Berakhot 39

Boiled cabbage and human dignity.

Today’s daf finds us in the midst of a debate that is really stumping the rabbis: What blessing do we recite over boiled vegetables?

The essence of the conundrum boils down (ahem) to this: Are vegetables cooked in boiling water still essentially vegetables or are they fundamentally altered? If it’s the former, they should get the vegetable blessing, Ha’adamah. If not, they would get Shehakol, the catch-all blessing.

The rabbis are having a really tough time with this. They employ all their usual moves, citing a range of teachings and precedents that might bear on this question. One of them concerns an incident involving Bar Kappara and his two students.

The three are sitting together when a meal appears: cooked cabbage and a dish made of chicken and plums. Bar Kappara invites one of the students to recite the blessing, and the student blesses the chicken. This is potentially significant for the debate over boiled vegetables. Blessings are meant to be recited in a particular order. The blessing over chicken, Shehakol, is the most generic of all food blessings and as such has the lowest priority. Blessings over specific foods like vegetables are meant to be recited first.

If the cooked cabbage was no longer effectively cabbage, then the student would have been within his rights to bless the chicken first. But if the cooked cabbage were still cabbage, the student would have been in error.

But then the story goes in another direction when the second student ridicules the first student for his choice.

Bar Kappara became angry with both of them and said to the first student: I am not angry with the one who recited the blessing, but at the one who ridiculed him. If your counterpart is like one who never tasted the flavor of meat and was therefore partial to the pullet, and hurriedly ate it, why did you ridicule him? 

Bar Kappara continued and said to the second student: I am not upset at the one who ridiculed him, rather it is with the one who recited the blessing that I am angry. 

And he said: If there is no wisdom here, is there no elder here? If you are uncertain which blessing to recite first, couldn’t you have asked me, as I am an elder?

Bar Kappara was angry with both his students — one for ridiculing his fellow and the other for failing to ask for guidance. Then comes the kicker:

The Gemara concludes that it was taught: And both of them did not live out his year. Due to Bar Kappara’s anger they were punished, and both died within the year.

It’s tempting to read this story as indicative of the rabbis’ deep concern for human dignity — both the ridiculing student and the one who failed to respect the wisdom of his elder paid the ultimate price. Still, it’s hard to square the harsh punishment with the magnitude of the offense. Something to, errr, chew on.

Read all of Berakhot 39 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 11, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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