Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Birkat Ha-Mazon: Jewish History from Moses to Yavne

David Ben-Gurion's library, Tel Aviv/Ron James
Our Talmud Circle met at the JCCSF on December 2, 2017. We dedicated our learning to David Ben Gurion, who read the whole Talmud and did not believe a word of it. He read it as an Aristotelian, like an archeological text. And Ben Gurion recognized that this is a great document for the Diaspora. It is of no use to a sovereign Jewish state: it gives no guidance for governing a sovereign state that has a standing army inside of it. Modern Israel and the IDF was beyond the imagination of the Talmud. The idea of the Talmud as a constitutional document for the state of Israel was laughable, thought Ben-Gurion. Halakha, as it moves through time, provides us with Jewish law, but it does not predict how we will live in modernity. It cannot imagine it. But Talmud does set a framework for how  to think about it.

A Palimpsest of the Middle-East


November was a big month in Jewish history. Or is it Israeli history? The beginning of the month marked 100 years since Britain issued its Balfour declaration (November 2, 1917):
"His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
The end of the month marked 70 years since the United Nations adopted its partition resolution (Res. 181, November 29, 1947). Although the Hebrew calendar does not contain a month of "November," Jerusalem and most other Israeli cities contain a 29th of November street to honor this UN Resolution. It marked the beginning of a civil war between Jews and Arabs as partition was rejected by Syria, Egypt, and Iraq—all recent British colonies who had just been granted their independence. The Arab states sacrificed the Palestinian state to attack the Jewish state, but Palestinians did not have a vote. In Israeli and American right wing circles, says Peretz, 29 November marks the creation of the Jewish state—and everything else was Jordan.  They are rewriting history, although Jordan did (in the end) take control of the West Bank.

When we look back at a map of Talmud Centers in the time of Mishna, there are no borders, no countries.  There are rivers: 

The Orontes, Litani, Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris
The Tigris and Euphrates dominate the landscape, but the distances are small. Rabbis UllaRava, and  Dimi travelled to and fro between Palestine and Babylonia during the 3d century CE. They may have followed the Jordan river to its main tributary, the Hasbani, and up to its source at Wazzani Spring. From there it is just a few kilometers across to the Litany river, which drains the Southern Beqaa, entering the Mediterranean north of Tyre. Following the Litany upstream, the rabbis would soon have reached the headwaters of the Orontes river, the chief river in the Levant in ancient times. The Orontes drains the Northern Beqaa as it flows through Syria and towards Antioch. 

The caravans stopped to refill at acquifers, following the natural water route.  A mere 300 miles separated Bet Shearim from the Euphrates, less than a month's journey. The rabbis could celebrate Rosh Kodesh at Bet Shearim, travel by the light of the waxing moon, and reach Babylonia before the moon had fully waned.  

Waivey Gravey drove this route in the 60’s. Check out the documentary Saint Misbehaving, suggests Peretz.  During the British Mandate period, there was bus service from Haifa to Iran. "I have a poster from 1915," says Peretz. "It gives me hope." Lorraine added:  "in the 60’s you could drive from Israel to Afghanistan. Some of us did that."

There were no nation states--a new fangled concept--in the time of Mishna. The Romans were established at Ceasaria, which served as a seat of government in the second and third centuries C.E. The Parthian Empire was to the East. There were no local police authorities.  When needed, the legions would march to restore order. But they were a blunt instrument. The Jewish revolts against Rome of 68, 70, 128, and 132 had reduced the Jewish population by two thirds.  The effect on the overall Jewish population was twice that of the Holocaust.

The remaining third spread out. And as they spread out, the Rabbis created a different Judaism, a Judaism without military aspirations, but a Judaism with memories of Jerusalem. The move towards Persia represents movement away from nationalism, says Peretz. There was no talk of revolt in the Parthian empire, and life without revolution is more conducive to peaceful existence.

