Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Sandwich in LaGuardia

Sitting in LaGuardia airport, on my way to Memphis for a scholar-in-residence engagement, I finished my tuna sandwich and began birkat ha-mazon. Now, my bensching is certainly on the faster side; when I used to start bensching in yeshivah, a certain friend would always start making motorcycle noises. Still, I do always try to think about what I’m saying. And, looking around the teeming masses of people from all walks of life in the Delta terminal, I gained a particularly powerful appreciation for being an Orthodox Jew.

For virtually everyone else there, I would wager, eating a tuna sandwich would not be a particularly significant experience. You buy it, you eat it, and that’s it. But, as an Orthodox Jew, there’s so much more to it. And I’m not even going to start with the kashrut laws that are implemented in obtaining and making the food, I will just describe the thoughts that birkat ha-mazon generates.

First of all, there is the expression of appreciation for the food. How many people actually stop to think about being grateful for the food that they eat? Sure, it was just a tuna sandwich, it wasn’t pheasant pastilla or roasted shoulder of Asian water buffalo (ah, fond memories). But it was delicious and nutritious and it kept my body going. Baruch atah Hashem, ha-zan et hakol.

Then, benching takes us on tour of the history of our nation. There were so many people of so many backgrounds around me; I don’t know how many of them had much of a national history, or ever thought about it. Ours is certainly worth contemplating at every opportunity, even while sitting at an airport gate. We trace our history back for thousands of years! And our homeland, too! Nodah lecha… ah shehinchalta l’avoteinu eretz chemda… v’al shehotzetanu… mibeit avadim…. Baruch ata Hashem, al ha-aretz v’al ha-mazon.

But there have been dark times in our history, too, and we must never forget them. The original Jewish sovereign state in the Land of Israel was destroyed. Yet it is our very mourning of that, for thousands of years, which gave us the commitment to return. And through the grace of God, we have been able to do so, and to start rebuilding the Land. Baruch atah Hashem, boneh b’rachamav Yerushalayim. 

There were many more thoughts that bensching made me think about, but I’ll leave it here for now. I will just conclude by saying that if I were to add a brachah to benching, it would be: Thank you, Hashem, for commanding us to bensch.

41 comments:

  1. The fluff is making me cringe... Lol

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Would agree. Next our host is going to pull a Reb Agigdor Miller and give us a twenty-page dissertation [sorry, monograph] on the wonders of a banana.

      Delete
  2. Important point. Yasher koach. There is such richness to Judaism, but those of us who grew up with it often don't really appreciate that richness as we take it for granted and don't even see it as anything special. Thank you for helping put things in context.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Indeed there is so much to be thankful for and thank G-d that Judaism provides us with opportunities to do so.

    Have you considered an important point which is made by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim that we need to shift to a more concise nusach of birkat hamazon (nusach eretz yisrael) which would then enable you to say the berachot with more kavannah. As it says in he beginning of the Shulchan Aruch-better to say less with more kavannah. This is especially apt in our age of difficulty focusing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The problem isn't the ability to focus; the problem is the will to focus. And dumbing down Judaism is not the solution to such a problem.

      Delete
    2. Having a bracha which is the length Hazal intended and not stuffing it with kabbalistic additions and irrelevant material is not 'dumbing it down', if anything the opposite.

      Delete
    3. The nusach that we use is based on Rishonim too, who do not use Kabala as a source (not that that would be a problem). Rabbi Yehuda ben Rabbi Yakar explains the pesukim behind our nusach, which is indeed longer than the Rambam's.
      The Avudraham has a similar Rachem to ours and he is also not Kabbala based.
      The Rishonim also discuss the Horachmans added after bentching, which are also partially included in the Rambam.

      Even if nusach Eretz Yisroel was the 'correct' one, we cannot be sure what it is. We have very little knowledge of its details, and one source from the Cairo genizah should not provide any surety. If our civilization was destroyed and only one siddur was left, it would hardly prove anything regarding today's accepted nusach.

      Delete
    4. The nusach of birkat hamazon has definitely gotten longer and longer over the ages. And there is indeed an argument for brevity.

