Monday, January 15, 2018

Yalta: The Sacred Communal Elements of Eating in a Male Patriarchy

Our Talmud Circle met on January 7, 2018 in San Francisco. Peretz and Becky were off exploring in Ecuador, and so we were treated to “the Iron Lady of Talmud,” as Peretz admiringly refers to Deena Aranoff, guiding us through the balance of chapter VII of Berakhot. 

An Orientation

In order to orient us thematically, Deena focused us on the introduction to this first volume of Talmud. “One of the idiosyncrasies of Berakhot,” she said, “is that it has not been carefully combed through and systematized.  It’s like an ongoing record of the classical rabbis and the later sages.” Our discussion comes as an afterlife of this text.

Tractate Berakhot contains most of the halakhot of Shema, prayer, and blessings.
  • Chapters 1-3: address the obligation to recite Shema, along with the times when it may be recited, and the details of that obligation; specific problems and regulations related to the manner in which Shema is recited; and special cases in which a person is exempt from recitation of Shema and the Amida prayer.
  • Chapters 4-5: deal with prayer, including the times when prayers are recited, and the halakhot regarding prayer are elucidated, and the essence of prayer and the regulations regarding prayer are discussed.
  • Chapters 6-8: deal with appropriate conduct at a meal as well as the blessings recited before and after eating.
  • Chapter 9: deals with blessings recited in miscellaneous circumstances that address virtually every phenomenon one encounters in the course of life.
We note that the discussion of brachot (blessings) only starts with chapter six. Chapter six starts with “How do we bless?” That’s probably where the tractate got its name, notes Deena. Chapter six, at some point, was likely the first chapter. Over time the tractate gained other subjects, like Shema—which of course comes first because that is such a central prayer—like the Amida, the silent prayer, with its 18 benedictions.  Chapters four and five address “When do you say the prayers, in what context and in what environments.” Chapter five comes to the matter of individual blessings over food, with its delightful discussion about “what if its from a tree, a bush, the earth? What if its animal products?” And distinctions are made about what kinds of utterances accompany what kinds of foods. 

Aside 1. The term “bracha” likely derives from “berech,” meaning “knee.” It derives from the act of prostrating oneself, or kneeling, when approaching God in prayer. Over time this came to be know as “blessing” itself. “Brachot,” says Deena, are not blessings that transfer something to another person or object. It’s not like “I bless you that you, please God, may have a long life.” It’s about an orientation towards the material world; it’s about what kind of intentions we cultivate before consuming food or taking part in an activity.

Aside 2. Later Hasidic masters did start to think of brachot as something that actually transferred something and transforms that thing.  You have water, and it’s a blend of divine and material things, and when you make the bracha you are awakening the divine elements, and you may go further in that transformation as you consume it. But that’s a later development, and a beautiful one, says Deena. In Berakhot, when the rabbis say “Here is the bracha you make,” they are talking about a transformation in the person making the blessing not about blessing the thing. Kosher meat is not kosher because a rabbi blesses it (a Christian understanding of blessing); meat is kosher simply because it was slaughtered in a certain way. All brachot have a little bit of this rule-following quality. 

The Zimmun

Chapter seven, which is where we are now, deals with the sacred communal elements of eating. It starts with a question: “Whom can you invite to the formal liturgy that concludes a meal?”

The zimmun, the formal invitation to bench, transforms the meal into a form of public prayer. It comes from a desire to elevate the experience in fellowship when we have eaten with someone. The tradition decided that three is the number that makes us a significant enough collective to utter the divine name, beyond what we include in a simple prayer after dining alone. How we call out God’s name alters depending on how many there are. The public call to prayer after eating in community (Cheveirai nevarech  (“everyone let us bless. . . “) comes from here: this is the first record of it, says Deena.

Aside 3. “Zimmun” is the technical term for the formal invitation to bench (say grace after meal), the birkat hamazon.  The word “bench” (Yiddish) probably comes from benedict (Latin word for blessing).  Bench” is the Ashkenazic, Germanic term. Nevarech is the Hebrew.  There’s also “bench licht” (to light candles). “Grace after meals” brings in Christian terms.  So we say bench because it gets closer to the rabbinic notion—you must say these blessings after meal.

