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.

The Pomegranate: from Meir to Soloveitchik

On March 5, 2017 our Talmud Circle finally reached the long anticipated pomegranate on page 247 of our Steinsaltz, Berakhot 36a. And, of course, the pomegranate graces the front cover. Why is it there? “The fruit is hidden,” suggested David Berluti in class. “You read this book and it gets revealed.” 

The pomegranate is just past its season, typically September through February in the Northern Hemisphere. It has been cultivated in Persia and throughout the Mediterranean basin and India for thousands of years. It appears on coins uncovered from temple times. 

God spoke of it. “And you shall make holy garments” for my priests, God instructed (Ex. 28:2). “Make the robe of the ephod all of blue,” he said. “On its skirts you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, around its skirts, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate round about on the skirt of the robe.” Ex. 28:31-33. God was insistent about pomegranates. 

Solomon listened. He had the pillars of his temple engraved with pomegranates (1 Kings 7:18).  “Behold, you are beautiful,” he cooed. “Your eyes are doves behind your veil . . . your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate” (Song of Solomon 4:1-3). They say he designed his crown after the pomegranate’s crown.

The Uncircumcised Fruit

The pomegranate fruit is a berry with its inedible outer husk protecting hundreds of luscious ruby red juicy seeds. The number of seeds can vary from 200 to 1400, but by Talmudic tradition there are 613 seeds: one seed for each mitzvah. 

The pomegranate is mysterious, holy like the womb, like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. It is orla: it generally takes three years to produce edible fruit. Orla is also that which conceals something else. It is uncircumcised fruit. We must remove its husk like the foreskin from a penis.

In Kabbala, they say that, like the seeds of the pomegranate, God’s presence in the world is often concealed from our eyes and we have to find it. Jacob wakes from his dream and says “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16) It’s a huge move, says Peretz, from idol worship—which is evident, on the surface—to the idea “I was dreaming and my head was on the ground, and God was here and I did not know it” (until I perceived it). To discover that which is hidden involves a mystical journey. And you can get to it, like opening a pomegranate. 

Why do we say 100 blessing a day? The commandment is not hidden on a mountain, or on the seas, or in the stars; where is it that this comes from? It’s in us. That’s the revolutionary move of Deuteronomy is what I heard Peretz say. It’s all in us, and we have to find it: in our mouths, like pomegranate seeds.  Torah runs with this idea, says Peretz. It’s what Heschel meant when he said “When I pray I talk to God, when I study, God talks back to me!” When God says "Build me a place among you” he really means “in” you; in us.  The journey produces the change. If we say Brakhot it will have an effect.

Orla is a fruit which needs three years for the interior to ripen. It is that which conceals something else. Lemons are orla, but the pomegranate is the ultimate orla. It is message laden; metaphoric. That’s why it’s on the cover of Talmud. That’s why it’s all over Jewish art. 613 seeds and full of mitzvoth. The seed of life. The tree of knowledge—the Hebrew word used in Genesis for the apple in the tree of knowledge of good and evil is ta-poo-ah, which has been rendered as apple in the Greek and Christian traditions, but which could also be rendred as pomegranate. The pomegranate, of course, is one of the seven species

The Seven Species
Aside 1: When next you visit the West Bank to check on the occupation, and a young IDF soldier asks you “What’s in your backpack?” don’t look in your phrase-book for the translation of pomegranate (“rimon”) because “rimon” also means “grenade.” 

Aside 2: Pomegranates are hard to open. You need a big knife and newspapers to contain the mess. “Yes, it’s the messiest fruit on earth,” confirmed David Berluti. You need expertise to open it and get at those gorgeous, juicy, ruby red seeds. It’s a metaphor for hard study, says Peretz.  And it’s erotic because it looks like a womb; a well impregnated womb. 

Aside 3:  An image of the womb in Kabbala: it’s the kindest place you ever were at: cared for unconditionally and you never had to say thank you.  

The pomegranate: open it and there is life.  

The Pomegranate and learning from neo-Kantian Liberalism

“How could Rabbi Meir learn Torah from the (filthy) mouth of Acher (Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya)?” So wondered the rabbis in Talmud Chagigah 15b. How indeed? Acher, born sometime before 70 CE, flourishing late in the first century and early second century, was a notorious Hellenist. This was frowned upon. “The lips of a priest ought to preserve godly knowledge,” say Resh Lakish and others. After all, a priest is the messenger of God, and how can we trust this messenger if he spends his days thinking about new fangled Greek ideas, much less speaking of them?  

But Rava came to Rabbi Meir’s defense. “I descended to a chestnut garden, to see the buds of the wadis,” says a beautiful line from the Song of Songs. “We all know that wadis are muddy, full of excrement . . . yet there grow the beautiful buds,” suggests Rava. “And there, do we not also find chestnuts, and dates, and even pomegranates? And we think of the chestnut: just because it is smeared with mud and excrement, what is inside does not become disgusting.” 

