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 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