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.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Rabbinic Diet - Berakhot 40

While moderns tend to compartmentalize religion to a small part of their lives, in the Talmud nothing is beyond the realm of rabbinic investigation. This includes what today we would prefer to leave to doctors and professionals, like our diet. According to today’s page, if one eats salt after every food and drinks water after every drink, no harm will come; if this is not done, your mouth will smell bad by day and intestinal problems will plague you by night. They even give you the proper “dosage of water” – a cupful per loaf of bread. By the way, they also suggest that urine (mei raglayim – “water of ‘the legs’”) is never fully discharged unless sitting.

The diet advice continues: one should take lentils at least once every thirty days to keep away croup, but not every day lest one’s mouth smell. Mustard seed once every thirty days prevents illness, but every day weakens the heart. Small fish are claimed to help bowel function, increase fertility and virility, and strengthen the whole body. One suggests black cumin prevents “heart pain” (k’ev lev – could be heartburn), but another considers it a poison. How to harmonize these two, other than to say that one likes cumin and another hates it? The taste is helpful but the smell is poisonous. Thus we learn that Rabbi Jeremiah’s mother would bake him bread with cumin (for taste) and scrape it off (to avoid the smell). It does not indicate whether she cut off the crusts for him as well.

In today’s page, we also find an answer to the question of how creative one may be with blessings, according to the Talmud. Rabbi Meir would allow general expressions of pleasure like “how wonderful this fig is! Blessed is God (literally ha-makom – the place) who created it.” Rabbi Yose, however, says one may not alter the blessings of the sages, affirming the power of tradition. “Benjamin the Shepherd” (i.e. an uneducated person) makes a sandwich and says in Aramaic “b’rikh marey d’hai pita – blessed is the master of this bread,” and Rab accepts this form of blessing even though elsewhere Rab has asserted that any blessing without the name of God is no blessing. Rabbi Yochanan wants mentioning divine kingship to be a basic requirement to any blessing, but he is denied in favor of Rab.

So some rabbis support creativity, but within strict parameters, and even linguistic flexibility has its limits. While one may read certain texts, including certain Torah sections, blessings, the Shema, and the Amida, in “secular languages” (i.e. not Hebrew), one may only do so in the same form originally prescribed by the Rabbis. Thus using a “creative translation” that more accurately reflects what we believe, or a Hebrew version that doesn’t mention God, would not count for Talmudic Rabbis. But if we truly depended on their approval, we would not be who we really are.

Rabbi Adam Chalom