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Imagine a group of dedicated rabbis whose job it is to create a new way of life after a people is decimated and scattered away from their land and their way of life. Judaism, such an ancient religion, was built on the pillars of ethical behavior, a land called their own and a complex series of laws that involved the sacrifice of animals and grains in the Holy Temple constructed by King Solomon. Fast forward hundreds of years and that system is hacked, burned and broken by the Romans. No more Temple, no more sacrifice, no more nation in one central location with an even more central location which is the hub of their religious existence. One can imagine the shock of the nation, either driven out of their country or bedraggled and reduced still in the land, their temple in ruins. The rabbi's job was to imagine a future that was far different than the normal. They went to great lengths to begin to write down a mammoth oral tradition and set it to writing so that there would be guidelines for this people in exile, this people whose lives were overturned so drastically.
I can imagine their sleepless nights. Each of these rabbis did other jobs to help feed the family, but they had this enormous second set of responsibilities to reinvent a way of life. Each brought their own point of view to the table and the text is a series of disagreements that go through generations of rabbis, but what these people had in common was enormous creativity, sharp minds and the drive to reinvent a system that would work in the Diaspora.
Enter the Mishna and then the G'mara on Berakhot, which translates as "blessings." Jews are asked to bless. What, you might ask, would they bless and the answer would be most everything. There are blessings on vegetables, fruits, grains, breads, drinks and this would be the a hair on the page of content of the sixty-four double pages of Talmud. The following is a novice's (and I mean that!) take on ideas presented in Berakhot. This list, not exhaustive by any means, appears in no particular order. What's the intention here? It's to let you, the reader, understand the sheer imagination and thoroughness of the MIshna (the Oral Law) and the G'mara (the generations of commentary on that law), both of which together make the Talmud.
Take a moment now to think what you think the word below means? What is a blessing anyway? Why would we say them? What would it do for our lives? Why are they prescribed? What rules over blessings would you make to mark time and events for a people between the holy and the mundane? How would you go about doing it so that people remember? How would you present cases so that people care?
Here are just some of the concepts covered in Berakhot, of Blessings. For the sake of your time, I will limit the number of fascinating concepts, but if you are interested in thinking about this more after reading this post, I will point you to a super engaging podcast that I am listening to called Talking Talmud. Facilitated by two brilliant and engaging women, each day a different topic is covered in interesting and understandable language. Each podcast is no more than 25 minutes and at the end of each podcast you will be eager to go to the next one!
Here are my top ten topics covered in Berakhot ahead. And remember, I am not giving answers as I am a novice, but a good question stimulates the mind to consider, so begin considering!!!
1. What time do Jews need to say the Shema? If we need to say it in the morning, how do we know when the morning begins? How is the night divided?
2. What happens if you say the blessing after a meal and leave the place that you ate, travel away and then remember? What do you do?
3. What if a blind person witnesses a miracle? Can he/she make a blessing on a miracle if he/she doesn't actually see it?
4. If we are making Havdalah, the blessing that marks the separation of the shabbat from the weekdays, what type of flame should we use and why is it important?
5. How is the blessing after meals, called the Birkhat Hamazon different from 3 people? For 10? For 100? For 1000?
6. What if you have lots of important people (scholars in this case/rabbis) at a big dinner, who sits where and how do you order them from most important to least important? Who gets to wash first and who goes last and why?
7. What are the blessings for bread? What if that bread is filled with cheese or chocolate? Would you make the same blessing on a Danish? Is pizza considered a meal? If bread is considered the food that makes a meal, how much of it do you have to eat in order to make the special blessing you say after eating bread?
8. Can you pray when you are near something smelly? Something foul and putrid?
9. How does prayer work if you are in danger? If you are on a donkey?
10. Can you make a blessing over something gross and disgusting or something that causes harm?
OK, one more....What happens if you have a bad dream? What do you do?
Again, just the tip of the iceberg. It's not too late to start to study a little Daf Yomi each day!
It's a super interesting trip into the why's and how's of Judaism; a peek into the creation of a system that has lasted for millennium in some form.
As they finish each day in Talking Talmud, "Go learn!"