Saturday, November 12, 2016

Shulkan bimkom Mishkan

We are back for another year of monthly Talmud study with Lehrhaus Judaica in the San Francisco Bay Area with Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Pruzan.

Lehrhaus's German Universalist Legacy

On this, our first meeting on November 6, 2016, Peretz reminded us that our Bay Area Lehrhaus Judaica was inspired by a prominent school of Jewish learning by the same name in Frankfurt, Germany during the inter-war era. The Frankfurt school was founded in 1920 by the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929).  Martin Buber taught there; so did Gershom Scholem, Leo Loewenthal, Benno Jacob, and Shmuel Y. Agnon. Rosenzweig was dead (at age 42 of ALS) four years before the Nazis came to power and nine years before they ultimately shut down the school in 1938.

Franz Rosenzweig shortly before his death
The Frankfurt Lehrhaus, being German and of philosophical bent, was universalist in its outlook. Rosenzweig struggled with metaphysical issues of his time through a Jewish lens. His most famous work was The Star of Redemption

We perceive the world subjectively through our senses. We have tunnel vision. Being hairless apes, we have a keen sense of touch. We are gourmands and appreciators of fine wines so we have an advanced sense of taste. On the other hand, our dogs have a much better sense of hearing and smell than we do. From these limited and compromised sense data we amalgamate a world in our brains. We tell ourselves stories about this world. We apply motivated reasoning. We are able to learn about this world from others; but in fundamental ways, we inhabit a subjective interior world.

This subjectivity leads to epistemological problems. How do we really know anything about the outside world? How do we bridge the gap? Descartes worried about this in an extreme way, finding bedrock with his cogito ergo sum. And ultimately Descartes resorted to God as well ("he would never deceive us like that, would he?")  Rosenzweig, too, worried about how our interior world can be reconciled with the outside world? He concluded--as described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy--that Judaism manages to bridge the gap between our interior selves and the world through the redemptive powers of God. I read the Stanford encyclopedia entry.  I can't say I understand how this redemption works, or how it solves the problem of bridging the gap between the interior self and the outside world, for all mankind.

We have moved on from metaphysical issues. To the extent we are universalists today, it's rooted in the ethical, in tikkun olam, not in metaphysics.

The Order of Mishna, Gemara, and Talmud

To get reoriented, Peretz reminded us that the Mishna is the first major source of rabbinic literature (redacted by Judah HaNasi prior to his death in ~217 CE). Mishna is divided into six books: Seeds-Agriculture; Times--Sabbath & Holidays; Women--marriage & divorce; Damages--Civil & Criminal law; Holy Things--Ritual & Temple; and Rituals--rituals of purification.  Gemara, as we know, added additional material, building on Mishna--up until about 500 CE--following the same order. The Vilna edition of the Talmud, published in 1870-1880, included materials from the middle ages, and today, the Steinsaltz Koren Talmud Bavli includes additional interpretation and materials. See our notes from Peretz's Talmud Circle 6, last year on the evolution of Talmud. 

The book on seeds and agriculture (Seder Zeraim) comes first. It serves immediate needs. And like we might file a handwritten recipe away in a relevant section of our cookbooks, the rabbis ordered the prayers of Berakhot where we would use them. Seder Zeraim includes eleven tractates, and tractate Berakhot, which we've been studying for the past two years is the first tractate in Seder Zeraim.

Berakhot: The Tractate of Faith

Berakhot is the order of faith says the introduction. See p.1.  When it comes to faith, it is a hallmark of Talmud that "the abstract should be concretized and the sublime realized in a practical, detailed manner." Id.  Here is the definition of "faith" provided by the introduction: "[faith is] the total awareness in heart and mind that there is an everlasting connection between the Creator and man and that perpetual inspiration descends from the Creator to the world...."  Id.

This "total awareness in heart and mind" suggests that it involves (1) a feeling and (2) a conscious acceptance. We saw last year how the rabbis went to great lengths to describe Hannah's feelings as she approached God with her prayer. The rabbis prescribed this as the proper attitude to evoke this feeling of faith: we approach God with fear and gravity, in a heartfelt manner, with love and radical centeredness, reverently, with joy, but not too much joy....

"Faith" says the introduction, "achieves form and clarity when it is transformed into practical halakha.... Faith is manifest in the details of the halakhot, in the myriad blessings and in the formulation of prayer.... This general consciousness evolves into halakha, guidance how to live one's life."

