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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Healing and the Rabbinic Diet - Berakhot 44

Again the tangential nature of Talmudic discourse rescues us from another enumeration of which blessing to say first: for salted foods or for bread. We find that a special fruit was very prized, so much so that one Rabbi would eat a thousand of them, and others would eat so much that their hair fell out or they lost their mind. From this we jump to other tales of prodigious produce: a city and a tree under the Maccabean King Yannai (c. 100 BCE) that produced myriads of salted fish and pigeons. One even claims to have seen a city in the Land of Israel with 80 pairs of brother priests married to 80 daughters of priests that were sisters. The Talmud claims that the Rabbis investigated this last claim “from Sura to Nehardea” (i.e. from one major Bablyonian rabbinic academy to the other) and were unable to verify it. In other words, they investigated a claim about Israel by surveying the knowledge of the Babylonian Rabbis in Babylonia! Why? Because the keepers of the tradition were to be trusted, and certainly more accessible than surveying Israel itself in this period.

It has been said that “one cannot argue about taste,” but it was clearly NOT said in a Talmudic rabbinic academy – today’s page offers plenty of suggestions. “Rab says: a meal without salt is no meal.” Or “R. Jannai said in the name of Rabbi: Any food in a quantity equal to an egg, an egg is better than it” (though another argues that a boiled egg is not better than the same amount of boiled meat). A small salted fish can be deadly if not fully roasted and eaten on the 7, 17th, or 27th day of its salting without also drinking beer/liquor (shakhra). One food is good for the teeth and bad for the bowels, while another is bad for the teeth and good for the bowels. And in the Rabbinic version of “you are what you eat,” greens will turn you sickly green (kol yerek khai morik), and small foods (not fully grown) will keep you small. Eating the (formerly) living gives life, and eating from close to the source of their life does as well.

While wordplays are clever, and the advice is heartfelt, its scientific value is often unproven. It is true that food can have healing effects, and that traditions have sometimes preserved the wisdom of experience. Here the Talmud laments one who eats primarily vegetables without meat or wine – not simply because it was a sign of poverty, but because such a diet could have negative effects. Did they know about protein and nutritional value and modern medicine? No; for example, they still refer to bloodletting as an ordinary event. Food can heal, but tradition is a mixed teacher that must be constantly re-evaluated in light of our own knowledge of the world.

Rabbi Adam Chalom