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.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Impulses, Righteousness, and Martyrdom - Berakhot 61

Sometimes the smallest detail is the opportunity for rabbinic interpretation. In today’s Talmud page, an second and extra yud in the word for “he created” in Genesis 2:7 is the opportunity for three interpretations – that God created humanity with an evil impulse [yetser ha-ra] and a good impulse [yetzer ha-tov], or that a man says “woe is me!” [oy lee] whether he fights his evil inclination or submits to it, or that God created humanity with two faces (in front and in back). The three interpretations can each stand, and one can consider the others from each perspective. This page is a good example of that style: if you hold interpretation X to be the case, what would you respond to interpretation Y?

The third explanation of the double yud alludes to the Biblical contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, where first God creates “male and female” seemingly simultaneously and then creates man first and then woman from man’s tsela [rib or side]. In this rabbinic midrash, or creative interpretation, the original intention was to create two, but one was created in Genesis 1 – one with two faces, faces later split in Genesis 2. While some modern Jewish feminists have argued such an interpretive approach justifies gender equality (as both were created simultaneously and have a primordial unity), later passages on this page qualify that claim: a man must never walk behind a woman on the road. Why? For fear that his “evil inclination” will lead him to sin. No fears about a woman’s desire being inflamed following a man are offered, and the practical result is women walking in public behind their men in what outsiders understand to be a subordinate status.

As we read in today’s page, the wicked follow the evil inclination, the righteous follow the good inclination, and the beinonim [average] are swayed by both. Raba, an eminent rabbi, himself claims to be average, for the ideal of righteousness is almost beyond reach. The most striking narrative in today’s page is the story of Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE). Akiva continues to teach Torah even though the government forbids it, is thrown into prison, and executed by flaying. During his suffering, he “accepts the yoke of heavenly kingship” (i.e. recites the Shema), prolonging the last word ekhad [one] until he dies. He is pleased to have finally interpreted the commandment to love God “with all your soul,” and a voice from heaven promises him a share in the world to come.

Akiva’s model of dying a martyr’s death for Kiddush ha-shem [sanctification of God's name] served generations of religious responses to persecution. Today it is an example of commitment to ideals, even if we differ on what those ideals are for ourselves. For what values would we be willing to sacrifice? For our family, or our country, or our community, or our dignity? These are questions every generation and every individual may ask themselves for good reason. And even if our good and evil inclinations are not separate powers (that live in our kidneys, according to today's page), we can use the categories to understand our life-affirming and subversive impulses in better relief.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, April 29, 2005

Blessing Every Moment - Berakhot 60

Most liberal Jews of every denomination divide their lives into “Jewish” or “sacred” time and “ordinary time” – ceremonial meals are blessed, but not every glass of water; Shabbat is remembered, but synagogue services are not attended every week. For the Judaism envisioned by the Talmud, however, there was no “time off” – every moment, every activity could have its particular blessing. Today’s page includes blessings for: entering, traveling through, and leaving a large city (3 different blessings); entering and leaving a bathhouse; entering medical treatment; even separate blessings for entering and leaving the bathroom – to paraphrase, “thank you for making human holes work correctly.” There are separate blessings enumerated here for going to sleep, and waking up, hearing the rooster, opening eyes, stretching, dressing, stepping on the ground, beginning to walk, putting on outer clothing, and washing hands and face, all in addition to more conventionally-religious activities like wearing tsitsit [a fringed garment] or putting on tefillin [prayer boxes] which are Biblically commanded. It would seem that there is a blessing for every moment!

Today’s page even explores the Mishnah statement that one should bless God for evil as well as good. Can God do evil? No, says the Talmud’s rabbis – even that which we temporarily believe to be evil turns out for the best out of divine providence. A flood, in the long run, makes the land more fertile; finding a valuable item, even if it will later draw the king’s envy, is good for the moment. And an anecdote with Rabbi Akiva turns disaster into vengeance: an inhospitable town forces him and his rooster and donkey to stay outdoors, where his lamp blows out and his animals are eaten. That night the town is despoiled, for Akiva’s animals did not warn them. Is it true that “all the Merciful One does is for good,” as Akiva says? After all, his animals are still eaten, even if he is personally avenged. In this case, an eye for an eye has made both sides blind.

It is important to make the best of bad situations, striving to learn positive lessons from human challenges. But one need not be grateful to the challenge to learn from it. I can learn the lesson “drive slower” from a car accident, but I could have learned the same lesson without injury from a speeding ticket. And making each moment of life precious (i.e. “actively being”) is important, but not to the point of paralysis. We should never forget that life is about BOTH “being” and “doing” – if we are too busy “doing” to appreciate “being,” we have lost our balance; but if we do too much “being” and not enough “doing”, we are also lost. There are times for reflecting on life, and also times for doing.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Myth and Science in the Natural World - Berakhot 59

One of humanity’s most powerful traits is our desire for explanation – while some traditionalist religions claim to have all the answers and try to stifle further inquiry, the human impulse to understand and explain will not be permanently contained. In today’s Talmud page, we read several creative interpretations of natural phenomena in ways that sound more like mythology than philosophically-sophisticated theology. What causes an earthquake? When God thinks of his children (i.e. the Jews) suffering among the umot ha-olam [nations of the world – everyone else], two tears fall into the ocean, and the sound heard around the world causes the rumbling. Or perhaps God claps his hands, or he emits a sigh, or he walks on the sky, or he presses his feet together under his throne. This sounds much more like Zeus on Olympus than an elevated and remote creator-God who creates the world by mere words.

In mythology, God or the gods have bodies, emotions, and physical interactions with the world. Medieval Jewish religious philosophy, Maimonides in particular, went to great lengths to explain away Biblical anthropomorphisms (God resembling humans) – but the Talmud had no such difficulties with those concepts. And for the theologically-skeptical, the more alike God looks and acts to a big and powerful person, the more likely such images are mere projections of human longing and aspiration rather than accurate descriptions of the universe.

And what’s harmful about that? If one can separate myth and literature from science and history, not too much. After all, another natural human trait exemplified in this discussion of blessings for natural phenomena is the very human reaction of wonder at the power and grandeur of the natural world. When we feel an earthquake, or see lightening, or witness a rainbow, or visit a great ocean, or study the vastness of the stars in space, we are all awed. But awe at the beauty of the natural world must not prevent scientific study or explanation of how and why those phenomena take place. If our ONLY explanation for earthquakes remained “God’s tears,” we would never be able to learn how to build better buildings to withstand them, or to create devices that can detect them and predict aftershocks. We can share mythologies from our culture and from others about why there are seasons, or rainbows, or human knowledge of good and evil – but those stories are just stories, not facts.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Jews and Non-Jews - Berakhot 58

One of the most complicated issues in contemporary Jewish life is the question of relations between Jews and non-Jews. For most of the last 2000 years, Jews have lived among non-Jewish populations, sometimes as welcome and often as unwelcome guests. Today’s Talmud page has a nice discussion of good guests who acknowledge generosity and bad guests who minimize the host’s generosity and focus only on the negatives. But a common thread through the entire page is the different treatment the Talmud accords to Jews (here referred to as yisrael/Israel) and non-Jews [umot ha-olam – nations of the world].

On one hand, one is supposed to say blessings on seeing Jewish AND non-Jewish sages and kings – different blessings to be sure, but both are important. On the other hand, seeing a crowd of Israelites elicits praise for their individuality, while a crowd of nokhrim [“strangers”/non-Jews] should be met with “Your mother shall be greatly ashamed; she who bore you shall be disgraced” (Jeremiah 50:12). The same verse is to be recited when seeing non-Jewish graves, while a Jewish cemetery inspires praise for future resurrection. Inhabited Jewish homes are praised, and destroyed ones provoke “Blessed is the true judge,” but standing non-Jewish houses warn of coming divine punishment, and destroyed non-Jewish homes are a reminder of God’s vengeance. Given that non-Jewish empires destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, taxed the Jews separately and at times persecuted them violently, such animosity is regrettable, not to be emulated today, but perhaps understandable.