      It is not only nusach eretz yisrael which is shorter but all of the more ancient nuschaot. There was an accretion of more and more material to the nuschaot as time went on. And one can always find meaning and richness in longer nuschaot-that does not make them superior.

      In our age brevity would be productive. Rabbi Bar-Hayim has the courage to give expression to this.

      Delete
    5. Zichron:

      1) If you use Nusah Edot Mizrah [or you are Habad](which may be the majority) there are certainly additions that are kabbalistic. While the additions in nusah Ashkenaz are not, they bear the stamp of some kind of mystical influence (since why else would you rattle off a list of near synonyms).
      2) I think the Avudraham did not write the nusah he comments on, in which case your point is moot (though it may be incidentally correct).
      3) We know from the Rav Sa'adya Gaon, Rav Amram Gaon and the Rambam that earlier nushaot are less than half the length of those used today. The burden of proof is on those who want to say that Hazal and the Geonim were 'dumbed down', not the other way round.
      4) In the real world where we live, the vast majority of orthodox Jews either (a) try to avoid eating bread from Sunday to Friday (certainly not the intention) (b) eat mezonot bread (a joke) or (c) habitually bentsch with no kavana whatsoever (a tragedy). Again, the burden of proof is on those who insist we keep this broken system rather than teaching people that they have the choice to use shorter nushaot. (And, just as importantly, to use different nushaot on different occasions and to formulate their own).

      Delete
    6. The Rambam did not invent the nusach he quotes. He just set it down in writing.
      The idea that only kabbala would require a list of 'near' synonyms is ludicrous. זוננו does not mean פרנסנו which does not mean כלכלנו. Yes they are similar, and the layman would use them interchangeably. But the Rishonim are here to tell us that they are not interchangeable, the differences, as minor as they may be to us, are not insignificant in reality.
      I don't know exactly how the Geonim set up their nusach, however that is not the point. If someone says that we would like to daven like the Geonim, that would be one thing. If someone thinks that 'we can't handle the full thing, give us the minimum', he is dumbing it down. His purpose is to find an easier way out.
      I don't know what the vast majority of Jews do, I certainly do bentch daily. However, before education has been tried, I wouldn't consider changing the nusach as the optimum idea

      Delete
    7. Right on!!!!! We definitely need to use a shorter nusach!

      Delete
    8. 4A. I'd like a monograph discussing how chazal's concept of snacks is nowhere near the current concept, and adjustments in our brachot may be in order
      4B. Mezonot bread is not a joke. Its specifically discussed in SA and expanded upon by SA haRav. You don't want to accept it, OK, but don't argue with me like that restaurant owner did with me last month when I asked if he has mezonot roll for his snack item that is enclosed in bread.
      4C. No kavanah applies to regular tfillah too. And is a function of yeshivot not teaching plain Hebrew meaning of words. Maybe they should substitute "bruch marei deHai pita", the minimum requirement. Maybe they'll understand cause its Aramaic like the gemarah that yeshiva students supposedly understand.

      Delete
    9. Zichroyn Devorim

      The idea that only kabbala would require a list of 'near' synonyms is ludicrous. זוננו does not mean פרנסנו which does not mean כלכלנו. Yes they are similar, and the layman would use them interchangeably.

      Err, yeah, that's what a near synonym is. Rattling off great long lists is characteristic of prayers with mystical (not necessarily kabbalistic) origins.

      But the Rishonim are here to tell us that they are not interchangeable, the differences, as minor as they may be to us, are not insignificant in reality.

      Why on earth should one have to study the Rishonim before you can benstch with kavana?

      If someone says that we would like to daven like the Geonim, that would be one thing. If someone thinks that 'we can't handle the full thing, give us the minimum', he is dumbing it down. His purpose is to find an easier way out.

      Says you. Maybe his purpose is to have a more meaningful relationship with Hashem.

