Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Architecture of Everything: How not to Abuse the World

Prayers (tefilot) come from inside and reach out to God. Blessings (brachot) are our response to (God's) external world and allow us to benefit from (God's) world without abusing it. 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.

The rabbis begin with blessings over food. Berakhot 35a.

Torah Support for Blessings Over Food

"How does one recite a blessing over fruits?" asks the Mishna. And "fruit" here refers generally to all food items. P. 237. The Mishna responds by establishing five categories of blessings over food: blessings over (1) "fruit of the tree," (2) "fruits of the earth," (3) "fruit of the ground" (greens such as herbs and leafy vegetables), (4) wine, and (5) bread.  Berakhot 35a.

Note that wine and bread are transformed items; they are transformed by man and time "for the better." This is juxtaposed with "fruit" that is gathered in nature--from the tree, or from the earth. So on one side we have fruit of the earth, fruit of the tree,  herbs and leafy vegetables, and on the other side we have the processed foods of wine and bread.  Wine is grapes to juice + time; bread is wheat to flour + time.  But like English grammar, these are rules to be used with caution.  So, for example, olive oil, which is  transformed by man for the better still gets the blessing for "fruit of the tree." No separate blessing for olive oil.  See p. 242 Halakha. Olive oil is olives to oil, but no time.

Aside 1.  Man lives in finite time, and God in infinite time. Time is a big deal and plays a significant role again and again in Talmud, Peretz tells us. Here it governs the special blessings over wine and bread.

And the Mishna Ha-Nasi is on solid ground. Deuteronomy 8:1-10 says:
"All the commandments which I command you this day you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land with the Lord swore to give to your fathers.... For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing.... And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God." 

Aside 2.  "Deuteronomy" means "the second reading of the Torah." Deuteronomy is aware of itself as a book, says Peretz. 

A Radical Move to Build a New Community

But the rabbis of the Gemara looked upon Deuteronomy 8:10 and they saw that it was incomplete and unbalanced for post-temple times. Better to start with a blessing and end with a blessing.

And Rabbi Akiva said: "As the sages taught in the Sifra, with regard to the saplings, it is stated that in their fourth year their fruit will be sanctified for praises before the Lord." And what do we learn from this requirement for saplings? "This verse teaches us to praise God in the form of a blessing both beforehand and thereafter." And from here, Rabbi Akiva concluded: "A person is forbidden to taste anything before he recites a blessing."

Aside 3. The Sifra, or "the book," is the major midrashic work on Leviticus, much of which, but not all, is included in the Babylonian Talmud.

Aside 4. "That's why we have Tu B'shevat" (the New Year for Trees). We are only allowed to partake of fruit of the vine in the fifth year. [There are four new years in the Mishna--Rosh Hashana, Pesach, local time (e.g. Jan.1), and the New Year for Trees] Tu B'shevat is there to keep track of the first four years of the trees until we are allowed to partake of the fruit of trees.
Shabbat: Jankel Adler 1927


A blessing before and after becomes the architecture for everything, says Peretz. With respect to food, it forces us to know what we are looking at before we consume.  We have to say a proper bracha for the food, based on its origins.  This architecture implies a whole re-wiring of how we approach eating. It alters communal activity. No longer do Jews congregate at the Temple Mount during the three harvest festivals, but we congregate around how we relate to food in a directed, purposeful, and thankful manner. We join by entering into the same relationship with the food we consume no matter where we are. Not only is this how we eat at the table with family and friends, it's how Jews everywhere eat and approach food, no matter where they are or when. It builds and sustains a community that can continue to exist in isolation, in diaspora.

It's a radically unifying move for imposing order on the post-destruction-of-the-temple-chaos. Everyone says blessings, not just kohanim.

Reasoning out Rules: The Rabbis Worry About Foundations and Accountability

But Rabbi Akiva was not on solid ground. He had no proof text. 

Leviticus established a series of laws for temple priests. And contrary to the ancient priestly castes of the Son of Ra in Egypt--who drew a deep veil of mystery and secrecy over the (sacred) temple rituals and the (profane) outside world--the rules governing Levitical priests were written down and public. Hannah knew what Eli the priest was supposed to be doing even as she deviated from practice. In Talmud, as the rabbis sought to organize new rules out of the chaos of the destroyed temple practice, they hoped to uphold this tradition of accountability. Their goal was not to create a mystery cult. 

