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 22, 2005

Intent and Purpose - Berakhot 53

In Talmudic times, sweet-smelling spices were rare commodities (and essential given limited hygiene), light came only through fire, and new fire often came from fires already burning. The question in today’s page is: how particular could one be in the origins and purposes of the fire and spices one needed to bless the end of Shabbat?

The rabbis in today’s page try to define appropriate contexts and usage of spices and fire if they are not used exclusively for blessing purposes. The Mishnah text under discussion warns against blessing the light or spices of foreigners, or the dead, or that used for avoda zara [“foreign worship” or idolatry] - evidently the material is spiritually contaminated by its use. So one should not bless a flame that “worked” on Shabbat, and an Israelite may bless a flame kindled from a nokhri [stranger – non-Jew] because it is as if his flame is brand new, but a flame kindled by a Gentile from a Gentile may both come from and be intended for “impure” uses. The same approach holds for lights or spices intended for the dead, or for a privy [beit ha-kisey – “house of the chair”]. If a town is majority Gentile, the Jew should not bless the light in the town, but if majority Jewish he may.

There are two ironies from our perspective – today non-Jews are generally not idolators (and worshipping idols says nothing one way or the other about ethical behavior), and many Jews are as unobservant of Jewish law as non-Jews are. When it comes to smelling spices in a town, it turns out that even a majority of Israelites is not enough to merit a blessing: some Israelite women use some of the spices for witchcraft, and only a small part goes to providing sweet scents. Thus blessings are not automatic – one must consider context and usage. This would parallel the contemporary liberal Jewish practice of offering blessings or special words only on special ceremonial occasions rather than at every meal and snack.

For the Talmudic rabbis, however, there was no similar flexibility. One man accidentally forgot to say a blessing, followed the stricter practice of Beit Shammai [the school of Shammai], and received gold. Another intentionally omitted it, used the shorter replacement blessing of Beit Hillel [the school of Hillel] intended only for accidental omission, and then was eaten by a lion. A Rabbi forgot to say grace, made an excuse to return to do it fully, and found a golden dove. The message is put very simply at the end of that third story: “Israel is saved only by mitzvot [commandments]”. For those who question such cosmic reward and punishment, a freely-chosen and flexible cultural connection is more satisfying.

Rabbi Adam Chalom