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.

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