The most difficult story in today’s page concerns Rabbi Shila, who whipped a man who had sexual relations with a non-Jew [literally baal nokhrit – husband of a foreign woman]. The man complained to the authorities that Shila was judging without state authority, and Shila counter-accuses the man of having sex with a female donkey [khamarta]. The authorities ask why he wasn’t killed, and Shila answers that the Jews don’t have that legal power while in exile. Elijah miraculously appears to offer testimony to the truth of Shila’s accusations, Shila flatters the authorities, and they grant him legal power to judge. The accused man charges Shila with lying, and Shila cites Ezekiel 23:20, which refers to non-Jews as “their flesh is the flesh of donkeys” – in other words, Shila claims he didn’t lie to the authorities because “they” ARE like donkeys! The accused man turns to explain to the non-Jewish authorities that Shila called them donkeys, and Shila names him a rodef [“pursuer,” someone about to kill another who can thus be justifiable killed] and summarily executes him.

Is this inter-ethnic animosity justified by past experiences of persecution? Or is it objectionable to modern sensibilities of equality, justice, and freedom? Should the punishment for violating such boundaries flogging and death, a violation treated as if one had sex with an animal? Or are individuals free to seek love with other people on their own, and may they enjoy it when they find it? In short, past persecutions are no justification for present prejudice., whether by words or by deeds.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Dreams and Prophecies - Berakhot 57

Sometimes the rabbinic world makes sense to us, and sometimes it seems absolutely foreign. Today’s Talmud page begins by describing the good predictions of dreaming one is praying or wearing tefillin (prayer boxes) or reciting the Shema. And right next to it, we learn that a dream of sexual intercourse with one’s mother predicts understanding, with a betrothed maiden predicts Torah knowledge, and with one’s sister predicts wisdom. Dreaming of intercourse with a married woman may be a sign of a place in the world to come – provided, of course, one does not know her or think of her before bed! In all of these cases, the basis for interpretation is connection with a Biblical verse – “say to wisdom, you are my sister” (Proverbs 7:4). After all, “obtaining wisdom” would not be the first interpretation of a dream of sibling incest that would otherwise come to mind.

At other times, the symbolism at work in rabbinic dream interpretation is more clear. Dreaming that one is naked in Israel means one is bare of pious deeds while being naked in Babylon is a sign of being sinless. Or consider the Talmud’s interpretation of seeing King David, King Solomon, or King Ahab – David (“author” of Psalms) hopes for piety, Solomon (“author” of Proverbs) for wisdom, and Ahab (an idolatrous king who persecuted the prophet Elijah) means one should fear punishment. And the same three-part structure division holds for dreaming of certain Biblical books, or rabbinic sages, or later disciples. Some signs are generally good – like animals or fruits or colors (each with exceptions: a saddled elephant or monkey, an unripe date, or blue). And on and on until we finally return to the subject of blessings – blessings one should recite in the morning upon dreaming of particular images or texts.

The challenge for us, we must remember, is that we no longer see dreams as prophecies – according to today’s page, “sleep is one-sixtieth of death, and a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy.” For the Talmud’s rabbis, who demonstrably understood and controlled far less about life and death than we do today, many things could be a siman [sign] of what was to come. Sometimes they could well have been based on observation – for some illnesses, sneezing, sweating, sleeping or dreaming can be a good sign of imminent recovery, as the Talmud claims they are. But their justification is based on Biblical quotation, and today they are less useful to predict the future than a good diagnosis or a course of antibiotics.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, April 25, 2005

What Dreams May Come - Berakhot 56

Continuing the diversion from a central focus on berakhot (blessings), we find much more rabbinic dream interpretations in our current page. Amusingly, many of them are encapsulated in the story of Bar Hedaya, the dream interpreter, and the two rabbis Abaye and Rabba. Abaye would pay him one zuz but Rabba would not, and “to one who paid him he gave a favorable interpretation and to one who did not pay he gave an unfavorable interpretation” – even though they repeatedly have the same dreams! The lesson: one should always pay professionals. In many cases, they dreamed of reciting Biblical verses, thus providing an opportunity for personal interpretation: for example, when they both read “your ox will be slain,” Abaye is told his business will prosper and he will be unable to eat from joy, while Rabba’s business will be a failure. But most of their dreams concern images, thus providing general dream symbolism to later generations (though with contradictory interpretations). Some examples of the images:

- Lettuce on the mouth of a jar: business will double (Abaye) or business will be bitter (Rabba)
- A cask on a palm tree: business will flourish (Abaye) or your goods will be overabundant (Rabba)
- A cask falling into a pit: goods will be in demand (Abaye) or they will be spoiled and thrown away (Rabba)

Rabba then goes by himself and is told that dreaming his teeth falling out means his children will die, dreaming two pigeons flying means he will divorce twice, and dreaming two turnips meant he would be struck twice. When he was actually struck later that day, he stopped them from hitting him more by saying “Enough! I only saw two!” He finally pays Bar Hedaya, and receives better news: a wall falling down means wealth will arrive, his home collapsing and everyone taking a break means his teachings will spread, and more. But Rabba has his revenge for Bar Hedaya’s dire predictions – traveling together, Rabba discovers the teaching in Berakhot 55 that “dreams follow ‘the mouth’ [interpretation]”, and he curses Bar Hedaya because his interpretations must have led to the disasters. As a prisoner of the king, Bar Hedaya continues to demand his zuz before he will offer dream interpretations, and for his disobedience he is torn in half by two trees. Thus the danger of dealing harshly with “powerful” clients as well!

There are many more examples of rabbinic dream interpretation, including: seeing a well means peace, or life, or Torah; seeing a river, bird or pot may mean peace; a reed is symbolic of wisdom; an ox can be good news or bad depending on what it does; a camel may be sign of imminent death; and so on. As long as we consider dream interpretation as more artistic creativity than scientific or factual investigation about either our personal past or our future, it can be fun (and at least as interesting as more blessings).

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Long Life, Secret Knowledge and Dreams - Berakhot 55

Today’s Talmud page begins with a discussion of how to prolong one’s life: drawing out a prayer, a meal or a visit to a privy. For the last, one is told not to overly strain oneself in a privy, 10 ways avoided hemorrhoids, and we read of one rabbi’s habit of testing himself in each of the 24 privies between his house and the Beit ha-Midrash (house of study). In these rabbinic discussions of what may prolong one’s days or for what one should pray, we can hear both rabbinic priorities and admirable values for our own times: do not refuse a gift of honor (their examples: saying grace after a meal or reading from the Torah) or assume an air of authority. One hopes for a good king, a good year, and a good dream. And in a nice little detail, Rabbi Isaac interprets from the Biblical example of Bezalel (Exodus 31) that “one should not appoint a leader over a Community without first consulting it.”

What was Bezalel’s qualification? According to the Talmud, it was his wisdom and secret knowledge – he was able to combine the letters of creation, just as medieval and modern Jewish mystics try to use the Hebrew Aleph-Bet to unlock secrets in the tradition of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Most of the secret knowledge explored on today’s page, however concerns the interpretation of dreams – as Rabbi Hisda said, “a dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” The human fascination with dreams did not skip Talmudic rabbis, though they often read them as prophetic signs of the future while we read them as insights into our past.

This crucial difference notwithstanding, we find fascinating insights: “a bad dream is worse than scourging” “there is no dream without some nonsense” “while part of a dream may be fulfilled, the whole is never fulfilled” “the one whose dream saddens him should have it interpreted before three [fellows]”. Some rabbis play both sides: Samuel called his bad dreams false and his good dreams true. Rabbi Bana’ah went to 24 dream interpreters in Jerusalem, and each gave him a different interpretation that came true. His lesson: dreams follow “the mouth” [i.e. interpretation], just as in the Joseph story: “And it happened that just as he explained it to us, so it was.” (Genesis 41:13). Rabbi Jonathan provides the most Freudian insight of all: “A man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts”

The Talmud’s rabbis were not psychologists, nor were they prophets. And Freud did not begin interpreting dreams because he read page Berakhot 55. Rather, they are both part of the human fascination with dreams and secret knowledge. If we can learn one more thing about the world, or about our future, or about ourselves, who can resist?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Blessings and “Memories” - Berakhot 54

So far, the exploration of “Blessings” (Berkhot) has focused on blessings for certain occasions – special meals, Shabbat, daily prayers. Our lengthy Mishnah text under consideration in today’s page, however, demonstrates that for the Rabbis, there was a blessing for any occasion: there is a blessing for seeing a place from which idolators have been purged, or seeing shooting stars or earthquakes or lightning, or seeing mountains or rivers or deserts, or for rain and good tidings, or for evil news, or for buying a new house or objects (the classic Shehekhianu [who has sustained us]), and so on. We have already explored the problem of blessing God for disasters in previous pages, but what is most interesting in this list is a Tefillat Shav [a vain prayer]. Crying over the past, praying for a male child, or hearing cries in a house and hoping it is not yours: these are considered a waste of time by the Rabbis because one cannot change the reality of the world that has already exists – all we can hope to be better is what is yet to come.

