What is Talmud Tweets?

What is Talmud Tweets? A short, personal take on a page of Talmud - every day!

For several years now, I have been following the tradition of "Daf Yomi" - reading a set page of Talmud daily. With the start of a new 7 1/2 year cycle, I thought I would share a taste of what the Talmud offers, with a bit of personal commentary included. The idea is not to give a scholarly explanation. Rather, it is for those new to Talmud to give a little taste - a tweet, as it were - of the richness of this text and dialogue it contains. The Talmud is a window into a style of thinking as well as the world as it changed over the centuries of its compilation.

These are not literal "tweets" - I don't limit myself to 140 characters. Rather, these are intended to be short, quick takes - focusing in on one part of a much richer discussion. Hopefully, I will pique your interest. As Hillel says: "Go and study it!" (Shabbat 31a)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Berachot 60 - Kidneys and Other Wonderful Things

Oh, how to even decide what to talk about?! This page is so filled with wonderfulness, I feel like going on and on.

Don’t worry, I won’t.

But just to give a sampling, there is:

     1. Details on how and why one says a blessing for when bad things happen as for good

     2. How we know that permission is given from G-d for physicians to heal

     3. Admonitions not to say certain things, so as not to give an invitation to Satan

     4. Trust that things generally turn out for the good, even when it doesn’t seem so

     5. A sexual ethic which acknowledges and even gives precedence to the female orgasm

     6. A prayer for going to the bathroom, prayer for going to sleep, prayer upon awakening, and step-by-step prayers for the morning routine (now incorporated into the morning service as “Nissim B'chol Yom” – “everyday miracles”)

     7. Admonition to keep words to G-d brief

     8. Why a gentleman never walks behind a lady

     9. Textual evidence for the Good and Evil inclination (ok – I’ll give you this one: in Gen. 2:7 when the human is created, the word vayeetzer [“formed”] is written with two yuds – not so with animals [Gen. 2:19] – thus indicating two natures to the human!)

   10. G-d was Best Man to Adam at his wedding to Eve

Ah – these are fabulous! But, speaking of the “Evil Inclination” I’ll just note one other:

Our Rabbis taught: Man has two kidneys, one of which prompts him to good, the other to evil; and it is natural to suppose that the good one is on his right side and the bad one on his left, as it is written, A wise man's understanding is at his right hand, but a fool's understanding is at his left. (Eccl. X, 2)

As a Left-handed person, I take offense. 

But how interesting to see their understanding of the kidneys as the source (or location) of the Evil or Good Inclination!

Berachot 59 - Static Universe

Another fascinating Astronomy/Astrology paragraph is on this page. But I cannot pass up a statement that goes to the heart of the nature of the universe!

The story is told that when G-d wanted to create the flood in Noah's time, G-d plucked out two stars from the constellation Kimah (Pleiades). Presumably this let the waters from the upper heavens (above the spheres that hold the starts) pour down to Earth. When G-d was ready for the flood to end, G-d took two stars from 'Ayish (the Bear) and plugged the holes from the first two stars. The question is asked, why didn't G-d just put the missing stars back where they came from? The answer: "A pit cannot be filled with its own clods." Ok, then why didn't G-d just make two new stars to fill the holes? Here's the answer that astonished me: "There is nothing new under the sun." (Eccl. 1:9)

This is a statement of the classic "static universe" theory of cosmology - the universe is exactly as it was and will be (aside from small, local variations). This was, in fact, the theory Einstein preferred - he invented the "Cosmological Constant" to mathematically keep it that way. It was only with Edwin Hubble's 1929 observations linking redshift and distance that it became clear the Universe is expanding, giving credence to the "Big Bang" Theory. Coupled with 20th century details of stellar evolution we see the universe as a far more dynamic place than previous generations did.

