At the beginning of the Talmud is a story about ruins. The story is found in the first chapter of Berakhot, the tractate that heads the first of the Talmud's six orders, Seder Zeraim, the Order of Seeds. This is an odd place to find a story about ruins, because berakhot is to the Talmud what Genesis is to the Bible. Just as Genesis sets forth a cosmos, Tractate Berakhot offers the seeds of a nomos. The seeds that contain the nomos of rabbinic Judaism are the blessings, berakhot. Their theological content and ritual performances generate and propagate rabbinic Judaism's sustaining institutions, the synagogue and the study house. In contrast to the cosmos of Genesis, which is created out of chaos by divine fiat, the rabbinic nomos is evolved, as the metaphor of seed implies. Seeds contain both the past and the future. As legacies from the dead, they reproduce the world. As pledges to the future, they change it. Every seed points to some future seed that will both incorporate it and differ from it.
Ruins attest only to the past. Yet these echoes of the past are resonant with power. That is why the stones of an ancient temple wall can move us to tears. The ruins in this story come from the time when that particular ruin was made -- the bitter and tumultuous years when Rome devastated the land of Israel, beating down one Jewish rebellion after another. In the time of the story's narrator, the ruins are fresh and raw. He is one of the various rabbis named Yose, active during the period between 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed and 200 C.E. when the tannaitic period ended. Here is his story:1
It has been taught: R. Yose said, "One time I was traveling (mehalekh) on the road and I went into a ruin -- one of the ruins of Jerusalem -- to pray. Along came Elijah -- may he be well remembered -- and waited for me in the doorway until I had finished my prayer, he said to me, 'Peace upon you, rabbi!' And I answered, 'Peace upon you my rabbi and my teacher!' And he said to me, 'My son, why did you go into this ruin?''To pray!' I said. And he said to me, 'you should have prayed on the road.''But I was afraid,' said I, 'lest passers-by interrupt me.' And he said to me, 'You should have prayed the short prayer' (tefillah ketzarah). In that moment, I learned three things from him: I learned that one should not go into a ruin, I learned that one may pray on the road, and I learned that one who prays on the road should pray the short prayer.