MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on the commentary “Meaning in Mitzvot” on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, which is serialized on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, www.vbm-torah.org.
HIERARCHY OF BLESSINGS
Before eating, halakha obligates us to make a blessing on the food. There are various blessings, each one corresponding to a different category of food. However, these categories are not exclusive but rather hierarchical: each category includes the one above it. There are four levels of blessings, which we may arrange from most inclusive to most specific as follows:
1. The most inclusive blessing is shehakol. This blessing applies specifically to food which doesn’t grow from the ground, but as the most general blessing it can exempt any kind of food.
2. The second level is borei pri ha-adama. This applies specifically to vegetables, but can exempt also fruit.
3. The third level is borei pri ha-etz, which applies to all fruits.
4. The fourth level includes three different blessings, each of which applies to only one single kind of food: On bread we say hamotzee; on wine we say borei pri hagen; and on baked goods which are not bread we say borei minei mezonot. (However, borei pri haetz does not exempt grain products. So there are minor exceptions to the hierarchy.)
We always strive to say the most specific berakha we can. For instance, it is improper to say shehakol or borei pri ha-adama on fruit. We can understand this rule as an extension of the prohibition to say a vain blessing. Blessings are meant to demonstrate a connection between HaShem and the world; we show that His name relates to earthly categories. Saying a vain blessing seems on the contrary to create a division between HaShem and the world.
Taking this idea one step further, we want the blessing to correspond as closely as possible to its object. So we try and make the blessing as close to eating as possible, and we also make the language of the berakha correspond as closely as possible to the particular of food we are eating.
Surprisingly, these four categories, and the hierarchy among them, are hinted at in the story of Creation! In the various commands and blessings given to the first creatures, a clear division and hierarchy of foods is implied.
Adam and Chava: Diet After creating man and woman on the sixth day and giving them dominion over the animals, HaShem describes man’s diet and contrasts it with that of animals: “I have given you all seed-bearing herbage on the face of all the earth, and all trees giving tree-fruit bearing seed; I have given it to you to eat. But to all the beasts of the earth and birds of the sky, and to all that crawls on the ground, all that has a living soul in it, [I have given] all the green herbage to eat.” (Bereshit 1:29-30.)
Here there is a clear distinction made: while both man and beast may eat vegetables, fruit is specially set aside for mankind. Meanwhile, meat is forbidden to both man and beast (see Rashi). The high moral level of all things with a “living soul” makes it inappropriate for them to eat each other.
The Talmud makes various suggestions as to the identity of the “tree of knowledge”; among these are wheat (whose complicated production demonstrates man’s advanced practical intellect) and grapes (which is used to make wine, which releases our inhibitions and helps to expose our true inner selves). So these are appropriate foods to identify with this fourth, higher level.
We know that Adam and Chava did not withstand the moral challenge presented them by God, and they ate of the forbidden tree. The result was that both man and the earth suffered a curse. Part of the curse of man was God’s admonition, “and you shall eat of the herbs of the field” (Bereshit 3:18). This admonition symbolizes that man has lost part of his special status, and has lowered himself towards the level of the beasts.
Later on, the spiritual level of mankind declined so far that these distinctions stopped being relevant for him at all. This resulted in the flood, and afterwards even animal meat was permitted to mankind (Bereshit 9:3). The only moral symbol left in the human diet is that eating meat from an animal while it is still alive is forbidden (Bereshit 9:4). (Note that in this verse, when meat is permitted to man, it is likened to vegetables.)
The Torah relates to us in our current lowered state, while at the same time directing our climb back to the moral perfection intended for us in Gan Eden. While permitting all kinds of foods, the halakha sensitizes us to the spiritual distinctions among them. This is accomplished by the prohibited foods, particularly the many kinds of forbidden meat, and also by the four-level hierarchy of blessings instituted by our Sages.
Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. He is also directing the Jewish Business Response Forum at the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev. The forum aims to help business people run their firms according to Torah, by obtaining prompt, relevant responses to their questions.