One of the new categories of blessing described here are blessings on seeing places where miracles are said in the Bible to have taken place. The Talmud gives examples: the Red Sea, the Jordan where Joshua crossed (and the sea also parted), Lot’s wife as a pillar of salt, the stone the giant king Og wanted to throw at the Israelites, and so on. We even get a story of Moses as superhuman superhero – as Og prepares to destroy Israel, Moses (who is himself 10 cubits, or 15 feet, tall) takes a 15 foot axe, jumps 15 feet in the air, strikes Og on his ankle and kills him. And one can hear a latter-day tour guide say, “Imagine how large Og must have been! And THAT’S why this mountain is called Og’s Stone.”

Of course, from an historical perspective, many of these “moments” never actually happened – they were later stories to explain ancestral names for locations, or elements of the founding mythology – imagine finding the cherry tree George Washington supposedly cut down as a boy, saying “I cannot tell a lie,” and you’ll understand. We have found Jericho, but the site was abandoned during the time Joshua’s supposedly destroyed it. Even though we will be hearing the story on Passover, there is little historical evidence of any sizable Jewish presence in or Exodus from Egypt – certainly nothing on the order of events described in the Bible. The story retains its power as literature, but not as historical fact. Changing the past may be impossible, but changing our understandings of the past is essential to get a truer picture of who we are and from where we come.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, April 22, 2005

Intent and Purpose - Berakhot 53

In Talmudic times, sweet-smelling spices were rare commodities (and essential given limited hygiene), light came only through fire, and new fire often came from fires already burning. The question in today’s page is: how particular could one be in the origins and purposes of the fire and spices one needed to bless the end of Shabbat?

The rabbis in today’s page try to define appropriate contexts and usage of spices and fire if they are not used exclusively for blessing purposes. The Mishnah text under discussion warns against blessing the light or spices of foreigners, or the dead, or that used for avoda zara [“foreign worship” or idolatry] - evidently the material is spiritually contaminated by its use. So one should not bless a flame that “worked” on Shabbat, and an Israelite may bless a flame kindled from a nokhri [stranger – non-Jew] because it is as if his flame is brand new, but a flame kindled by a Gentile from a Gentile may both come from and be intended for “impure” uses. The same approach holds for lights or spices intended for the dead, or for a privy [beit ha-kisey – “house of the chair”]. If a town is majority Gentile, the Jew should not bless the light in the town, but if majority Jewish he may.

There are two ironies from our perspective – today non-Jews are generally not idolators (and worshipping idols says nothing one way or the other about ethical behavior), and many Jews are as unobservant of Jewish law as non-Jews are. When it comes to smelling spices in a town, it turns out that even a majority of Israelites is not enough to merit a blessing: some Israelite women use some of the spices for witchcraft, and only a small part goes to providing sweet scents. Thus blessings are not automatic – one must consider context and usage. This would parallel the contemporary liberal Jewish practice of offering blessings or special words only on special ceremonial occasions rather than at every meal and snack.

For the Talmudic rabbis, however, there was no similar flexibility. One man accidentally forgot to say a blessing, followed the stricter practice of Beit Shammai [the school of Shammai], and received gold. Another intentionally omitted it, used the shorter replacement blessing of Beit Hillel [the school of Hillel] intended only for accidental omission, and then was eaten by a lion. A Rabbi forgot to say grace, made an excuse to return to do it fully, and found a golden dove. The message is put very simply at the end of that third story: “Israel is saved only by mitzvot [commandments]”. For those who question such cosmic reward and punishment, a freely-chosen and flexible cultural connection is more satisfying.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Dignity and Diversity - Berakhot 52

One of the more inspiring parallels between the Talmud and modern life is the dignity accorded to the losing viewpoint. Just as American Supreme Court justices who dissent from the majority are allowed to compose their opinions, which are preserved alongside the majority’s, so too we see in the Talmud many times both sides of an issue even though the halakha [law] is already decided. If political, philosophical, and even personal debates today were carried out with as much attention to the dignity of the minority, life for both sides would be more pleasant.

A common minority opinion in the Talmud is Beit Shammai [the house/school of Shammai], who almost always lose out to Beit Hillel [the school of Hillel]. In today’s page, we find many rules concerning blessings where both sides are presented, but Beit Hillel all but embodies the halakha. Even though both have the same number of reasons on each side, the Talmud states that “the halakha is according to Beit Hillel” – the punchline to a story elsewhere in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b). Today’s page also highlights where they agree in order to clarify where they disagree: in blessing havdalah [“distinction” - end of Shabbat] after a meal, they agree that one blesses the meal first and the end of Shabbat second, but the order of havdalah blessings is what is debated.

Is there a general reason for deciding with Beit Hillel? They are often the more permissive (within the limited range of halakha), but not always: Beit Shammai would allow an am ha-aretz [“person of the land” – peasant or ignoramus] to serve as an attendant, but Beit Hillel would not, so one authority follows the law of Beit Shammai. In another context, an alternative tradition of what Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel said is brought to bear to decide the issue – Rabbi Judah remembered the debate differently from Rabbi Meir, and as confirmation it is noted that “the people are accustomed to [following the ruling of] Beit Hillel according to Rabbi Judah.” Imagine a time when the practice of the public had a decisive role in deciding Jewish law – what would Judaism look like today if this were true again?

For contemporary readers, the rules of traditional Jewish religious practice have been fixed for over 1000 years and are imagined to have always been so – what the Talmud shows us is how Jewish practice developed, and that there was diversity of opinions on almost every subject. Thus in this respect, modern Jewish pluralism may have more in common with the time before the Talmud was finalized than with the centuries after. In previous pages, we have seen plenty of dubious rabbinic “science” of diet and health, but in the debate over the havdalah blessing on candles, they are exactly correct – Beit Hillel’s preference for the plural me’orei ha-esh [illuminations of the flame] is based on their observation that there are many me’orot in one light. Today we would say “wavelengths of light” and would agree – the purest white light contains all of the other colors. As a metaphor, the existence of many opinions, perspectives, and practices leads us closest to our personal truths, inspiration, and the warmth of our own meaningful community.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Parallels and Patriarchy - Berakhot 51

Over 50 pages into the Daf Yomi (daily page), one can find amusing parallels between Talmudic approaches and modern life. A good portion of the first half of today’s page is consumed with advice of how and why to consume aspargus (a brew of vegetable stalks related to the Greek word “asparagus” – another interaction between Greeks and Rabbis). Like some suggest for red wine today, aspargus is good for the whole body if used regularly, but if used to get drunk is bad for the whole body. And like all “old wives tales,” there are alternate versions: some say it is good for LaAT [heart (lev), eye, (ayin), and spleen (tehol)] and bad for RaMaT [head (rosh), bowels (me’ayim), and hemorrhoids (tahtoniot)], while others say the opposite. The Talmud’s job is to harmonize the advice – the first must refer to a brew with wine, the other with beer. If only all diet and health advice could actually be harmonized, and we could be perfectly healthy! And we also see Rabbinic, pre-scientific versions of E.N.T (Ear, Nose, Throat) - type affiliated specialties.

The second parallel concerns the status of women, and here the parallel is not in the values but in the personal reaction. ‘Ulla was invited to a dinner at Rabbi Nahman’s, where Nahman asked ‘Ulla to pass the cup to Nahman’s wife Yalta in order to spread the blessings to her. Despite the preceding Talmudic discussion that encourages such generosity, ‘Ulla refused, citing Rabbi Judah’s claim that “the fruit of a woman’s body is only blessed through the fruit of a man’s body,” since Deuteronomy 7:13 promises fruitfulness to “bitnekha - your belly” (masculine form of you). Because the Torah text has no vowels, they could have simply reread Deuteronomy as referring to a woman (bitnekh) and given her the cup. However, if Deuteronomy meant a woman, the Rabbis assume it would have said “bitna – HER belly” since the audience listening to Torah is, of course, men. A very different values system from liberal Judaism today, to say the least.

