Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Rubik's Cube of Blessings

Rubik Cube
For a thousand years the Israelites tended their flocks and minded their fields. They offered up their sacrifices to the priests, first in the movable tabernacle, and later at the temple in Jerusalem. They kept the kohanim in business and the kohanim kept them in good stead with their God, with varying degrees of success. They partied at Passover, Shavuot, and Sukhot, and if we deduce correctly from Torah, they observed Shabbat, said the Shema, and observed halakha in some manner. If we pay attention to the railings of the prophets, they did not always do so diligently or faithfully.

We’ve been studying Berakhot 30 – 35 and how, after destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the rabbis transformed Judaism from a God-facing practice involving sacrifice and observance of halakha, to a God-facing practice based on individual prayer, blessings, and observance of halakha.

We learned how the rabbis looked to Hannah as a model for ecstatic individual prayer, and how the rabbis, using svara (reason, logic, wit, and caring about the tradition), established blessings as the Architecture of Everything. Blessings redeem the world for our use. And what better place to start than with blessings over food?

How Many and What Kind of Blessings over Food?

At least one hundred blessings a day total, decided the rabbis. See, e.g. Menachot 43b. It’s a practice of mindfulness; it puts us in a state of awe.

But we are obsessive creatures. Jogging is good for health, we decide; and pretty soon we are running a few miles a day, running marathons, running faster and faster. It’s all we can think of. We pass the point of diminishing returns for health benefits. Our life balance falls off kilter. But we cannot help it, because we are obsessive creatures. The rabbis are not so different in their approach to prayers and blessings.

The Mishna established a template for different blessings over food: for fruits of the tree, fruits of the earth, herbs and vegetables, and blessings over the sacred foods of wine and bread [because they were present on the table in the Mishkan (tabernacle) and later in the Temple]. See Berakhot 35a, Steinsaltz p. 237. The rabbis of the Gemara expanded on this, and later generations of students added more and more (hair splitting) details. It’s to be thorough, said Peretz. It reflects joy of communal engagement over food; it’s not so different from how we take joy in gathering scores of cookbooks and hundreds of recipes we may never use. Food discussions never end.

There are many ingredients that make up the recipes for the correct blessings over food: there is the kind of food on the plate, the source of the food, and its point of origin. There is processed and non-processed food. There is food intended to be eaten and enjoyed, and food to be used as medicine. In Persia, where Talmud was developed, there was a great deal of medicinal food, and the rabbis made distinctions. There is the time when food is consumed: is it Shabbat, or a festival, or a regular weekday? Are we inside or outside the land of Israel? And there is bread and wine. The rabbis thought about and obsessed over all these distinctions.

For five centuries after destruction of the Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud engaged in extensive pilpul to expand the rules for blessings. Pilpul is that subtle and peculiar form of legal and conceptual reasoning that we find in Talmud. It evinces enthusiasm, inventiveness in a not always logically rigorous manner, a great love for the subject matter, and not a small amount of obsessiveness.

What we have in Talmud is a 500 year record of the Tanaim and Amoraim communing with God. The rabbis worked these ingredients like a Rubik’s cube puzzle, says Peretz. It’s how they talked to God. As Heschel (1907-1972) would later say “when I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me.” Talmud is a 500 year record of God talking to the rabbis in the Heschel sense.

The rabbis studied on these prayers over food. As Cliff Detz put it in class: “They looked at the food on their plate and they saw the cosmos.  If the sky expands infinitely, variety expands infinitely.” For the rabbis of the Talmud, says Peretz, it was a form of communion with God.

Turning the Rubik’s Cube with Vines and Olive Trees

In setting up the template, the Mishna says: “over fruits that grow on a tree, one recites—‘Who creates fruit of the tree, with the exception of wine.’” See Steinsaltz Berakhot 35a, p. 237. That’s clear enough. But the rabbis turn this exception over and examine it closely.

So what’s up with wine? The simple answer is wine was a sacramental offering required to be on the alter in the holy of holies in the Mishkan (tabernacle). See, e.g. Exodus 29:38-40 (“Now this you shall offer upon the altar: . . . a fourth of a hin of wine for a libation.”)

