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 19, 2005

Manners, Manners - Berakhot 50

One of the most common criticisms of East European Jewish immigrants to the United States by the Jews already here was their lack of manners – unclean, loud, rude, and unrefined. One of the major projects in the American Jewish community of that time was to civilize the immigrants, and to teach them manners. This was reflected in congregational life in the Reform-style “decorous” service of obedient listeners in fixed pews in rows, as opposed to the traditional self-directed prayer service with individuals reading prayers at their own pace such that the overall noise was very chaotic.

We can see some of the roots of these later arguments in today’s Talmud discussions. In debating the origins and correct blessings for Torah reading in synagogue (a blessing formula similar to the zimmun or invitation to bless after meals), the Mishnah states that Rabbi Akiva suggests “barkhu et adonai – Bless ye the Lord,” but Rabbi Ishmael prefers “barkhu et adonai ha-m’vorakh – Bless ye the Lord, the blessed one.” To clarify the actual practice, we hear a story of a man going into a synagogue and saying the shorter, only to have the entire congregation yell and correct him with the longer and Raba insult him for meddling in a controversy when the general practice is to read the longer, as is the case in traditional synagogues today. When even the rabbi makes a mistake, the people will certainly let him (or today her) know it.

But the most amusing sides of today’s page concerns table manners. We read 4 guidelines for bread: one should not put raw meat on it, pass wine over it, throw it, or rest a dish on it. Does this only apply to bread? One rabbi throws some dates towards another, and then we find a detailed discussion of which foods one may throw, and which foods may not be thrown. For some authorities say if we don’t throw bread, we don’t throw any food while others say that the prohibition only applies to bread. The resolution: no kushiya (difficulty) – bread and foods ruined by throwing (e.g. soft fruit) cannot be thrown but others (like dates) may be. No word of the proper treatment of cream pies...

And what if one starts eating but forgot to say a blessing beforehand, and now has a full mouth? Should one swallow it and then bless, shift it to one side and bless, or spit it out and bless? The answer: swallow liquids, spit out that which won’t be ruined, and shift to the side what must stay in the mouth to say (but not spray) the blessing. For just such scenarios, we can understand why so much effort has been spent in Berakhot to clarify what to say BEFORE one eats! And we also see the big difference between blessing as religious duty and as cultural folkway – the first requires one to bless first so as to have a clear conscience, while the latter would allow chewing and swallowing to celebrate with a clear mouth instead.

Rabbi Adam Chalom