Friday, April 22, 2005

Berachos 51-52

This Argument Stinks! (But You Won't Be Forgetting It)

As the text continues to puzzle through an individual's obligations to recite blessings before and after a meal, the vivid examples continue to be more captivating for me than any interest in the outcome. For example, here is an early instance of the legendary propensity of our people to answer a question with a question (and a sarcastic question at that!). The question on the table is whether one who neglected to say a blessing before eating and drinking should, once he realizes his omission, recite the blessing. The answer is, "If one had eaten a garlic clove so that his breath smells, shall he go back and eat another garlic clove so that his breath will smell even more?" (51a).

These Three Things Must Be Important (Or at Least Two of Them) . . . or One, Anyway

There are ten rules regarding the cup of blessing and they are all listed, even though R'Yochanan notes that the custom is to observe only four of them. Whether he meant that the other six had fallen out of favor or simply that they were not as essential as the four he cited is a subject of dispute. In fact, when the cup overflows with wine, there are many disputes, especially if the wine is consumed on an empty stomach!

Before the ten rules there is one rule regarding the ispargus cup, which is an alcoholic beverage reputed to have therapeutic effects when the entire cup is consumed at once on an empty stomach: do not return the ispargus cup to anyone other than the one who gave it to you.

And between the ten and the one, there are the three things told to R'Yochanan by a well-connected angel and three things told to R'Yehoshua ben Levi by the Angel of Death. Of the three, two are told to both of them and one differs. (The two that are common to both are: (1) "Do not take your shirt in the morning from the hand of the butler and get dressed" and (2) "Do not have your hands washed by someone who has not washed his own hands.")

The one that the two do not have in common is either the one rule regarding the ispargus cup or a strange and morbid warning.The former, presented immediately after the rule is stated, is probably meant to stand as a proof for the rule, but since it comes in the form of testimony from an angel, and falls only one folio before R'Yehoshua declares that "We pay no heed to Heavenly voices in resolving halachic issues," it is more likely a record of a playful exchange among inebriated scholars who are inventing wild variations in an halachic template. The latter, which doesn't mention the cup at all, probably was born even deeper in the cup than the former.

R'Yochanan's report discloses that the reason one must be sure to return the cup to its owner is "because tachsefis, which is a group of demons, or as others say it, istalganis, which is a group of angels of affliction, wait for a person and say, 'When will a person come to do one of these things and be ensnared?'" (51a).

According to R'Yehoshua ben Levi, the Angel of Death focuses on ensnarement, not the cup. In fact, as I noted previously, he does not mention the cup at all: "Do not stand in front of women when they are returning from a funeral, because I [i.e., the Angel of Death] dance and come before them with my sword in my hand and I have permission to harm those whom I meet."

I hope that I am not the only student of this text to find it marvelous in the sense that I find it to be full of marvelous and playful invention. What other than delight can one possibly derive from the dispute between Hillel and Shammai on whether or not it is forbidden to employ a waiter "who is an ignoramus." (52b). The Gemara says that Shammai holds that it is permitted, which is the halachah, but some wonder how this can be when they all have been taught that the halachah in these matters follows Hillel. According to R'Oshaya, however, the opinions were erroneously ascribed, and indeed it is Hillel who held according to the Halachah.

It must have been exceedingly difficult to be in the position of knowing who was right but having no definitive record of what their position was on the issues on which they were correct. It is even more sad to have to endure waiters whose training did not prepare them to answer the classic question of what the fly was doing in my soup.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Berachos 49-50

Pull Up a Chair Next to the Fire

There is one story from the previous section that I meant to mention in my previous post. Actually, it is hardly a story at all. It is inserted as a prolog to a section in which we find teachings about Bircas HaMazon on 46a. The text begins "R'Zeira once took ill." Then R'Abahu refers to R'Zeira as "the small man of the singed thighs" in the context of planning a party to celebrate Zeira's recovery (a party where someone will have to break the bread and someone will have to recite Bircas).

Frankly, the question of whether the host or the honored guest should recite Bircas is not going to keep me awake at night. But I may never forget the bizarre story of Zeira's thighs. According to ArtScroll fn1, the story is in Bava Metzia (85a):
. . . every thirty days R'Zeira would seat himself in a burning oven to check whether he was vulnerable to fire, so as to determine whether the fire of Gehinnom would ultimately have an effect on him. Never was he harmed at all by the fire of the oven, except once, when his thighs were singed due to the influence of an evil eye . . .
I related this story to two fellows the other evening and their reaction was visceral. "I would never do such a thing!" one of them said indignantly. But I think we need to ask ourselves exactly what it was that R'Zeira was doing. It seems to me that the point of this story is that we should all regularly do a "reality check" to determine whether we remain on the path we have resolved to follow. And to discover that we have strayed would be no less painful than sitting in a burning oven, but to fail to discover it for a prolonged period would be even worse.

Remember Not to Forget

In a Gemara that offers remedies for one who neglected to add the Rosh Chodesh blessing to his Bircas, R'Zeira (the small man of the singed thighs) is taught that he should say a blessing that concludes, ". . . Who gave Rosh Chodesh to His people, Israel, for a remembrance." This much he remembers. But in a teaching about remembrance, it is most curious that he forgets everything else: whether "gladness" was mentioned in the blessing, whether or not it was concluded with a blessing clause, and whether the teaching came from the man he heard it from or from that man's teacher.

Food Fight!
The Three Am Haaretz
On 50b two teachings are presented that are seemingly in opposition: one holds that just as we may not throw bread we may not throw other foods; one holds that even though we may not throw bread, we can throw other foods. As someone who strongly holds that the Three Stooges are among those who continued to transmit the Oral Torah during our lifetime, this question is a special concern. The Stooges, after all, were famous for throwing pies.

I was pleased to see the issue resolved as it was, with the final determination being that the teachings are in fact not in opposition and can be read as follows: just as we may not throw bread, which becomes repulsive when thrown, we may not throw other foods that become repulsive when thrown; other foods that do not become repulsive when thrown may be thrown. Since it is not the pie that becomes repulsive when thrown, but the face that is hit by it, pie throwing is permitted.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Berachos 44-48

You'll Be Sorry When I'm Dead

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.