Yalta’s reaction, however, is entirely understandable – she heard that ‘Ulla refused to pass her the cup, and she rose up in a fury, went to the winery, and smashed 400 jars of wine. Rabbi Nahman tries to appease her by offering her a second cup of wine from the same flask, which he claims partakes of the same blessing. Her answer in so many words: what else could you expect from a jerk like ‘Ulla. In her anger at exclusion, we can hear a pre-modern frustration that found its voice in recent times, for the good of wine jars everywhere.

In tomorrow’s page, we will consider the discussion of differences between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel concerning blessings and Shabbat rituals. In the Talmud’s patient explanation of both sides of the argument, rather than simply articulating the winning perspective, we can take a lesson for political and personal disputes of our own times.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Manners, Manners - Berakhot 50

One of the most common criticisms of East European Jewish immigrants to the United States by the Jews already here was their lack of manners – unclean, loud, rude, and unrefined. One of the major projects in the American Jewish community of that time was to civilize the immigrants, and to teach them manners. This was reflected in congregational life in the Reform-style “decorous” service of obedient listeners in fixed pews in rows, as opposed to the traditional self-directed prayer service with individuals reading prayers at their own pace such that the overall noise was very chaotic.

We can see some of the roots of these later arguments in today’s Talmud discussions. In debating the origins and correct blessings for Torah reading in synagogue (a blessing formula similar to the zimmun or invitation to bless after meals), the Mishnah states that Rabbi Akiva suggests “barkhu et adonai – Bless ye the Lord,” but Rabbi Ishmael prefers “barkhu et adonai ha-m’vorakh – Bless ye the Lord, the blessed one.” To clarify the actual practice, we hear a story of a man going into a synagogue and saying the shorter, only to have the entire congregation yell and correct him with the longer and Raba insult him for meddling in a controversy when the general practice is to read the longer, as is the case in traditional synagogues today. When even the rabbi makes a mistake, the people will certainly let him (or today her) know it.

But the most amusing sides of today’s page concerns table manners. We read 4 guidelines for bread: one should not put raw meat on it, pass wine over it, throw it, or rest a dish on it. Does this only apply to bread? One rabbi throws some dates towards another, and then we find a detailed discussion of which foods one may throw, and which foods may not be thrown. For some authorities say if we don’t throw bread, we don’t throw any food while others say that the prohibition only applies to bread. The resolution: no kushiya (difficulty) – bread and foods ruined by throwing (e.g. soft fruit) cannot be thrown but others (like dates) may be. No word of the proper treatment of cream pies...

And what if one starts eating but forgot to say a blessing beforehand, and now has a full mouth? Should one swallow it and then bless, shift it to one side and bless, or spit it out and bless? The answer: swallow liquids, spit out that which won’t be ruined, and shift to the side what must stay in the mouth to say (but not spray) the blessing. For just such scenarios, we can understand why so much effort has been spent in Berakhot to clarify what to say BEFORE one eats! And we also see the big difference between blessing as religious duty and as cultural folkway – the first requires one to bless first so as to have a clear conscience, while the latter would allow chewing and swallowing to celebrate with a clear mouth instead.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, April 18, 2005

How much is enough? - Berakhot 49

Talmudic blessings are not minor symbols – they are encapsulations of fundamental beliefs, hopes, and prayers. One concept debated during the period of Jewish Emancipation and citizenship was that of “rebuilding Jerusalem” – did Jews really long for a return to Israel and a recreation of a separate nation, or were they patriotic citizens of the lands where they lived? One could imagine a rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple without a return from “exile”; after all, when the Temple was first rebuilt, not all Jews returned and many others chose to leave to create the Jewish Mediterranean Diaspora long before the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. But today’s Talmud page, drawing on Psalm 147, explains the connection: WHEN does God rebuild the Temple? When he gathers in the dispersed of Israel.

This fear of “dual loyalty” is why many 19th century Jewish reformers eliminated prayers for rebuilding the Temple; some even proclaimed that where they were was their new Jerusalem, naming their congregational buildings “temples” for that very reason. Some of those who continue to pray for a “rebuilt Jerusalem” consider modern Israel incomplete without a new Jerusalem Temple under divine rule (which would be where the Muslim Haram al-Sharif or Dome of the Rock currently stands), and others still treat Diaspora Jews as if they’re in “exile” from where they really belong. There are those who argue against changing traditional texts because “they’re just in Hebrew” and American Jews don’t understand them anyways. To my mind, that’s no excuse for not thinking about what one is saying. The Talmudic approach continues to resonate in Jewish culture, even among more secularized Jews, in ways that can concretely affect our lives.

Today’s Talmud page concerns itself primarily with the question “how much is enough?” We find a detailed debate over how much food really counts as participating in a meal to count for the invitation to bless afterwards – according to the Mishnah under discussion, Rabbi Meir’s standard is an olive’s worth (i.e. a standard of “eating anything”), while Rabbi Judah’s is the size of an egg (a standard of “eating that gives satisfaction”). The same kind of questions concerns Rab – if one makes a mistake in their blessing after a meal and forgets to bless a Shabbat, holiday, or new moon, Rab suggests they may say a one-phrase replacement rather than repeat the entire procedure. Later Rabbis refine his replacements to apply only before a certain point is reached, and only for meals which are freely chosen rather than the Amida (standing prayer) which is a fixed obligation.

Similar questions beset modern Judaisms – how much of historical Jewish culture is required to create a meaningful Jewish identity? Need one perform all of the requirements of the Talmud or can one choose from among them? May one make substitutions that more efficiently and effectively address situations? And is one free enough to make the choices needed to speak to one’s own times and with one’s own beliefs?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Divinity and Authority - Berakhot 48

One of the greatest conceptual shifts between the time of the rabbis and modern times is in the area of authority – the rabbis believed that their authority was an extension of divine authority, which was absolute. Today we give much more authority to the individual to define meaning, truth, and meaningful religious practice for themselves. In today’s page, this story appears: when two rabbis were young boys, an older rabbi asked them where God was. One pointed to the roof, and another went outside to point at the sky, and both are praised with the prediction that they too will become rabbis. Today we would consider this a too-simple cosmology – contemporary thought ranges from a divine internal presence to God as a creation of human imagination (in OUR image) with no independent existence. In any case, knowing that we live on a spherical earth orbiting the sun in the vast emptiness of space, simply pointing “up” seems quaint.

In the context of discussing whether one must have eaten something to participate in blessing a meal, we also see the challenge of earthly authorities, as the Jewish Hasmonean king Yannai battles with the proto-rabbis of his day (c. 100 BCE). Having persecuted them, understandably none attends his meal to say a blessing. His wife Salome (Hebrew Shulamit) extracts a promise not to harm the one she brings, who turns out to be her brother Shimon ben Shetakh. As she sits him with the king, she asks her brother to note how he has been honored by royalty. His response: not you but Scripture has honored me. King Yannai takes affront that religious authority has taken precedence over his own. Fortunately, Shimon composes a blessing honoring both God and Yannai, and ultimately during Salome’s reign after the death of Yannai the Pharisees and the Jewish monarchy were reconciled. Conflicts between earthly Jewish governments and the authority of malkhut ha-shamayim (the Heavenly Kingdom) continue today – witness the battles in Israel over “withdrawal.”

Ultimately, the authority of the Rabbis relies on their belief that they have inherited God’s authority by serving as the authorized interpreters of His Rulebook - the Torah. Even though the Rabbis may define the specific circumstances for blessings, they claim that Biblical figures instituted most of them (here, for example, Moses, Joshua, Solomon and David all contributed blessings for after meals) and that the Torah itself alludes to the need for such blessings. They ask, “Where is the blessing of meals in the Torah?” and they find Deuteronomy 8:10 which they parse into the four rabbinically-prescribed blessings. But then they want to know, “Where is there Torah authority for blessing the Torah?’ Without a direct text, they resort to kal va-homer (how much more so – if we bless food for this temporary life, how much more so should we bless the Torah for giving us eternal life in the world to come?) and gezerah shavah (shared language – the meal blessing citation says “give”, and elsewhere God “gave” commandments and the law, so the two texts must be related).

