Talmud Tips

For the week ending 8 February 2020 / 13 Shevat 5780

Berachot 30-36

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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The Taste of a Mitzvah

One who says (in prayer – Rashi) “You show us the way of mercy in the mitzvah of sending the mother bird before taking eggs” — is shushed.

The reason for this halacha in the mishna is a matter of dispute between two Amoraim. One explains that saying this implies that Hashem shows mercy in this case, but not in others, to other creatures. The other Amora argues that saying this implies that this mitzvah was given to teach mercy, but “they are only decrees.” A mitzvah exists purely because it is the will of G-d.

Does this mean that mitzvahs are not attached to any reasons aside from the fact that they are mitzvahs from Hashem? This cannot be so, since Chazal, the Rishonim and the Achronim all attempt to find reasons for the mitzvahs. The Ramban (Devarim 22:6) points out that all mitzvahs — even those known as chukim (statutes) — have reasons, and that “the absence of reasons for the Torah [that we can understand] is a result of our intellectual blindness.” Similarly, the Rambam (Moreh Ha’nevuchim 3:31) maintains that all mitzvahs have reasons: “Every mitzvah of the 613 commandments either imparts to us a true philosophy, eradicates a false philosophy, enforces a rule of social justice, nullifies injustice, bestows noble character traits, or warns against evil traits.”

My revered teacher, HaRav Moshe Shapiro zatzal, once asked Rav Eliyahu Dessler to explain the term “ta’amei hamitzvos” (the Hebrew term used by the Talmud meaning the “reasons” for the commandments.) Rav Dessler replied, “The ta’am of a mitzvah is the geshmakeit (taste) of a mitzvah.” Rav Dessler translated the word ta’am literally as “taste,” and explained that although we eat food in order to survive, we nevertheless enjoy its variety of tastes of textures as a pleasant side-effect of eating. Similarly, Hashem made the mitzvahs with varied “tastes.” We fulfill the mitzvahs because they are the will of Hashem and they are His instructions for living, but “investment” in the mitzvahs also pays other “dividends,” which are explained in the ta’amei hamitzvos.

  • Berachot 33b

The Land of Bread

On produce from the ground (ha’aretz) one says, “Borei pri ha’adama” except for bread, for which the blessing is “Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.”

These berachot are taught in our mishna along with other berachot for eating and drinking. The wording of these two specific berachot is intriguing. Why does the beracha for produce from the ground, such as vegetables, mentions adama, whereas the beracha for bread mentions aretz instead of adama? Adama and aretz are both words for the ground, so why the change?

Many answers to this question are offered by the commentaries. One approach is to distinguish between land designated for human settlement and land used for farming and ranching. While the latter is called adama (“a field”), the former is referred to as eretz (“a country”), and often appears as a name for the Land of Israel.

Since vegetables grow from the ground the appropriate beracha is to relate them to adama. Although bread is made from grains (wheat, barley and their derivatives) from the ground, it has a special significance as human food. “Mandoes not live by bread alone, but rather by whatever comes forth from the mouth of Hashem does man live.”(Devarim 8:3) Therefore, bread is deserving of a special beracha — one that relates it to the Land of Israel. (Based on the Gaon from Vilna)

Another approach to distinguish eretz from adama is to define them based on their depth. Eretz refers to the top level of the earth, while adama includes greater depths. Accordingly, the beracha for bread reflects the idea that its grains grow from near the surface, whereas vegetables receive nourishment from further down. (Rabbi Shlomo Luria) Other commentaries, however, explain eretz and adama in the opposite manner — adama being closer to the earth surface and eretz being closer to its core. (Rabbi Yisrael Lifshitz)

  • Berachot 35a
(With appreciation to Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein for sharing his research on this topic.)

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