For a thousand years the Israelites tended their flocks and minded their fields. They offered up their sacrifices to the priests, first in the movable tabernacle, and later at the temple in Jerusalem. They kept the kohanim in business and the kohanim kept them in good stead with their God, with varying degrees of success. They partied at Passover, Shavuot, and Sukhot, and if we deduce correctly from Torah, they observed Shabbat, said the Shema, and observed halakha in some manner. If we pay attention to the railings of the prophets, they did not always do so diligently or faithfully.
We’ve been studying Berakhot 30 – 35 and how, after destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the rabbis transformed Judaism from a God-facing practice involving sacrifice and observance of halakha, to a God-facing practice based on individual prayer, blessings, and observance of halakha.
We learned how the rabbis looked to Hannah as a model for ecstatic individual prayer, and how the rabbis, using svara (reason, logic, wit, and caring about the tradition), established blessings as the Architecture of Everything. Blessings redeem the world for our use. And what better place to start than with blessings over food?
How Many and What Kind of Blessings over Food?
At least one hundred blessings a day total, decided the rabbis. See, e.g. Menachot 43b. It’s a practice of mindfulness; it puts us in a state of awe.
But we are obsessive creatures. Jogging is good for health, we decide; and pretty soon we are running a few miles a day, running marathons, running faster and faster. It’s all we can think of. We pass the point of diminishing returns for health benefits. Our life balance falls off kilter. But we cannot help it, because we are obsessive creatures. The rabbis are not so different in their approach to prayers and blessings.
The Mishna established a template for different blessings over food: for fruits of the tree, fruits of the earth, herbs and vegetables, and blessings over the sacred foods of wine and bread [because they were present on the table in the Mishkan (tabernacle) and later in the Temple]. See Berakhot 35a, Steinsaltz p. 237. The rabbis of the Gemara expanded on this, and later generations of students added more and more (hair splitting) details. It’s to be thorough, said Peretz. It reflects joy of communal engagement over food; it’s not so different from how we take joy in gathering scores of cookbooks and hundreds of recipes we may never use. Food discussions never end.
There are many ingredients that make up the recipes for the correct blessings over food: there is the kind of food on the plate, the source of the food, and its point of origin. There is processed and non-processed food. There is food intended to be eaten and enjoyed, and food to be used as medicine. In Persia, where Talmud was developed, there was a great deal of medicinal food, and the rabbis made distinctions. There is the time when food is consumed: is it Shabbat, or a festival, or a regular weekday? Are we inside or outside the land of Israel? And there is bread and wine. The rabbis thought about and obsessed over all these distinctions.
For five centuries after destruction of the Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud engaged in extensive pilpul to expand the rules for blessings. Pilpul is that subtle and peculiar form of legal and conceptual reasoning that we find in Talmud. It evinces enthusiasm, inventiveness in a not always logically rigorous manner, a great love for the subject matter, and not a small amount of obsessiveness.
What we have in Talmud is a 500 year record of the Tanaim and Amoraim communing with God. The rabbis worked these ingredients like a Rubik’s cube puzzle, says Peretz. It’s how they talked to God. As Heschel (1907-1972) would later say “when I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me.” Talmud is a 500 year record of God talking to the rabbis in the Heschel sense.