Of course, we don't look to Midrash for details on scientific principles. But it is fun to see a casual statement reflecting classic ideas far different from our own.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Berachot 58 – Civilization: Unique and Interdependent

The page ends with a fascinating section on Astronomy/Astrology including the disturbing appearance of a comet passing through the constellation of Orion. (Back in 1997 there was some concern when the Hale-Bopp Comet made this pass, which some saw as a sign of the messianic redemption. (The other Talmudic mention of a comet is in Horayot 10 and has been linked to Halley’s Comet.)

But another subject interests me:
Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a crowd of Israelites, he says, “Blessed is He who discerneth secrets, for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other.”

Lovely appreciation of the uniqueness of every individual (ok, every Israelite – but still). However Ben Zoma make a further observation. Upon seeing a crowd of Israelites on the steps of the Temple Mount, he says:

"Blessed is He that discerneth secrets, and blessed is He who has created all these to serve me."

Ouch! But wait: Ben Zoma goes on to describe that when Adam wanted a loaf of bread he had to plant, grow, harvest and shift the wheat, make the flour, knead and bake the dough into bread. But Ben Zoma wakes up and finds the bread already made for him!

It’s an important point about the virtues of the Modern World as opposed to some idealized “back to the land” past. Civilization depends on interdependence. 

This point we made for me in the book “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley. It is nice to dream about the power of independent living, but it leaves little time for much beyond providing for basic necessities. Civilization depends on trade.

Ben Zoma acknowledges and appreciates how we all depend on one another. But that dependence can lead to exploitation. But the Rabbis recognize each person’s individuality. And since each person is an individual you cannot exploit him or her for your needs. Trade is mutually beneficial. The two principles together make for a strong sense of community and human progress.

Thank you for serving me!

Berachot 57 - Dreaming the Opposite

Dream interpretation continues. Often seeing something in a dream which one would consider bad (a corpse, tearing one's clothes, being arrested by the police, an elephant [ok, that was random]) is actually a good sign.

Interestingly with the strong biblical and rabbinic emphasis against sexual immorality, seeing oneself engaged in it (incest, adultery) in a dream can be a positive sign. this strikes me as an example of the strong separation in Judiasm between thought and deed - only the latter being regarded as "sin." (Of course there is a caveat to the adultery dream: "provided, that is, that he does not know her and did not think of her in the evening." - which seems to be a way of avoiding obsession!)

And, one more for Sukkot:

"If one sees citron [hadar] in his dream, he is honoured [hadur] in the sight of his Maker, since it says: 'The fruit of citrons, branches of palm-trees.'" (Lev. 23:40)

Happy - or at least interesting - dreams.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Berachot 56 – Dream Interpretation Kit

Since we learned on the previous page that dreams are one of the three things one should supplicate for (see previous posting), this page gives an extensive list of the meaning of certain dream symbols. Here is a typical example which I like because of the play on Hebrew words:

Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a reed [kaneh] in a dream, he may hope for wisdom, for it says: Get [keneh] wisdom. (Prov. 4:5) If he sees several reeds, he may hope for understanding, since it says: With all thy getting [kinyaneka] get understanding.  (Prov. 4:7)

There seems to be a tension between what to the modern eye looks like the psychology of dreams and the assumption that dreams are Divine messages as they often appear in the Torah. For example, the interpretation of a dream may well depend on the interpreter:

Bar Hedya was an interpreter of dreams. To one who paid him he used to give a favorable interpretation and to one who did not pay him he gave an unfavorable interpretation.

By the way, Bar Hedya comes to a rather gruesome end when he refuses to interpret the dream of the king’s wardrobe keeper, just before all the king’s silk clothes are eaten by worms!

But there is another dream image I love:

It has been taught: Pumpkins are shown in a dream only to one who fears heaven with all his might.

This is because not matter how large a pumpkin may grow, it never gets too tall – a reminder of humility.

Nice image for me, as I get ready to build my sukkah. 

Happy Dreams!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Berachot 55 - Good Prayers for a Good Year

"Rab Judah also said in the name of Rab: There are three things for which one should supplicate: a good king, a good year, and a good dream."