An Obligation or a Privilege?

Is the blessing an obligation? asked David Berluti.

There was a book out a few years ago, The Year of Living Biblically, which described an effort to live fully in accordance with biblical precepts for a year. The point of the book was it is very hard to live in accordance with Torah law. “I would argue that there never was a time when Torah was followed that plainly and that literally,” says Deena.  “The legal sections in the Torah were more like a constitution than a daily guide.” Much of what we recognize as Judaism today is what the rabbis systematized and put together in the Talmud. And one of the key elements of this rabbinic Judaism is that being obligated in a certain practice was a privilege.

This idea of “privilege in obligation” resonates less with our modern sensibility because we value our choice, and freedom. But in the rabbinic system, it was those with the highest status who had the most obligations. For example, the first Mishna of chapter seven explains that men make up the quorum needed for a zimmun (the invitation to bless after meals), and that’s because in the time of the Talmud, the high status, and public status given to Jewish men meant that only men who were eating together could form a collective that may invoke the divine name in a zimmun. The prized position was the one of being obligated. It was assumed that these obligations would cultivate and guide you in positive directions. It was an opportunity to set your intention, and it was more a privilege than an obligation. In the rabbinic system obligation and privilege are not such different things. 

The Gemara does not spend a lot of time distinguishing between the “stuff you have to do” from the “stuff we suggest you do” because, for the rabbis, the whole thing was a salutary, beneficial way of life. So they didn’t distinguish between “have to” and “joyful celebration.” They worked hard to establish and systemize this way of life filled with blessings. So they don’t distinguish so much between halakha and custom.

An Unnatural Ceremony

A formal call to do something after a meal is not an obvious ceremony.  Meals end in a sprawling unofficial way, and you have to gather people back.  It emphasizes the goal of coming together as a collective, which is a goal of the rabbinic system. “But don’t lose sight of the fact that the rabbis don’t make those values; they don’t lead with those values—the values come from the community,” says Deena. The style of the Talmud is not to say “Here is how to achieve communal cohesion,” or “Here’s how to have a better attitude about your food.” That’s how we talk. But they just say: “Here’s the blessings you must recite.”  Which for some people is off-putting, because we don’t like to be ordered. But that’s the style in the rabbinic mode. For them it’s natural.

Aside 4. Sometimes, to this day, the birkhat hamazon is called the “three blessings,” even though a fourth blessing was added. 

How Do we Say the Zimmun?

The first mishna in chapter seven addressed who is included in this collectivity; the mishna on page 316 asks how is it done? And then a discussion ensues about changes that should be made in light of the number of people who shared the meal.  

Cliff Detz noted that the Mishna on page 316 starts with “we say the zimmun the same way whether there are ten or a 1000,” but then the rabbis go on to make distinctions. What’s up with that?

The Mishna asks how do we recite? If there are three people, we say Nevarech, “Let us bless” (Let us bless/raise/make the bracha). If there are three people and the leader (four), we say Baruch Hu—more of a command form.  It is a little higher register. It is another call to prayer but a command form to others.

The Gemara recites a maxim of Shmuel: “a person should never remove themselves from the collective.” Taken to the extreme this has a dark side; it can be the beginning of tyranny.  But here it is raised to emphasize a participatory and egalitarian ethos. The rabbis are taking Shmuel’s statement in order to ask a question of the Mishna: why does the Mishna allow a person to separate themselves from the group and say Baruch Hu—give a command to bless?

The rabbis allow a person to say Baruch Hu (the command form), but Nevarech is preferable, notes Deena. The more participatory formula is preferable. If there are three:  we say Nevarech (“let us bless”).  If there are more than three, the leader can choose to use this more directive invocation of Baruch Hu, but he can also say Nevarech. The common custom today is to say Nevarech, we don’t say Baruch Hu—the command form.  

“Beyond three, nothing changes in the formula, really, until we get to 10,” says Deena. When we get to ten, an even more significant quorum is formed—a minion—and that’s when the name of God can shift to a stronger register, a higher register reference to God. And this remains intact today as a distinction.