Aside 1:  A hin is a liquid measure containing 12 logs, or about eight quarts. So a fourth of a hin would be about two quarts.

But the rabbis are not looking for a simple answer. In their conversation with God they attempt to reason their way to the exception for wine: “Who creates fruit of the tree, with the exception of wine. . .”

400 year old grapevine, Maridor Slovenia
They start with the assumption that grape vines are “trees,” says Peretz. That’s because when grape vines are old, they look a lot like small olive trees. In the dry environment of Persia, Valley of Nineveh (near present day Mosul), the Assyrians made wine from very old grape vines that lived 500+ years.

Aside 2: In modern viticulture, with proper care, grape vines can grow for more than 120 years, although yield decreases after 20 years. Commercial operations seem to be based on a 30 year life expectancy for a vineyard.

Olive trees are even longer lived, many have been around for more than 1,000 years. Olive trees and old vines, that’s what the rabbis were looking at.  

Next we notice that the Mishna sets up another category confusion—even if olive trees and grape vines are both trees, “wine” is not a “fruit” of the tree: wine is derived from the fruit of the tree, just like olive oil is derived from the fruit of the tree. And that’s where the rabbis turn their attention.

“The rabbis taught,” says the Gemara, “over olive oil one recites ‘Who creates fruit of the tree,’ just as he does over the fruit itself.” 

So the real question presented is why do we say a different blessing over olive oil and wine, given that (in the rabbis’ minds) they are both “fruits of the tree,” and they are both “changed for the better” from the fruit of the tree? And the rabbis work the Rubik’s cube but fail to properly align the colored squares:

What’s the difference between wine and olive oil? Could the difference be nourishment? Mar Zutra suggested: wine nourishes; olive oil does not nourish! But others are quick to deny the distinction: olive oil, too, is nourishment—only water and salt are not nourishment. No help here.

And what about satisfaction? “Is it that wine satisfies, while oil does not satisfy?” And the rabbis thought of Rava who would drink wine all day on the eve of Passover to stimulate his heart, and so that he might eat more matza. Could it be Rava said “I can’t get no satisfaction,” as Mick Jagger sang? But no, that’s not it. The Gemara answers: “A lot of wine stimulates, a little satisfies!”  So no distinction in their satisfaction.

The rabbis turn their Rubik’s cube to bring bread into the picture:

The rabbis continue, doesn’t it say in Gemara that “wine gladdens the heart of man, and bread fills man’s heart.” So isn’t it bread that satisfies, and wine doesn’t satisfy but gladden the heart?  But that’s no proof says one: wine satisfies and gladdens both; bread satisfies but does not gladden.

It’s playful and inventive, but the logic wouldn’t pass muster in a Hellenistic gymnasium! Communing over wine and olive oil, the rabbis have played with their Rubik’s cube but they are farther from resolution than when they started, suggests Peretz.

In attempting a reasoned distinction to account for the different treatment of olive oil and wine the rabbis have made an academic proof that wine gladdens, satisfies, and nourishes. It’s like a meal unto itself this says: “So, now we’ll do a birkat HaMazon (the blessing after a meal) over wine?” they ask rhetorically. Nah. The Rubik cube just moved—and the colors did not align because “No one does that!” the rabbis note. No one says birkat HaMazon after sharing a bottle of wine at the cafĂ© with a friend. “No one does that!” is another source of knowledge.

The quandary is not being resolved; the argument is not going anywhere.

And Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said to Rava: If one based his meal on wine, what is the ruling? Do we say Grace after meals as we do after bread?  And Rava replied: “When Elijah comes and says whether or not it can serve as the basis for a meal, this will be resolved. For now, his opinion is irrelevant; by the opinion of all other men we don’t say grace after a meal based on wine.

In other words, “We’re going to cancel the argument,” says Rava. Using  deduction (however playful or inventive) we came to no answer. And sometimes we just have to stop, and kick the can down the road. And no, we won’t edit this out of Talmud, because God has been speaking to us!