      MiMedinat Hayam
      4B. Mezonot bread is not a joke. Its specifically discussed in SA

      No it isn't. The SA discusses three definitions of pas haba b'kisnin, of which one (that of the Ramabam IIRC) is dough that is made sweet by the addition of fruit juice, honey etc. This is what you or I would call a cake. The idea that you can make something that tastes almost identical to normal bread, but it's magically mezonot because you used raisin water is not the in the SA or any legitimate source. Also, if it matters to you (and I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you are ashkenazi), the Rema explicitly says that in order to be mezonot it has to be 'sweet like lekah'.

      and expanded upon by SA haRav.

      I'll have to take your word for that since the author was placed in herem (correctly as we see from the outright heresy of the vast majority of of his followers today) and no-one with any authority to do so has taken him out.

      I'd like a monograph discussing how chazal's concept of snacks is nowhere near the current concept, and adjustments in our brachot may be in order

      This is true, but it also works the other way round. People eat less bread than they used to and we also have good reason to believe that gluten is bad for, at least, a significant minority of people. As such we should perhaps follow the opinion of Rabbi Akiva and bentsch on any sustaining meal.

      No kavanah applies to regular tfillah too. And is a function of yeshivot not teaching plain Hebrew meaning of words.

      Tefillah is also way too long. Most people are trying to fit an hours worth of davening (for Nusah Sefard and EM, an hour and a half) into half and hour and it simply cannot be done. There's also a secondary problem that many people do not want the things they are ostensibly praying for (a monarchy, the restitution of religious courts with power to punish, the destruction of heretics, animal sacrifice), and a tertiary problem that saying the same nusah three times a day with kavanah is totally unrealistic. Better teaching of Hebrew, while desirable, won't acheive anything without solving these problems.

      Delete
    10. My understanding of the reason you would classify some things as Kabbala is in order to permit yourself to reject it, as per many Rishonim who rejected Kabbala.

      The problem is, the more things you classify as Kabbala, the narrower your choice of opinions becomes. The Tanach also has lists of near synonyms. If the meaning is merely Kabbalistic, the Nach is telling us about the existence of Kabbala. Your Rishonim have their position destroyed by open Pesukim.

      I don't know how you think someone should know something without learning it. If you want to know the correct accurate meaning of any tefilla, where else to look but the Rishonim who discuss it?

      Delete
    11. Gavriel M:
      They don't use raisin water, they usually use apple juice. (Complication: they often use apple juice concentrate, which can be considered more concentrated that regular apple juice. UnLike kedem's new flavor of light grape juice. You can quibble on the amount ify juice added. (I am reminded of potato bread, which definitely has a potato-ey taste, which I can't stand. But litvaks considered it haMotzie; same as they do for onion pockets, which SA definitely considers pat haBaah beKisnin.

      B: SA haRav is extensively quoted by the MB, except in this context. Note his grandson's censoring the besht to rivash, so we can't count on accuracy.
      And by the way, gluten allergy is statistically insignificant, and most practioners have serious protein deficiencies. But your (and mine) argument that bread is not so basic in the food chain anymore requires halachic study, which no one wants to do.

      Delete
    12. Gavriel M:
      Regarding what we are praying for, those are euphemisms for mashiach. Which indicates a failure of our yeshiva education system, which downplays such teachings in favor of straight theoretical (not applied) gemarah study.

      Delete
    13. And by the way, gluten allergy is statistically insignificant, and most practioners have serious protein deficiencies. But your (and mine) argument that bread is not so basic in the food chain anymore requires halachic study, which no one wants to do.

      People say different things. I've personally seen a child turn in the space of 2 weeks from having daily violent meltdowns to a normal kid with no change other than cutting out gluten, so I'm biased.

      (I am reminded of potato bread, which definitely has a potato-ey taste, which I can't stand. But litvaks considered it haMotzie

      Is that true? On what possible basis?

      Regarding what we are praying for, those are euphemisms for mashiach.

      And moshiach is euphemism for a king who wages war on our enemies, removes heretics, builds the temple and imposes halacha. Many, perhaps most, orthodox Jews have no interest in this, or actively abhor it.

      They don't use raisin water

      Some do.

      they usually use apple juice.

      It doesn't really matter what they use, if it's still un-sweet enough to eat with tuna and egg without making you sick, it can't be mezonot. There's no way round this.