Leadership, the course of the year and our own dreams are seen as being in the hands of G-d. Usually we think we are in control of the events in our lives. A little humility is a good thing.

As we enter Yom Kippur - and an election year - this seems like a good phrase to keep in mind. May our prayers be sincere and sincerely answered.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah, dear reader; May you be inscribed for a good year, good leadership, and good dreams.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Berachot 54 - Thanks For Miracles!

The Mishnah on this page is quite wonderful and will be commented on. It contains a series of blessings to be said on many and several occasions. We start with miracles.


Not just historic miracles, but personal ones as well:

"Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: There are four [classes of people] who have to offer thanksgiving: those who have crossed the sea, those who have traversed the wilderness, one who has recovered from an illness, and a prisoner who has been set free."

What blessing should he say? "Rab Judah said: ‘Blessed is He who bestows lovingkindnesses’ (Baruch Gomel Hasadim Tovim)"

This is the "Birkat HaGomel" found in our modern prayer books in a revised form. Technically there is a form for those who fit in these 4 categories, and a different one for anyone else who feels a special sense of blessing.

In going over this lately, I have been distressed to realize that the new Reform prayer book, Mishkan T'fillah, turns this from a personal prayer to a communal one - revising both the Hebrew and the English into plural forms. In trying always to be inclusive, we lose something important - that sense of having been personally touched by the Divine Presence. What happens to gratitude when it is diluted?

May we each feel blessed. And grateful.

Berachot 53 - Pure Light

According to the rabbis, one can say a blessing over Shabbat candles which have "rested" but not over ones which have not. What does it mean for candles to have "rested"? Rabbi Nachman ben Isaac says that it means a light which has not seen the kind of work not permitted on Shabbat.

I love this image of a candle being pure - uncorrupted on Shabbat by the work of the week.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Berachot 52 – More Shabbat

The differences between the two major rabbinic schools of the First Century CE, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, erupt on this page. Hillel rulings are generally more accommodating, while Shammai are more restrictive. This is why Hille rulings are usually the ones accepted as final.

However, there is some argument that a controversy on this page may have the two schools reversing their usual roles. This produces such consternation that the assumption is they are mis-ascribed!

One discussion, however, is about the order of the Havdalah prayers, when incorporated with the grace after meals. Shammai’s order makes the whole thing longer. But, they have a reason:

Beth Shammai holds that the entrance of a [holy] day is different from its exit. At its entrance, the earlier we can make it, the better. But at its exit, the longer we can defer it the better - so that it should not seem to be a burden on us.

Who doesn’t want to make a holiday last longer! More Shabbat, anyone?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Berachot 51 - Wine for Grace

Two reports from actual Angels about how to keep demons away. Also ten things that must be done with the cup of wine over which the grace after meals is said: rinsed, washed, undiluted, full, crowning, wrapping, lifted with both hands, held with the right, raised a handbreadth from the ground, and the one saying the blessing keeps his eyes fixed on it.

Some add that it should be sent round to members of the household.

R. Johanan said: Whoever says the blessing over a full cup is given an inheritance without bounds, as it says, And full with the blessing of the Lord; (Deut. 33:23)

All this is like what we see today for the Kiddish said before the meal on Shabbat and Festivals. Well, not the demon part.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Berachot 50 - Real Tweets

Ok, despite the name of this blog, these posts are clearly not "tweets." My intention was to indicate that each post is a short takes on a full page of Talmud. Short, but not necessarily within the strict 140 character limit imposed by Twitter.

However, in honor of this my 50th post (!) I offer three actual Tweet length sentences from today's page:

1. At the Song of the Sea – even children in the womb sang. How do we know? Bless ye the Lord in full assemblies. . . (PS 68:27) [125 characters]

2. An attendant serving two separate dining groups serves as the bridge combining the groups for the blessings. [108 characters]

3. If one forgot and put food into his mouth without saying a blessing, he shifts it to the side of his mouth and says the blessing. [129 characters]

Is everybody happy?!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Berachot 49 – The Communal and the Personal

There seems to be a lot of fluidity about the exact words of the grace after meals (birkat hamazon) at the time of this Gemara. The themes are outlined but the exact words are still in flux.