“To come back to Cliff’s question,” says Deena: “the Mishna is making these distinctions between three and ten—and then one position is it doesn’t matter how many more, the formula remains the same (Akiva), and the other position is to make additional distinctions at 1,000 and 10,000 (Yosi Hagleli). 

Aside 5. Rav and Shmuel were the first Amoraim, the first generation of scholars after the Mishna is closed in 200 CE. They are the founding fathers of the Amoraic period. In year one of this program we spent a lot of time with Rav and Shmuel. They appear a lot together. And Shmuel’s positions tended to be the positions that became halakha.

Borrowing Nevarech for Short-Handed Prayer in Shul

Aaron Forekash had an insight:  “With less than a minion, there is a tradition of not saying that portion of the service that invokes Baruch Hu; why don’t we just say Nevarech?  Why can’t we just change the Baruch Hu to Nevarech and recite the portion? 

“That’s great!” says Deena.  “Yes.  There are parallels between this and shul—public prayer, when you still need ten for certain way of calling us together and calling to God. And you’re saying, why not use that participatory formula “Nevarech,” for which you only need three, in shul, when there’s not a minion.”

Cliff Detz pushed back on that: “There is the discussion of how many people you need to have to pray, and the rabbis worked out ten—a minion for prayer.  This had to do with their sense of Judaism as a community, and holding the community together. And that tradition has taken root. There is no individual salvation in Judaism, salvation is in being part of a Jewish group.  So there is no communal prayer without a minion. This is not like a zimmun. If you want to pray, that’s different from benching.  So you couldn’t just say ‘there are two of us, let’s pray.’”

“That’s true,” says Deena. “But if there’s three, you can.”

“You can have a zimmun,” says Cliff, “but that is not the same as prayer in a minion.”

“Indeed,” says Deena.  “But there are parallels that make this proposal reasonable: if you’re in synagogue and you are six people. You don’t have a quorum and you can’t do the full Baruch Hu, but you can do Nevarech because that’s simply a more casual way of calling people together to pray.” 

“But what you are saying about community, that’s what’s being worked out in the Mishna here.”

On Mishna Including Contradictory Views

“It seems unusual to put two such opposing views together,” notes Cliff Detz.  It would be clearer if they selected one position, but here they select both views (with respect to the difference numbers make).”  

“It is common, and it’s an important piece of Mishna that it does include multiple views,” says Deena.  “But you are right, the discussion here is a little poorly done. —‘How do you do the Zimmun? They ask: If three, here is what you do; if four, here is what you do . . . “  Once you have ten, you can add the word Eloheinu.  And if it’s 10+1 it can shift to Baruch Hu.  And from that point it doesn’t matter how many, nothing changes . . . .   It’s confusing, because the next line in the Mishna starts to make distinctions: if you have a hundred, a thousand, ….”

Lorraine Harris:  “To me it makes sense that the more people you have, the more complicated the start should be, because when you have so many people, probably not everyone understands what you are doing—and you have the ones who are not so religious as the few who are really getting what it means—so you have to be even more eloquent to bring God into it because you are explaining to the masses what this is all about.”

Deena:  “Yes, you are fleshing out the position of rabbi Yosei HaGelili (‘According to the size of the crowd, they recite the blessing, as it is stated: ‘Bless you God in full assemblies, even the Lord, you who are from the fountain of Israel’) I do like that, as the number of people grows, the nature of the event changes, and the ceremony can get more elaborate, and there is an opportunity for learning in that moment.  There’s also an almost theological possibility, which is, large gatherings are awesome; and Rabbi HaGelili seems to suggest that divine presence may correspond to human collectivity; if you’re in an awesome collective, then your language in which you refer to God should grow with it.  Rabbi HaGelili even brings a verse into the Mishna—which is a little bit uncharacteristic—he brings a lot of fullness.  But then Rabbi Akiva says: ‘Here’s how it happens in the synagogue . . .’ (another unusual phrase in the Mishna). There are no distinctions based on the size of the crowds, says Akiva. Both when there are many, and when there are few, as long as there is quorum of ten, the prayer leader says ‘Bless (Baruch Hu) the Lord.’  He means that’s how it mostly plays out in reality.”  

