I was drinking wine but I thought it was beer… Berakhot 12

On today’s daf we encounter a classic discussion of a subtle halakhic point and I’d like to explore what we can take away from it.

Let’s look at the case study:

There is no question that where a man took up a cup of wine thinking that it was beer and commenced with the intention to say the blessing for beer but finished with that of wine, he has fulfilled his obligation…

 But where he took up a cup of beer thinking it was wine and began with the intention to say the blessing for wine and finished with the benediction for beer, the question arises, do we judge his blessing according to its beginning or according to its ending?

First of all, we have to love the example.  It doesn’t take much effort to read between the lines and suggest that we’re talking about a case where this isn’t the first drink of the evening.  We’ve already discussed that the Rabbis were not averse to partying, and it seems that once again the Rabbinic penchant for a tipple has thrown up a halakhic quandary.  ‘We’d had a few too many, and weren’t sure which bracha we should have been making…’

So it’s memorable, and, I’ve said before, this helps, because this image is much more likely to stick in our mind than abstract speculation alone.

Another thing we see is slightly disheartening, in light of yesterday’s discussion.  The concern here is very much focussed on ‘fulfilling one’s obligation’.  There seems to be a regression here, a forgetting of the spirit of Hillel,  a take on religious life as a series of obligations rather than opportunities.

In light of this, we wonder who it is that is actually having this discussion.  Yesterday we were able to stay very conscious of who was saying what.  Today, there’s no such opportunity.  Everything is very anonymous, and given the array of references, it seems like it must be the Redactors, the Stammaim, who are having this discussion.

So we’re about 500 years after Hillel, and we’re seeing some kind of shift in the way the Law is approached, certainly in the way it is discussed.

We might say that ‘fulfilling obligation’ is just a discursive tool, it’s a way of exploring the essence and meaning of the laws, by understanding what is required to optimally fulfil them.

That is the hopeful reading.  We’re not really in a world of obligation, it’s just a turn of phrase.  But the turn is significant, we are now in a culture of learning and discussion, wherein the halakha has evolved enough such that people are keen to muse it’s finer details, they’ve become connoisseurs, attuned to the subtleties of its music.

So, what were the connoisseurs noticing?

They seem to be interested on the intention one has at the beginning of a blessing, a bracha, and are wondering how significant that is.

It’s worth noting that the words one would utter in the first half of a blessing, whether for beer or for wine, would be identical.  So they’re delving deep into the mind of the reciter, wondering what it is that he’s concentrating on.

Why does this matter?

It matters because what’s being presented here is the essence of that most commonplace practice, saying berakhot over a litany of everyday things.  We are charged with the duty to say 100 berakhot a day, and we all know how easy it can be to mumble them without any thought at all.  The discussion here highlights that berakhot are all about raising our consciousness, heightening our awareness, leading us from a thoughtless life to one of significant contemplation and appreciation.

It is not enough that we pause and think ‘We praise you God, our Lord and King of the Universe…’, hopefully giving real thought to the createdness of life, how everything could so easily have not come to be, or could have been much less wondrous than it is.  No, we must think this, but with specific reference to the matter at hand, to the beer or the wine.

Really, it seems, we must pause before we begin, give thought to the wine or beer we are holding, and only once we have found within us a genuine flicker of appreciation for them, in all of their worldly specificity, can we say the berakha.

We must meditate on beer, and then praise God.  It’s not enough to focus on God alone.

There seems to be an injunction here to stay in the real world, to ‘taste it and see that it is good’ (Ps 34.8), and not to get completely lost in Divinity, in the spiritual and otherworldly.  Be grateful for beer, appreciate your wine, only then can your appreciation of the Divine have meaning.

So a berakha is a pause for worldly meditation, not a Godly disruption to ensure that we aren’t seduced by the pleasures of this world.  Definitely more Hillel than Shammai.

And what is the conclusion?

This, I think, is my favourite part of the discussion.  There is no conclusion.  The Talmud changes the topic and never comes back to it.

In a word, the Rabbis lost interest.  They raised the question of intentions and awareness, they gave us insight, through their subtle probing, into the essence of saying a berakha.  And then, having made their point, they moved on.

This is a refreshing counterpoint to the fear I voiced above, that we’d regressed into a world of obligation and duty, that we’d lost the love of life and the naturalness of our practice.

The Rabbis here didn’t care to finish the discussion and conclusively establish how one fulfils one’s obligation.   And I’m going to read this as telling us that to worry about one’s obligation really is to miss the point.  Religious life is not about obligations, about a checklist, but about bridging heaven and earth, about satisfying our core longings for a taste of something higher, for a more elevated life, a life in which all parts of our spirit are in harmony.

Later Rabbis, in their codifications of the Law, no doubt pushed this point to a conclusion, they made a ruling.

I’m suggesting that maybe they’ve missed the point, that to focus too much on the ruling is to fail to hear the poetry, to misread the Talmud, to not get the Stammaic spirit.

The language of obligation turns out to have been a rhetorical device, a graceful segue from halakha into theology.

May our ears always stay open to the real dynamic of the text, let our eyes not become tainted by punitive presumptions about the meaning of religious life.


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