In the end, of course, it is a circular argument. If one already believes the Torah to be true, one can prove that the Torah is true by referring to the Torah. But this standard of proof only works from within the already-religious framework – in the world of science, philosophy and logic, a document cannot prove itself from itself. I could claim that this blog entry is truly 500 years old and then prove it by showing that the blog entry says so! This is the ultimate change in authorities from ancient times to today – the power of the individual to question what the tradition “knew” to be true, and to come to their own conclusions.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Honor and Insult - Berakhot 47

In hierarchical societies like Rabbinic academies, the balance of honor is very important – one must respect one’s elders, even to sitting in the correct order for a meal as explored in Berakhot 46. Today’s Talmud page begins with an egalitarian claim: one does not give honorific deference on the road, on bridges, or in washing the hands (this may explain Jewish pushiness). However, in buildings of deference “where a mezuzah is suitable,” honor must be observed. When Rab Akha, a famous rabbi, declines to bless the end of a meal he entered at the end in a gesture of humility, the Talmud makes sure to add that “the law is that the greatest blesses even if he comes in at the end.” And even if there no practical difference in wording, a student must speak in the exact words of his teacher (rabbo – his rabbi). I always say: put it in your own words to make the teaching your own – that way, it’s easier to repeat and to believe, and you’ve given your intellectual agreement by internalizing the teaching in your own way.

While the rabbis seem very cautious about offense when talking amongst themselves, they are less restrained when addressing others. Can a Kuti, or Samaritan be invited to bless a meal? The Samaritans, who still exist in small numbers today but are more famous for a New Testament parable, were an offshoot of Jewish practice who read a Torah almost identical to the Rabbinic version but in their own script. Though the Rabbis were dubious about Samaritan claims to be descended from the Hebrews, it is decided here that since Samaritans can be even more scrupulous with mitzvah (commandments) than the Jews, and since they tithe their produce correctly, they are acceptable.

The am ha-aretz, the Jewish ignoramus, is another matter, and is never invited. The Rabbis here define who is an am ha-aretz, and we may hear some of ourselves in their condemnations: anyone who doesn’t recite the Shema twice daily, or put on tefillin, or wear a fringe on his garment, or put a mezuzah on the door, or raise one’s sons to study Torah. The best formulation? Even if one has learned Bible and Mishnah, but does not attend to the Rabbis (talmiday hakhamim – students of the wise). From a Talmudic perspective, it makes no difference what one has chosen to perform or not – that fact that one has rejected Rabbinic authority is an automatic proof that one is an am ha-aretz. Though we reject the label, having chosen our observance out of knowledge rather than from ignorance, if anyone ever calls you this name you can know that you are in great and numerous company – there are a lot more of “us” than there are of “them.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, April 15, 2005

Blessings for Hosts, Mourners, and All Occasions - Berakhot 46

Because the current focus of Berakhot is meal blessings, a predictable question is the etiquette of guest and host – who should say which blessings? At the conclusion in honor of Rabbi Zera’s recovery from an illness, it is decided to follow the tradition of Shimon bar Yohai: the host breaks bread at the beginning to welcome his guest, and the guest blesses at the end to thank his host. In their formulation of this blessing, we discover what they valued: not to be ashamed in this world or disgraced in the next, to be prosperous and also near a city (the better to visit his estates), and may Satan and sin have no influence now and forever. Some positives for this world, some for the next, and some to avoid dangerous interactions between the supernatural and the natural.

In their attempt to discover which blessings are originally Biblical and which are of rabbinic origin, the rabbis stumble on a problem with the standard blessing formula – there really isn’t one. One Rabbi tries to claim that the blessing “hatov umeytiv – who is good and does good” is not Biblical because “every blessing begins and ends with barukh [blessed] except blessings on fruits, on commandments, on uniting one to another, and for the Shema.” Some begin with barukh, and some end with barukh. The truth is, for Rabbinic blessings, MOST follow the pattern of beginning with barukh, have a lengthy blessing, and then end with a one phrase summary that begins with barukh. But with so many exceptions, it’s better to talk about a general pattern than “EVERY blessing.”

Another rabbi takes a different tack on the question of “who is good and does good” as Biblical or not – some would say it in a house of mourning (beit ha-avel), but Rabbi Akiva says instead Barukh dayan ha’emet – blessed is the true judge.” The Talmud concludes one may say both, but the dominant practice among Talmudic followers to this day is after Rabbi Akiva. One rabbi, visiting a mourning colleague, gives a longer blessing that summarizes the Talmudic perspective on death and mourning: He blesses God who is good and does good, the true judge who judges and takes humanity righteously, and for everything we are obligated to thank Him and bless him. For the pious, this is a confirmation of faith in the face of tragedy. For the skeptical and the suffering, this is adding injury to injury.

Why thank the universe for tragedy, loss, and suffering? Is it because we are justly punished for sins of which we or our deceased were unaware? That is blaming the victim. The idealization of an imagined cause of human suffering is like the fraternity pledge in the movie Animal House who gets a vicious paddling and then must say, “Thank you sir. May I have another?” When meeting with a mourner, sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all than to assume religious theology knows the true meaning. As we read in Berakhot 6b, “the merit of visiting mourners is in the silence.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Birkat ha-Mazon – “Grace” After Meals - Berakhot 45

Sometimes Jewish practice is defined by strict mitzvot (commandments), and sometimes it is more nebulous. In contemporary Jewish life, Jewish laws are more often honored in the breach rather than the observance. To know what Jews do today, better than to reading all of the Talmud, follow instead Raba’s recommendation to resolve a question of the blessing on water: “What is the law? Go out and see what the people say.” Sometimes the problems in Jewish life are a function of the rabbinic leadership getting to far away from where the people already are.

Today’s page provides another demonstration of that reality in its discussion of who is obligated to invite or be invited to say the birkat ha-mazon, or “grace after meals” (literally, “blessing of the meal”). After the conclusion of a meal, if there are three men present, a ritual invitation to say the birkat is recited which begins “rabotai n’varekh – Gentlemen, let us bless.” In the Mishnah text that begins this discussion, it is clearly stated that gentiles, women, children and slaves are not so invited. Fortunately, liberal Jewish practice today encourages women and children to participate, and modern life has outlawed slavery in most (but tragically not all) corners of the world.

The Talmudic discussion goes on to clarify (improving on the Mishnah) that women are able to invite each other by themselves, or slaves by themselves, but not together. The Talmud asks why, if 100 women are not better than 2 men, the former can be “invited” but not the latter. The answer: they have independent minds and thus if there are three of them, the invitation may take place. However, this is not full equality but rather “separate but equal” – such a female invitation can only take place when it is a group of women alone, not even with slaves for fear of “immorality.” This world of gender segregation has been challenged in some form in Jewish life since the first Reform congregations in the early 19th century instituted gender-mixed seating in the synagogue.

Other innovations, emblematic of modern life, are the roles of the respondent to and translator of traditional texts. In some synagogues today, the audience knows when to say “Amen” but doesn’t know and certainly doesn’t understand the prayers and texts being read. Thus response and translation, often a loose and sanitized version of the original, is the true source of meaning for the ritual. The Talmud here assumes that the “Amen” and the translator should not raise their voice over the reader of the original. In our version of this lesson, don’t let simple participation and creative translations that soften controversies replace directly engaging the original text, as we are here every day in the Daf Yomi (daily page). In this area, DON’T do as the people do – look deeper.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Healing and the Rabbinic Diet - Berakhot 44

Again the tangential nature of Talmudic discourse rescues us from another enumeration of which blessing to say first: for salted foods or for bread. We find that a special fruit was very prized, so much so that one Rabbi would eat a thousand of them, and others would eat so much that their hair fell out or they lost their mind. From this we jump to other tales of prodigious produce: a city and a tree under the Maccabean King Yannai (c. 100 BCE) that produced myriads of salted fish and pigeons. One even claims to have seen a city in the Land of Israel with 80 pairs of brother priests married to 80 daughters of priests that were sisters. The Talmud claims that the Rabbis investigated this last claim “from Sura to Nehardea” (i.e. from one major Bablyonian rabbinic academy to the other) and were unable to verify it. In other words, they investigated a claim about Israel by surveying the knowledge of the Babylonian Rabbis in Babylonia! Why? Because the keepers of the tradition were to be trusted, and certainly more accessible than surveying Israel itself in this period.