Gender in Zimmun

 “In contemplating these large assemblies, the rabbis are not focused on gender or age,” says Deena. “They are focused on awesomeness of the crowd; they are wondering whether the liturgy should slightly change depending on the size. The real gender distinctions come into play in the first Mishna of this chapter, where they say that it has to be ten men who form the public quorum.”

Three women may do a zimmun together.  And the edges get a little fuzzy.  “What about if there are nine men, plus a woman,” wondered the rabbis; “or nine men and a young child;” “or nine plus the arch . . . ?”  “It’s a little fuzzier than we might think,” suggests Deena. “But we have inherited a very patriarchal understanding of what counts as a public person—and that understanding is that it is a male.  And one of the ways in which Judaism of this era has shifted is to insist that women are public people as well, and in most progressive synagogues, both men and women count towards a public quorum.  But in this context they are assuming that the people who count, and are obligated, are men.”


Alicia Lieberman asked: “What is the underlying rationale for the emphasis of numbers. Why are they so focused on the numbers?”

“There is a mystical notion of numbers operating in the Talmud,” notes Deena. And, as Peretz has pointed out, these notions changed over time. For example, the Passover Seder has four sons, four cups of wine….  But in Persia, there was a widely held belief that drinking even number cups of wine leaves you exposed to demons, while drinking odd numbers protects you. (See Pesachim 110a; Berakhot 51b (see p. 325, second to last paragraph) Thus the Persians added a fifth cup of wine to the traditional four Passover cups. The Romans preferred even numbers, the Persians odd.

“The number ten is potent,” says Deena. “As is the number seven for Shabbat. I would say it’s not so much a matter of mysticism of numbers, but an effort to ensure a collectivity. Until this point, in chapter six, everything about making brachot has been about the individual person; eating, and how to come together around eating, has not been a focus.  Here is where they are trying to see ‘What is a group around food?’”

“We all have experience with this,” suggests Deena.  How many students have to register for a class to run?  Five.  How many students to change from seminar to lecture format?  Anyone who is attending to public events is attuned to this notion: How many do you need to make this work?

A Refrain for Emphasis on the Collective

The first mishna on page 316 asks “How does one recite the zimmun?” The second mishna on page 319 (“Three who ate as one are not permitted to divide”) is like a refrain. The rabbis are emphasizing, just so it’s clear: if you are three together you are not allowed to separate.  And with four and five, you are not allowed to separate. . . , but at six you may separate into two groups . . . and again at ten.  Why?  “I think it is poetic emphasis,” says Deena.  This is a different kind of activity if we eat together.  If we can see each other, it is a collective.  It obligates us to the other. We must come together and do a zimmun together. The rabbis are going very far in insisting on the collective elements of a meal.

Aside 6.  If we are fewer than three, we still need to say the birkat hamazon. The preference is for a group, and collective benching, but it is an individual obligation. Lorraine Harris asked: “What about at home, with the wife and children—when there are not three men; do we form a zimmun?” “The Talmud says ‘No,’” says Deena. “At home, with wife and children, there is no zimmun because it is a mixed gathering. Today, customs are different. In my family,” says Deena, “once we were old enough we did a zimmun together.” 

But opening things up—being less restrictive in who counts for a zimmun, or a quorum for prayer—can adversely affect community formation. For example, in a house of mourning Talmud requires ten men to do prayers. “In my family,” says Deena, “when my grandfather passed away, there were many adults and kids. We were inclusive, men and women were counted towards a quorum. But once we counted all the men and women in the household, we needed just two people to show up from the community to make a quorum. In the patriarchal model a family had a hard time coming up with its own quorum. This forced the family to reach out to the community. When we are limited as to who counts, we wind up with broader communal representation.  If we open it up, and the grandmother, the mother, and daughters count. . . perhaps we don’t need anybody else.”


Focusing on the social aspect of eating, we naturally turn to wine. The Gemara assumes that a cup of wine accompanies the birkat hamazon, grace after meals. Certainly when there are ten, a special cup of wine is poured, and the wine is blessed. This cup of wine is thought of as having positive, magical charm properties, Segula properties, and it is passed around for all to take a sip. . . . It should make its way around.

We are in the realm of folk-customs here, says Deena. The language is “Ten things are said with regard to the cup of blessing. . .”   That amounts to “These are the common customs with regard to this cup. . .”  It has to be washed in a certain way, filled up, adorned, perhaps you are draped in a tallit, you lift it up a certain way . . .