Oracular Devices: Urim Vetummim, High Priests, and Elijah

When Elijah comes’” is a standard concept that rabbis resort to when it’s unclear what halakha requires, says the sidebar on p. 242.  Irresolvable questions get kicked out to Elijah, says Peretz: but not important ones.  Things like what blessing do we say when.  Can we make a ruling that people will follow?  When in doubt we follow the ways of the world: Derech Eretz (“No one does that. When Elijah comes, he will figure it out.   

For example, it is said there is a dispute whether, at the Passover Seder we drink four cups of wine, or five. We follow Derech Eretz—we drink four cups, but we put a fifth cup out for Elijah, which remains untouched. When the Messiah comes, Elijah will anoint him and they will resolve the question.

The idea of ending disputes about minor questions of halakhic interpretation (until they are resolved by Elijah), says the sidebar on p. 242, originates in the book of Ezra. The book of Ezra, says Peretz, represents a liminal moment between the first exile to Babylon (~586 BCE) and return to the land of Israel (~538 BCE). During that half-century irresolvable questions arose regarding halakha, as Jews were making their transition from the Babylonian period back to the land of Israel. They did not always see eye-to-eye with those who never left. They were bringing Torah developed in Babylon and Persia back to the land of Israel. In this liminal period they would only have to wait until a high priest with Urim Vetummim would appear to resolve conflicts. He would have the last word.

Aside 3: Urim Vetummim are a mysterious inscription in the breastplate of a high priest. They are oracular devices; dice on the high priest that gives him the last word, says Peretz. Perhaps these high priests and their oracular devices could resolve conflicts of halakhah.  But today, and since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, we don’t have high priests and no Urim Vetummim. So until we have a high priest again (the Messiah) who can resolve some of these issues, we’re going to hold off. And this giving arguments a rest allowed the community to rebuild.

Aside 4: Derech Eretz, literally means “The way of the land.” The phrase also appears in Mishna, Tractate Avoth (“"Beautiful is the study of Torah with derech eretz, as involvement with both makes one forget sin") and there it refers to earning a livelihood and getting along appropriately with others. In Germany in the 19th century the term became associated with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88) a founder of the Modern Orthodox movement.

The Rubik’s cube the rabbis were playing with is not orthogonal, we decided: it has more than one solution; it has redundancies, it does not resolve all disputes, the colors never fall fully into place.

Elijah the Prophet

Elijah the prophet is discussed in the books of Kings and Malachi. He was an early defender of the Israelite God Yaweh against the Canaanite rival Ba’al. He lived in Northern Israel during the reign of King Ahab (871-852 BCE) and his theophoric name is a combination of “El” (God, might, power) and “Jah” a shortened form of “Yaweh.” And Yaweh performed miracles through Elijah.

For example:

The Lord sustained Elijah “by the brook of Cherith,” east of the Jordan, by having ravens bring to him meat and bread in the morning and evening. 1 Kings 17:1-7. (Sounds a lot better than Manna) A drought came and the Lord directed Elijah to go to Zarepath (on the coast between Tyre and Sidon, modern day Lebanon) and there the Lord commanded a widow to feed Elijha. 1 Kings 17:9. The widow had but a handful of meal and a little oil, but Elijah said “make me a little cake of it, and one for yourself,” and the jar of meal was not spent, and the cruse of oil did not fail, and he and the widow’s household ate of it for many days. 1 Kings 17:8-16.

And Elijah resurrected the widow’s son, and she said: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”  1 Kings 17:24.

And, of course, Elijah ascended to heaven. As Elijah was ready to die, he travelled with his student Elisha back to the Jordan River. And when they came to the Jordan River “Elijah took his mantle, and rolled it up, and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground. [The Red Sea all over again] And as they talked and walked, “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”

Elijah plays a central role in Jewish eschatology, as set forth in the Book of Malachi. It’s not so different from Revelations:

“For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, also that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.”

