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, 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