17

It is we, not G-d, who need correction when scriptural passages appear to be contradictory.  We labor to distill our findings to only what HaShem intends, resolutely avoiding outside influences in order to gain a consistent interpretation of interrelated scriptural verses.  Yishma’el’s 13 principles guide us in detecting threads not only in neighboring passages but throughout the entirety of Torah in order to develop a consistent halaḥah.

“May it be Your will, Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days, and grant us our share in Your Torah, and may we serve You there with reverence as in days of old and in former years.”

The closing petition is a poignant reminder that our detailed studies merely pay homage to a life of long ago when our beloved Holy Temple stood.  We recite these same words throughout our days at the conclusion of each Amida, embracing that day when we will actually experience the times for which we yearn – when the Holy Temple stands once again.

We might initially assume that our day to day lives would undergo little enduring change; we would simply continue to live and work and raise our families.  We assume that routine daily concerns would encroach on the initial enthusiasm of even those who make aliyah to Israel as they eventually find it too burdensome to travel to the Holy Temple for all three Regalim, consistently, year after year.

Consider, however, how the rebuilt Holy Temple will utterly transform our entire reality.  Whenever we think of Jerusalem we will picture the rebuilt Holy Temple standing on Har haBayit.  When we recite the Amida prayers we will be commemorating actual services performed that day rather than generational memories of services from centuries past. We will be transformed from merely imagining to fully experiencing the fullness of life to which HaShem has called us.

May we dare to hope that we are the generation in which the Holy Temple is rebuilt.

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