Steve Tulkin hears an echo of justice and mercy.  “I was touched by the justice and mercy part of this. This part of the Sefarot has always been powerful to me; to think of it as being part of this ceremony as part of our thoughts all the time. That’s what I take away from it.”

Deena: “Beautiful. And the other thing about the cup of blessings,  is that they’ve also guided us in how the Kiddush cup is handled (the cup for blessing over wine for Shabbat and holiday meals). So you can, on Friday nights, take up and try it—take it up with both hands, then pass it to the right hand of mercy—“

Aside 7.  Lorraine Harris asks: “Why custom and not halakha? What makes you say that it’s custom?” Deena: “Two things: first, the phrase 10 things have been said (top of page 324) is a very soft locution—it doesn’t sound like a must do; second, the nature of these seems more in the category of folk-custom, (e.g. don’t drink two cups of wine because demons hover around the even numbers) . . . It’s unlikely that they though of this in the same category as halakha; the rabbis are advising you against what they thought of as bad luck practices and they are recommending some good luck practices.” Cliff Detz noted that Rabbi Yohanan seemed more definitive when he said: “We only have four: rinsing, washing, undiluted, and full.” Deena agreed. “Yes, I resist making these distinctions between custom and halakha for the most part, but here (rinsing, washing, undiluted, and full) I’m not sure.”

Aside 8.  The dilution of wine: Talmud assumes the normal process of drinking wine means the wine is diluted with water. That was wine: you started with raw wine, to which you added water to make it palatable and drinkable.

All of this provides the background for the Yalta story, beginning with “Ulla happened to come . . .” (p.325) With the Yalta story, the Talmud pauses on the element of passing around the cup of wine to rest of household during the birkat hamazon.

Aside 9. Yalta is one of few women named in Talmud. When she appears, she comes across as someone quite knowledgeable about Talmud. She is married into the rabbinic enterprise. She is the member of an elite household. The story here introduces a counter perspective, or even a resistance perspective, to a very patriarchal imposition of a folk-custom.

In the story of Yalta, Ulla, Rav Nahman, and rabbi Natan are attempting to rein in the custom of passing the cup of wine to everyone present, including women. They are attempting to narrow the custom—they are suggesting it should be limited to the narrow rabbinic, male company.

Alicia Lieberman sets the scene: “Ulla was a guest at the house of Rav Nahman, which is also Yalta’s house. And Rav Nahman says to Ulla, ‘please pass the cup to my wife, Yalta.’ And Ulla responds in outrageous (to our ears) patriarchal and sexist fashion. ‘There is no need, says Ulla,” potentially offending both the host and his wife.

Rabbis Yohanan and Natan give a sexist, and unconvincing midrash in support of Ulla’s position. They rely on an argument involving the use of pronouns, explains Deena: “Torah uses the masculine form of the pronoun in ‘He will bless the fruit of your body,’ they note. And from this they conclude: ‘The fruit of a woman’s body is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s body.’ ‘We don’t have to share the cup of wine with your wife Yalta, or women in general,’ suggest Ulla, and Nahman, and Natan, because the blessing over the wine in this birkat hamazon ceremony seems linked to fertility, and Deuteronomy 7 says if we fulfill God’s commandments ‘you will have blessings in your storehouses, your fields, your belly (pregnancy) . . . ,’ and the ‘your belly’ here appears in the masculine. . . ergo we don’t need to pass the wine to Yalta.’” 

But it’s a weak argument for diminishing the sharing of the cup of blessing, says Deena. When Torah says “your” storehouse, vineyards, and belly, it is not using the word “your” in the specific masculine sense, rather it does what Hebrew does a lot, which is it uses the general sense of “you” with the masculine.  English does that too. There is some notion that the masculine is neutral; you have to mark for feminine, but often the masculine form is unmarked (unrestricted). “He,” in certain contexts—including this one—means any gender. Yalta agrees. She makes her point emphatically. “She arose in a rage, entered the wine-storage, and broke four hundred barrels of wine.” Take that!

