Saturday, May 6, 2017

Transacting the Transcendent through Food

Rabbis and food/Source unknown
Notes from April 2, 2017.

We last left off with the rabbis at play in the garden of blessings. They are still there. For the next 36 pages—from the pomegranate on page 247 of the Steinsaltz Talmud Bavli, (Berakhot 36b)  to the sardine on p. 283)—the rabbis have continued to talk about blessings over food. They have continued to wax eloquent about the seven species of the land of Israel, they have continued to worry about foreign foods (e.g. ginger from India), and vegetables in various cooked and uncooked states. They have continued to debate blessings over bread and wine, the two core blessings that we trace all the way back to the Mishkan (the tabernacle) and the origins of the Israelites. And they have worried about the effect that food has on the body, from urine, to bad breath, to intestinal illness, to weakness of the heart caused by eating too much mustard.

What are the rabbis doing here?

The Centrality of Blessings and Food

Blessings, as we have been studying, are central to the new traditions the rabbis established after destruction of the temple, and food is at the heart of this centrality. The rabbis are collecting and discussing blessings over food like we might collect cookbooks and discuss recipes, said Peretz.  Food is ever changing; people are continually putting food together in new and different ways; and our blessings change along with the food.  Early in the Mishna, the rabbis are speaking of Midian beer: a new, new thing. Over 700 years of Talmud, Jews have encountered different kinds of food from many different cultures. It has provided the rabbis with endless fodder to debate blessings over food.

Leviticus tried to govern food, because food is also sacrificial. The blessings took the place of sacrifice. Both food and blessings are God’s ingredients, says Peretz. And the rabbis loved to play with these ingredients and combine them in new ways.


The rabbis in these 36 pages (from the pomegranate to the sardine) are engaging in extended pilpul. Pilpul originated from the academies in Babylonia: it’s minutia, it’s endless, and its food, says Peretz.

Pilpul means “to spice, to season,” and in a more metaphorical sense, to dispute vigorously. It is a characteristic method of Talmudic study involving close textual analysis, ostensibly to sharpen and clarify concepts and rules. But pilpul tends to devolve from a truth seeking tool to an exercise that is an end in itself. Thus pilpul is often associated (erroneously) with sophistry or casuistry, unserious reasoning.  It is unserious reasoning, says Peretz, but this misses the point. 

When the rabbis engage in pilpul, they are busy with esoteric minutia that non-experts would not be interested in, but they engage with it in a decidedly positive spirit, says Peretz. It’s not for everyone. Litvaks (Jews from Lithuania) are said to be allergic to pilpul. There’s the old joke: “How do you kill a Litvak? You pour pilpul on him.” But for certain people, like Talmudic sages, IT’S FINE. Consider academic discourses on the post-modern novel, or French existential poetry. Consider a gathering of Old-time musicians, or Klezmer musicians; they can get very esoteric in this parochial, joyous way. Baseball fans! They delve, they keep extensive statistics on everybody. It’s not all they do, but extreme fandom is a bit extreme. They want to delve, and they do it in a manner that is entirely beyond good sense and reason, but they do it for their own enjoyment and the love of the game. In that same sense, what the rabbis are doing is not reasonable, but they are playing with God’s words, for His glory, and their own enjoyment. Talmud has many extended sections of such joyous Pilpul.

For us casual students, says Peretz, it’s not time-efficient to read through all of it, unless we happen to love it and want to dig in further on our own. 

Aside 1. Pilpul can also keep people busy and out of trouble. In Yeshivas in Israel there are many less than stellar students engaged in pilpul as make work, to get a stipend and to stay out of the army and secular workforce.  It has a negative attached to it. During the time of the Tsars, Galician Jews were heavily taxed and drafted into the army as cannon fodder: studying the minutia of Talmud was one way to keep away from the Tsar.  “Let us say a blessing for the Tsar: may God keep the Tsar . . . far from here!” 

Aside 2.  Over the centuries, some things that have militated against Jews spending their days doing pilpul in Yeshivas were: Zionism, Socialism, Hasidism, and immigration. Should we add: Nobel prizes and business. 

Salt in the Land of Genosar

“We would follow Rabbi Yohanan to eat fruits of Genosar,” said Rabbi bar bar Hana in Babylon. Rabbi bar bar Hana was a second generation Amoraim (~250 – 290 CE) Talmudist from Babylon. He was the grandson of rabbi Hana, and brother of rabbi Hyyia. Bar bar Hana traveled to Roman ruled Galilee to study with Rabbi Yohanan and he would relate many stories of R. Yohanan. 

