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.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

TWO Talmuds? - Berakhot 38

As we saw in the previous page, one of the major concerns of this section of Berakhot (blessings) is the appropriate blessing for certain foods – if one combines grain with honey, or one adds water to a food, or if one boils it, does that change the character of the foodstuff enough to change the appropriate blessing? Because the blessings for bread and vegetable appear side-by-side in the Mishnah, it is concluded that in general vegetables work like bread – the change caused by fire (baking or boiling) is not enough to change the blessing. And if one makes the food into a meal, there are three more blessings to say after it is concluded.

There is some debate over the bread blessing – should it be phrased blessing God “who has brought forth” bread (ha-motzi) or “who is bringing forth” (motzi). The grammatical battle (as usual) is waged through Biblical citation and interpretation, and the Talmud’s conclusion is what today we know as the traditional blessing (ha-motzi). It is always interesting to see, however that the disagreement is preserved, and the defeated position is nevertheless given the dignity of a full argument – even on something as basic and habitual as this.

This diversity is part of a creative tension in Rabbinic Judaism – a balance between stating the law clearly with no discussion, or stating the arguments that led to it but thereby make the law less clear. In addition, for most of the time the Talmud was being created, there were two major centers of Rabbinic teaching: in Israel and in Babylonia. For example, today’s Talmud page mentions that when a colleague (haver) arrived from Israel, they used a different blessing.

Around the year 400 CE, the incomplete discussions of the Israeli school were compiled into the “Palestinian Talmud” (in Hebrew Yerushalmi – Jerusalem Talmud). The Babylonian discussions were able to continue for a century longer before they were compiled into the “Babylonian Talmud” (Bavli), the more complete and authoritative version that forms the basis of the Daf Yomi (daily page). The existence of two Talmuds is just one more example of the continuing Jewish battle between diversity and conformity – why have one authoritative legal discussion when you can have two?

Rabbi Adam Chalom