Berakhot 36

Is it food?

Today’s daf continues the discussion of the proper blessings over food that began yesterday and will comprise much of this chapter of Berakhot. In determining the proper blessings over various foods, the Talmud considers such matters as how and where the food grows, what is intended when the food is eaten, and whether the food can actually be considered a food at all. This last subject makes for an interesting debate on today’s daf.

The food in question is a pepper — though not the bell peppers we typically associate with that word. The pilp’lei (פלפלי) the Talmud is talking about here is probably the long pepper, a staple of Indian cooking that is still cultivated today primarily as a spice. (How the bell pepper, a different plant altogether, came to have the same name as the spice pepper is a story for a different time.)

The rabbis disagree about which blessing to say on the long pepper. Rav Sheshet argues that the proper blessing is Shehakol, the catch-all blessing for miscellaneous foods that don’t fit well into any particular category. The fact that Rav Sheshet suggests this blessing is our first clue that long pepper is going to be a tough case. After all, it grows on a bush and we would therefore expect the blessing to be Ha’adamah, which is recited on vegetables. But it’s clear that Rav Sheshet does not consider pepper to be a vegetable.

It turns out that Rav Sheshet’s interlocutor Rava does not think long pepper is a food at all and that one doesn’t have to recite any blessing before consuming it. To emphasize the point, the Talmud points out that Rava even allows a person to chew peppers on Yom Kippur, a fast day in which eating food is prohibited. (Chewing peppers seemed to have been a way of eliminating bad mouth odors, as described elsewhere in the Talmud.)

Rava’s position is a radical one — and not one accepted by the majority of observant Jews today, who are often quite scrupulous about refraining from any form of food consumption on the holiest day of the Jewish year. But the fact that Rava could have considered the long pepper such a non-food that chewing it on Yom Kippur would be permitted powerfully illustrates just how broad was the rabbinic understanding of what a food is (and isn’t).

The general Jewish practice of blessings thus becomes the locus for a fascinating, and in some ways quite modern, debate about the meaning and significance of consumption. After all, food is not merely sustenance. How and what we eat tells a story about us and the way we see the fruit of the world around us. Careful attention to which blessing to say before we eat thus becomes something more than just a way to thank God for the earth’s bounty, but a reminder of just how much of ourselves we reveal when we decide what to put in our mouths.

Read all of Berakhot 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 8, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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