King Yannai and the Queen were eating bread together in the company of members of Yannai's court, and since Yannai had massacred the Rabbis, he did not have anyone to recite Bircas HaMazon for them . . . (48a).The ostensible question in the Gemara is who may recite Bircas HaMazon following a meal. Should it, for example, be the best scholar or the most honored guest; must it be one who shared the meal; etc. Then, suddenly, the Gemara offers this case, in the court of a king who has apparently murdered all the rabbis and has no one to say Bircas. Does any other tradition dare to offer such morbid humor to draw strength from their exile?
Pass the Salt
But before we can bless the food (if we can find a living rabbi to facilitate the blessing), we need some idea of the hierarchy of foods so our blessings may be presented in the proper order. We got a "taste" of this in the previous entry, wherein Bar Kappara gave more weight to the cabbage than to the partridge, but in the subsequent pages we get a whole rabbinic theory of nutrition!
Rav said: Any meal without salt is not a meal. . . . R'Chiya bar Abba said in the name of R'Yochanan: Any meal without a soup is not a meal. (44a).
R'Yannai said in the name of Rebbi: Any food that is the size of an egg, an egg is better than it. Rav Dimi said: . . . except for meat. . . . The rabbis said: Woe to the house, i.e. belly, through which turnips pass. (44b).
Forget the Scarsdale Diet! The hell with Atkins! These guys worked it all out two thousand years ago! What do you do with food that is good for the teeth but bad for the intestines? Chew it and spit it out! (44a). What about food that is good for the digestion but bad for the teeth? Boil it until it is soft enough to swallow without chewing! (44b).
No Gentiles, Women, Slaves, or Minors Need Apply
As Passover approaches, many of us have reason to contemplate how we went from being slaves in the land of Egypt to freedom in the desert. Readers of this Talmud must, however, also come to terms with our role as slaveholders.
In a Mishnah on zimun (the blessing that a group of three or more would recite before Bircas), it says "If women, slaves or minors ate bread, we do not join in zimun on account of them." (45a). The Gemara (45b) goes on to suggest that the women and the slaves must not join together in zimun either, since "there is the possibility that the joint meal will lead to promiscuity." Rashi (fn2) further notes "It is similarly inappropriate for slaves to eat together with minors, as this could lead to homosexual activity."
Frankly, I am puzzled. In my fifty-plus years I have shared tables with many women and many gentiles and never once did it lead to promiscuity. (It occasionally led to indigestion, but one learns to adjust one's diet-- e.g., avoiding turnips.) For me the anticipation of such meals would sometimes lead to daydreams of promiscuity, but my "better" nature always prevailed at the meals themselves. Why is there no dissent in this text from these rulings?
The closest this text comes to redemption is in its consideration of the possibility that freeing a slave to create a minyan may be a mitzvah, but their ultimate ruling is so narrow that it clearly holds the Scriptural regulation of slavery as a higher obligation than a "private" mitzvah. (47b).
Who You Calling an Am Haaretz?
So, you shouldn't join in zimun with minors or women or slaves. According to the Mishnah, you can join with a Cuthean. However, the Gemara pleads, "Let the Cuthean be considered nothing other than an am haaretz." (47b). Which leads to a cascading list of the negative attributes of an am haaretz: he doesn't recite the Shema, he doesn't don tefillin, he doesn't have tzitis or a mezuzah on his door, he doesn't raise his sons to study Torah, etc.
Others say: Even if one read Scripture and studied Mishnah, but he did not serve Torah scholars, he is an am haaretz. Rav Huna said: The halachah follows the view of the Others. (47b).
The startling turnaround is buried in the footnote: "Tosafos note, however, that nowadays it is common practice to join in zimun with am haaretz . . . We, today, cannot consider ourselves Torah scholars to whom this rule applies." (fn 17). We, today, cannot see the purity of the text as the Sages did. We, today, are too far removed from the whispering down the generations that preserved this text orally. We, today, must depend on the written record and cannot hear the inflection of the voices of those who were taught the words outloud. We, today, all of us, are am haaretz.