Berakhot 38

Food as medicine.

As in secular law, the value of the Talmud doesn’t lie solely in what the sages say about specific cases, but in the larger principles that can be unearthed from looking at them closely. For example: Today’s daf contains a disagreement between two Amoraim about which blessing to say on shetita (שתיתא), a food made from dried barley flour mixed with honey or vinegar. Rav’s opinion holds that the blessing is Shehakol, the catch-all blessing used when a food has been transformed so thoroughly that its original state can’t be discerned (think orange juice or highly processed apple sauce). Shmuel, his longtime interlocutor, says it’s Mezonot, the blessing over grains.

What’s the precise nature of the disagreement here? The rabbis float an obvious possibility: They are talking about different cases. Maybe Shmuel is referring to a thick mixture in which the barley grains are predominant and Rav is talking about a thin mixture where the liquid predominates. The latter style of shetita was evidently used as medicine and the former as food.

The possibility that Rav was talking about medicinal shetita leads to an obvious problem: We don’t make blessings over medicine. If a person was mixing shetita solely to remedy some bodily ailment, we might have thought no blessing was required at all. Ultimately, the Gemara arrives at this conclusion:

Since from the outset, his intention in eating the shetita is for the purpose of medicine; just as one recites no blessing when he ingests medicine, let him recite no blessing over the shetita at all. Therefore, Rav and Shmuel taught us that here, since he derives pleasure from eating it, he is required to recite a blessing.

The disagreement over the blessing on shetita is actually telling us something more broadly applicable. Even if someone is eating a food principally for its therapeutic value, a blessing is still required because one derives pleasure from the food. And as we learned a few days ago, it’s forbidden to take any pleasure from the world without a blessing.

As in talmudic times, today we understand that food is medicine as well as nourishment. Rather than just telling us which blessing to say on shetita, the rabbis have bequeathed us a larger teaching about our obligation to give thanks. Something to consider next time you try to fight off a cold with some turmeric tea.

Read all of Berakhot 38 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 10, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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