Blessings are good to think with (38a-38b)

We continue the discussion whereby we need to make distinctions so that we know what blessing to recite. For example, is kuva to be considered a “bread” (when we would say “hamotzi”) or merely “baked dough” (in which case we would bless with “mezonot”)? And when is a date a fruit and when is it not? When is something ingested to be considered “food” and when is it to be considered “medicine”? Certain blessings are used for items that are left in their natural state, and other blessings used when that state has changed, say by cooking. But some cooking changes the state of the vegetable and other cooking does not. There are many distinctions to be taken into account, and it is a long and winding path that leads us to some insight into what blessing is the appropriate one to say.

But bless we must, and this is a good thing because blessings are good to think with.

Levi Strauss wrote that “animals are good to think with” (see The Savage Mind). Yes, animals are not only food for the human belly, they are also food for the human mind. But what kind of “mind food” are they? It is food that helps the brain makes distinctions between this and that. It is food that leads to mental maps that are extensive classifications of the social order. For societies whose self understanding is based on totemism, where social groups are identified with certain animals (their totem), animals are ways to think about social organization that enable human societies to see themselves as part of the natural order.

For the Rabbis and for us blessings are our totems. Identifying the right blessing for the right food is a sacred calculus, a way for us to see ourselves embedded in a natural world where everything is to be blessed, especially life itself.

Perhaps of interest:

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