“Yes, and we can eat the date, yet discard the pit,” adds Rav Dimi.

Rabbah bar Sheila went to find Elijah the prophet, that whimsical figure who sits suspended half-way between heaven and earth. “What’s God up to?” asks bar Sheila. 

“God is having a discussion from the mouth of all the rabbis,” says Elijah, “but he is not including anything from the mouth of Rabbi Meir (because he fraternized with Elisha ben Abuya the Hellenizer!).” 

But bar Sheila’s not buying it: not from Elijah and not from God! “Why on earth would God not repeat anything from the mouth of Rabbi Meir,” says Sheila. “Rabbi Meir is a good guy!”

“Because he learned from the (filthy) mouth of Acher,” says Elijah. 

“Tell God when he is having a discussion from the mouth of all the rabbis, He should include Rabbi Meir,” says Sheila. “Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate; he ate its inside and disposed of its rind!” 

You gotta love the spirit and playfulness of this passage (paraphrased) from Talmud Chagigah 15b that Peretz brought to class . . . .

Aside 4: Rabbi Meir is very prominent in the Talmud. He was the teacher of Judah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishna in Zippori. He was married to Bruriah, one of the few women scholars mentioned in Talmud. Meir was a student of two polar figures: Akiva and Elisha Ben Abuya.  Abuya pursued rationalism; Akiva Talmud. Milton Steinberg’s novel, “As a Driven Leaf” (2000) is built on the stories of Akiva and Elisha Ben Abuya. 

Aside 5:  This Rabbi Meir story is a typical Talmudic homily: the rabbis of the Talmud know all these characters. It begins with a rhetorical question:  How could Meir learn Torah from Acher (Elisha ben Abuya)? Malachi 2:7 refers to the priestly benediction: in synagogue, when a Cohanim is brought forward, he covers his face, takes off his shoes—he is the messenger of God.  He has only restricted speech.  He can’t say “other things.”  He should only be quoting Torah, not spouting Plato.  

Aside 6.  Talmudic writing: Talmud plays with what’s before and what’s after. This story presents a good example of this. The rabbis and God and Elijah are having a conversation out of time. And Talmud uses Greek forms: parables (stories), parabolic plots (twist endings, surprise), hyperbolic statements (overstatement), rhetorical questions, homilies (lessons inserted). At some level they are all Hellenists. Every once in a while you have archival elements that bring back hidden memories. Sometimes a collection of stuff broken down. 

And, of course, the rabbis of the Talmud are a product of their time. Although they might (grudgingly) have indulged Rabbi Meir consorting with the rationalist, philosophizing Elisha ben Abuya, they did not see much value in his Greek philosophy. They were willing to overlook it: they did not see value in the pit of the date, the hull of a chestnut, or the shell of the pomegranate. Two millennia later, many are ready to appreciate and learn from the entire pomegranate, not just the seeds. 

Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) is one of the most prominent 20th century Jewish thinkers. He was a leading Talmud scholar, but he was also steeped in Western science, philosophy, and politics. He was a paragon and teacher in the Modern Orthodox movement and an expert on neo-Kantian philosophy.

The essence of Modern Orthodoxy is faithful (highly knowledgeable, and a bit snobbish?) adherence to Halakha combined with a study and appreciation of secular thought. 

Born in modern day Belarus, Soloveitchik descended from a 200 year succession of prominent Eastern European rabbis. His primary education was in a traditional Talmud Torah school, in preparation for Yeshiva studies, supplemented by a private tutor. He graduated from a liberal arts Gymnasium in Dubno—located 200 miles west of Kiev in Ukraine. In 1924 he entered the Free Polish University in Warsaw, and in 1926 he moved on to the Friederich Wilhelm University in Berlin. There he studied neo-Kantian thought and political science, but also kept up a rigorous course of Talmud study. 

Like Rabbi Meir, Soloveitchik chose a strong woman and a peer for a mate. In 1931 they had a royal wedding: his wife, Tonya Lewit (1904-1967), had a PhD from Jena University and a pedigree going straight to Rashi! 

Through his studies, Soloveitchik sought to bridge the gap between traditional Eastern European Orthodox Jewish scholarship and the forces of modernity in the Western world. In 1932, he and Tonya emigrated to the United States where Soloveitchik made his life in Jewish studies.  For 45 years he headed the Rabbi Israel Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York. 

During his career at Yeshiva University, Soloveitchik sought to combine the best of Talmudic scholarship with the best of secular scholarship in Western civilization. He published prolifically and was influential on an entire generation of Jewish leaders of the 20th century. His work stresses the normative and intellectual importance of keeping Jewish law (halakhah), and the entire halakhic tradition, central to Judaism.

What would Elijah say? When God is having a discussion from the mouth of all the rabbis, does He include Joseph Soloveitchik?

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.