As the rabbis travelled across these zones of influence--from the Greco-Roman coast to the Persian Parthian East, they carried no passports. They relied on personal networks. The loose line of demarcation between Rome and the Parthian empire, says Peretz, drives home the point that Mishna, composed by Hanasi in Zippori is a Greco-Roman document; Gemara, composed in Talmudic centers in Babylonia is a Persian document.

Bar Kokhba's "Freedom Coins"
Aside 1. Gambling for Hanukkah gelt: a historical mash-up. Bar Kokhba had coins minted with the rebellious slogan "To the Freedom of Jerusalem" (132-135 CE). These coins challenged the Romans with what mattered most--the control and possession of money. Hanukkah gelt reminds us of this: “Here’s our money!” And as we spin the dreidel and gamble for our Hanukkah gelt (chocolates) we smartly straddle and invoke more than a millennia of Jewish History: we celebrate the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE (with the Hanukkiah), we celebrate the Bar Kochba revolt three hundred years later in 132 CE (the chocolate "Freedom Coins" aka Hanukkah gelt), and we spin a dreidel from medieval German Yiddish culture. The four letters on the dreidel refer to the story of Macabbees: “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” (a great miracle happened here, in Hebrew).  But the letters also reference the unrelated Yiddish words: Nun (Yiddish word “nisht” or nothing); Gimel (“gants” or all); Hei (“halb” or half); and Shin (“shtel ayin” or put in).

Aside 2.  Nationalist appropriation. The Herut ("freedom") party in Israel took its name from that Hanukkah gelt. Beitar, the Jerusalem soccer club with a jingoist fan culture, takes its name from the last stand of the Bar Kochba rebellion (at Beitar fortress SW of Jerusalem). 

Aside 3.  Mishna land (Bet Shearim, Usha, Zippori, Tiberias, Lod, Rabbat Ammon, Yavneh) is the same territory where the gospel of Matthew was written. It is an area outside Roman control where you had early church, biblical Judaism, and early rabbinic Judaism. The appoccryphal texts, and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke arose at the same time as Mishna. Cliff Detz observed how biblical Judaism, Christianity, and Rabbinic Judaism bifurcated from a common stock at this time. And this is reflected in the Zimmun, noted Peretz, where a kuti (Samaritan) counts, but a nochri (early Christian or gentile) does not. 

Back to the Birkat Ha-Mazon: the Shape of it Around Four Blessings

On pages 309-315 we read as the rabbis slowly build up and expand the blessing after meals. But it's a mystery, this blessing. As we recall, they started with Deuteronomy 8:10 ("And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.") From there they embellish and expand, without ever writing down a definitive version. And why would they, we realize, . . . these were blessings everyone was saying three times a day.  

But today, we can't take the blessing for granted. Outside the Orthodox world, few Jews say the Birkat HaMazon, says Peretz. Except at camp (and at Chabad), no one does Birkat HaMazon aloud together, he notes. It's ironic, because it works. It unifies community--the chanting, the singing, and that slapping of the table. 

The Hebrew, the length of the blessing, the uncertainty of what's in it, the fear of ostentatious conspicuousness: they inhibit us. 

“Why does it matter what the particulars are?” asked Lorraine. "The rabbis' blessing contains the hope for rebuilding of Jerusalem. It encodes our most fervent communal wishes," says Peretz.  A common blessing bonds the community, and in Mishnaic Judaism the consumption of food and the giving of thanks is a bonding with God.  And while they are being grateful, the rabbis also think of what they want. We are like that. And the rabbis say “please bring back Jerusalem swiftly and in our day.”  They are not in the land, and they are not where they want to be.

"They don’t ask for the House of David. They don’t ask for everything to come back," says Peretz. But in the rabbis' wish list is the Messiah, and Jerusalem.

Aside 4. There is something vaguely Catholic about the rabbi's treatment of the blessing after meals, suggests Peretz. The Birkat Ha-Mazon connects us with the sacrificial offering in the temple: eating food and giving thanks connects us with God. As the Catholic doctrine of communion developed, we back pedaled from this association with teruma and the priests' consumption as holy communion.  

