Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Berachos 54-56

If Only You Believe Like I Believe in Miracles
Blessings should not address the future . . . prayers should not address the past. . . . to cry out over that which is past is to utter a prayer in vain. (54a).
The free association in this section is quite elegant. The distinction between what can be blessed and what can be prayed for is practical, acknowledging the natural order of things. A prayer to alter the past would, of course, be a prayer for no less than a miracle or a "nullification" of the law. And the above-cited text is a prelude for dealing with both the nullification and the miraculous.

The Mishnah speaks of nullifying the law "because it is time to act for Hashem," a suggestion that the commentators treat cautiously, permitting themselves to consider that nullifying the law (which would be the equivalent of dishonoring God's Name) is not permitted in any event, but the appearance of nullifying the law would be permitted if it spread goodwill and put God's name out there amongst the populace. Saul of Tarsus, of course, took it a step further. Nevertheless, recalling how important appearance is (see, for example, my blog entry on Berachos 14-17), this concession to the appearance of a gross impropriety is most certainly a revolutionary gesture.

The Mishnah also speaks of the obligation to recite a blessing when one sees a place where miracles were performed for the Jewish people. The Gemara asks for the source of this ruling and ultimately concludes that the blessing is only required for a miracle "performed for the masses . . . [which] implies that on a miracle performed for an individual we do not recite a blessing," making another distinction (consciously or not) between Jewish and Christian notions of the miraculous.


On 54b the Gemara confidently quantifies the number of people who need protection. The text begins, "Three types of people need protection . . ." Alas, as typically happens there are two variants of the three , followed by further variants. The bottom line is that we all need protection; we are all vulnerable.

There are also (at least) three things that "prolong the days and years of a person," including "one who spends a long time in the privy." (ArtScroll 55a fn18 explains that this "does not mean that a single session in the privy should be drawn out. Rather, it refers to [the] practice of frequently checking onself for the need to defecate . . ")

And while spending a long time in prayer will prolong life, "Anyone who prolongs his prayer and contemplates it, i.e. he expects it to be fulfilled, will eventually suffer heartache." Prayer in the absence of despair is folly.

Interpretation of Dreams
The Three Am Haaretz
Beginning on 55a, where it says, "A dream that has not been interpreted is like a letter that has not been read," there is an extended description of rabbinic dream theory. In brief, the rabbis are in awe of the power of dream interpretation; even going so far as to ask, "if one feels his dream might bode ill, why have it interpreted and risk giving veracity to an adverse omen?" (55b2).

The dream interpreter Bar Hedya is known to interpret dreams as good omens only for those who pay him well, and we have numerous examples of his interpreting the identical dream positively or negatively depending on the fee he is given (56a). Rava is slow to catch on and is the victim of several bad interpretations, eventually leading to the prediction that "The king's treasury will be broken into and you will be arrested as a thief"-- which indeed occurs on the very next day. Even so, Rava continued to pay poorly until after the interpretation was rendered to him that he would receive two blows with clubs and, following the actual two blows which he soon thereafter received, he interrupted his assailant and told him, "Two is enough for me; I saw only two in my dream." From that point forward, he paid handsomely for his dream interpretation and the omens turned out more favorably.

Dream interpretation seems to be a source of great amusement here, and other examples in this text suggest that word play is a subconscious tool within dreams. It may not be too much to suggest that Freud's theory is not a fresh invention but a distillation of ancient rabbinic humor. Take my dream, please!

Monday, April 25, 2005

Berachos 53

I'm Beginning to See the Light

It's Saturday night and more or less time to mark the end of Shabbas, and you're walking outside the city and you see a flame. If the majority of the city's inhabitants are gentiles, it is a fairly good possibility that the flame was used in connection with work (or worse, in an idolatrous service), so don't even think about saying a blessing over it. On the other hand, if it is mostly a Jewish town, go right ahead and recite the blessing. (If you are now observing Pesach's dietary restrictions and you live in a "gentile town," you have a pretty good idea why these considerations would be part of our text.)

If you're in the study hall (it's still Satuday night) and someone brings in a flame, Shammai would have you say the blessing quietly to yourself so as not to interrupt the study of others, but Hillel puts the communal experience above the need of the individual to study and encourages interruption of study for a communal blessing. This appears to be one of the rare instances where Shammai prevails, and he is supported by Rabban Gamliel (remember him?):

The members of Rabban Gamliel's household would not say "Health!" in a study hall because this would cause a disruption of Torah learning in the study hall.(53a).

ArtScroll footnotes this passage with a short history of the sneeze, beginning with the explanation that saying "Health!" is:

As is customary when someone sneezes (Rashi; see Magen Avraham 230:6). [The source for this custom is stated in Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 52 (cited by Gilyon HaShas): From the time of creation until Jacob's time, no man would take ill prior to his death; indeed, illness as such did not exist at all, and there was no warning of a person's imminent demise. Rather, a man walking on the road or in the marketplace would suddenly sneeze, and his soul would exit via his nostrils. Hence, a sneeze was the precursor of death. Jacob, however, beseeched Hashem for mercy, praying that his soul not depart suddenly from this world, so that he would have time to instruct his sons before his passing. Hashem granted his request, and from then on, people would take ill prior to their death. Therefore, when one sneezes, it is customary for others to respond with "Health!" (the equivalent of our "Gesundheit" or "God bless you"), in recognition of the fact that the sneeze is no longer a sign of impending death.]
This is quite timely now, at the height of hayfever season when others pray for relief from month-long sneezing fits and are given Claritin. It also brings to mind a story from the other Jewish tradition (the Borscht Belt), where a fellow reported to his friend that he had a condition whereby with every sneeze he felt as if he was having a powerful orgasm. His friend asked him what he took for this condition. "Pepper," he replied.