Thus the Gemara asks: "From where are these matters derived?" And the rabbis try hard to provide reasons. In the process they developed a model for problem solving, a way to create legitimacy for their project, a way to justify the bold pronouncements they advanced without proof texts.

From where is it derived that we say a blessing before eating?

1.  An argument from analogy.  We bless the orchard before we partake of its fruit, noted the rabbis.  Leviticus 19:24 et seq.  So by analogy, should we not offer praise before we taste food, said Rabbi Akiva. But it is not sufficient, answers the Gemara. Remember Moses said: if you are about to go into battle and think you may die, "be sure to return to the vineyard (you have planted and bless it) lest you die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit." (Deuteronomy 20:6) But we can redeem a vineyard by selling it and take the money to Jerusalem and spend it on food and drink.  So when Deuteronomy speaks of sanctifying the vineyard with praise, it is really speaking of redemption.... and redemption and praise may sound the same in Hebrew... but they are not the same. So from where, then, is the requirement to recite blessings before taking food derived?

Ah, but there is something to this redemption business, so read on....

2.  An argument from verbal analogy (Gezerah shava).  Hallulim for the vineyard, hallulim for the seed of a commingled crop--which you shouldn't do--and there is one hallulim left over from which to derive the blessing before partaking of food..... O.K. ask someone who knows, I don't get it.  But in any case, not sufficient, say the rabbis. So from where, then, is the requirement to recite blessings before taking food derived?

3.  An a fortiori inference ("with even stronger reason"--an argument that if one ascertained fact exists, then another fact, which is necessarily included in it, or strongly analogous to it, can be inferred to also exist) If a man is obligated to recite a blessing when satiated--as he is (Deuteronomy 8:10)--then he is all the more obligated to recite a blessing over food when he is hungry, before eating, postulates the Gemara. p. 238. Res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself, as they say with airplanes dropping from the sky. But the Gemara is not ready to go there just yet: "we found this true for vineyards," interject the rabbis, "but how do we know it applies to other produce."

It's a misdirection, because this a fortiori argument is exactly where the rabbis will land.  That and redemption....

4. A hermeneutic principle (rule of interpretation). "Just as we derive benefit from the fruit of the vineyard and it requires a blessing, so too, any item from which one derives a benefit requires a blessing," the Gemara now proposes. But this is not sufficient, respond the rabbis. A vineyard is unique: Leviticus 19:10 says you are to leave the fallen grapes (an olelot), and Deuteronomy 19:21 says "When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this." And, say the rabbis, because olelot is unique to grapes, how can we know the blessing applies to other types of fruit?

"And what about bread?" asks the Gemara, applying more hermeneutics. Olelot (saving the crumbs for the poor?) does not apply to bread, yet we are required to say a blessing after eating bread. What about that? Ah, no olelot, but there is the mitzvah of separating halla from the dough--and this does not apply to other foods, so there! So from where, then, is the requirement to recite blessings before taking food derived?

[Aside 5:  The obligation of Halla requires separating a small portion of dough from the batter when a person kneads a certain quantity of flour. In ancient times, the separated dough was given to a Kohen, whereas nowadays it is burned]

5.  "The aspect of this and the aspect of that." Vineyards! repeats the Gemara. "Just as the fruit of the vineyard is an item from which one derives benefit and it requires a blessing, so too, any item from which one derives benefit, requires a blessing...." As we said.  "The aspect of this, and the aspect of that, and the aspect of this is not like the aspect of that...." Are we clear? And the common denominator is "items which one derives benefit and requires blessing = any item which one derives benefit, requires a blessing."

The Marx brothers liked this routine....

6.  The Common Denominator.  So what's the common denominator between grapes and grain? asks the Gemara.  Well, both have an aspect of being offered on the altar. An olive too!

