Berakoth The Babylonian Talmud

Authors : Simon Maurice - Epstein Ezekiel Isidore
Title : Berakoth The Babylonian Talmud
Year : *

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Zera'im ('Seeds'), the name given to the first of the six 'Orders' into which the Talmud is divided, deals principally with the agricultural laws of the Torah in both their religious and social aspects. It sets forth and elaborates the Biblical precepts relating to the rights of the poor and of the priests and levites to the produce of the harvest, as well as the rules and regulations which concern the tillage, cultivation and sowing of fields, gardens and orchards. These laws are digested in ten tractates, each of which deals with a separate aspect of the general subject which gives the 'Order' its name. To them is prefixed the Tractate Berakoth, which has for its theme the daily prayers and worship of the Jew. The 'Order' thus comprises 11 tractates, arranged in the separate printed editions of the Mishnah in the following sequence: 1. BERAKOTH ('Benedictions'): Deals with the prayer and worship of Israel; the regulations relating to the main components of the daily prayers; and the forms of thanksgiving or 'grace' to be recited over food and on sundry occasions. 9 Chapters. 2. PE'AH ('Corner'): Treats of the laws of the corners of the field which must be left to the poor and other dues assigned to them in accordance with Lev. XIX, 9f; XXIII, 22; and Deut. XXIV, 19-21. 8 Chapters. 3. DEMAI ('Doubtful'): Treats of produce concerning which there is a doubt whether or not the tithes have been set aside from it. 7 Chapters. 4. KIL'AYIM ('Mixtures'): Deals with the prohibition of mixture in plants, animals and garments set forth in Lev. XIX, 19, and Deut. XXII, 9-11. 9 Chapters. 5. SHEBI'ITH ('Seventh'): Discusses the regulations concerning the rest to be given to the land and the release of debts in the sabbatical year (Shemittah). See Ex. XVIII, 11; Lev. XXV, 2-7; and Deut. XV, 1-11. 10 Chapters. 6. TERUM0TH ('Heave Offerings'): Sets forth the laws regarding the portion of the harvest assigned to the priest in accordance with Num. XVIII 12. 11 Chapters. 7. MA'ASEROTH ('Tithes'): Has for its theme the 'first tithe' which must be given annually to the levite from the produce of the harvest according to Lev. XXVII, 30-33; and Num. XVIII, 21-24. 5 Chapters. 8. MA'ASER SHENI ('Second Tithe'): Details the rules of the 'second tithe' set aside in the first, second, fourth and sixth years of the septennate in accordance with Deut. XIV, 22ff. 5 Chapters. 9. HALLAH ('Dough'): Deals with the rules concerning the portion of the dough which must be given to the priest. See Num. XV, 20-21. 4 Chapters. 10. 'ORLAH ('Uncircumcision', sc. of trees): Deals with the prohibition of the use of the fruit of the young trees during the first three years, and the rules for its treatment in the fourth year. See Lev. XIX, 23-24. 3 Chapters. 11. BIKKURIM ('First Fruits'): Gives the regulations concerning the offering of the first fruits in the Temple (see Deut. XXVI, Iff.), and includes an account of the accompanying ceremony. 3 Chapters. This sequence is followed practically in all the printed and manuscript editions of the Mishnah and Talmud. The only notable exception is the Munich MS. which places Berakoth between Mo'ed and Nashim.2 This, however, seems to have been due more to technical reasons than to a deliberate departure from the recognised sequence. Several attempts have been made to explain the sequence of the tractates in the Seder,3 but none is very convincing. There is no doubt that there were several determining factors, of which the order in which the laws appear in the Pentateuch was one, and the number of chapters in the tractate was another; whilst another probable factor was the frequency with which the matters treated in the respective tractates occurred.4 FUNDAMENTAL CONCEPT OF SEDER ZERA'IM Seder Zera'im is designated in one place in the Tamud by the term Emunah5 This designation provides the answer to the question how regulations regarding worship and prayer came to be grouped with agricultural laws,6 and at the same time the reason for the priority given to Berakoth in this 'Order'. The Hebrew word Emunah has a two-fold connotation — theological and human. It signifies alike faith — trust — in God, and faithfulness — honesty, integrity — in human relations. These two concepts of Emunah do not conflict with each other; on the contrary, they complement and supplement each other. In Judaism, unlike other religions, faith is not some mystic quality charged with supernatural powers capable of winning divine favour and grace. Faith is a dynamic, a motive for faithfulness, and