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Massekhet Berakhot - An Introduction to the Tractate

August 03, 2012

 

This introduction is taken from the new English edition of Tractate Berakhot of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
 
 
Tractate Berakhot is the first tractate in the order of “Faith” (as the order "Seeds" is called in Tractate Shabbat 31a). The primary focus of the tractate is the myriad ways in which a Jewish person expresses his faith throughout his life. The plethora of details with regard to the different blessings that one recites on various occasions over the course of his life, the prayer services and their customs, Shema with its associated blessings and halakhot, and numerous other laws connected with a person’s day-to-day existence are all comprehensively addressed in this tractate. In the background, the Gemara recounts in great detail the lives of Jews in Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia during the era of the Mishnah and the Talmud. It describes their occupations, their prayers, their aspirations, and their dreams, from morning to evening, on weekdays and festivals, in felicitous times and calamitous times, citing numerous halakhic and aggadic sources to enlighten, guide, and explain. With all of the different nuances and abundance of detail in the tractate, there is one central, unifying theme that recurs throughout all of the many halakhot and aspects touched upon within it, which transforms it into a cohesive unit: The principle that the abstract should be concretized and the sublime realized in a practical, detailed manner.
 
This theme is not unique to tractate Berakhot; to a certain degree, it appears in every tractate of the Talmud. In fact, it is one of the primary elements of the multifaceted world of halakhah. Consequently, it is present in every Jewish literary work throughout history as an internal, essential characteristic.
 
In tractate Berakhot, this approach is more intensive and more conspicuous. This is because the theme of the tractate is faith: The total awareness in heart and mind that there is an everlasting connection between the Creator and man and that perpetual inspiration descends from the Creator to the world – inspiration which creates, generates, and sustains. Man reacts, thanking, requesting, praying, anticipating a response; waiting to be blessed, to be cured, for a miracle. This connection of faith, which in and of itself is exalted and sublime, achieves form and clarity when it is transformed into practical halakhah through the halakhot of tractate Berakhot. Here, faith is manifest in the details of the halakhot, in the myriad blessings and in the formulation of prayer. However, alongside the de-emphasis of the abstract, faith as an integral part of real life is enhanced and established. This general consciousness evolves into halakhah, guidance how to live one’s life.
 
The choice in favor of practical manifestation of a concept, despite the rigidity of this form of expression, is multifaceted. The fundamental outlook of Judaism is that the essence of the Torah and the objective of creation are the actualization of the Torah as a living Torah. “It is not in the heavens”; rather, it was given to man and for man. The closer Torah is to man, the more concrete and practical it is, the closer it is to fulfilling its objective.
 
Therefore, the primary fulfillment and significance of most concepts in Judaism is when they are manifest in a concrete, practical manner. The manner and style in which they are actualized determine the significance of the concept. Therefore, throughout the generations, halakhah has never stopped creating. As the structure and circumstances of life change, new forms and styles develop in order to actualize the general, abstract concepts in those specific circumstances. Furthermore, faith, despite its broad scope, is not a palpable presence in one’s daily life. True, faith as a Weltanschauung and as a general approach exists, in one form or another, in the hearts of all people, at different levels of consciousness and acceptance.
 
However, the distance between that faith and real life is too significant. There is no comparison between accepting the fundamental tenets of faith in one’s heart and fulfilling them in practice, especially at all of those minor, uninspiring opportunities that constitute a majority of one’s life. If the abstract concepts of faith are not manifest in a practical manner in all of the details of a person’s life, faith will lose its substance; consequently, all of life’s details and actions will be rendered worthless and pointless.
 
Indeed, the fundamental demand of religion is well characterized in the phrase: “If you devote your heart and your eyes to Me, I know that you are Mine.” This issue of connecting abstract faith to real life is manifest in several verses in the Torah. Nowhere is that connection as conspicuous as in the section of Shema in Deuteronomy. “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” expresses the fundamental tenet of the Jewish faith; “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” expresses the essence of its accompanying feeling. However, together with those abstract ideas, this short section also includes instruction and guidance regarding how to translate them into the world of action: “And you shall teach them diligently unto your children”; “and you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand”; “and you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house.” That is why this section constitutes the spiritual basis for the entire tractate of Berakhot. Not only do some of its chapters discuss the halakhot of Shema, but other chapters extrapolate from this approach, connecting pristine faith to its actualization by means of the meticulous fulfillment of mitzvot.
 