7.  Then there is that crazy business with Samson. An olive may be offered upon the altar, says the Gemara, and isn't an olive grove called kerem (vineyard)? Just as the orchard in which grapes grow is called kerem, and grapes require a blessing, the olive also grows in a kerem and should require a blessing too. But look at Judges 15:5, says Rav Pappa. Remember that time Samson went to pay a conjugal visit to his wife, but her father said "Don't go in: I thought you utterly hated her, so I gave her to your companion?" And Samson set fire to three hundred foxes, and the foxes burned down the "standing grain of the Philistines, and burned up the shocks and the standing grain, as well as the olive orchards....?" And the Philistines burnt Samson's father in law and Samson's wife, and Samson then smote them hip and thigh with great slaughter....? Remember that? Well, there they said kerem zayit for olive orchard, not kerem unmodified.  So these things are obviously not the same. See? So from where, then, is the requirement to recite blessings before taking food derived?

8.  "It is difficult" sighs the Gemara. And they turn to another argument by analogy.  We might note that we are obligated to tell a blessing over the seven species from which we derive benefit (wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive trees, and honey--mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8--and followed by "And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you" Deuteronomy 8:10). And we might conclude from this that we are required to say a blessing over any item from which we derive a benefit. But the seven species also has the associated mitzvah of "first fruit" (Deuteronomy 26:2; see also 18:4, offering to Levites), so how does this help for other foods not specifically mentioned in the seven species, ask the rabbis? And even if the mitzvah to bless after we eat and are satisfied applies to all foods--or even all from which we derive benefit--this works out well for the blessing after the meal; "but from where is the obligation to recite a blessing beforehand derived?"

And we are as we were....but then Eureka!

9.  "This is not difficult," the rabbis finally say, putting all good Yeshiva students and once monthly Talmud circlers out of their misery. The obligation to say a blessing over food before we eat is derived a fortiori, and they return to the res ipsa loquitur of No. 3 above: "if we are obligated to recite a blessing over food when we are satiated, all the more so when we are hungry!" The fundamental obligation to recite a blessing over food, including such things that cannot be planted, such as meat, eggs, and fish is founded on reason: one is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without a blessing." Bless, eat, be satisfied, bless .... it's the architecture of everything!

What Does the Bracha Do?

The Gemara in 35a begins with tree saplings: for three years the fruit is off limits, and in the fourth year their fruit will be sanctified for praises before the Lord. It leads rabbi Akiva to his general conclusion: "A person is forbidden to taste anything before he recites a blessing."  Before we recite a blessing over the food it has the status of a consecrated item, says Steinsaltz. All food is holy, consecrated, and off-limits to us, before we bless it. Blessing makes it useful to us: we are allowed to eat it after blessing, says rabbi Akiva. 

Peretz says a blessing over his Peet's French roast coffee.  What changed?  "Redeem it and then eat it," says the Gemara (p. 237).  And Steinsaltz elucidates....., "This midrash interprets hillul, praise, as hillul, redemption." The bracha over the coffee redeemed it (from its status as holy and untouchable) for Peretz to take a sip. 

Aside 6. The Gemara refers to the midrash on Leviticus, requiring the four year sapling to be "sanctified before the Lord" before we partake of its fruit. The midrash used hillul, "praise," as hillul "redemption."  We redeem with praise. This is facilitated by substituting the letters "heh" and "het" (to make redeem/praise?) and by the fact that these were pronounced identically in second century Galilee. By reciting a bracha over his Peet's French roast coffee, Peretz redeemed it; he liberated it from its consecrated state to take a sip. 

Go to a Sage

In the song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32, Moses counsels "May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distil as the dew, as the gentle rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb."  And when doubt arises as to the correct path, "Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask your father (God), and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you."

In Deuteronomy 17:8-13 Moses counsels, "If any case arises requiring decision ... which is too difficult... then go (to the) Levitical priests, and to the judge who is in office those days, you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you their decision.... and you shall be careful to do according all that they direct you."

And at Deuteronomy 1:13-17, Moses counsels "Choose wise, understanding, and experienced men, according to your tribes ... and set them as heads over you."

And, Peretz tells us, these and like passages enables the rabbinic project in establishing this new architecture of Judaism. "If it's not in this Torah, go to the sages." That is the open door to adaption. And the rabbis walked right through this door to the commandment that we bless everything to redeem it for our personal use.