Rabbi Yohanan, humbled by his wife’s extreme reaction, tries to appease the view expressed by his guests. “Send her another cup” (not the actual cup of blessing!) But Yalta dismissed this idea with an insult from Aramaic folk-culture: “From itinerant peddlers come empty words, and from rags come lice,” she said to Ulla who proffered the substitute cup. “Yalta is knowledgeable,” the Talmud suggest, “and she knows full well that, if you send a different cup, it is not the cup. She is totally dismissive of this effort to placate her, as if she were not aware of what the cup of blessing is and what its power is, and how carefully it must be administered.”

“But let’s go back a little,” says Deena: “I think this whole story does not paint Rav Nahman and his guests favorably here. Talmud does not expect us to read this and think: ‘Oh, calm down Yalta.’ Yalta here is depicted as the voice of custom and ceremony and precision; when she says to her husband and to rabbis Ulla, Yohanan,and Natan ‘You are mishandeling this’ Talmud is on her side. This is not just us listening with our 21st century ears,” suggests Deena. “The Talmud here conveys that there is merit to Yalta’s objection. We know because when she destroys the wine, Rav Nahman does what an ignoramus would do, and she delivers this stinging rebuke: ‘What is this, it is meaningless.’”

Roger Stein queried about the Steinsaltz note in the margin, which characterizes Yalta here as a “rich and spoiled woman.” “There is a bias to this reading,” cautions Deena, “as there is bias to mine.”  Charlotte Fonroberts, who teaches Talmud at Stanford says: when approaching Yalta, we note that the few times she appears in Talmud (3-5 times) she has provocative, interesting things to say. She challenges rabbinic figures and she’s knowledgeable in matters of halakha. One thing to say is “Wow, there was a Yalta! And she diversifies the voices in the Talmud.”  But Fonroberts advocated a slightly different approach: “Probably there was a Yalta,” but she would ask, “what is her function in these stories literarily?”  What is the construction of this folk story? 

What Yalta represents is the importance of the custom of the cup of blessings in the face of a hyper-patriarchal rabbinic way of removing it from the household and making it a male-only activity. She’s here because she has an important function in rabbinic self-understanding. The rabbis wanted Yalta here. It’s no coincidence. This story has a function of critique of a certain way of handling the cup of blessing (to have it consumed in company of rabbinic male elites) and, instead, Yalta is pushing back.

Cliff Detz pushes back too: “But they do portray her as shrill and hysterical.  Another way to have done this, if they really respect her point of view as a woman who is knowledgeable about these things, is to have her quote some verses from Torah or Talmud that contradict Nahman. And they didn’t do that.   There was another woman we looked at a couple of years ago, Bruria, who is handled in a much more egalitarian way in that discussion. So what are the rabbis saying here by making Yalta shrill?”

“Let’s refine what we’re saying,” says Deena. “Yalta is still a gendered character, and that’s where these descriptions come up of “spoiled” and “shrill” and “hysterical.” Instead of meeting Nahman’s unconvincing midrash with another midrash in rabbinic style, Talmud casts her in a very gendered role—and the story is more memorable for it! It seems like her only option is to destroy the wine, and, furthermore, what she throws back at Ulla is an Aramaic proverb.” 

This resonated with Lorraine Harris. “We are gendered beings,” she suggested. “Maybe one of these guys had a wife at home who would not approve of Nahman’s pulling back the tradition to the company of male rabbis?”  David Berlutti approved: “She would run for office if she were alive today.”

Aside 10.  For an enjoyable modern film version of such feminist push-back against Orthodox patriarchal chauvinism, see The Women’s Balcony (2017)(streaming on Netflix).

Yalta’s Aramaic proverb (“From itinerant peddlers words. . . “) resonated with Aaron Forekash: “Even today,” he noted, “there can be a stigmatism against peddlers. Like they are not held in the same esteem as shop owners.”

“This is a cautionary tale,” says Deena. Yalta expresses the common wisdom of the broader household, and the importance of including the household in the blessing. Why did the story stick? What is the work the story is doing here?  The work it is doing is “Be careful, don’t let these customs collect just among a small elite.” There is a broader community that is meant to participate in this.

Please contact me at with any corrections.

The next class at JCCSF is on February 4, 2018.

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