World of the Sages: Blessings in the land

Among the seven species there is a hierarchy.

By LEVI COOPER
October 17, 2007 11:14
World of the Sages: Blessings in the land

ein gedi waterfall298.88. (photo credit: )

Before the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel, Moses urged them to keep the commandments and be faithful to the Almighty, "for God brings you into a good land, a land of water courses, of springs and of depths that come forth in the valley and in the mountain; a land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and date honey; a land in which you will eat bread without scarceness, you will not lack anything in it…" (Deuteronomy 8:7-9). Thus Moses sings the praises of the Promised Land on the eve of his death. The seven species singled out in this verse - wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and dates - have a unique status as the produce with which the Land of Israel is blessed. Our sages note that the specification of these items gives them special ranking when it comes to reciting blessings and eating (B. Berachot 41a). Thus if different foods that all require the same blessings are placed before a person - for instance apples and dates - the blessing is recited over the seven species, even if the person eating favors the other item placed on the table (Shulhan Aruch OH 210:1). Even among the seven species there is a hierarchy: Those mentioned first in the biblical verse take precedence over those mentioned later in the verse. The Talmud relates an incident that expands on this rule (B. Berachot 41b). Two sages, Rav Hisda and Rav Hamnuna, were seated together at a meal when dates and pomegranates - two of the seven species - were brought before them. Rav Hamnuna reached for the dates first. The fruit may have been proffered to satisfy a desire for something sweet (Rashi, 11th century, France) or perhaps as a dessert (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Either way it was not placed on the table as a condiment for the bread and therefore required a separate blessing. Rav Hamnuna recited the blessing and ate the dates. Rav Hisda was surprised: "Don't you accept the ruling that whatever is mentioned first in the biblical verse takes precedence when reciting a blessing? You should have recited the blessing over the pomegranates - which are mentioned fifth in the verse - before the dates, the last item in the biblical verse!" Rav Hamnuna responded: "Though I accept that teaching, I further hold that there is significance in the proximity to the word eretz (land) in the verse. Dates are mentioned as the second fruit after the word eretz, while the pomegranate appears as the fifth item after the word eretz is used. Thus dates take precedence over pomegranates." Rav Hisda was greatly impressed by this sharp insight: "O that we would have feet of steel so that we could constantly attend you and learn from you without tiring!" With this exchange in mind, a student once approached the famed talmudist, the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzhak Ze'ev Soloveitchik (1886-1959, Brest-Litovsk - Jerusalem) and asked him: How can a proof be brought from this biblical passage regarding precedence in blessings; even if all the items had equal standing, they would have to be written in some order?" The Brisker Rav was visibly angered by such a question: "There is no 'have to' in our holy Torah. Everything has a divine reason!" And then he continued with an answer: "The Midrash notes that at times Aaron's name appears before Moses's name (e.g. Exodus 6:26) and on other occasions the order is reversed (e.g. Exodus 6:27), even within the same biblical story. Our sages conclude that Moses and Aaron were of equal standing and therefore the Torah purposefully alternates the order." The Brisker Rav concluded: "Where items have no particular order, they are written in the Torah once in one order and later in a different order. The produce, however, appears only in this sequence - perforce, the order has significance!" The Brisker Rav was not the first authority to tackle this problem. Before him, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau (1713-1793, Poland-Prague) asked this same question and offered a different answer. The seemingly unnecessary repetition of the word eretz in the biblical verse indicates that there is an internal hierarchy within the seven - those that are closer to the land take precedence. Divine blessings, however, may not be limited to the enumerated agricultural species. Rabbi Simha Bunem Alter of Gur (1898-1992, Gora Kalwaria - Jerusalem) was once sitting at a joyous gathering with his hassidim. With a bottle of brandy in his hand, the rebbe was generously doling out a l'haim to everyone present. With so many followers present, the liquor was soon finished and those who had not received a l'haim heaved a sigh of disappointment. The rebbe looked down at the table and saw that all that remained was orange juice. The Lev Simha, as he was later known, picked up the bottle of orange juice and began to distribute it instead of the brandy. Pouring the juice, he explained: "In the Land of Israel, even on water alone you can say l'haim! Our sages tell us: In the verse describing the seven species of produce with which the Land of Israel is blessed, whatever is mentioned first takes precedence when reciting blessings. The biblical verse that precedes this list says it is a land of water courses, of springs and of depths that come forth in the valley and in the mountain (Deuteronomy 8:7). The water of the Land of Israel was also granted as a blessing, l'haim!" While the Land of Israel is blessed with the seven species of produce - wheat, barley, grape vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and dates - perhaps it is blessed with even more. Today in Israel - 7 Heshvan - we begin to ask the Almighty to bless us with rain. Indeed when the winter showers come after a long hot summer, we certainly feel that blessings have rained from heaven. Perhaps, following the example of the Lev Simha, we should seek the many blessings this land beholds. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.


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