Genosar “is the name of the beautiful valley that stretches along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, north of Tiberias,” says Steinsaltz. And Steinsaltz brings in Josephus, who is the only contemporary Jewish historian writing about this area.  Josephus (~37 – 100 CE), as we know, was the commander of the Jewish army in the Galilee during the First Roman War, which ended badly for the Jews with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the destruction of Masada in 73 CE. Josephus had surrendered to Vespasian long before then, during the siege of Yodfat in 67 CE, and thus has been considered a traitor and ignored by Jewish sources.

Aside 3.  For hundreds of years, Josephus was out of favor among the Jews. He was the historian of the war with the Romans, but he wrote from the Roman camp. So for centuries he was never quoted by Talmudists. He is being quoted here by Steinsaltz because during the last 50 years we have come to appreciate that Josephus is the only source we have for a look at pre-Temple practices.  It’s a radical move by Steinsaltz, this rehabilitation of Jesephus in the Talmudic community. 

Aside 4. For seven centuries of Talmud, and through the Middle Ages, right up to the 20th Century, there were no known Jewish historians. Salo Wittmayer Baron (1895-1989) is considered the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century, and he was one of the first Jewish historians since Josephus. Born into a Jewish aristocratic family in Galicia, he received his higher education in Vienna and began teaching at the Jewish Teacher’s College in Vienna in 1926. In 1929 Stephen S. Wise (the prominent Reform Rabbi and Zionist) persuaded him to come to New York to teach at the Jewish Institute of Religion. From 1930, until his retirement in 1963, Baron was a historian at Columbia University.

Aside 5.  The rehabilitation of Josephus.  All historians have to be a little disloyal to the state. They have to tell the truth, to see beyond the national (and nationalist) myths; to not be blinded by myths. There is no reason for us to think that Josephus was a toady for the Romans, says Peretz. He’s not quoted by any Roman source. They didn’t seem to care how he portrayed his history. The traditional hostility and neglect of Josephus by Jews is about us . . . not him, says Peretz. 

Josephus’s description of Genosar is lush.

“It’s nature is wonderful . . . so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it; . . . the temper of the air is so well mixed that it agrees very well with . . . walnuts, which require the coldest air, . . . palm trees . . .  which grow best in hot air; fig trees . . .  and olives . . . which yet require an air that is more temperate. It supplies . . . grapes and figs continually during the ten months of the year and the rest of the fruits as they become ripe together through the whole year; for besides the good temperature of the air, it is also watered from a most fertile fountain.”

The Kinneret and the Valley of Ginosar
And is there a circumstance where salted food is primary and bread is secondary? Asks the Gemara. Good question, we might say, because—after all—blessings over bread trace back to the Mishkan and are usually primary. When there is bread, it’s technically a meal and Jewish meals begin with a blessing over the bread and sharing of bread together.  Yet the fruits of the Genosar were so sweet that they would be eaten along with salted foods in order to temper the sweetness. In Genosar, suggests Peretz, things were so good, bread was relegated to a secondary place, behind the sweet fruit and the salty food eaten with it—and we said the blessing over the primary (salty) food, even if the secondary food is bread.

Fun with Food: Hyperboles

And the rabbis illustrate with hyperbolic stories: “When rabbi Abbahu would eat of the fruit from Genosar, his skin would become so slippery, a fly would slip from his forehead;” . . . “And then Rabbi Yohanan would tell the household of the Nasi about this condition and Rabbi Yhuda Nesia  would send the authorities after him and they would take him to his house.”. . .   “Rav Ami and Rav Asi would eat (the sweet fruits) until their hair fell out;”. . . “600,000 bowls of sardines were required for those cutting the figs off the trees,” because those figs were so sweet, said Rav Dimi.  These are hyperbolic, enjoyable moves, pilpully . . . .  about the cornucopia of fruit in the Genosar. The rabbis are having fun with food.  The moral of the story, says Peretz: If you enjoy this world, you are also enjoying God’s creation.  We are supposed to be in this world; we are supposed to be enjoying it! 

Aside 6.  The post-Hadrianic (117-138 CE) period was a calm period.  Peaceful.  Most historians were British Christians, so they were writing about the early struggling Church, quips Peretz. But this is myopic. If we look outside the early church, it’s a very calm period.  Post destruction, post-rebellion. The Romans, after all, were anti-rebellion, not anti-Semitic. They cared about taxes, not about Jewish or not-Jewish. The period following the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE) was a period of peace.  It was a time when Talmud could grow. 

Culinary Zionism

Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish are in the land of Israel.  But these hyperbolic stories come from Babylonia. The stories conjure the Genosar valley, the Hula Valley, the Bekaa Valley, all in the shadow of Mt. Hermon, where the living was easy. The rabbis are looking back at the land of Israel, nostalgically; and they are using food to do it.