is of value only in so far as it is productive of faithful action; nor is there any faithful action that is not rooted in faith in God. The man of faithfulness is an Ish Emunah, and the man of faith is a Ba'al Emunah. For it is the man of the highest faith in God who is the man of the greatest faithfulness in his dealings with his fellow man; and it is only the man of faithfulness who can truly be considered a man of faith. The application to the agricultural laws of the signification of Emunah as faith is aptly explained by the Midrash in its exposition of Psalm XIX, 8. '“The testimony of the Lord is faithful (trustworthy)” — this refers to Seder Zera'im, for man has faith (trust) in the Life of the World and sows.”7 Man, that is to say, has faith in the divine governance of the world and in the regularity of the natural world order which God has established in His Universe, and sows with the assurance of reaping. On the other hand, the term Emunah as applied to the'Order' has also been interpreted in the sense of faithfulness. Thus Rashi8 says that the 'Order' is called Emunah because the fulfilment of its precepts is a mark of man's faithfulness in his social relations. Man observes these laws, and pays the poor and the priests and levites their respective dues, because he is a man of faithfulness. Here, too, faith and faithfulness combine to form an indissoluble unity. The man of faith will carry out these observances with faith fulness; whilst the faithfulness with which he performs his duties is a test of his faith. The reason for this close connection of faith and faithfulness in the carrying out of these observances is not far to seek. Faith in the 'Life of the World', if held with conviction, implies the recognition of God as the owner of the earth. In virtue of this principle the earth as well as all the gifts of Nature can never become altogether private property. It is handed out in trust to man who by the sweat of his brow extracts its produce. He has the right and the duty to apply his labour to the land; but this does not constitute it his. He must always recognise that ‘To the Lord belongs the earth, and the fulness thereof’ (Psalm XXIV, 1). Whatever rights man has in the earth and its produce are derived from God, and are subject to the overruling consideration that He alone has the ultimate ownership of the land. It follows from this as a corollary that all God's children are entitled to a share in the land, as their common heritage. The landowner, therefore, while enjoying the reward of his toil and stewardship must recognise that others too have a right to live and that he has a duty to enable them to live. It was these common human rights, flowing from the idea of divine ownership of the earth, which the Torah sought to safeguard by the provisions it made under various laws for the benefit of the poor. When a field is harvested the corners (Pe'ah) are to be left uncut; a sheaf9 forgotten in the field by the owner (Shikhah) is not to be reclaimed; the gleanings of cornfields (Leket) and vineyards (Pere!)10 which fall to the ground in harvesting are not to be picked up; nor are the defective clusters of grapes ('Oleloth)11 to be gathered. A special tithe (Ma'aser 'Oni) has in addition to be set aside every three years and laid up in towns and villages for distribution. All these parts of the harvest belong to the poor as their prescriptive rights in the common heritage assigned to them by the divine owner.12 It is in the same spirit that the laws of the Sabbatical year (Shemittah) were ordained. Designed to confirm the landless poor in their right to live, `the Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath unto the Lord' (Lev. XXV, 4) helped at the same time to teach that the produce of the earth must not be regarded as the exclusive private property of a selected class, but is part of a common divine heritage in which the poor, the alien, the slave, and even animals have a share. The idea of the divine ownership of the land was likewise suggested by the biblical prohibition regarding the mixture of seeds (Kil'ayim) While this and similar laws are designated as `Statutes' (Lev. XIX, 19), for which no reason has been revealed, there is no question that underlying them is the idea that the earth belongs to God, and that man has no right to interfere with the appointed order of things or violate the `Statutes' God has established in His physical universe for ever and ever.13 The recognition of the divine ownership of the earth is likewise enforced by the command regarding the first fruits (Bikkurim). 