Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Monday, March 21, 2005

To Bless or Not To Bless? - Berakhot 21

Let me try to give you a brief exploration of Talmudic logic through an extended argument about why one is supposed to recite blessings before and after Torah reading and meals. Biblical supports are claimed for blessings after meals and before Torah study, but why not before and after for both? The Talmud initially argues from each to the other using the same argument, the kal va’homer (from easy to hard, or “how much more so”). If meals, that require no blessing before them have a blessing afterwards, how much more so should Torah study, which DOES have a blessing before it, require a blessing after. And the reverse as well: if the Torah, which does not require a blessing after it, needs one before, how much more so should a meal, which DOES need a blessing after, need one before [this makes slightly more sense if you say it out loud than read it – honestly!].

In the end, this double reason is rejected – not for redundancy or self-reference, but because one act feeds the body for life in this world, and the other the soul for eternal life in the next one. Of course, for the Talmudic Rabbis rejecting the Scriptural basis does not mean one is free to reject the practice! One is still supposed to recite both blessings for both practices – but the reason for it must be found elsewhere. For some today, however, if the reason is not there, then neither will be the performance. Thus the lengthy arguments one may read about claimed health benefits to a kosher lifestyle that try to convince the non-kosher to start, when traditionally following laws of kashrut were one more example of submitting to the “yoke” of the commandments regardless of reasons.

This Talmud page not only speaks about the individual context of blessings, exploring the case of the Baal Keri, or the man who has had a “nocturnal emission” and thus become ritually impure – may he recite certain prayers, and under what circumstances. It also examines a communal setting – we see here a justification of the tradition of having ten (men) to constitute a minyan (prayer quorum) for reciting certain prayers, and also the ruling that one who had already prayed alone could only do so again in a group. Once, after the Holocaust, the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade was approached on the street and asked to join a minyan; he refused, saying “ikh hob shoyn gedavent (I have already prayed).” His companion, knowing Grade to be a strict secularist, asked him, “When?” Grade’s answer: “1937.” Knowing Jewish tradition as he did, Grade was able to refuse the request in a way that the praying Jew would understand and respect. And in a way that also gave him a private chuckle.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Further Reading:

Chaim Grade, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” in The Seven Little Lanes (1972). There is also a movie adaptation called The Quarrel (1991).