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.

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