In the second blessing, the covenant and the Torah are mentioned. Pelimo says the “covenant” is mentioned before “Torah” because the word “covenant” (brit) appears 13 times in the circumcision of Abraham, (Gen. 17:1-14) while “Torah” is given with only 3 instances of “covenant.” That is to say, there are three instances of communal acceptance of “Torah:” Sinai (Ex. 24:7), Mt. Gerezim (Deut. 28:69) and the Plains of Moab (Deut. 29:11).

The Covenantal relationship with G-d is communally accepted, but the personal is more intense.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Berachot 48 - King Jannai and Grace After Meals

A story is told about King Jannai. Elsewhere in the Talmud (Kiddusin 66a) we learn that King Jannai had all the rabbis assassinated, possibly because of an incident (told in Sanhedrin 19a) in which he was humiliated before the rabbinic court. One who escaped the carnage was Simeon b. Shetah – the Queen’s brother.
In our story, the king and queen are having a meal together, and the king laments that since he has killed all the rabbis, there is no one to say grace for them! (The very definition of chutzpah: the man who murders his parents and then pleads for mercy from the court because he is an orphan).

The Queen invites her brother, after making her husband swear he will be safe. Simeon b. Shetah is brought to the meal, but is not invited to eat. Afterwards he is asked to say grace and is given a cup of wine to say it on. The blessing he gives is a mocking one: “Blessed is He of whose sustenance Jannai and his companions have eaten.” He then drinks the wine. They give him another cup and he says grace over that one.

Thus one must have actually eaten something of a meal before saying grace.

Berachot 47 - Can I Get An "Amen"?

“Our Rabbis taught: The Amen uttered in response [to the benediction before a meal] should be neither hurried nor curtailed nor orphaned, nor should one hurl the blessing, as it were, out of his mouth.”

That is to say, saying “Amen” is like saying the blessing itself. It should not be rushed or slurred - for example by missing the first letter, or cut short - by not pronouncing the last letter. It should not be said by someone who didn’t actually hear the blessing, but is only hearing other people saying “Amen.” Nor should it be a “throw away.” 

We take our prayers seriously, we take our responses seriously.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Berachot 46 - Etiquette

The giving of honors at a formal meal is discussed. According to Rabbi Johanan who said in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai: "The host breaks bread (says the blessing before) and the guest says grace (after the meal). The host breaks bread so that he should do so generously ('with a pleasant eye'), and the guest says grace so that he should bless the host."

Rabbi Shesheth gets into an argument with the Exilarch (the lay "Head of the Diaspora" or secular leader of the Jewish community) who believes that Persian etiquette is superior to the rabbinic. An intricate discussion of the placement of couches and the order of seating and hand washing ensues.

Fascinating look at how Jewish customs encounters changing cultural norms when living as a minority. The same thing happens today, and the way we respond to these changing realities determines our place on the Liberal-Traditional spectrum. And that's just etiquette!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Berachot 45 - Separate But Equal?

The Mishnah states that when three people eat together, it is their duty to invite each other to say the blessing after the meal. (Not stated here, but the formula is "chaevri nevarech" "friends, let us bless.) The proof text is: O magnify ye (plural) the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together. (Ps 34:4) (2 + 1 speaker).

However, the Mishnah continues, "women, children and slaves are not counted in the three." The exclusion of children goes uncommented upon. However, women who are eating together (i.e. without men) invite each other. Same with slaves. But women and slaves do not invite each other "because it might lead to immorality" (now that's a theme worth investigating!)

But I digress. How is it that women (or slaves) can invite each other? Why isn't that just something the men do? Here is a fascinating acknowledgement from some 1500 years ago: "because each has a mind of her own."