Because the significance of Jewish concepts is manifest in the concrete, halakha has never stopped creating. "As the structure and circumstances of life change, new forms and styles develop in order to actualize the general, abstract concepts in those specific circumstances." P. 2.

Shulchan Bimkom Mishkan ("The table in place of the temple")

A major change in the form and style of Judaism occurred after the Hebrews conquered Palestine for the first time 2,900 years ago: they moved their nomadic movable tabernacle centered religious practice to the temple in Jerusalem. 

The Mishkan was the ancient tabernacle the Hebrews carried around with them. The construction of the Mishkan was mandated by Torah. See Exodus 25:8 ["And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst."]  Torah goes on to specify in great detail  the specifications for this Mishkan (or tabernacle), its enclosure and all it contains. See Exodus 25-30.  

The prescribed offering to God in this moveable Mishkan was sacrificial offerings. It was part of the divine-human partnership. God asked for his terumah in the Mishkan, and in exchange God offered to manifest his presence among the people. Exodus 29:43-46. God is pretty explicit about all this. And he says this is how the people of Israel shall do "for ever ... throughout their generations." Exodus 27:21; 28:43; and 29:42.

[Updated] But along came David and Solomon and their kingly hubris. "Now Solomon purposes to build a temple for the name of the Lord, and a royal palace for himself." 2 Chronicles 2:1. But see also 1 Chronicles  28:6. [David says: "(God) said to me 'It is Solomon your son who shall build my house and my courts.'" He didn't ask the Lord, and the Lord did not say--Solomon just did it. [But compare this self-serving hearsay with the language of Exodus, supra.] It's perhaps not such a great move: it simply moved the elements of the Mishkan to the "permanent" place of the Temple. The circumstances had changed; the Hebrews moved from the hills to the big city, and with this move they adapted their practice to fit with big city ways. 

When we began with Chapter V of Berakhot (p. 203) last year the rabbis were in the middle of a much more radical move: they reached back to a period before Solomon, through a thousand years to Hannah, and they focused on the nature of her prayer and decided to make prayer the central pillar of of Judaism.  The Tannaim abandoned both the Mishkan and the priestly sacrifices of the temple. Henceforth, prayer would be at the heart of the relationship between man and God.

Titus sack of Jerusalem, 70 A.D. /Ragan
This time it was not hubris, but necessity that drove the change. By the end of the period of the Tannaim (the rabbis who wrote down the oral law between about 10 CE - 220 CE) the temple had been destroyed for a second time and the Jews were dispersed after the Bar Kochba revolt (132-136 CE). The Mishkan centered practice was a thousand years in the past, and sacrifices could no longer be performed in the temple because the temple was in a rubble. So the rabbis reinvented Judaism anew, this time centered on individual prayer, communal prayer, and halakhah. Circumstances had changed and the focus was now on the table located in synagogues and study houses. 

Shulchan bimkom mishkan.


What permits such moves when circumstances change and necessity calls?  What permits Solomon to abandon the Mishkan and move the priests to the temple? What permits the Tannaim to abandon temple sacrifice and to substitute it with prayer? Necessity and svara. 

Here is Rabbi Benay Lappe: 
Svara allows any change–even to the point of uprooting the entire Tradition itself–to create a system that better achieves that Tradition’s ultimate goals.... Menachem Elon, the former Deputy Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, defined svara as: 
Elon's 4 Vol set
“Legal reasoning that penetrates into the essence of things and reflects a profound understanding of human nature. [It] involves…an appreciation of the characteristics of human beings in their social relationships, and a careful study of the real world and its manifestations.” 
In other words, you can’t be a Jewish ignoramous and claim that “what I think is right” is svara. It isn’t. And neither can you have never met a queer person and presume to legislate on matters of, well, just about anything in Jewish law. The Rabbis of the Talmud were explicit, though, that exercising one’s svara to upgrade the Tradition–to play the game, as it were–did not require rabbinic ordination. It didn’t for them, nor should it for us. But it did require learning.
Her Eli talk that Peretz points us to at the Lehrhaus blog is well worth the 17 minutes.

Changes in Halakah are usually incremental. Culture and Halakah interact and influence each other over time. For a very informative, nuanced, and conservative explanation of this process by a legal expert, read Roberta Kwall's The Myth of the Cultural Jew.  Lappe, in addition to being learned and a wonderful speaker, is an activist seeking acceptance by the tradition of LGBTQ people, and she speaks of "suffering at the hands of verse pointers." I'm sure she knows whereof she speaks.