It has been said that “one cannot argue about taste,” but it was clearly NOT said in a Talmudic rabbinic academy – today’s page offers plenty of suggestions. “Rab says: a meal without salt is no meal.” Or “R. Jannai said in the name of Rabbi: Any food in a quantity equal to an egg, an egg is better than it” (though another argues that a boiled egg is not better than the same amount of boiled meat). A small salted fish can be deadly if not fully roasted and eaten on the 7, 17th, or 27th day of its salting without also drinking beer/liquor (shakhra). One food is good for the teeth and bad for the bowels, while another is bad for the teeth and good for the bowels. And in the Rabbinic version of “you are what you eat,” greens will turn you sickly green (kol yerek khai morik), and small foods (not fully grown) will keep you small. Eating the (formerly) living gives life, and eating from close to the source of their life does as well.

While wordplays are clever, and the advice is heartfelt, its scientific value is often unproven. It is true that food can have healing effects, and that traditions have sometimes preserved the wisdom of experience. Here the Talmud laments one who eats primarily vegetables without meat or wine – not simply because it was a sign of poverty, but because such a diet could have negative effects. Did they know about protein and nutritional value and modern medicine? No; for example, they still refer to bloodletting as an ordinary event. Food can heal, but tradition is a mixed teacher that must be constantly re-evaluated in light of our own knowledge of the world.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Ideals and Public Perception - Berakhot 43

In the midst of a discussion of what blessings are to be said of certain fragrances and perfumes, we find a fascinating series of ethical and personal recommendations. Some are based on profound insights into the human condition, others are based on a cultural ethos we find very foreign, and still others are based on the fear of public perception.

We first find three sayings of Rabbi Zutra, the first only loosely connected to the topic of blessings by its attention to “beauty” and the second simply another saying of Rabbi Zutra, What does Ecclesiastes 3 mean by “God made everything beautiful in its time/season?” Just that God makes everyone find his own profession beautiful. This is sometimes true in human experience, but certainly not always! In the second saying, at night a torch is like two people and the moon is like three – for vision? No: in order to ward off “evil spirits,” which may harm one, show themselves to two, but hide from three – the Talmud it self doesn’t even use the word for “spirits,” but the implication of their danger is clear.

It is the third saying of Rabbi Zutra that is the most inspirational: “It is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than put his fellow to shame (literally yalbin panav -“make his face pale”) in public.” And where do we learn this? From the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, where she didn’t publicly shame Judah even though she was threatened with a fiery death for being thought promiscuous. THIS is an inspirational ethical lesson for any age, and it is a pleasant surprise to learn it from the example of a Biblical woman.

Much of the remainder of the page is spent interpreting what is considered “unbecoming” for a scholar (literally Talmid Khakham – “wise student”): going into the street/market perfumed, going out at night alone, talking to a woman in the street, eating a meal with the ignorant (amei-ha-aretz, literally “people of the ground” or “peasants”), being the last to enter the Beit Midrash (house of study), and some say taking long strides or walking stiffly. The page goes on to clarify the perfume restriction applies only when going to “a place where people suspect laying down with males” – a very interesting anecdote for further historical study. Why not go out alone or speak with women? People might suspect immorality, even with one’s female relatives since they may not know you are related. Why not eat with the ignorant? One might be drawn astray. Why not be the last to the Beit Midrash? This one, at least, is obvious to us as well – lest one be thought an idler.

Today, the fear of public suspicion is much less of a concern – as Oscar Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about.” Heaven forbid that one eat with those of a different perspective, or risk suspicion to talk with one’s sister, or enjoy one’s life outside of formal obligations as one wishes. Thank goodness for our freedoms today to do just that.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Exilarch and the Death of a Teacher - Berakhot 42

If in the previous Talmud page we read that one blessing suffices for a meal of various foods, when is a meal over, thus requiring the blessing after meals (birkat ha-mazon) before leaving the table or eating something else? In other words, does dessert count? The answer: if the main meal has not been removed, it is still in session. Or if one planned on eating more (or even using olive oil after), the main meal blessing counted as well.

One of the anecdotes brought to further elaborate on the question mentions two rabbis visiting the “Exilarch” (Resh Galuta, literally Aramaic for “head of the Exile”), whose table is so abundant that even after dinner was removed and new food appeared, they were able to eat because the additional dessert could have been predicted. The Exilarch was the official/political leader of the Jewish community in Babylonia, recognized as such by both Jews and the non-Jewish authorities. Though relations between rabbinic authorities and the Exilarch were not always smooth, the two power centers mostly cooperated for Jewish communal governance – some Exilarch family members became rabbinic scholars, and the Exilarch would often appoint the heads of the major yeshivas (rabbinic academies).

One of the poignant episodes concerns the death of a scholar, or according to the Talmud, “when Rab’s soul rested.” His students returned and discussed this problem: though the Mishnah says individuals sitting say their own blessing but reclining can bless together, a rabbinic tradition claims that a group can sit together and bless together. One student tore his clothing even further than his mourning tear, lamenting that their teacher is dead and they haven’t learned this law! Fortunately, a “grandfather” walks by and helps them harmonize the two principles: if the group chooses to sit and eat together, it is as if they reclined. Our lesson: there are always more teachers from whom we can learn, even though beloved teachers are rightfully missed in their absence.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Priorities - Berakhot 41

So far, most of our Talmudic investigation of appropriate blessings have applied to specific, individual foods. But what to do when faced by many kinds of foods? Do you have to bless them all, and if so in what order? Or is one ceremonial blessing enough? Does one need to say a blessing before them, after them, both, or none of the above?

The Mishnah text under discussion holds that Rabbi Judah would bless one of the “seven species” mentioned specifically in Deuteronomy 8:8 – wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive (oil), and honey. On the other hand, the Rabbis would allow diners to choose whichever food they liked the best and bless that. If the multiple food items require the same blessing, one may choose any of them to bless. And if they have different blessings, the one liked the best should be chosen first. What if one faces barley and figs, both of the “seven species?” One rabbi suggests to follow the order they appear in Deuteronomy, for according to the Rabbis nothing happens in divine revelation without a purpose and logic.

What about a full meal? After all, blessing every individual food item would make eating much more difficult. The solution: the bread blessing at the beginning of the meal covers all other foods present during the meal. Of course, snacks outside of meal time require more specific blessings for specific foods, and as shall see in the next page, that may or may not include dessert.

The focus on how to bless what foods, whether to do so before or after, and which blessings to use for what foods may strike us today as excessive detail, pre-occupation with religious obligation, or simply unnecessary complication. Most liberal Jews today only use blessings for special occasions, not for everyday meals and snacks. Some have tried to re-interpret a “blessing lifestyle” by using blessings as “mindfulness”– before eating, one can pause and reflect on life and the food in front of you: who made it, where it comes from, etc. Would our lives be more satisfying that way? Possibly; but sometimes we’re just hungry.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, April 09, 2005

For a Diversion. . .

As you will see, this email making the rounds is loosely related to our tractate Berakhot (Blessings), but not really. I don't think it needs any commentary.

What bracha (blessing) does one say before taking the Viagra pill?

There is a choice of four blessings:
1. Borei p'ri ha-eitz - blessing over the fruit of the tree;
2. Boruch Atah HaShem zokeif k'fuffim - straightens those who are bent;
3. Ya'aleh v'yavo - arise and come;
4. Boruch Atah HaShem mechayei hameitim - raises the dead.

Yes, the anti-impotence drug has been found to contain a tiny amount of animal matter, rendering it - one would think - treif (not kosher). But, Rabbi Abraham Blumenkrantz, an American Kashrut expert, says that, as a medication that adds pleasure to the Sabbath (not to mention the rest of the week), it is permissible. But it is banned during Pesach (Passover) - along with all other agents that cause things to rise.

The Rabbinic Diet - Berakhot 40

While moderns tend to compartmentalize religion to a small part of their lives, in the Talmud nothing is beyond the realm of rabbinic investigation. This includes what today we would prefer to leave to doctors and professionals, like our diet. According to today’s page, if one eats salt after every food and drinks water after every drink, no harm will come; if this is not done, your mouth will smell bad by day and intestinal problems will plague you by night. They even give you the proper “dosage of water” – a cupful per loaf of bread. By the way, they also suggest that urine (mei raglayim – “water of ‘the legs’”) is never fully discharged unless sitting.