'The object of this precept,' writes Aaron Halevi, `is to instil in man the belief that all he has, he holds from the Lord of the Universe.'14 This too, according to Nahmanides, is the significance of the prohibition of the fruit of young trees in the first three years ('Orlah), and the laws regarding them in the fourth year. This precept, in his view, is closely connected with that of the first fruits. The fruit in the first three years is stunted in growth and hence unfit for the offering to God which alone releases it for human use.'15 The same motive equally underlies the gifts to be made to the priest — the heave-offering (Terumah), and the portion of the dough (Hallah), and to the levite — the tithe (Ma'aser). In the words of Rabbi Aaron Halevi, 'Since corn and wine and oil constitute the main staple food of human beings and the whole world belongs to God, it is fitting that man should be mindful of his Creator, in enjoying the blessings wherewith He blessed him, and set aside, in His name, a portion thereof, giving it to His ministers who occupy themselves all the time with "heavenly work", before he himself derives benefit from the produce."16 Faith in the divine ownership of the earth is thus implicit in the agricultural laws of the'Order' and is the all-inspiring motive for the fulfilment of them in faithfulness; and it is this faith which constitutes the very heart of Jewish prayer and worship, to which Berakoth is devoted. For what is the Shema', which forms the opening theme of the Tractate, but the grand affirmation of Israel's faith in God's ownership of the world — His mastery overlife and Nature — with His consequent claim upon human service, devotion and love? Similarly the 'Amidah, the Jewish daily Prayer par excellence, covering the whole range of human needs — physical, mental, and spiritual — is grounded on faith in God's ownership of the Universe, wherein He has power to do as He wills, and to meet the needs of man in prayer. And likewise those benedictions prescribed for various occasions, such as for partaking of food or for enjoying other gifts of Nature, are uttered in grateful acknowledgment to their divine Owner. This is how the Rabbis of the Talmud understood the significance of these ancient benedictions instituted by the spiritual Fathers of Israel. There is nothing sacramental about them; they are but expressions of thanks to God for personal enjoyments and benefits. Noteworthy in this connection is the Talmudic dictum, 'He who enjoys aught in this world without benedition is as though he robbed God.17 The world is God's and whatever is therein is His; and it is only after making acknowledgment to the divine Owner that man has the right to put to personal use what he has received at His hands. With faith in divine ownership as the common basic concept, the relevancy of Berakoth in Zera'im becomes evident; nor could there be any fitter introduction to the 'Order' than that tractate from which there breathes the spirit of faith. It is also to this basic concept that Zera'im owes its pride of place as the opening Seder of the Talmud. Faith is after all the very pivot of the Jewish religion, and it was only natural for the 'Order' which has Faith as its underlying principle to form the prelude, with the Shema' leading, to that authoritative guide of Jewish life and action which is the Talmud.18 THE AGRICULTURAL LAWS AND OUR TIMES Berakoth is the only tractate in this 'Order' which has Gemara in both the Babylonian and Palestinian versions. The other tractates have Palestinian Gemara only, as the laws with which they deal are with a few exceptions restricted to the Holy Land. This is in conformity with the well-known principle that all the religious commandments that depend on the soil apply only in the Holy Land.19 The reason for this reservation is apparently because the conception of divine ownership basic to these commandments has no relevance to conditions in which the Jewish tenancy of the land is not derived directly from its divine Owner. An exception is the law of the 'mixed species', which in some of its aspects is valid also outside Palestine,20 as the underlying idea of not interfering with the natural order appointed by God in His Cosmos is of universal application. Since the fall of the Hebrew State, many of the precepts, particularly those connected with the Temple, such as the priestly portion and the tithe, have lost their biblical force, though rabbinically they are still binding to a certain degree21 and are observed by religious settlements in the New Yishuv.22 The transformation of the national economy consequent upon the loss of Israel's political independence has likewise affected the harvesting laws, reducing their observance to a mere token.23 As to the Shemittah, the question of its present-day validity has been