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.

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