Truly, How Beautiful Berakhot 53, 54 and 55

Learning the Talmud over Yom Kippur this year was an unexpected pleasure.  At first it felt like maybe I was doing something wrong – should I really be learning Berakhot, giving into my daf yomi obsession, playing catch up in this Sisyphean task?  Isn’t there something mundane about it, something worklike, something not quite fitting for the holiest of the days, the window when the Holy of Holies suddenly opens itself to man?

So I tried to resist.  But I couldn’t, it was what I wanted to do, it has become for me (once more?) a nourishing and invigorating activity, it is part of the way in which I connect with the deep.  It is a discussion of values, and the mind responds well to this, it is stimulated by their mention.

But there is another reading of this, of the enjoyment I found in these dapim, of the way their poetic imagery spoke directly to me.  It was the Day.

The Day is special because we go into it in an unusual state of mind, uncommonly open to the world of the spirit, willing to suspend disbelief about the possibility of The Sacred.

There is something real about it, we may set up the day with our intentions and efforts, but there is no accounting for the grace and peace which we attain through it, there is no logical or causal chain which demands that they be bestowed upon us so bountifully .

There is something miraculous about them, something deeply unnecessary and strange.  And this mysterious phenomenon helps us understand that religion is not solely something that happens in our imaginations, it is something which has a dynamic and a reality all unto itself.

So it was a good day, a day with a strong and powerful energy, a day where the daf made sense.  And in that spirit, I’m just going to let these three dapim speak for themselves, to let their own light shine:

The Sages taught in a baraita: People were seated in the study hall and they brought fi re before them at the conclusion of Shabbat. Beit Shammai say: Each and every individual recites a blessing for himself; and Beit Hillel say: One recites a blessing on behalf of everyone and the others answer amen. Beit Hillel’s reasoning is as it is stated: “The splendour of the King is in the multitude of the people” (Proverbs 14:28).

Granted, Beit Hillel, they explain their reasoning, but what is the reason for the opinion of Beit Shammai?  They hold that it is prohibited due to the fact that it will lead to suspension of study in the study hall.

In a similar spirit:

The members of the house of Rabban Gamliel would not say ‘good health’ when someone sneezed in the study hall, due to the fact that it would lead to suspension of study in the study hall.

Poor Shammai and Rabban Gamliel, you want to feel sorry for them, sometimes it seems like they can do no right in the Talmud’s eyes.  They just can’t seem to grasp the significance of community, of life, that Torah without these just fails and fades.

One who saw a flame and did not make use of its light, or if he made use of the light but did not witness the flame, may not recite a blessing.    

It is not enough to passively admire the radiance of the light, we must also make good use of it,  we must become enlightened.

One may recite a blessing over smouldering coals just as he does over a candle; however, over dimming coals, one may not recite a blessing.

What are smouldering coals? Rav Ĥisda said: Smouldering coals are any coals such that if one places a wood chip among them, it ignites on its own without fanning the flame.

If a light can re-kindle our fire, then it is worthy of a blessing, no matter how much its strength may be fading.

They who go down to the sea in ships, who do business in great waters; they see the works of the Lord. For He commands and raises the stormy wind which lifts up the waves thereof.  They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. 

They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.  Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distress.  He makes the storm calm, so the waves thereof are still.  Then are they glad because they be quiet; so He brings them unto their desired haven.  They are grateful to God for His loving-kindness and His wonders for mankind.   (Psalms 127:23-31).

It is sometimes when we are wrestling  in the stormy depths that we best grasp the import and meaning of the Divine, when we might sense anew its Power of salvation.

Why does it begin with the altar and conclude with the table?  [asked of a verse in Eziekel]

Rabbi Yoĥanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel’s transgressions. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for his transgressions.

Our table is our personal altar, we may use it for the highest offerings, or we may disgrace ourselves by defiling it.

Perhaps you were in God’s shadow – betzel’el – and this is how you knew?

Thus Moshe addresses Betzalel.  The artist lives in the Shadow of the Divine, that is his essence.

Betzalel knew how to bring together the symbols with which heaven and earth were created.

To create is to mimic the Divine, to fulfil our most exalted task on earth.

Rabbi Yoĥanan said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, only grants wisdom to one who already possesses wisdom.

We must put in the groundwork; enlightenment is only granted once there exists something worthy of the light.

Rav Ĥisda said: A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.

I take this at face value – it is a missed opportunity.  How you could receive an intriguing letter and not want to read it?

And yet, interpretation is not everything:

A bad dream, his sadness is enough for him; a good dream, his joy is enough for him.

Sometimes it’s about how the dream makes us feel, about the reality it creates, not just about what it might stand for or hint at.

And so a practice developed for dealing with disturbing dreams, one would seek out three friends and ask them to ‘improve’ it.  How would this be done?

They would recite three verses of transformation, three verses of redemption and three verses of peace.

May we be transformed, may we be redeemed, may we be granted peace.

Rabbi Bena’a said: There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were fulfilled in me.

Interpretation isn’t about decoding, it can be a creative act much like the dream itself, a vehicle for the emergence of meaning.

Rabbi Yochanan said:  If one awoke, and a specific verse [thought formulation] emerged in his thought, this is a minor prophecy.

In sleep we give up the battles of the daytime, we surrender to the mysterious undercurrents of the mind, to the unstructured mythical imagination which lies in its depths.

This is to enter into another realm entirely, the realm of metaphor, wherein we might just hear the still, small voice of the Divine whispering to us.

Appreciation: Poetry, Nature and Wine Berakhot 42 and 43

We spoke recently about gratitude, about how it is at the core of our concern with berakhot, blessings, how it plays a role in the transition between the physical and the spiritual, how it bridges the emotional and the intellectual.