The diet advice continues: one should take lentils at least once every thirty days to keep away croup, but not every day lest one’s mouth smell. Mustard seed once every thirty days prevents illness, but every day weakens the heart. Small fish are claimed to help bowel function, increase fertility and virility, and strengthen the whole body. One suggests black cumin prevents “heart pain” (k’ev lev – could be heartburn), but another considers it a poison. How to harmonize these two, other than to say that one likes cumin and another hates it? The taste is helpful but the smell is poisonous. Thus we learn that Rabbi Jeremiah’s mother would bake him bread with cumin (for taste) and scrape it off (to avoid the smell). It does not indicate whether she cut off the crusts for him as well.

In today’s page, we also find an answer to the question of how creative one may be with blessings, according to the Talmud. Rabbi Meir would allow general expressions of pleasure like “how wonderful this fig is! Blessed is God (literally ha-makom – the place) who created it.” Rabbi Yose, however, says one may not alter the blessings of the sages, affirming the power of tradition. “Benjamin the Shepherd” (i.e. an uneducated person) makes a sandwich and says in Aramaic “b’rikh marey d’hai pita – blessed is the master of this bread,” and Rab accepts this form of blessing even though elsewhere Rab has asserted that any blessing without the name of God is no blessing. Rabbi Yochanan wants mentioning divine kingship to be a basic requirement to any blessing, but he is denied in favor of Rab.

So some rabbis support creativity, but within strict parameters, and even linguistic flexibility has its limits. While one may read certain texts, including certain Torah sections, blessings, the Shema, and the Amida, in “secular languages” (i.e. not Hebrew), one may only do so in the same form originally prescribed by the Rabbis. Thus using a “creative translation” that more accurately reflects what we believe, or a Hebrew version that doesn’t mention God, would not count for Talmudic Rabbis. But if we truly depended on their approval, we would not be who we really are.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, April 08, 2005

Peace Between Students - Berakhot 39

As we have seen before, lessons of halakha (religious law) can be taught in the Talmud through legal reasoning, but also through anecdote and personal example. One such case is brought to illuminate what one is supposed to do if various foods are served at once. Two students of Bar Kappara (200-220 CE) once sat with their teacher waiting for a meal, one was given permission to bless the poultry, plums and cabbage, and when he blessed the poultry his fellow student laughed at him.

The Talmud draws the lesson that while everyone knows the blessing on both poultry and cabbage should be “[general formula – barukh atah…] by whose word all things exist,” these students disagreed on which should be blessed first – the more nourishing or the more tasty dish. I prefer to draw a lesson from Bar Kappara’s reaction to each student. He turns first to the laugher and says, “I’m not mad at the blesser, but at the laugher – if your friend (haver) acts like he’s never seen meat before, why would you laugh at him?” Then he turns to the blesser and says, “I’m not mad at the laugher but at the blesser – if there is not wisdom here, is there not age here?” In other words, if you don’t know, ask someone with experience! Do not mock the less fortunate or less worldly, and rely on expertise if you don’t know – two very useful lessons for any age.

This page continues the discussion of which blessing applies to which food in what combinations – if you have beet or turnip broth with flour in it, what is the blessing? We also learn that beet broth is considered good for the heart, the eyes, and the bowels, as long as it’s left on the stove until it goes “tokh tokh” (i.e. boils) - more on "Talmudic medicine" in tomorrow's page. And we find a third answer to the problem of Bar Kappara – how to handle student disagreements. When one has a broken and a whole loaf to bless, a Tanna named Shalman (related to shalom – peace) teaches that one places the broken piece under the whole loaf, breaks the loaf, and gives the blessing. And Shalman is praised: “You are peace (shalom) and your Mishnah is perfect (shleyma), for you made peace between the students.” As any teacher knows, that is high praise indeed.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, April 07, 2005

TWO Talmuds? - Berakhot 38

As we saw in the previous page, one of the major concerns of this section of Berakhot (blessings) is the appropriate blessing for certain foods – if one combines grain with honey, or one adds water to a food, or if one boils it, does that change the character of the foodstuff enough to change the appropriate blessing? Because the blessings for bread and vegetable appear side-by-side in the Mishnah, it is concluded that in general vegetables work like bread – the change caused by fire (baking or boiling) is not enough to change the blessing. And if one makes the food into a meal, there are three more blessings to say after it is concluded.

There is some debate over the bread blessing – should it be phrased blessing God “who has brought forth” bread (ha-motzi) or “who is bringing forth” (motzi). The grammatical battle (as usual) is waged through Biblical citation and interpretation, and the Talmud’s conclusion is what today we know as the traditional blessing (ha-motzi). It is always interesting to see, however that the disagreement is preserved, and the defeated position is nevertheless given the dignity of a full argument – even on something as basic and habitual as this.

This diversity is part of a creative tension in Rabbinic Judaism – a balance between stating the law clearly with no discussion, or stating the arguments that led to it but thereby make the law less clear. In addition, for most of the time the Talmud was being created, there were two major centers of Rabbinic teaching: in Israel and in Babylonia. For example, today’s Talmud page mentions that when a colleague (haver) arrived from Israel, they used a different blessing.

Around the year 400 CE, the incomplete discussions of the Israeli school were compiled into the “Palestinian Talmud” (in Hebrew Yerushalmi – Jerusalem Talmud). The Babylonian discussions were able to continue for a century longer before they were compiled into the “Babylonian Talmud” (Bavli), the more complete and authoritative version that forms the basis of the Daf Yomi (daily page). The existence of two Talmuds is just one more example of the continuing Jewish battle between diversity and conformity – why have one authoritative legal discussion when you can have two?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Agreeing to Disagree about Ingredients - Berakhot 37

The Talmudic tradition went to great lengths to preserve the chain of authority in transmitting important sayings - the title for the earlier generations of Rabbis was Tannaim, which means “Repeaters,” the experts in orally repeating the teachings of the past. It was only at the end of the Tannaitic period that the Mishnah was written down in its fixed form. As we have seen on earlier pages, the Talmud’s discussion often tries to harmonize opposing views of earlier generations by “clarifying” that they were referring to different circumstances.

There are also times when the disagreement does not permit a compromise. On today’s page, Rabban Gamaliel, the head of the Rabbinic assembly, believes one must recite three blessings (as after a meal) after eating any of the “seven species” (seven foods listed in Deuteronomy 8). “The Rabbis,” on the other hand, believe one may say an abbreviated form instead. An anecdote appears to resolve the dispute: Rabbi Akiva, given permission by Gamaliel to bless the food, follows the practice of The Rabbis instead! Gamaliel says, “Akiva, how long will you put your head into disputes?” Akiva’s defense: “have you not taught us, with one versus many, the halakha (law) is with the many?” And that is the end of the debate – an early example of majority ruling over authority.

In today’s page, the disagreements continue to address food whose blessing may or may not be changed by preparation – rice, in today’s example, is in fact changed. Or has it? One says rice is a kind of grain, and is treated more like wheat, while another claims it is treated more like a cooked dish. Other disputes include common (for their day) combinations of various foodstuffs – is the dish more honey than grain, or more grain than honey? They do not haggling over recipes for taste’s sake, but for ritual purposes. Again, we also pay attention to ingredients, but more for health of the body than that of the soul.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Fruit or Vegetable? - Berakhot 36

Talmudic horticulture was not a scientific pursuit as we would think of it today. Rather, it was conceptual – which foods fit into which categories as demarcated by different blessings. Is something a “fruit of the tree” or “fruit of the earth,” or should one use the miscellaneous blessing “by whose word all things exist?” Some objects are clear – an apple is clearly “fruit of the tree” and a radish is clearly “fruit of the earth.” On many issues, however, the Talmud prefers to examine less-typical cases to refine (or create) principles behind their categories.

Here they debate regarding various substances like wheat flour or pepper (since it comes from a tree). If raw food is processed into something else, does its blessing change? Does olive oil require the same blessing as an olive (yes), and flour the same as wheat (yes)? In the end, their general principle is that if processing leaves it “fundamentally the same”, it requires the same blessing. In modern times, we have tried to make distinctions between “fruit” and “vegetables,” but that has not been perfect. A tomato is officially a fruit (fleshy material covering seeds), but so is a green pepper – try to find either in the fruit section of the supermarket!

