Thursday, March 30, 2017

At Play in the Garden of Blessings, with Furs, Royal Colors, and a Tennis Analogy

How does one recite blessing over fruit? asked Hiroko Nogami-Rosen at the commencement of our March 5 Talmud Circle class. Why are there so many different blessings over different foods? We have the universal Berkhat HaMazon (blessing after meal), answers Peretz, but the rabbis of the Mishna had a desire for different blessings over food. They did this mishnaically, without explanation . . . because food was part of the temple offerings.

Blessings over food are like recipes.  We have many cookbooks; there are infinite numbers of new recipes. They reflect colliding cultures. People have opinions.

We have the all-purpose blessing of “By whose word all things came to be . . . .” By God’s word, and done. But a multiplicity of blessings brings mindfulness. The starting point is the tradition of offerings in the Mishkan (temple): there we brought different offerings.  Just as we had different offerings in the Mishkan, the Mishna devised different blessings over different foods. The Mishna teaches one should not be lazy about ethical rules, we need to focus, concluded Norman Reid.

There is the long term effect of saying bracha for everything we consume: it’s Aristotelian, it leads to moral outcomes, says Peretz. Ethics is a curriculum said Joseph B. Soloveichik. So reports Peretz. (See my previous post for more on Soloveitchik) It offers a pathway to the highest ascendency; a spiritual pathway.

And, Cliff Detz reminds us, nothing belongs to us until we say the bracha. The blessing redeems all aspects of creation. We have to redeem each item; we have to know what it is; we have to make an I-Thou from the I-it. Our mindful consumption of food properly blessed replaces the role of sacrificial consumption on the alter. Attentiveness adds value.

In sum, our blessings are a practice of mindfulness, they form a deep relation to creation, they make the transactional transcendent. Everything is consumed as though you were making it an offering.

And, we have previously discussed, we learn this practice of mindfulness by following adepts. We can play tennis as casual weekend players, or we can become 5.0 tournament players. It's not so different. It's o.k. to be either. The game remains the game. 

They did not have to be perfect, our offerings in the Mishkan: just “best of” whatever we have. And, of course, some things were off-limits. Nothing treif. No snakes, no pigs. But offerings were not limited to food. If all you had was a beautiful stick, you could bring that and the priest, and presumably God, would welcome it.

And Jews were Socialists Long Before Bernie Sanders . . .

The tradition of sacrifice was intentionally non-economic. What you brought was not dependent on your status or wealth. Torah is wonderfully egalitarian in outlook, says Peretz. There were no special foods you could bring for your offerings: simply “best-of,” but any food. The rich could not buy extra status.

Then there was the half-shekel rule of Shabbat Shekalim. In Second Temple times every Jewish male was required to pay a half shekel tax to the Temple treasury once a year on the first of the Hebrew month of Adar. This is the reason that the Sabbath before the first of the month of Adar is known as “Shabbat Shekalim”. Everyone brought one-half shekel: “The rich could bring no more; the poor could bring no less,” said Peretz. Talmud is very egalitarian and communitarian in that way. They were concerned with equal access to all, even if in our politics today the notion of abandoning progressive taxation in favor of a flat tax is not excactly considered progressive.

Here is Exodus 30:11-16 

The Lord said to Moses, “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. Each who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. Every one who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not less, than the half shekel, when you give the Lord’s offering to make atonement for yourselves. And you shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting; that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for yourselves.”  

A half-shekel (silver) coin found from a Temple Mount
excavation in 1999; shows a three branched pomegranate.
It weights 5.7 grams, ~$3.25 at today's value.

And the egalitarian spirit spilled over into Jewish clothing. The color purple in ancient Rome was reserved for the upper classes.  This color was literally owned by royalty. Non-royals could not use purple. Torah blows this up. All men could wear a little purple in the tassles of their tzitzit and the fringes of their tallits.  Everyone could wear a little royalty. The blue stripes in the Israli flag allude to this tradition.

Hexaplex trunculus found on Israeli coastal plain
near Haifa, perhaps the hillazon of the Tosefta?
Aside 1. According to a Tosefta (Melachon 9:6), the purple for the tzitzit and fringes of the tallit were made from the Hillazon sea shell, which is apparently extinct. The shell produced a blue-violet dye (Thekelet).

The Hillazon shell is mentioned 49 times in the Tankah. In addition to dying the fringes of tzizit and tallit, it’s dye was used in priests’ clothing and the tapestries in the Tabernacle.

Royalty in fur hat

Aside 2. The big fur hats worn by many haredi men have a similar association with royalty. The shtreimel hats are worn over a regular kippa on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. Since wearing special clothing on Shabbat is a form of sanctification, the shtreimel is associated with the holiness of Shabbat, a crown such as that worn by royalty, which enhances and beautifies Shabbat.  Big fur hats is what royalty wore, says Peretz. It’s a constant theme of taking back class distinctions on Shabbat.  On Shabbat we are all princes and princesses.