The point of sava is that with legal reasoning "that penetrates into the essence of things and reflects a profound understanding of human nature," and human needs, we are able to adapt the tradition to changing circumstances and needs. Solomon was able to abandon the Mishkan for the temple tradition when Jews moved from the hills to the big city, and the Tannaim and Amoraim were able to abandon the priestly temple tradition for the rabbinic tradition of Talmud after the city was destroyed. Both did so in direct contravention of scripture. And they did so in order to save the tradition.

The Shema, Brachot, and Tefilot

We turned to the very beginning of Berakhot (i.e. the very beginning Talmud) where the rabbis are establishing a rationale for when to recite the Shema in the evening. Berakhot, p. 7. "From when does one recite Shema in the evening," asks the Mishna. And Mishna answers: "From the time when the priests entered to partake of their teruma."  

The teruma, of course, was the portion of the sacrifice that would go to feed the priests in the temple. Rules for when the temple priests would partake of the teruma were well worked out. What is the connection?  The teruma and prayer are both oral.  We use the same orifice for eating and praying.  So there you go..., we'll say the Shema in the evening at the same time as the temple priests used to partake of their teruma. 

Aside 1.  Before we eat, we say a bracha: we bless the food. A bracha is not a prayer. It is something external that we observe and that we respond to with a blessing. There are three types of blessings: (1) blessings said when we experience something pleasurable, such as food; for example, the motzi, which is the blessing said over bread; (2) blessings said when we fulfill a commandment, e.g when we put on tefillin; and (3) blessings that praise God or express gratitude.

Brachot (the plural form of bracha) are meant to acknowledge God as the source of all things. They all begin with the words “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu melech haolam,” which means, “Praised are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe.”  We can make up our own brachot. 

Aside 2. There are six types of blessings over food.
  1. For Bread: "... Hamotzie lechem myn ha'aretz." (Who brings forth bread from the ground)
  2. For Wine & Grape juice: "...Boreiy pree hagafen" (Who creates the fruit of the vine)
  3. For Most Desserts: "...Boreiy minei mezonot" (Who creates various types of foods)
  4. For Fruits: "...Boreiy pree ha'etz" (Who creates the fruit of the trees)
  5. For Vegetables: "...Boreiy pree ha'adamah" (Who creates the fruits of the ground)
  6. For Drinks, Meat, Fish, Cheese: "...Shehakol Nihyah bidvaro" (Everything was created through His words)
And, of course, it's important to categorize your food correctly and not to mix up your prayers. Trick question: "what blessing for tomato?"  Aha, it is a fruit, even though some say vegetable, so "Boreiy pree ha'etz!" What about a banana?  It grows on a tree, it's a fruit, so "Boreiy pree ha'etz!"   And what about a bagel and a banana on your plate? We say "Hamotzie lechem myn ha'aretz" because it is the all-purpose blessing the covers everything on your plate.

[Update: Nosson Potash, the Chabad Rabbi of Cole Valley takes issue with the above categorization of tomato and banana.  He says: "In general, "fruit" is ha'etz and "vegetables" ha'adamah. However, if you look at the words of the blessings it uses the phrase "... fruit of the ground" and ... "fruit of the tree". So it's not so much about whether it's a fruit or not, rather, the question is, what is considered a tree, and what is considered the land.]

So a bracha is an external observation that we honor. Blessings go back to the beginning. Abraham? 

Prayers come later.  Hannah was the first to offer prayer, and the tradition didn't really recognize--or name?--what she did until a thousand years later. Prayer is internal. Prayer comes from inside out. We can also write our own tefilot, of course. The formula is there for us to use.  

Aside 3.  The Shema, which we find here at the very beginning of Talmud,  is neither a bracha nor tefila. Some stand for the Shema, not Rabbi Steinsaltz. "It's not a cheer," he says. See his talk from last June HERE Reform Jews stand for the Shema. It was a response from observations in Germany that Jews do not have a catechism (a summary or exposition of doctrine serving as a learning introduction to the Sacraments). So the Reformers in Bremen said: "let' stand for the Shema."  Orthodox do not stand for the Shema. 

The Shema is a declaration of faith: "Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall talk of them where you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie own, and when you arise." Deuteronomy 6:4-7.  