Shema consists of three sections which, although they do not appear consecutively in the Torah, combine to form a single, meaningful unit. Shema is, first and foremost, a recitation of the fundamental tenets of Judaism. Reciting it each day provides the stabilizing foundation and the guidelines for Jewish life. It is conceivable that reciting Shema each morning and evening will not constitute a profound religious experience. However, it is accessible to all, and it provides the Jewish person with the ability to delve into the text and endow all of his thoughts and actions with the essence of Shema, thereby fulfilling the contents of those sections in the most profound sense.
 
Prayer is substantively different. From the outset, prayer constituted a portal through which one could address God whenever he desired, in times of distress and need as well as times of thanksgiving and gratitude. One’s ability to recite his own personal prayer was never restricted. This is optional prayer, in which one pours out his heart before God in his own style and his own words. However, this was insufficient, and therefore, the greatest of the Sages throughout the generations established a set, defined, obligatory formula for prayer, to be recited at fixed times. The establishment of set times for prayer and a set formula common to all has the capacity to crystallize that barely perceptible feeling which exists in the heart of even the simplest person. This is because, although religious feelings exist in the hearts of all people, these feelings are not easily expressed; not every individual is conscious of them, nor does he always understand them. Fixed prayer provides the desired expression, the coherent language for the person unable to appropriately articulate the feelings in his heart.
 
Furthermore, the very fact that prayer is, in its essence, communal, makes the person an integral member of the community at large. Each individual considers himself and is considered by those around him as belonging to a broad, all-encompassing world.
 
True, there is concern that the fixed nature of prayer, in terms of both the formula and the times that it may be recited, is liable to compromise the natural connection with God and one’s ability to express himself in prayer, and could ultimately become a meaningless verbal framework. Therefore, unlike Shema, which one is obligated to recite regardless of the conditions and circumstances, the halakhah is much more flexible regarding prayer in the sense that one principle supersedes all others: “Do not make your prayer fixed, rather make it a plea for mercy and an entreaty before God.”
 
Shema and prayer provide a general direction for integrating faith into daily life, with the eighteen blessings of the Amida prayer tying the fundamental tenets of faith that appear in Shema with all of the unique, specific problems that exist in the life of the Jewish people in general and in the life of each individual Jew in particular.
 
Blessings are an additional step in that direction. Tractate Berakhot discusses dozens of different types of blessings: Blessings in prayer, blessings of thanksgiving, blessings prior to the performance of mitzvot, blessings over food and delicacies, blessings as expressions of suffering and mourning, and blessings as expressions of joy and wonder. Despite the differences in details, formulas and meaning, there is a common intent to all of the blessings: they are a way of creating a bond of meaning between an action, incident, or object and God. Life is full of directionless, meaningless, purposeless phenomena; the blessing rescues them from that purposelessness, renders them significant, and connects them to their origins and their destiny.
 
The profusion of blessings is a result of the need for them; they draw a cloud of grace, sanctity, and meaning over the abundance of different phenomena in the world. Uniformity of formula and of custom can also lead to a general attitude of purposelessness toward the world around us, but the great number of blessings provide each object with a unique character, a significance all its own.
 
In addition to the halakhic portion of tractate Berakhot, there is also an aggadic portion. If, as mentioned above, the halakhic portion directed us from the abstract to the concrete, the direction provided by the aggadic section is from the concrete to the abstract. As a result, all actions, including the seemingly insignificant details among them, whether from the Torah or from human life, become paradigmatic and teeming with significance and meaning. Even matters that appear to be peripheral or of secondary importance are revealed in all their significance and centrality. Similarly, events that befell people in the distant past now become contemporary and extremely significant. In this way, personalities from the past are integrated in determining the character of the present. Even halakhic patterns – fixed, clearly defined templates – assume profundity and significance in the aggadic sections, in which they are tied to wide-ranging, sublime ideas, biblical verses, and the personalities of the great leaders throughout the generations.
 
The numerous aggadic sections in tractate Berakhot, as in all other tractates in the Talmud, are intermingled with the halakhic sections; they complement them and add additional perspective. There is no abrupt, disruptive transition between the practical world of halakhah, which deals with matters that at first glance might seem inconsequential, and the aggada, which deals with the sublime mysteries of the world.
 

Heavenly worlds and our world, discussions that delve into the smallest details, and the enigmas of faith are all cited together, as all things that exist in this world, with all of their positive and negative aspects, are one.


 
This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger. To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.
 
To dedicate future editions of Steinsaltz Daf Yomi, perhaps in honor of a special occasion or
in memory of a loved one, click here.