      B: SA haRav is extensively quoted by the MB, except in this context.

      To be honest I just wrote that to be offensive. I'm sure it's a decent halakha sefer, but I wouldn't know and I guess I never will.

      Zichron Devoyrim:

      There is a difference between pre-kabbalistic mysticism and kabbala. The former is known for long lists of near-synonyms, the latter is not. Kabbalistic insertions are more notable for their total disregard of literary considerations whatsoever (and there's what looks to me like a pretty glaring example in Nusah EM).

      But that's not the point. Lots of prayers are influenced by earlier forms of mysticism and some of them are quite beautiful. The problem with longer nushaot of Birkat Hamazon is not theological contamination, the problem is that they are too long and are written in a way that makes it hard to concentrate.

      If you want to know the correct accurate meaning of any tefilla, where else to look but the Rishonim who discuss it?

      13 years olds have to say Birkat haMazon, people with IQs of 70 have to say Birkat haMazon. It seems to me axiomatic that they should be written in such a way that they can be understood without extensive study. And, in the time of Hazal and the Geonim, they were, so what's the problem?

      Delete
  4. I was in Laguardia just last week. It is an ugly and horrible airport. It looks like it belongs in a third world country. When thinking about God rebuilding Jerusalem and Eretz Yisrael, you can compare it to Ben Gurion Airport, which is quite beautiful.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm usually a fan of your posts but must admit that I strongly disagree with this one.


    As far as I can tell, your gist is that Judaism gives even mundane matters meaning and that's necessarily a good thing.

    Let's think about that for a moment. Judaism requires brachot for a lot of things but not everything. For example, Judaism doesn't require a bracha every time you lock a door, it doesn't require a bracha every time you buy an object, etc. etc. etc. There are far more things which don't get a bracha than do.

    Why? If giving the mundane meaning is so great, why not have a bracha for every little thing? The answer is that when you try to give everything meaning, the things which should actually make you think lose significance. That's why the bracha for buying things (shechiaynu when it happens to be) is only said when the thing is valuable.

    But now we've found an important principle. We want to make events meaningful but do it too much and you lose the very thing you wanted to obtain! Clearly a balance needs to be reached but that begs the question where does the balance lie?

    Personally, I see no reason to believe that the balance is the same for everyone though can accept that there may exist general rules which work for most people most of the time. That said, I take major issue with birkat hamazon. I could imagine benching for special occasions like an expensive evening out but definitely for me and almost certainly for most jews, benching over cheap sandwiches misses the balance point by a mile. Having benched almost every day of my life, I can practically never muster any kavana for it. I have tried dozens of techniques for improving this part of my Judaism but none of them have worked and I have little reason to believe that any technique can work. The balance point is just too far off. In sharp contrast, I have no difficulty finding kavana for hallel or the bracha over a lulav. Heck, I'm even not too bad at kiddush!

    Sure, you had kavana this time and I'm happy for you but if we're going to be honest, our religion messed up when it required birkat hamazon for every morsel of bread. Our religion could have given us so much more but let us down this time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So G-d messed up?

      Delete
    2. If you bentsch using the nusah of the Rambam or, better yet Nusah EY, then you will find it a pleasant experience. You may even find yourself choosing to eat bread so as to get the chance to bentsch.

      Delete
    3. Back in the day, a meal consisted of bread by definition. That was what was served: bread and oil, bread and hummus, or peanut butter, lite-veggie cream cheese, etc. So you ate bread to fill up and you bentched. Today we have more options.

      Delete
    4. I get that, I'm just saying that if you use a reasonable sized nusah, birkat hamazon becomes a pleasant and meaningful addition to your day and you actually miss it when you don't say it.

      Question for Q: Do you live in EY?

