Today’s daf begins with a mishnah that digs into the details of blessings over various foods.
How does one recite a blessing over produce?
Over different kinds of produce that grow on a tree one recites: “Who creates fruit of the tree,” with the exception of wine.
Over wine one recites: “Who creates fruit of the vine.”
Over produce that grows from the earth, one recites: “Who creates fruit of the ground,” with the exception of bread.
Over bread one recites: “Who brings forth bread from the earth.”
These blessings are still recited today.
From the specifics of various blessings, the Talmud then zooms out and wonders more generally about this obligation. Where does it come from? Why do we say blessings to begin with? At which point, Rabbi Akiva ups the stakes with this teaching:
A person is forbidden to taste anything before reciting a blessing.
The Talmud meanders from there into a conversation about the details of blessings over just about everything, until another talmudic sage, Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa, raises the stakes yet again:
Anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if they stole from God and the community of Israel.
Though a bit hyperbolic, this statement actually comes as a welcome reminder that we human beings are guests on this earth. Rabbi Hanina and his colleagues are urging a humble orientation toward that which sustains human life, reminding us that this earth and all that grows from it does not belong to us, but to God, as Psalm 24:1 has it: The earth is God’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.
Every time we enjoy food from the earth, the rabbis insist that we first connect our consciousness to the web of life, to the sun and the rain that makes food grow in its seasons and to the hands that sow, harvest and transport it. To the truly unbelievable miracle that seeds contain the capacity to become beets and kale, sweet potatoes and garlic, fish and chicken, medicinal herbs and foraged mushrooms. As we sing when we bless wine on Friday night, each blessing is in and of itself zikaron l’ma’aseh v’reishit (זִכָּרון לְמַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית) — a remembrance of creation itself.
Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa’s teaching is essential as we face the ecological crises of today. His is an ancient voice that serves as prophecy for our contemporary challenges. Rabbi Hanina’s teaching echoes the contemporary voices of young leaders, many of them from indigenous communities around the world, who have similarly called on us to transform our relationship with the earth and to cultivate a sense of awareness, humility, and gratitude for that which sustains us.