The source is horizontal--man to man--not vertical. We can't ask for more revelation. We cannot expect more Torah from Sinai, it's not coming. Go to a sage or a judge and they will tell you.

And it was essential because so many things happened to create the Jewish people that is not in Torah.

Aside 7.  If Deuteronomy stems from the time of Hezekiah (13th King of Judah, 715-686 BCE; i.e. he died exactly a century before destruction of the first temple), it's in a changing world already. An early version of Torah may have consisted of just Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua, says Peretz.  The last line of Exodus forms a couplet with the first line of Numbers.  Deuteronomy invents "outs" from the yoke of Leviticus. It invents the horizontal authority and new ways of reasoning.

Aside 8. The Samaritan position was you cannot leave the land; Torah only operates in the land.

Aside 9.  Genesis could have been inserted last, instead of first, because it alters everything that follows to be more cosmic.  We go from a narrow story of a family (Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, we stay in the land), to Deuteronomy which says "We can adapt," and Genesis which says "Yes, but there is an even bigger picture."

Aside 10.  Tosefta, supplements the Mishna; it is a body of literature composed after the composition of the Mishana of Judah Ha Nasi  (220 CE).  The Gemara incorporates a larger body of work than just the Mishna of Judah Ha Nasi.

Guarding Against Misuse of the World

"The sages taught in a Tosefta that one is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without a blessing.... And anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing is guilty of misuse." 

It's like we've taken a holy object and trashed it, says Peretz. 

To guard against misuse of the world--to guard against deriving benefits from the world without a proper blessing--we should go to a Sage. The sages will teach us the proper blessings. 

We consecrate Shabbat by making it a day of non-utility. We don't engage in gainful work.  In temple days, when we brought an offering to the temple, we declared it holy: by consecrating it for sacrifice we've changed the object in relation to ourselves; we can no longer make use of it; it is now for use by the kohenim to make an offering to God. 

Aside 11.  What if the cat eats our offering of fish that we've consecrated as an offering? That's what Kol Nidre is about, says Peretz--we ask forgiveness for misuse of the world.  What oath can we possibly make to God other than to consecrate our offerings in his honor?  That's the only thing.  Peace offerings serve similar purpose: to make amends with God for our "misuse." 

Aside 12.  When we wed, we consecrate our spouse. Our spouse is no longer for our profit, or gain, normal commerce, or normal friendship. The marriage vow is the reverse of a bracha. With the bracha we take the consecrated object--a cup of Peet's French roast coffee--and set it free for our use; with a wedding vow we take a person and enter into a consecrated relationship with them. 

Aside 13.  In The Economic History of the Jewish People, Jacques Attali (query: is this the right one?) calls myth the notion that Jews were forced to urbanize by law starting in the middle ages. There were times when Jews were not allowed to be farmers, but this was rare. The driving force behind Jewish urbanization was the search for an efficient community model to provide school systems. Learning not to abuse the world makes Jews necessarily interdependent and communitarian.  

We shadow the sage person, we shadow who is adept at the blessings, and we do what they do. But how do we know who is an adept?  Not a judge or Levite. We find ourselves a teacher. We reason it out. The right teacher will make us wise, will show us the way. We reason it out for ourselves who is the right teacher. We know it when we see it. 

"Rava said 'We should go to a Sage initially," i.e. before we become guilty of misuse.  It's a radical change in Judaism. No longer do we, as adults, bring first fruits and goats to the Levites to do their sacrifice so we can be in good stead with the Lord...., we go to the Sages and learn how we can get along without abusing the world. We educate our children. 

It's a system of constant renewal: we say the blessing over food to redeem it, it entitles us to eat the food and be satisfied, and we follow up with a blessing. 

"The earth and all it contains is the Lord's," said the rabbis, up until we have blessed it with our brachas, at which point it belongs to mankind.  

We bless, we eat, we are satisfied, and we bless.  What the rabbis have created is a system of constant transformation. By starting with a blessing, which entitles us to eat the food, and by concluding with a blessing, we consecrates the whole circle.  We start with a blessing; we end with a blessing. It's the architecture for everything. It helps us to not abuse the world. 

We left off at the end of Berakhot 35a, middle of page 240. 

Next class is on January 8, 2017; read ahead to the pomegranate (p. 247).

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