Therefore, we have to assume, thanksgiving from three women, and their individual minds, is better than that from two men.

Men and women, under this traditional (and antiquated) system are separate, but equal.

Well, we know how well that works!

Still, for those who assume the text is always misogynistic, this is a nice acknowledgement of the equality of women before G-d. Even in ritual.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Berachot 44 - the Fruits of Gennesaret

With the recent debate about the benefits or lack of benefits to organic food, it is fascinating to read that the arguments about what kinds of foods are good for you or not has been going on for millennia. This page of Talmud, for example, contains such wisdom as: “Milt is good for the teeth but bad for the bowels; horse-beans are bad for the teeth but good for the bowels. All raw vegetables make the complexion pale and all things not fully grown retard growth.” Not to mention that one should not eat vegetables before breakfast, because it will give you bad breath.

But there is a fascinating reference to the “fruit of Genessaret.” Gennesar (often spelled “Ginnosar”) is the narrow and very fertile plain along Lake Kinnert or the Sea of Galilee.  Kinnert, so called because it’s fruit is as sweet as the sound of the kinor or harp, is the Biblical and modern word for the Greek form: Gennesar.

The Plain of Gennesar shows up in Rabbinic literature, Josephus and the New Testament. Clearly well known the fruit from this fertile area are described as being large, easy to digest and causing the skin to grow smooth. “R. Abbahu used to eat of them [so freely] that a fly slipped off his forehead” – his skin being so smooth it could gain no foothold! The fruit seemed to have other, more interesting effects: “R. Ammi and R. Assi used to eat of them till their hair fell out. R. Simeon b. Lakish ate until his mind began to wander.”

According to legend, the fruits of Gennesaret were not allowed in Jerusalem during the pilgrimage, out of fear that people will come to Jerusalem just for these fruits and forget about their religious obligations.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Berachot 43 - Smells Good

Evidently, it was a custom to burn incense at the end of some meals. A discussion ensues about the blessings for various scents, based on their source. Why?

"R. Zutra b. Tobiah said in the name of Rab: Whence do we learn that a blessing should be said over sweet odors? Because it says, 'Let every soul (neshama, lit. breath) praise the Lord.' (Ps. 150:6) What is that which gives enjoyment to the soul and not to the body? — You must say that this is fragrant smell."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Berachot 42 - Communal Meal

When wine is brought during the course of a meal, but not at the beginning, is a separate blessing needed over a dessert wine? A hotly contested question!

Better: if ten people are traveling together, even if they are all eating from a single loaf of bread each one says the blessing individually. But if they sit down to eat together (lit. "recline", even if they have separate loafs one blessing can be said for everyone.

The story is told of the Rab's students returning from his funeral which was held in another town. They sat down to eat and discussed this mishnah. They noted that the text says "recline to eat" and debated if they had to actually lie down or not. The debate wore on. Suddenly one of the students, R. Adda b. Ahabah, got up and tore a second rend in his clothes declaring: "Rab is dead, and we have not learnt the rules about grace after meals!" Presently, and old man came along and solved the problem by telling them that when a group decides to eat together it is the equivalent of what the Mishnah means by "reclining."


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Berachot 41 – Hierarchy of the Meal

Over which item in a meal is the blessing said? Some organize by what is considered the “main item” some - as the Rabbis prefer - by what is the individual’s favorite. 

R. Judah declares that those which fall on the Torah’s list of foods in the land of Israel take precedence:
 A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil, and [date] honey. (Deut. 8:8)

But what if you have two foods from the list? R. Joseph (some say. R. Isaac) the order of the verse matters – those earlier on the list takes precedence.(R. Hamnuna says that they are actually two lists of equal value, both starting with “a land.” Thus wheat & olives would be equal, barley and dates second, but equal to each other).

R. Hiyya said: [A blessing said over] bread suffices for all kinds of food [at the meal] and a blessing said over wine for all kinds of drink.