The rabbis are clear on the four basic blessings. Rav Nahman said (Berakhot 48b, p. 309): 1. Moses instituted for Israel: “Who feeds all” when the manna descended for them;  2. Joshua instituted the blessing of the land when they entered Eretz Yisrael; 3. David and Solomon instituted the third blessing: “Who builds Jerusalem;” and 4. The rabbis at Yavne instituted the blessing of “Who is good and does good,” in reference to the slain Jews of the city of Beitar (at the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt).  At Yavne they said "God is good and does good" because the corpses did not decompose while awaiting burial, and because they were ultimately brought to burial.

A Concise History of Judaism . . . 

Cliff Detz pointed out how the Birkat Ha-Mazon contains a brief recitation of Jewish history up to that point in time: it moves from the covenant with Moses in the desert, to Joshua entering and conquering the land, to David and Solomon building the temple, to destruction of the temple and exile…. It is the entire arch of history. The blessing identifies Judaism with the land and its history. "Which I have a problem with," says Cliff, "but up until that moment they lived in the land, and they were closer to the land. Even in Babylonia they were not that far removed in place or time from Jerusalem."

And Peretz agrees. The rabbis, Bavli 48b-49, are looking at the four basic components of the Birkat Ha-Mazon as a teaching moment of Jewish history, and hence unifying. 

There are other such histories, suggests Peretz.  "My father was a wandering Aramean" (in the Haggadah, from Deuteronomy). When you brought your offering at the temple, you had all of Jewish history in one paragraph.  So, yes, if we chant the Birkat Ha-Mazon mindfully, we recite all of Jewish history that’s important, up to Yavne.  And we do it while singing. It’s a pedagogic device. The same can be said of the seven blessings for a wedding. We always repeat our history and our meaning.

And whereas prayer life is usually exterior to time, Peretz noted that these recitation-of-history blessings are very much in time. Time “up to now.”

The Ur-Birkat Ha-Mazon

The rabbis are not yet looking at the Shabbat portions, or the Zimmun, or the Rosh Chodesh. They are not yet dealing with the additions to the blessing for a wedding, nor the additions for Hanukkah, Purim, and Shavuot, and they are not aware of all the Harachaman’s (the "Merciful" one), desires and wishes that were added in medieval times.

Peretz handed out a description of the Birkat Ha-Mazon as the rabbis of the Mishna probably had it, together with a more recent and expansive bencher (prayer guide for particular ceremonies). "In its initial form, the Birkat Ha-Mazon probably consisted of a single sentence: Baruch at a adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam hazanet ha'olam kulo b'tov b'hesed uvrachamim (blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who nourishes the whole world in goodness, mercy and compassion) says Peretz.  "At some point, this single sentence became linked with additional material, and this is now the first paragraph. . . ."  

As material was added, the blessing can be confusing in voluminous benchers (prayer books) where lots of inapplicable (for the occasion) blessings may be included. "These look more daunting than they need to be," says Peretz.  

Some Additions . . . 

The Sages set the order of these blessings in a baraita, and they added that on Shabbat one begins the third blessing (“Who builds Jerusalem . . . “) with consolation and ends with consolation, and one mentions the sanctity of the day with the mention of Shabbat in the middle. Maimonides adopted this order as Halakha (Jewish law) in his Sefer Ahava.

Rabbi HaNasi derived the Zimmun blessing (the introductory call and response to the blessing after meals when there are at least three diners) from the verse “Praise God with me . . .” (Psalms 34:3).

And Rabbi Meir reminds us that we say a blessing over the good as well as the bad. The good and the bad alike reflect the judgment of the Lord, and so we say a blessing over the bad in acceptance of the judgment.

And Rabbi Beteira (a Tanna from before destruction of the Temple, a contemporary of Akiva) suggested a blessing of the Torah “For I have given you good teachings” (Proverbs 4:2) and the building of Jerusalem, as it says: “This good mountain [hatov] and Lebanon.” 