the subject of much controversy among post-Talmudic authorities, giving rise to a variety of opinions. Some there are who hold that the Shemittah still retains its full biblical force;24 others would deprive it of all validity;25 whilst others again insist on its observance, though only as part of Rabbinic legislation.26 The point at issue is the dependence of the Shemittah on the jubilee. It is the accepted Rabbinic view that the jubilee is bound up with the territorial integrity of the Jewish State on both sides of the Jordan; and that accordingly its observance came to an end with the cessation of the Hebrew polity.27 This being the case, the dependence of the Shemittah on the jubilee, would mean that its laws are no longer applicable nowadays. Its non-dependence, on the other hand, would mean that the Shemittah may well remain in force, even though the jubilee had become obsolete. Here is no place to enter into a discussion of the complicated Halachic problems involved; but from the point of view of human relations, to make the Shemittah dependent on the jubilee, would impart to it a political connotation not applicable to our own days; while its non-dependence would bring it into the category of those socio-moral Laws of the Torah which have not lost their significance even for our times. In practice the Jewish Communities that maintained themselves in the Holy Land throughout the centuries following the destruction of the Temple continued to adhere to the Shemittah laws.28 But since the rise of the New Judea with agriculture as the basis of its economy, the observance of the Shemittah has become a burning question, urgently demanding a solution. In the early stages of the Chovevei Zion Movement, the fear that the observance of the Shemittah might jeopardise the existence of the struggling colonists impelled Rabbinic authorities to devise measures for overcoming the hardships involved in its operation. With the approach of the Shemittah year 5649 (1888-1889), Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spektor of Kovno (1817-1896), the foremost rabbinical authority of his age, relying on the view that the Shemittah nowadays is only of Rabbinic origin, sanctioned the nominal sale of the land to a non-Jew and the employment of non-Jewish labourers during the Shemihtah.29 This device met with strong opposition on the part of a number of rabbis, such as Joshua Loeb Diskin (1818-1898) and Samuel Salant (1816-1911), both of Jerusalem.30 A staunch defender of the measure advocated by Rabbi Spektor was Rabbi A. I. Kook (1865-1935), who wrote a brilliant work on the subject under the title.31 He, too, was not without his opponents, of whom the most prominent was Rabbi Jacob David Willowsky of Slutsk, commonly known as the Ridbaz (1845-1913). At present most of the religious settlements in Palestine avail themselves of Rabbi Spektor's concessions, though a few adopt the more rigorous attitude and, at a great sacrifice, observe the Shemittah in all its details.32 The gradual restoration of the Hebrew polity, which is taking shape before our eyes, after a submergence of almost 2.000 years, gives to the study of this 'Order' more than an mere academic or antiquarian interest. It is yet too early to foretell the form in which these agricultural laws of the Torah will find their embodiment in the economic, political and social structure of the Jewish State that is slowly coming into being. But the occupation of mind and heart with these laws must surely help to foster those social ideals which should be the distinguishing mark of the new civilisation the Jewish people are resolved to plant on the hills of Judea, and by which alone it can be preserved.33 And not for the Jewish people alone. The humanitarian implications, for all times, of these early biblical measures are obvious. The same motives as inspired the social legislation of the Torah will today prompt any ethical being to apply the sense of duty to his daily tasks. He will recognise that whatever he has he holds from God, and that his claim to possession of property is justified only by the opportunity it provides for service to his fellow-man. With this principle as his mainspring of action, he will strive to turn his vocation and his talents, as well as other gifts that fall to him by good fortune, into a contribution to the common weal. This is a lesson the importance of which for our times cannot be over-estimated; for it is only insofar as humanity will assimilate these ideals to all the complexity of its material problems that it can hope to witness the realisation of its millenial dreams of universal i peace and happiness. ...

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