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.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Priorities - Berakhot 41

So far, most of our Talmudic investigation of appropriate blessings have applied to specific, individual foods. But what to do when faced by many kinds of foods? Do you have to bless them all, and if so in what order? Or is one ceremonial blessing enough? Does one need to say a blessing before them, after them, both, or none of the above?

The Mishnah text under discussion holds that Rabbi Judah would bless one of the “seven species” mentioned specifically in Deuteronomy 8:8 – wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive (oil), and honey. On the other hand, the Rabbis would allow diners to choose whichever food they liked the best and bless that. If the multiple food items require the same blessing, one may choose any of them to bless. And if they have different blessings, the one liked the best should be chosen first. What if one faces barley and figs, both of the “seven species?” One rabbi suggests to follow the order they appear in Deuteronomy, for according to the Rabbis nothing happens in divine revelation without a purpose and logic.

What about a full meal? After all, blessing every individual food item would make eating much more difficult. The solution: the bread blessing at the beginning of the meal covers all other foods present during the meal. Of course, snacks outside of meal time require more specific blessings for specific foods, and as shall see in the next page, that may or may not include dessert.

The focus on how to bless what foods, whether to do so before or after, and which blessings to use for what foods may strike us today as excessive detail, pre-occupation with religious obligation, or simply unnecessary complication. Most liberal Jews today only use blessings for special occasions, not for everyday meals and snacks. Some have tried to re-interpret a “blessing lifestyle” by using blessings as “mindfulness”– before eating, one can pause and reflect on life and the food in front of you: who made it, where it comes from, etc. Would our lives be more satisfying that way? Possibly; but sometimes we’re just hungry.

Rabbi Adam Chalom