I thought of starting like this: “since we are in Tractate Brachot, it may be no wonder that we’re now discussing food and its blessings”. Then I remembered that there are so many discussions about food in every tractate, each for its own reason. So maybe start like this: we’re discussing food because food is “it”. In the opening of the Book of Genesis (2:17), we are introduced for the first time to the root tz.v.h. – command and commandment (mitzvah), but also related to togetherness (tzavta). It is when G-d commands the human being “of every tree of the garden you are to eat (yes, eat)”… He later excludes the Tree of Knowledge, but that’s beyond us right now. What’s important that our connection to G-d goes through food. This helps us understand this week’s reading when the people ask and receive water and the manna. True, they are “thirsty” and “hungry”, and we assume it’s for physical sustenance, but maybe, they also thirst and hunger for that connection with Hashem.
Food and G-d continue to be connected in the Talmud too. Actually, food and other things as well, such as sex, relationship and good behavior. In the pages in front of us this week, the sages quote the Mishna that tells us which blessings to say before which food. The Gemara then asks, mina hane mili?? That is, where did you get this from? Or – how do you know we are supposed to say blessings before food at all??!! The Torah only tells us (Deuteronomy 8:10) that we should eat (what? how much?), be satisfied (how much is that?) and then bless (say, great thanks or is there a formula? Only one? And why?), but nothing before!! How can the Mishna then tell us “out of the blue” to say this and that blessing before? It seems that the Mishna already knows, in principle, much of what the Gemara will unpack. After a complex discussion trying to finding “proofs”, it just lets it go: “everything belong to Hashem”, they quote from the Psalms (24:1). Using anything requires at least an acknowledgement that it’s not ours and we’re borrowing it, whether a potato, grapes or bread, for the sake of our relationship; sort of like a child who gets an allowance for helping around the house, and then takes a portion and gets the parents flowers for Shabbat or a birthday gift. Why bother? The parents can go out and shop for her/himself. Nevertheless, the fact that the math turns out the same, doesn’t matter.
Food is also used for metaphors and to make a point. Here, the mishna teaches that one who substitute a communal prayer leader who made a mistake in the middle of the Amida prayer should not refuse when approached to replace him. The Gemara discusses the halakha as to what is the proper conduct when one is approached to serve as prayer leader (Brachot 34:a):
גְּמָ׳ תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: הָעוֹבֵר לִפְנֵי הַתֵּיבָה — צָרִיךְ לְסָרֵב. וְאִם אֵינוֹ מְסָרֵב — דּוֹמֶה לְתַבְשִׁיל שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ מֶלַח. וְאִם מְסָרֵב יוֹתֵר מִדַּאי — דּוֹמֶה לְתַבְשִׁיל שֶׁהִקְדִּיחַתּוּ מֶלַח..
GEMARA: The Sages taught in a baraita: One who is approached to pass before the ark to serve as prayer leader, for the sake of propriety should refuse, to avoid creating the impression that he is too eager. And if he does not refuse, but jumps at the opportunity, he is like cooked food without salt, which is to say that he acts in bad taste. However, if he refuses too much this is similarly inappropriate, as he is like cooked food that was ruined by too much salt.
כֵּיצַד הוּא עוֹשֶׂה: פַּעַם רִאשׁוֹנָה — יְסָרֵב, שְׁנִיָּה — מְהַבְהֵב, שְׁלִישִׁית — פּוֹשֵׁט אֶת רַגְלָיו וְיוֹרֵד
So how should he act? The appropriate conduct when approached to serve as communal prayer leader is as follows: When approached the first time, one should refuse; the second time, one should vacillate like a wick that has just begun to catch a flame but is not yet burning; and the third time, he should stretch his legs and descend before the ark.
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: שְׁלֹשָׁה רוּבָּן — קָשֶׁה, וּמִיעוּטָן — יָפֶה, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: שְׂאוֹר, וּמֶלַח, וְסָרְבָנוּת.
On this note, the Gemara cites that which the Sages taught in a baraita: There are three things that are harmful in excess but are beneficial when used sparingly. They are: Leavening (yeast) in dough, salt in a cooked dish and refusal for the sake of propriety.
Yeast impacts volume; salt impacts taste; Saying no impact how we move about in the world, where one ends and one begins. May we find the right balance of all three.
Shabbat Shalom & Happy Tu Bishvat (coming up this Monday)