Gratitude is quite profound, it requires perhaps a certain level of seriousness, of mindfulness.

It’s younger, rambunctious cousin, appreciation, is a different beast altogether, albeit one with which it is intimately connected.

Appreciation is perhaps more of a spontaneous aesthetic phenomenon, an instinctive response of the soul.  Gratitude is more of a project, an attitude which we work hard to attain, which requires a curiously balanced blend of intellectual work and emotional grace.

We might imagine that gratitude is the kind of thing that the halakha would aim to inculcate, whereas appreciation might be something it aims to tame, to bring under control, to temper.

In fact, it is not so simple, and it seems that there are voices within the Talmud who believe that appreciation should be cultivated and encouraged, that there is something pure and holy in the  energy and inspiration that we discover when presented with something delicious, something which arrests us with its beauty.

We see this argument first on 40b:

One who saw bread and said: “How pleasant is this bread, blessed is the Omnipresent Who created it”, fulfilled his obligation to recite a blessing. One who saw a date and said: “How pleasant is this date, blessed is the Omnipresent Who created it”, fulfilled his obligation. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Yosei says: One who deviates from the formula coined by the Sages in blessings, did not fulfil his obligation.

For Rabbi Meir, the idea that one could be so moved that he spontaneously erupts into blessing and praise, that he is genuinely moved to appreciate creation and its Author, this is commendable and to be encouraged.

Rabbi Yosei is not so sure, for him there might some danger in encouraging this aestheticism, in chancing the fate of the halakha to the whims of one’s inspired responses.  He does not see the opportunity in this moment, he does not see that this natural excitement, this pure emotion which cannot be feigned, can raise the individual to untold heights, can be an opening in their otherwise hard and very closed armour.  He does not see that it holds the promise of a genuine connection, of a profound educational insight, wherein a person might come to understand that praise is something we do because we need to, because it is one of our most basic instincts.

Rabbi Yosei is scared of our subjectivity, for him Halakhic Man represents an ideal of controlled and disciplined objectivity, the chance fluctuations of the spirit are not to be trusted.

I’m pleased to report that the Rambam agrees with Rabbi Meir, and that an individualistic expression of praise, with certain provisions, ‘fulfils the obligation’ of the berakha.  Even the codifier and logical philosopher par excellence allows for this poetic inspiration, for the profoundly inimitable sentiments of appreciation.

The dispute continues in the next Mishna:

If there were many types of food before him, over which food should he recite a blessing first?

Rabbi Yehuda says: If there is one of the seven species for which Eretz Yisrael was praised among them, he recites the first blessing over it.

And the Rabbis say: He recites a blessing over whichever of them he wants.

For Rabbi Yehuda berakhot have a purpose, and a rigid framework exists to ensure that goal is met.  We look to a text to establish the rubric, for we need to tame and normalise the experience.  Holiness is ordered, externally mandated.

For the Rabbis, Rabbi Yehuda has lost sight of something.  How can we educate in the ways of gratitude, how can we foster appreciation for the marvels of creation if we begin by ignoring a person’s natural inclination?

No, this inclination is precious, we must encourage and develop it, and we must help the person to deepen the experience with the help of a berakha.  The Rabbis believe in what Schiller called ‘The Aesthetic Education of Man’.

In the Gemara, this point is pushed even further.  The Mishna only considered the case where all the options had the same berakha appropriate to them, and we were choosing which food to make that berakha on.  In the Gemara, Rabbi Yirmeya suggests that even when there are different berakhot, they would prioritise which berakha to say based on personal choice.

This may not sound revolutionary, but the alternative is that there is actually quite a rigid hierarchy of berakhot which we must stick to, and that is the rule that we generally follow.  So Rabbi Yirmeya’s opinion is genuinely quite bold, and again suggests that he saw the wisdom in building the structure of berakhot on the basis of an individual’s idiosyncratic preference, rather than in trying to fight it.

Finally, we come to the wine.

We have the rule that a berakha over bread at the start of a meal covers everything else, that one need not make further berakhot.  There are two exceptions.  Firstly in the case where someone unexpectedly brought some food which had nothing to do with the meal, but which, perhaps, they had just discovered and felt needed to be appreciated.  In that case, a fresh berakha of appreciation is merited.

The second case is wine.  The Gemara asks why this should be, and gives the following answer:

Wine is different, for it stimulates a blessing on its own. 

Wine inspires us, and in that inspiration, we are moved to make a berakha.

I’m not going to put this better than the romantic poet John Keats, so I’ll let him do the talking at this point, I’ll let his berakha on wine speak for us all:

For really ‘t is so fine-it fills the mouth one’s mouth with a gushing freshness-then goes down cool and feverless-then you do not feel it quarrelling with your liver-no it is rather a Peace maker and lies as quiet as it did in the grape-then it is as fragrant as the Queen Bee; and the more ethereal Part of it mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments like a bully in a bad house looking for his trul and hurrying from door to door bouncing against the waistcoat; but rather walks like Aladin about his own enchanted palace so gently that you do not feel his step-Other wines of a heavy and spirituous nature transform a Man to a Silenus; this makes him a Hermes-and gives a Woman the soul and imortality of Ariadne…

We do not stand in the way of the aesthetic currents in man, we engage with them, we ride their waves and we try to ensure that they are not squandered, but are used for the refinement and elevation of the personality.

We may be aiming for gratitude, but we cannot get there without genuine appreciation, and wherever we stumble upon this natural treasure we are obliged to let it sing its own song, to express itself through its own poetry.