      Delete
  6. Love the upbeat post! A littl fluff is good with a lot of l crunchy peanut butter

    ReplyDelete
  7. Q - I empathize and identify with your difficulty in finding kavana with routine brachot (and, I assume, other routine mitzvot). In fact, I expect you are probably better than me at both kavana and practice. On the other hand, hasn't the experiment of making such mitzvot voluntary based on whether they are meaningful to each individual already been tried in Reform and arguably failed (based on demographics, shul attendance, voluntary pursuit of Jewish learning)? I don't mean to insult the many good and dedicated Reform Jews, but it seems to me there are two paths: a Judaism of choice or a Judaism of obligation. Sincerely, Marc, NJ, USA

    ReplyDelete
  8. Our religion could have given us so much more but let us down this time.

    ....

    who are you refering to. G-D ? Rabbis ?

    ReplyDelete
  9. The return to Israel probably had more to do with antisemitism,the Shoah and WWII rather than 'commitment'. ACJA

    ReplyDelete
  10. "I will just conclude by saying that if I were to add a brachah to benching, it would be: Thank you, Hashem, for commanding us to bentsch." -- One might argue that it's *already included* in our bentsching, when we say "kakatuv v'achalta v'savata, uveirachta..."

    ReplyDelete
  11. Rabbi Slifkin's post is right on and needed today. In my 40 year plus experience in Jewish primary and secondary education, I have seen an erosion in terms of young Jews being connected to their Judaism and seeing God and Jewish values in the mundane and routine.
    Worse yet, I believe that we have witnessed over the years a Judaism that has become mundane and routine. Daven today? Yes, check that off the list. Do the daf? yep, check that off the list. Throw a buck in the pushka? Sure. Check that off the list.
    I would discuss with my seventh grade students whether or not a bracha had the same status as a candy bar wrapper. Something to be dispensed with as a pre-requesite to eating the candy bar.
    Rabbi Slifkin is attempting to promote an important Jewish value: Seeing God and his elegent genius in the most mundane of environments.
    Heschie

    ReplyDelete
  12. The transliteration of Hebrew into English is extremely annoying. I would assume the 99%+ know Hebrew so why the טרחא דצבורא?

    ReplyDelete
  13. How many people actually stop to think about being grateful for the food that they eat?

    Religious Catholics say grace before and after every meal they eat:

    Before: Bless us, O Lord! and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through (Yeshu) our Lord.
    Amen.

    After: We give Thee thanks for all Thy benefits, O Almighty God, who livest and reignest world without end. Amen. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

    The grace they say after each meal - we could actually say as Jews and probably be Yotzeh Birchas Hamazon - at least on the D'Oraisa level.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No. Need to mention EY/Jerusalem on the d'oraisa level.

      Delete
    2. Since when do we hope that souls rest?

      Delete
  14. I heard in the name of the Mcr Rosh Yeshiva to help kavana you should say the name of the brocho that you are about to make before you make it. I found it very helpful.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Q

    Can you share with us which ideas you have tried to improve your kavanah? What have you done? Learnt relevant seforim? Meditated?

    The truth is, the kavanah is a method of imbuing the words with more depth. It is the words that are the main part. See Nefesh Hachayim for more details. Just saying the words slowly and with clarity and dikduk can awaken the kavanah too.

    ReplyDelete
  16. על שאנחנו מודים לך - ברוך א-ל ההודאות
    :-)

    ReplyDelete
  17. Off-topic, but I have just found out that one of the regular commentators here since 2011, Y. Ben-David, passed away on Monday, 10th of Cheshvan. I used to enjoy reading his comments very much--they really contributed to the discussion.

    Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

    -Yehudah P.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Is it possible to publish his real name now?

      Delete
  18. The idea of saying the name of the bracha that you are about to make is a great idea! I find lately that often I begin the bracha and lose track of what I am saying. Oh boy....

    Thanks for the suggestion!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Some of the comments to this inspiring post are a great illustration regarding the potential pitfalls and dangers regarding "rational Judaism".If ones approach to Torah and Chazal is to constantly focus on "mistakes" and perceived foibles you can get to the above "fluff" comment or worse ("the Torah, ch'vsh messed up in how it instituted brachot too frequently")That said , kudos,to Rabbi Slifkin who Is able to perceive the beauty of Torah while being a rationalist.

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

A Mezuzah Miracle?

Here's a really freaky story. Four girls in my niece's class broke their hands or arms in the last ten days. The teacher decided...