What happens when tired rabbis nap and miss out on their studies? Today’s daf takes up that very question with a story:
When Rabbi Zeira was exhausted from his studies, he would go and sit at the entrance to the academy of Rav Yehuda bar Ami, and say: When the Sages go in and out, I shall stand up before them and receive reward for honoring them, as it is a mitzvah to honor Torah scholars.
Once, a young school child was leaving the study hall. Rabbi Zeira said to him: What did your teacher teach you today? He said to him: The proper blessing for dodder [a parasitic plant] is: “Who creates the fruit of the ground.” The proper blessing for green grain [which hasn’t yet matured into seed] is: “By Whose word all things came to be.” Rabbi Zeira said to him: On the contrary, the opposite is more reasonable, as this, the green grain, derives nourishment from the ground, whereas that, the dodder, derives nourishment from the air, and it is fitting to recite a blessing over each item in accordance with its source of nourishment.
In general, blessings are determined on the basis of how a particular food grows. Over tree fruit, one blesses “the fruit of the tree”; if it’s a vegetable, one blesses “the fruit of the earth”; and so on. So Rabbi Zeira’s position makes sense. But the Talmud tells us otherwise:
The halakha is in accordance with the young school child. What is the reason for this? This, the dodder, is fully ripened produce, and that, green grain, is not fully ripened produce.
The Talmud tells us that in fact the young student had it right, not Rabbi Zeira. Because the green grain has not yet matured into actual grain, it doesn’t get the blessing over fruits of the ground. But the dodder, being fully mature, does get that blessing.
The context for this story is a larger conversation about what kinds of foods can be used to establish an eruv techumin, a special kind of eruv that extends the physical area beyond one’s home in which one can walk on Shabbat. The traditional laws of Shabbat prohibit walking too far from home, but you can extend how far you can walk by placing some food at a distance from home before Shabbat. Because food is associated with home, the food symbolically extends the radius of one’s “home.”
The question is whether foods that aren’t commonly eaten may be used for this purpose. Dodder and green grain aren’t the most recognizable foods, even for the rabbis. In fact, there’s a debate earlier on today’s daf about whether green grain, which was eaten in Babylonia but not elsewhere, should be universally permitted for the purpose of creating an erev tehumin. While they’re on the subject, the rabbis try to suss out which blessings are said on these two unusual plants.
In the end, Rabbi Zeira’s logic is refuted. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been taking a nap, as he would have learned the same lesson the young student learned that day. In a playful way, the Talmud is also reminding us that even obscure details are worthy of knowing, and that strangeness shouldn’t distance us from learning.