The second Mishna in Berakhot asks: "From when does one recite Shema in the morning?" And the rabbis discuss it, and there is a range of opinion.  Rabbi Eliezer says "from when we can distinguish between sky-blue and white, and you must finish by sunrise;" Rabbi Yehoshua says "until three hours as that is the habit of kings to rise."  Apparently Kings in ancient Israel kept bankers' hours.  The Mishna here echoes Genesis; it follows the rhythm of Genesis 1:15 "And there was evening and there was morning...."  

The Rabbis are imposing order on the chaos of the religion after the destruction of the temple and dispersal of the Jews. Like Genesis, they start without explanation, and they move from chaos to order. The Rabbis are creating a constitutional text. "If God can do it with the universe," say the Rabbis, we can do it in our community. And so they did. 

It catapults us forward to Berakhot chapter VI, where the Rabbis address specific blessings over food. And Note: the Chapters in between (Chapters 3, 4 and 5) including the material we covered last year, deviated from the opening themes of Mishna: they went to Hannah and fervent ecstatic prayer.  This year, with Chapter 6, we return to pick up where chapters 1 & 2 of tractate Berakhot left off.  Chapters 1 & 2 dealt with Shema and its declaration, and now we will talking about brachot. 

Rabbi Yosei Get's Schooled About not Praying in Ruins

We turn to page 14, Berakhot 3A. The Gemara relates that Rabbi Yosei, walking along the road, once entered the ruins of a building in Jerusalem to say his prayers. Elijah stands guard over him and waits respectfully. But when Rabbi Yosei was finished Elijah challenged him: "why did you pray in these ruins; you should have prayed along the road." And Rabbi Yosei learned three things from Elijah: 1) one may not enter a ruin; 2) one need not enter a building to pray, but we can do it in the open road, and 3) we can say an abbreviated prayer on the road in order to keep our focus. 

We don't enter ruins to pray.... and presumably this includes the temple. We've moved on from the temple. We can offer our prayers out on the road, anywhere.  

And while he was in that ruin, Rabbi Yosei heard the voice of God cooing like a dove: "woe to the children, due to whose sins I destroyed My house, burned My Temple, and exiled them among the nations." Elijah acknowledged this and said: "Not only does that voice cry out in that moment, but it cries out three times each and every day."  Not only that, "You should know that when Israel enters synagogues and study halls and answers in the kaddish prayer, God is happy to be praised in his house."  

Shulkan bimkom Mishkan. The open road, synagogues, and study halls, that's the thing. 

And the rabbis added additional reasons why we should not enter ruins--why we should forget about the temple... "People will whisper you went there with a prostitute,"... "the ruins might collapse,"... "there might be demons." Dayienu. Stay away from ruins, pray on the open road, head towards the synagogues and study halls! 

Aside 4. Consistent with this discouragement of approaching the temple ruins, prayer at the Kotel was discouraged for centuries. The Kotel was not considered a synagogue, like it is today. 

Aside 5. Cliff Detz advocates making this move away from the temple irrevocable. But longing for the temple remains, says Peretz. Prayer at the Kotel may have been discouraged, but many sought a pilgrimage once or twice in their life, perhaps. And some say we avoid the Kotel not because God truly doesn't want us to go there, but because we might be overcome with grief. Radical millennial movements are strong.  Just ask Yehuda Glick. We've got to use our sava. 

As Close to God as You Can in Your Form

We next turn to pages 112-113, Berakhot 17A, chat.2. The Gemara offers many examples here of rabbis making additional personal prayers after concluding their prayers. Zeira asks "that we not sin or shame ourselves, or disgrace ourselves before our forefathers...;" Rabbi Hiyya asks "that Torah be our vocation...;"  Rav asks "that you grant us long life of blessings...;" Rabbi HaNasi asks "that you save us from the arrogant...;" Rav Safra asks "that You establish peace in the heavenly entourage of angels...;" and Rav Ravina asks "may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart find favor before you, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer....;" etc. 

And we pay particular attention to Rav Sheshet. When Rav Sheshet sat in observance of a fast, he would say: "Master of the Universe, it is revealed before You that when the Temple is standing, one sins and offers a sacrifice. And although only the fat and blood from the sacrifice were offered on the alter, the sin is atoned for. And now [that the temple is not standing] I sat in a fast and my fat and blood diminished. May it be our will that my fat and blood that diminished be considered as if I offered a sacrifice before You on the altar...."  