If one categorizes foodstuffs by blessings, one may also take note of where it was produced – food grown in Ha-aretz (“The Land” – Israel) has specific religious requirements for its growth and processing that do not apply to food grown elsewhere. As one famous example in addition to tithing rules cited on today’s page, one is required to leave the land unplanted every seven years. We may pay more attention to ethical and environmental rather than ritual and religious concerns, but we are not the first generation to be interested in where our food is grown, and in what conditions.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, April 04, 2005

Food Blessings, Earning a Living, and What Comes First? - Berakhot 35

The Mishnah text for the next few pages of Talmud discussion concerns a basic ritual of Rabbinic Judaism – blessings for food. Each begins with the same traditional formula - “Blessed are you, YHWH, King of the World” - and ends differently for different foods: who creates the fruit of the tree, or fruit of the earth, or fruit of the vine. The Mishnah itself refers to these blessings only by the last phrase, assuming that one accepts the generic introduction – perhaps an opening to contemporary ideological creativity?

As is often the case in the Talmud, Talmudic Rabbis ask “From where do we know this?” In other words, we already know what we are supposed to do from the “Oral Torah” of Rabbinic tradition – how can we “prove” it (or justify it) from the Written Torah? Each prooftext works to justify blessings for certain food items, but not for others At the end, they have not found a satisfactory justification for the practice and simply state, “The fact is that it is reasonable that it is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing. And all who enjoy something in this world without a blessing commit sacrilege.” From the Rabbis perspective, this approach may be reasonable; using modern and post-modern theology and philosophy, not obviously the case.

The most interesting historical detail in today’s page is the question of how Rabbis get food in the first place – i.e., make a living. Rabbi Ishmael suggests they combine Torah study with a worldly occupation. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, later claimed by Jewish mysticism to be the author of the Zohar, worries that they will be too busy year-round and recommends study only, trusting that following God’s will means that others will create food for them. Another rabbi testifies that those who followed Rabbi Ishmael (and worked) were successful, but others were not. Yet another version of the human results-centered perspective that “God helps those that help themselves.”

Even though it is accepted that Rabbis should earn a living, there is concern that work could take precedence over Torah – earlier generations made Torah study primary and work secondary and both areas prospered, but today’s generations work more than study and neither area is successful. This is basic to Rabbinic theology – a devolution from earlier and holier generations to the more corrupted present day. While we may disagree with this evaluation – as one example, slavery is unthinkable today but was accepted then – we CAN agree that work to earn a living should never overtake what is truly valuable in life, whatever we hold that to be: family, friendship, or even personal dignity.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

You can see the full texts of some traditional blessings in English transliteration and translation at

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Prophecy and Humility - Berakhot 34

In the ancient world, where humanity had much less control over its own fate, anything could be taken as a sign. While Rabbinic Judaism sharply reduced the number of divine powers giving signs from early polytheism to one, they certainly looked for signs. If one recited a prayer or a blessing and made a mistake, it might well be a bad sign of something to come. One rabbi in the Mishnah text discussed in today’s page would pray for the sick and predict who would live and who would die by how smoothly the prayer came out. Today we might think of recitation mistakes in terms of “Freudian slips” instead, where a verbal stumble reveals a psychological truth or difficulty from the past rather than a sign about the future.

When Talmudic rabbis from later generations relate similar stories of the predictive power of smoothly-pronounced prayer, they deny that they are prophets, and say instead that it’s just the truth of their experience – proven here two legendary anecdotes. How many fluent prayers made no difference in illness or death? Statistics are not provided here, nor would one expect them to be. In a world where one debates how many times and how to bow to God in prayer, such counter-arguments are beyond the acceptable parameters.

The denial that the Rabbis are prophets is not only consistent with the Rabbinic belief that prophecy in Israel had ended centuries before, but also connected to their emphasis on humility. When asked to pass before the Ark (where the Torah is kept), one should refuse once, hesitate when asked a second time, and only the third time “stretch one’s legs” and go rather than rush up (over)confident in one’s purity. And in a very folksy way of putting it, they get at the point that a little humility is a good thing: “[There are] 3 things of which a lot is difficult and a little is beautiful: yeast, salt, and refusal.” Bowing may be too much, but a little refusal can go a long way.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Distinctions and the Fear of Heaven - Berakhot 33

Today’s Talmud page raises two challenging issues – questions of havdallah, or “distinctions,” and the concept of the “Fear of Heaven” (yir’at shamayim). The formal discussion concerns overlapping prayer requirements – if a festival falls immediately after Shabbat (Sabbath), certain blessings might be redundant between the liturgy during or at the end of Shabbat and the daily Tefillah (Amida prayer discussed on previous pages).

In the special blessing instituted by Rav and Shmuel, two pre-eminent rabbis in mid-3rd century Babylonia, we see much rabbinic ideology of havdallah. There is a formal havdallah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the regular week, but the concept goes deeper. There is a fault line in Talmudic Judaism separating Shabbat from the week, holy from ordinary, light from dark, and Israel from everyone else. Though a value statement is implicit in the divisions of end-of-Shabbat liturgy, it is made explicit in this new form: God has made Shabbat is holier than working days, and Israel is similarly holy because God has given them his festivals, Shabbats, and commandments. It IS appropriate to have pride in oneself and one’s tradition, but one does not need to feel BETTER than others to do so.

The second challenge is more philosophical – if God (metaphorically, “Heaven” or “sky” – shamayim), is all-powerful, how can an individual’s behavior and choices be judged? What gives one merit over any other? The Talmudic answer: “all is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” In more flippant translation: God runs everything except whether people obey him! This phrase for obedience, or worship, or piety strikes us as unusual – is fear really an ideal relationship? In a world where human power to control life and death was minimal and the caprices of disease, disaster, and fate were great, perhaps such a reaction was natural. Today, however, life is too precious a commodity to live it in fear – let us live in joy instead.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For the complete text of the traditional Havdallah ritual, you can visit

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Battle of God and Moses - Berakhot 32

One of my favorite episodes in the Torah actually happens twice – the first time is right after the children of Israel make the Golden Calf while Moses is with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus 32, and the second is after the Israelites refuse to enter Canaan after the spies give their report in Numbers 14. In both versions, God is so angry with the Israelites that he wants to wipe them out and start over with Moses. And in both versions Moses turns the tables and uses every possible motivational maneuver – flattery (“you are powerful and merciful”), public shame (“what will the Egyptians say about you”), and an appeal to earlier loyalties and promises to their ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). And God relents from the “evil” (Hebrew ra’) He considered.

Today’s Talmud page dives into this issue in greater depth by combining the two narratives, seeking to explain how Moses “spoke insolently” to God by disagreeing with the divine plan to start again. First, though it is couched in parables, God is held somewhat responsible for the Golden Calf. After all, says Moses, HE is the one who gave the Israelites all that gold while leaving Egypt, just like a father who makes his son attractive, gives him money, and drops him off at a whorehouse – “what could he do to avoid sinning?” Even though it is contrary to Rabbinic theology of an God with no actual body, one rabbi concedes that Moses may well have “grabbed” God, as one grabs a fellow’s clothes, to restrain Him! The Talmud’s Moses, unlike the original, turns psychology on himself – I would be a one-legged stool, and I would be ashamed before my ancestors as a leader if I got glory for myself and did not ask for mercy for my followers? Here Moses also reminds God that he swore promises by His own name to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that can’t be revoked. An odd (feminine) verbal form for ability (yekholet instead of yakhol) means the nations would accuse God of being “weak like a female” for his inabilities. And so on – different from the original stories, but intriguing dialogue nonetheless.

The Talmud page uses this story to show how effective prayer is – Moses prayed, and look what he accomplished! Today’s daf (page) goes on to elevate prayer over all other human action – prayer is greater than good deeds, fasting is better than charity (tsedakah – “righteous action), and prayer is even better than sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. But in Moses’ dialogues with God, we find that kernel of emphasis on human action we crave – hearing that God is about to destroy the Israelites, Moses says to himself, “Davar zeh talui bee – this thing depends on me.” We may not have many dialogues with God these days, and we may find good deeds and tsedakah far more effective than prayer and fasting. But for a one-sentence summary of the importance of human action, we can all say to ourselves, “this thing depends on me.” Our ancestors put that sentiment in the context of challenging God – let US use it to challenge ourselves.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For the original Torah narratives in Exodus and Numbers, you can look in a Bible or visit, then go to the desired book and chapter