“Rock-Paper-Scissors” for food? Bread wins every time.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Berachot 40 - Animals First

Well, the truth is I cannot be considered a “foodie” even though I live in Portland (!). I like to eat well enough, and appreciate a good meal (especially when Ida Rae makes it – my wife is a wonderful cook and I am a lucky man!) But when it comes to ingredients and sources of food, my eyes glaze over. Grocery stores are a source of anxiety to me. I am a stranger in a strange land.

All of which makes reading some of this section of Berachot a little difficult for me. This page, for example, has lists of various kinds of fruits and herbs and the appropriate blessings for each. We learn, for example, that morils and truffles are included in the generic blessing (sh’hacol bara lichvodo – “by whose word all things are created”) rather than the specific of blessing of things growing from the earth (borei pri ha’adama – “creator of the fruit of the earth”) because those fungi “spring from the earth but do not get their sustenance from the earth.” Who knew?

But the beginning of the page talks about breaks in benedictions. This caught my attention.

Usually, when one says a benediction for food, a least a morsel of it must be eaten right away so that it is not a “wasted blessing.” Action immediately follows prayer. However the case is given of a host who says the blessing and then invites the company to eat – he does not have to repeat the benediction. However, if he says the benediction and then instructs that condiments (“salt and relish”) be brought for the bread – he has to say the benediction again (R. Johanan disagrees).

If after the benediction and before eating he says “mix fodder for the oxen” R. Sheshet says he does not have to repeat the benediction. Why? Rab Judah says in the name of Rab: “A man is forbidden to eat before he gives food to his animals.” How do we know this? Because it says in the Torah: And I will send grass in your fields for your cattle, that you may eat and be full. (Deut. 11:15). Note the order: animals eat first, then you can eat.

Feed your animals – pets or cattle. Even if you forgot and have already sat down to your meal - even if you have already said the blessing (!), get up and feed your animals first.

Even to a non-Foodie, this makes sense.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Berachot 39 - The Blessing of the Broken Piece / Peace

In our house, we love to tear the challah on Shabbat. My mother insists it is not dignified and that the challah should be sliced.

The rabbis have a different conflict.

Raba insists that for any loaf of bread, the benediction (HaMotzi) should be said first and then loaf is broken. Rabbi Hiyya ben Ashi says that the loaf should be broken as the benediction is concluded. So is the blessing concluded with a broken piece or with a whole loaf which is only subsequently broken? Some follow Raba, some follow R. Hiyya. All argue.

A compromise is described:
A Tanna [repeater of texts] recited in the presence of R. Nachman b. Isaac: One should place the broken piece under the whole loaf and then break and say the benediction. He said to him: What is your name? Shalman, he replied. He said to him: You are peace [shalom] and your Mishnah is faultless [shalem], for you have made peace between the scholars.

Berachot 37 – The Tense of (Ha) Motzi

One thing that makes my daughter crazy, being a good grammarian, is when someone refers to “The HaMotzi” as the blessing before bread. Ha – of course, is a prefix meaning “the” – making the reality of the statement “The the Motzi.”

Or maybe it doesn't.

Rabbi Nachman argues, against the Rabbis that the blessing should be “. . .Motzi Lechem min haAretz.” (“Bringing forth bread from the earth.”) Because, he argues, HaMotzi means “is bringing forth” based on Exodus  6:7 “. . .and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who is bringing [ha-mozi] you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” No, the Rabbis counter, HaMotzi means “brought forth” as in Deut. 8:15 “who brought [ha-mozi] you water out of the rock of flint.” Besides, the Rabbis continue, what G-d means in Exodus 6:7 is “When I will bring you out, I will show you something which will prove that is was me who brought [ha-mozi] you out.”

Is HaMotzi past, present or future? Is G-d?