The Rabbis at Play in the Playground of Brachot

“Fruit of the ground,” “fruit of the tree” or “by whose word all things came to be?” In Berakhot 36a, pages 244-247, we see the rabbis debating with loving fervor about the “correct” blessing over different foods: from the olive tree to olive oil, from wheat to wheat flour, from a raw gourd to barley flour, to salt, and salt water. The rabbis debate the blessings over heart of palm and its leaves, the radish, and the caper bush—over buds, the young fronds, and berries of the caper bush.  Over each of these the rabbis report differing opinions, pros and cons for selecting the right blessing. And some of these are settled into halakha. And the rules might be more stringent in the land of Israel and more lenient outside. 

Despite appearances, says Peretz, the rabbis are not obsessed: they are messing with the ingredients. They engage in meandering meditations. To use a technical term, they are “Shooting the shit.” Just having fun. They are in a kosher Game Boy environment, but they are playing with God’s elements.

Aside 3. The rabbis worry about how lenient and how strict to be around food rules. There is always the danger that we out-kosher our neighbor and wind up interfering with the mitzvah of dining together, says Peretz.

Inserting Memory Packets for the Land of Israel

The rabbis—writing in Persia—are embedding a desire to return to the land, says Peretz. They want to have the full curriculum back. They are withholding some strictness of observance for the land of Israel. Once back in the land, there we can redeem ourselves; there we can observe all the laws with full rigor. Through the idealization of (a future) strict(er) observance in the land of Israel, the rabbis sowed the seeds of religious Zionism.

This desire to fulfill all the mitzvoth, of course, applies most obviously with respect to the mitzvoth around the Mishkan and animal sacrifice. Nearly 40 percent of the 613 mitzvot cannot be performed today.  If you want to observe all 613 mitzvot, you had better be a religious Zionist. 

The rabbis of the Talmud were sensitive to this. They planted little memory packets for the land of Israel in Talmud, says Peretz. For example, the celebration of Sukkot emphathizes the seven species, by way of remembrance of the land. But it’s about more than remembrance. It’s about the ingredients that are missing for ultimate transcendence. Ultimately, it’s the land that redeems us . . . .  That is a common voice in the Gemarrah. 

Treatment of “Uncertain Orla” inside and Outside Israel: a small mystery?

One aspect of orla, we recall, is that we are not allowed to consume fruit (e.g. caper berries, grapes) picked during the first three years—measured from Tu BiShvat. What happens when there is doubt? You are thinking about purchasing fruit and you are unsure whether it is inside or outside the period of orla?  The rabbis drew a distinction whether this proposed sale occurs inside the land of Israel, outside of the land of Israel, or in uncertain territory in between (Syria).

If inside the land of Israel, we must be strict: the doubt is resolved in favor of orla, and we must abstain.

In Syria—the in-between land—we resolve the unknown status against orla, and we may eat it.

Outside the land of Israel the rabbis are very lenient: we may eat the fruit as long as we did not personally witness the seller gather it as orla. Even if we suspect it may be orla, we may assume it is not unless we personally observed it as orla.

Aside 4.  It’s hard to follow the logic here. It’s hard to see why one should be more stringent about orla inside the land of Israel, and it’s hard to understand why this would encourage anyone to move back to the land of Israel. It’s also hard to understand why a rule is needed at all. If, for example, a lemon bush, or a pomegranate tree require three years to produce fruit, why would anyone be tempted to consume of this fruit before it becomes fruit? Take a bite and you'll know whether it's orla or not! It’s not like the Babylonians would care how strict or lenient Jews were about orla.  It does not seem like a politically hot-button issue. It seems mysterious. 

There is some angst and anxiety wired in, here, says Peretz.  Reformers in Germany excised all these “pointing back to the Land of Israel” distinctions from their prayer books. “They knew what it was about,” said Peretz.  “They wanted this otherness out.  Jewish otherness would be used against us while we keep looking East. And Jews in Germany started building synagogues pointing every which way but East,” said Peretz.

Aside 5. This tension between less strict (or not at all strict) and more strict, of course, is a timeless issue. Rav Abraham Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in Mandate Palestine (served 1921-1935). Surrounded by mostly secular immigrants (the Hehalutz pioneers) he began to wonder about these Kibbutzniks playing soccer on Shabbat—“how do I know they (these unobservant louts) are not operating to God’s plan,” he wondered.  Nevertheless, he stood outside the theater in Jaffa (or was it Jerusalem?) on Friday nights and wished Shabbat Shalom to movie goers. At that time (1920’s) it was enough to shut down the theater.  Not today.   

Aside 6. And the differentiation of strictness by area is not new either. Want to be more strict in observance: you can move to Meir Sharim, or Beit Shemesh, or Teaneck New Jersey and get moral support. You can move to a Haredi neighborhood. You can throw rocks at cars passing by on Shabbat. Many individuals keeping kosher at home relax their rules outside the home. None of these things are new.

What does it all mean? The answer is in our mouths, like pomegranate seeds.

No comments:

Post a Comment