Rabbi Eliezer opined that whoever does not say the blessings “A desirable, good and spacious land...," “the royal house of David,” and “Who builds Jerusalem. . .” did not fulfill his obligation.

Nahum, the Elder, adds: one must mention the covenant of circumcision in the blessing of the land, Rabbi Ysei says one must mention the Torah in the blessing of the land, and Pelimu suggests it should be mentioned before the land.

And the rabbis taught in a baraita that the third blessing of Grace after Meals (“Who builds Jerusalem. . . “) is concluded with “the building of Jerusalem.” But Rabbi Yosei, son of Yehuda, says it concludes with “Who redeems Israel. . . .”  So which is it: to build or to redeem? The Gemara leaves it up to our interpretation: we should say that Rabbi Yosei meant we can conclude either with “building of Jerusalem,” or “Who redeems Israel.”  In other words, the rabbis—despite much discussion of one theme or two—seemed to think this amounted to the same thing. “When does God build Jerusalem?” When he gathers in the exiles of Israel, suggests Psalms 147:2.

Managing Variations

Cliff Detz infers that there seem to be many variation of the blessing and the rabbis are trying to normalize it all. “It's like your standard H-shift in your car,” says Peretz.  “Reverse is always where reverse is, brake-pedal always next to left of gas. Consumers demand it. I don’t care if it's a Mercedes or Volvo, I want to know where the brake-pedal is. There is a convergence between what people want and what the rabbis are trying to do," suggests Peretz. "There is a desire for unity amongst the people. The rabbis don’t have to enforce this unity. Unity is a good idea; it's a welcome idea. I can walk to Alicia’s house or Cliff’s house and do the Birkat Ha-Mazon and it’s pretty much the same.  I don’t have to struggle too much.” 

What did Moses, Joshua, and David all have in common? They were leading the people to Jerusalem—the land. It’s a territorial line the rabbis are invoking, suggests Peretz. Lorraine feels the tug: "We want a unified place to go back to," she says, "otherwise we are dispersed and diverse communities in diaspora."

Peretz pointed to some unifying moves that help mange variations:  in synagogue the community rises as one and faces east to Jerusalem, during the Amidah.  In homes we find art work that shows us where East is. 

Mitzrach plaque, showing the direction
of East (Jerusalem) in home

"Who is Good and Does Good. . . because Beitar"

At Beitar, really? Beitar is the end of sovereignty. Knowing this, to bless God with “Who is good and does good!” with respect to Beitar seems incongruous. Yet Rav Mattana says we should thank  God that those corpses left on the battle field of Beitar did not decompose while awaiting burial; by not decomposing they could eventually be buried. It's better than being left hanging as carrion on a crucifix.  It could have been worse! But this seems lame: it goes back to Job, and blessing bad things that happen to us as well as good. Blessing over Torah (and bad things that happen to us?) is non-temporal life. Torah will increase my life in ways I cannot expect. Blessing Torah and bad things that happen to us is not like blessing ice-cream.  

Aside 5.  And tangentially, the rabbis describe the maidens “going on expansively” while speaking to Saul. They kept on “chattering” because Saul was tall and most beautiful. We have no record of Saul ever facing his own #metoo reckoning, although he did fall on his sword to avoid capture by the Philisteens at Mt. Gilboa.

History "Until Now"

On the heels of Beitar, the rabbis understandably left Yavne. They want to get away from the immediate reach of Ceasaria. HaNasi went on to compose the Mishna in Zippori, and the rabbis went on to flesh it out in Persia. But Talmud, through its close in Babylonia in 500 CE, was more less in the same until-now-moment that the rabbis faced at Yavne after Beitar. 

We are writing a new chapter of Judaism.  

Please contact me with any corrections or additions.  

Our next class at JCCSF is on January 7, 2018. 

No comments:

Post a Comment