It’s culinary Zionism, says Peretz.  All these stories about biblical foods bring our thoughts back to the land of Israel. It’s memory food.

See map of Talmud Centers at Lehrhaus Resources

But they are no Salo Barons, these rabbis. They are not historians. For example, there is a conspicuous absence of any discussion of meat as they think of Genosar.  It’s not because there was no meat, or that they were all vegetarians.

Josephus, too, leaves out meat from his description of the land. Yet, there is reason think, says Peretz, that Kohenim still existed in the North at the time of the redaction of the Mishna (~189 CE).  They were hoping to rebuild the temple.  It was reasonable to believe the Second Temple would be rebuilt reasonably soon. After all, it took just 60 years before the First Temple was rebuilt.

Indeed, animal sacrifice may have continued in Samaria even as the Mishna was being redacted, suggests Peretz. The sacrificial tradition had existed a long time, going back to Isaac. But sacrifice is dangerous because it is easily turned into magic and mystery cults.  Already Leviticus was careful about this. By the time Mishna was being redacted, suggests Peretz, the rabbis did not want this sacrificial tradition and there was active suppression of animal sacrifice. Thus, when it speaks of food, Talmud does not want to mention the traditions associated with meat and animal sacrifice. Talmud, says Peretz, did everything it could to turn moments that might call for animal sacrifice, into prayers and blessings, including, of course, prayers and blessings over meat.

Aside 7. The Seder Plate. For the same reason, many Jewish communities did not allow lamb on the table at Pesach: it is too close to reenacting the Temple sacrifice. In some communities they sacrifice the lamb.  In others, the lamb sacrifice is “put off” until we have the temple rebuilt, when we can do it safely. Others want to be done with it altogether, to be vegetarians.  The lamb-bone on the Seder plate changes the consumption of meat to a symbol.  It becomes memory.  The bone goes on the plate, not the animal. The question is, says Peretz, can we safely handle these elements? Meat items on the table cause controversy because, literally, we are playing with fire. 

The Transcendent vs. The Transactional

The rabbis focus on the nourishment of food, its enjoyment: the transactional aspects of food. If we are not enjoying our food, we are not enjoying God’s world, suggests Peretz.  And the rabbis of the Talmud use hyperbolic language to make this point clear. At the same time, the rabbis of the Talmud focus on prayers and blessings to make the food transcendent—to bring the holy into the concrete, limited, physical world through prayers and blessings.  Prayers and blessings make the food free for our use: it makes the food transcendent. That’s also how Rabbi J. Soloveitchick puts it in his Halakhic Man.  

Grace After Meal

“One who ate from the fruit for which Eretz Yisrael was praised,” said Rabban Gamliel, “recites three blessings of Grace after Meals.” Mishna on p. 284. And as we previously discussed, grace after meal is one of the few proof texts that the rabbis had for constructing their practice built on prayers and blessings.  Deuteronomy 8:10.

And the rabbis debate what triggers a full Birkhat Hamazon?

Birkhat Hamazon is a series of blessings, says My Jewish Learning. And there are abbreviated versions and longer versions, and there are different versions that people use.   

“What is the formula of one blessing abridged from three blessings of Grace after Meals?” asked Rabbi Abaye rhetorically. And he went on, saying to Rav Dimi:

“Over fruit of the tree one recites: For the tree and the fruit of the tree, and for the produce of the field, and for the desireable, good and spacious land that you gave as heritage to our ancestors, that they might eat of its fruit and be satisfied with its goodness. Have compassion, Lord our God, upon Israel Your people and upon Jerusalem, your city, and upon Your Temple and upon your altar. May You rebuild Jerusalem, your holy city, swiftly in our time, and may You bring us back there rejoicing in it as You are good and do good to all.”

And, we wonder. . . is this a blessing, or is it a prayer—a petition? Is it transactional (a physical restoration in our time) or is it transcendent?

And how does one conclude the blessing?  “When Rav Dimi came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia he said: Rav would conclude the blessing on the New Moon: Blessed … Who sanctifies Israel and the New Moon.” 

Rav Hisda said blessings “For the land and its fruits;” but Rabbi Yohanan said “For the land and for the fruits.”  Rav Rahman bar Yitzhak explains: “The land and its fruits” is for those in Eretz Yisrael, whereas outside the land of Eretz Yisrael, we say a separate blessing for the land and the fruits.

And as we listen to Jimmy Cliff and his rendition of Psalm 137, and we think of that last stanza:

“Remember, O Lord, against the E’domites
the day of Jerusalem
how they said, “Rase it, rase it!
Down to its foundations.
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
With what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
And dashes them against the rock!”

. . . we wonder (and debate), is this transactional or is it transcendent?

No comments:

Post a Comment