Malachi 4:1-6

In the meantime, Elijah has work to do. Stories in the aggadah, throughout the various collections of rabbinic writings, including the Babylonian Talmud, portray Elijah as exceedingly pious and zealous. And like all zealots he was abundantly critical of his fellow Israelites.  He berated the Israelites, even as he was ascending to heaven, and he did it with such excess that, finally, God has had enough. God scolds him, and refuses to allow him to enter heaven:  “You are going to stay right where you are and you’re going to have to watch this irredeemable people redeem themselves,” says God.  “Every time they say a blessing, you have to be there and bear witness, until they do it enough that they redeem themselves completely, and the Messiah comes—at which point you have to anoint the Messiah.”  

Elijah is busy like Santa Claus on Christmas, all year round.

That’s God’s “curse” on Elijha. He has to do penance. He has to be present for every redemptive act. And so he can be found at every Bris (male circumcision at 8 days of age), at every Havdalah service, at the closing of every Sabbath, and at every Passover service. He serves as an intermediary between us and heaven. Issues we can’t resolve “will get resolved when the Messiah comes,” and it is Elijah who will be heralding and anointing the Messiah.

Aside 5. At the top of page 243 it states: “Previously the Gemara cited. . . .” It uses the word Gufa. It’s a signal that we are about to enter into a connected set of arguments; the section closes with “the Gemara reconciles . . .” and they use the word Peshita  (obviously!). That is were it ends—near the bottom of page 243. It is one topic they are dealing with. 

Our Rubik’s Cube

“Previously (gufa),” say the rabbis, “Gemara cited the halakha that one recites the blessing: Who creates fruit of the tree, over olive oil.” And the rabbis then turn their attention to other permutations of olive oil: 
·      What would we say if we guzzled olive oil plain?
·      What if we anoint ourselves with the olive oil of the teruma unknowingly?
·      What if we dip bread in olive oil?
·      What if we boil beets in water and mix it with oil and drink it for medicine, as an anigeron for a sore throat?  Does it make a difference if we drink it or gargle? What blessing do we say?
·      What if we eat plain flour, what would be the blessing?
So many things to bless, so little time . . . . So here is some practical advice, says Peretz:
·      A Meal with bread:  we say Hamotzi lechem min haaretz (who brings forth bread from the earth) before the meal.
·      A meal without bread:  we say shehakol nihiyah bed ‘varoh (by whose words all things came to be).
·      After a meal:  whether it includes bread or not, we give thanks with the Birkhat HaMazon blessing.  There are three major paragraphs; it got longer over time. The blessing is different when it’s a normal daily meal than when it’s a feast (Suda). If it’s a wedding, funeral, bris, or any festival where the community gathers, then Birkhat HaMazon references the messianic hope for Jerusalem: “May we see this and soon in our day!”
·      For holidays only (e.g. Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Sukhot):  We recall that the alter had sacramental bread and wine. Therefore, we say a separate blessing for wine ahead of the meal.  For a normal weekday meal, if we have wine with dinner, the Hamotzi covers it.   
Bless, eat, be satisfied, and bless, it's the architecture of everything. 

The Mishna’s mission was to try and make Judaism work based on prayer, blessings, and observance of halakhah; the Gemara, already in a more complicated world, was still trying to make it work. By the time of Maimonedes (1135-1204) the Rubik’s cube of blessings and halakhah had mushroomed. So Maimonedes attempted to cut through a lot of this, to make the task of observance manageable, with publication of his Mishneh Torah.

The rise of the Reform movement in Germany was also to say “It’s not working! No one is going to Shul.” It’s not like there were a lot of happy orthodox communities in Bremen, and they decided to switch to Reform, says Peretz. The tradition was dying. Hasidism, too, arose because Orthodox Judaism was dying. And so you had these movements arise to retool. To restart. That’s also part of a living community.

If we are to engage with this tradition in a meaningful manner, we have to make it work for us. The Rubik’s cube of Talmud and this God-facing practice of prayer, blessings, and halakha is there for us. We can follow an adept; we can pick up the Rubik’s cube if we will. We can do our best to make the colors align for us. 

We left off at the bottom of page 243, Berakhot 36a.  Next class is March 5, 2017.  

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