A Deadly Lesson

Daf 39. Summary. Any food equivalent to the volume of a medium-sized olive requires a blessing.

Bar Kappara was preparing to eat with two of his students. The meal consisted of cooked cabbage and plums and pullets. He asked one of the students to recite the blessing. The student hurriedly recited the blessing for pullets and was ridiculed by the other student. Bar Kappara rebuked the one who ridiculed for his lack of empathy and the one who recited for not asking for guidance if he was uncertain which blessing was appropriate. Both students were dead within the year, perhaps resulting from bar Kappara’s anger. The rabbis argue over which blessing(s) should have been recited– a blessing over the entire meal or a specific blessing over each part (and, in the case of the latter, they argued over proper sequence).

According to Rav Hisda, “A cooked dish of beets is beneficial for the heart, good for the eyes, and all the more so, for the intestines.”

Rava recites the blessing over a loaf of bread before separating a slice from it. The Sages of Neharde’a recite the blessing as they are breaking the bread. The halakha follows Rava. There are related accounts from the Amorim: If pieces of bread were brought before him, Rav Huna would treat them as if they constituted a whole loaf. When presented with a slice of wheat bread and an entire loaf of barley bread, Rabbi Yohanan would recite the blessing over the slice because it is the superior bread. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak would bless both, following Mar, son of Ravina (a model of a “God-fearing individual”).

On Shabbat there are two loaves.

Comment. The first apparent murders by a rabbi are only mentioned in passing, but they cast a dark shadow over this daf. In the sea of Talmud we will encounter the murderous gaze  many times, but here an ominous instance anticipates the thread. Bar Kappara first casts his dark gaze on the student who playfully teases his fellow for focusing his blessing on the part of the meal that he most yearns to consume. While the error of the pullet-lover may be a form of gluttony, a modern observer would be more amused by the youthful spirit than scandalized by the technical impiety, as indeed is the student who playfully mocks him.

Accounts of blessings hurriedly offered by command of a senior rabbi have been related twice before in recent dafs. In each case, the one offering the blessing offered it quickly so as not to be interrupted. But in the two previous cases, it was also offered with awareness that the blessing supported the consensus as to the proper blessing, which was not the blessing supported by the one who commanded the blessing be offered on that specific occasion. The difference in this instance is that the student is probably hurrying out of uncertainty, since this is a situation for which the proper blessing is still a matter of dispute. Bar Kappara rebukes him, “If there is no wisdom here, is there no elder here?” The student should have sought wisdom rather than plunge ahead.

Apparently, all bar Kappara sees is the blasphemy of the ignorance and inattention that compromise the blessing. Although the banter between the students is all in good fun, it belies the fact that blessings are serious business between men and God; not to be offered in haste. Steal from God and He will take back all He has given you, including your life.

The Koren edition interprets the death of the students to signify that “due to bar Kappara’s anger . . . both died within the year.” ArtScroll doesn’t go there; it reports the deaths without suggesting rabbinic agency. This seems to me to be an instance where silence is a deeper interpretation than any explanation; for if bar Kappara is not responsible for the deaths of his students, we dare not suggest Who is.

Imagine that the demeanor of bar Kappara that was described by witnesses as anger was, rather, alarm, upset, and fear for the life of the students that he, as a committed teacher, would surely experience at the sight of his students carelessly and ignorantly committing grave transgressions. Bar Kappara continues to be their teacher. His first response, even in his upset, is to explain to each of them the gravity of his offense. But it is too late, at least for these students.

Perhaps the teacher has learned from this to provide more guidance before putting his students at risk. Or at least the lesson is there for future teachers who study this daf.

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