At least we know: grammar matters! You're welcome.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Berachot 37 - Changing Thanks

Rice and it’s role. According to the Master (“Mar”), if you chew rice, the blessing is borei prei ha’adamah (“who creates fruit of the ground”). But if it is ground, baked and soaked, the blessing is borei menai mezonot (“who creates various kinds of foods”).

Just interesting to see that the same ingredients can change category depending on how (or if) it is prepared. The source is the same, but our involvement changes it – which changes the way we acknowledge it before G-d. It not just about ingredients, it is also about our partnership with G-d in using those ingredients. You change what you have been given and that changes the way you give thanks.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Berachot 36 - Majority Rules

A discussion of what blessing is to be said over which specific foods. A side discussion compares this with the law of "orlah" - for the first three years of a fruit tree grown in the land of Israel, the fruit cannot be eaten. But some nuts and flowers may not be considered "fruit."

When the meal is made of several items, how do we know what blessing to say? A general principle is - when there is a main item and another item is taken as "accessory" the blessing is said for the main item and it serves for the accessory.

Even in food - majority rules!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Berachot 35 - First Say Thank You

The Mishnah takes up the subject of blessings before meals, which vary depending on the item eaten. The problem is, there is no direct biblical commandment for such a blessing. After a meal, it is clear - based on Deuteronomy 8:10 "When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you." But despite attempts to read it in, a textual basis for the blessing before a meal cannot be found.

Which leaves us with principle: simple gratitude. "If he says a blessing when he is full, how much more should he do so when he is hungry?"

Eating without saying a blessing is compared to stealing from G-d. First, acknowledge the source of your food - this specific meal (and every meal) begins as a gift from G-d.

"R. Akiba said: One is forbidden to taste anything before saying a blessing over it."

Which is a simple way of saying "Thank you."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Berachot 34 - Imposed Humility

Prayer choreography: during the “Amidah” prayer, one is instructed to bow at the beginning and end of the “Avot” (Patriarchs – we add Matriarchs]) and the “Hodaha” (Thanksgiving). That’s it – if you want to bow more often, you are instructed not to. However, according to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a Kohen bows at the end of each benediction. A king bows at the end and the beginning of each benediction.

The principle seems to be: the greater the position the more the person is humbled in prayer. I like this idea of imposing increasing humility – not professing it, but actually doing something physical which demonstrates it. Everyone is humble before G-d - some need it more than others.

A person without humility is described as a “dish without salt.” But someone who over-states their humility is compared to a dish which is over-salted. Even in our humility, we need to be properly seasoned!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Berachot 33 - Free Will

“Rabbi Hanina said ‘Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven.’” This statement, (which is repeated in Megillah 25a, along with several paragraphs on this page) is a powerful acknowledgement of Free Will. We are created with certain qualities of character, but we are the prime determiners of that character. How we behave, the strength of our belief, our choice to do good or evil in the world – all is in our own hands. This human ability to choose is our most powerful personal tool and the path to finding meaning in life. Doing good would be meaningless unless we had the ability to choose evil. Approaching the High Holidays, this serves as a reminder: “Therefore Choose Life.” (Deut. 30:17)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Berachot 32 - Resisting the Evil Impulse

G-d alone is responsible for the evil impulse we all have. In fact by rewarding us with all the richness of life, we are tempted to believe we deserve more. It is the test of human character to see if we can resist that impulse. Gratitude, rather than arrogance, is the key.

Berachot 31 - Everything Has a Purpose

The story of Hannah (1 Samuel, Chapter 1) held as the example of a prayer of request - as often happens in Biblical stories: asking for a child. Her prayer is silent. But here the rabbis imagine her silent words:

Now Hannah, she spoke in (literally "on") her heart. R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Jose b. Zimra: She spoke concerning her heart. She said before Him: 'Sovereign of the Universe, among all the things that Thou hast created in a woman, Thou hast not created one without a purpose, eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands to do work, legs to walk with, breasts to give suck. These breasts that Thou hast put on my heart, are they not to give suck? Give me a son, so that I may suckle with them.'