Aside 6.  Rav Sheshet says "when the temple is standing...." In both Mishna and Gemara the temple is never in the past tense because it exists in two places: in Yeshiva Amata (earthly plane) and in Yeshiva Amallah (the heavenly plane).  In the heavenly plane, the temple is permanent. Milton picks this up in Paradise Lost; an imagined better place that's constant and can't be touched.  So when Rav Sheshet says the temple "is" standing, he refers to this constant imagined, better place. And at the same time this present tense does service in the messianic view: "when it's standing again.

Aside 7.  One offers a sin offering, a qorban. The purpose of offering a sacrifice is to be near God--the sacrifice turns to fire and smoke and heat that rises, earth wind and fire going up towards God. Nothing gets destroyed. Life can be reconstituted.  This harkens back to when the world was an unformed void. Genesis 1.  God doesn't create anything in creation, everything get's organized. 

We can no longer sacrifice fat and blood of an animal upon the alter, but we can fast. We offer ourselves to God, as close to God as we can manage in our form. As he fasts, Rav Sheshet's diminishing fat is his offering to God.  In like manner, "The words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart," which immediately precedes Rav Sheshet's fast here, are offerings.  It should cost us a little bit to make an offering. 

Rabbi Yohanan, a cheery fellow, notes we are all destined to die. So death is no great anguish and "happy is he who grew upon Torah, whose labor is in torah, who gives pleasure to his Creator, who grew up with a good name, and who took leave of the world with a good name." 

"Guard your mouth from all transgressions," says Rabbi Meir--because that's how we make brachot now. 

Aside 8.  Ramah is a high-place. The offering makes an arch. We say hallelujah. We are unburdened. We are lifted. I've paid my obligation. The crowd is all doing it too. Everyone cheers. 

Interchangeable Parts

And, finally, we turned to page 175, Berakhot 26b. The rabbis established a unified system that works. They managed to preserve the community. Here they are imposing order on when prayer may/must be recited: morning, afternoon, and evening.  Shulkan bimkom Mishkan.

Morning prayer.  Rabbi Yosei said: "prayers were instituted by the Patriarchs." He pointed to Genesis 19:27, where it says: "Abraham rose early in the morning to the place were he had stood before the Lord ... and from the context we must conclude that 'standing' here means 'prayer.'" [But it was not unanimous. Rabbi Yohshua ben Levi disagreed. He said: "the prayers were instituted based on the daily offerings sacrificed in the temple."] 

Afternoon prayer.  "Isaac instructed the afternoon prayer," said the rabbis.  And they pointed to Genesis 24:63, where it says Isaac went out to the field to "converse." 

Evening prayer.  And Jacob instituted the evening prayer, and the rabbis point to Genesis 28:11 "And he encountered the place and he slept there for the sun had set..... because God once used the word "encounter", so there.... 

And it was taught in a bareita according to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that the laws of prayer are based on the laws of the daily offering in the temple. 

Aside 9.  Recall the incident, back on page 7, where Rabban Gamliel's sons returned from the "wedding hall" [Rashi's interpretation followed by Steinsaltz, but really "drinking hall"] and they forgot to say the Shema.  Gamliel said to them: "If the dawn has not arrived, you are obligated to recite Shema?" 

David Hartman seized on this, noting "Look, they are not mourning the temple every day; they are out drinking!"  They are the next generation... and, hallelujah, they are still worrying about Shema. So the whole point is, how do we build this new generation--and all new generations--so that they are not mourning the loss of the temple, the loss of the kingdom, (or the Holocaust) so they are not permanently victims. And they are wondering: when do we say the Shema?  And that is the key, according to Hartman: How do we celebrate life in defiance of history, and still be cognizant that there is a clock we are all tuned into as a community. You got 'til dawn.  

Homework:  on p. 237, imagine yourself in Zippori looking out over the Golan. You can see fields, trees, and vines.... and you're still cognizant of truma.  Read the whole page and contemplate how this opens up the second half of Berakhot. 

Next class is on December 4, 2016.  


  1. Thank you for the great summations, especially that related to svara. I hope that as we go through Talmud, I can learn to recognize arguments/actions based on svara. I have one question: I was under the impression that the first in the Torah to pray was Abraham's servant Eliezer (Genesis 24:12).

  2. Thank you Barbara-Ann: I did not understand Peretz to suggest that Hannah was the first to pray, rather that she was the one the rabbis focused on as their model for prayer when they established prayer as the central pillar of Judaism. It would be interesting to look at a complete list of all instances of prayer mentioned in Torah.....