World of the Sages: Compromise or decide

The Mishna rules that on bread we recite a blessing that concludes with the words "…The One who brings forth bread from the earth."

mishna 88 (photo credit: )
mishna 88
(photo credit: )
The Mishna rules that on bread we recite a blessing that concludes with the words "…The One who brings forth bread from the earth" (M. Berachot 6:1). Our sages consider the exact language of this benediction and the discussion turns on a seemingly insignificant prefix (B. Berachot 38a-b): Should we say "hamotzi" or "motzi?" The Talmud adduces scriptural support for each possibility, concluding that all opinions recognize "motzi" as a valid formula while one opinion adds that "hamotzi" is also justifiable. Following this discussion, the Talmud relates how the sages praised a certain scholar before the famed Rabbi Zeira. Recounting the scholar's praises, they related that this scholar was a great person and proficient in the field of blessings. Hearing this tribute, Rabbi Zeira instructed: "When he next comes to you, bring him to me." Sure enough, this scholar paid a visit to Rabbi Zeira, who proffered him bread. Eagerly, he waited to hear the blessing that this expert would utter. The guest complied, using the word "motzi." Rabbi Zeira was disappointed: Indeed, "motzi" was an accepted valid formula, but its use did not indicate expertise or greatness. Had the scholar employed the "hamotzi" text he would have displayed that this version is also acceptable, teaching an invaluable lesson. The Talmud comes to the defense of the benediction expert: He sought a position that did require an adjudication of the dispute and hence used a term that was not subject to disagreement. We have numerous examples in our tradition of normative compromises that are aimed at avoiding a rejection of one position in favor of another. Later in our tractate, one scholar admonishes a colleague for using a synagogue prayer text that did not accord with all opinions: "You black earthenware vessel! Why do you need to get involved with the dispute?! You would have done better to use a formulation that is accepted by all" (B. Berachot 50a). Moreover, in another bread-related debate, the Talmud extols one who manages to act in accordance with all opinions (B. Berachot 39b). Our sages consider a case where a person is about to eat large pieces of bread as well as a smaller loaf, querying whether it is preferable to make the bread blessing over a large slice or over an entire loaf. In other words: When deciding precedence for blessings, is largeness a superior feature or wholeness? The Talmud adds that a God-fearing person should accommodate both opinions by placing the slice under the loaf and holding them together while reciting the blessing. The passage continues relating that when this suggestion was recounted before Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak, he asked the speaker for his name. The speaker replied, "Shalman." Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak was quick to homiletically explain the moniker: "You are shalom (peace, harmony) and your teaching is harmonious, for you have established peace amongst the disciples." Thus Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak lauded a proposition that satisfied both opinions and cured any rift between disciples of the two schools. These passages make Rabbi Zeira's disdain for the benediction specialist puzzling. Rabbi Zeira, it would appear, is giving voice to an alternative model where greatness is measured by resoluteness and self-confidence in the decision-making process. Though the course of the expert was safe, it did not reflect greatness. An eminent scholar need not aim to satisfy all opinions; distinction is reflected in the courage to assess divergent paths and choose between them. Selecting the appropriate language for a blessing, while discarding other options, therefore, reflects true scholarship. Indeed, in a different context, the sages tell us that from the language of a blessing recited we can ascertain the erudition of the reciter (B. Berachot 50a). With this in mind, we can appreciate the words of one commentator (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland): A person who stringently rejects any meat that is doubtfully kosher is indeed a God-fearing person, for he avoids any possible pitfalls. Such a scrupulous person surely merits reward in the world-to-come, despite not being able to eat the meat in this world. Another person, who through diligent study and application establishes that the meat is in fact kosher, merits not only the world-to-come, but is fortunate in this world in that he can enjoy the meat. This may be the thrust of another rabbinic statement in our tractate: "The one who derives benefit from his own labor" - referring to the scholar who carefully determines the law - "is greater than the one who fears Heaven" - referring to the righteous person who cautiously avoids such decision-making by trying to satisfy all opinions (B. Berachot 8a). In this context it is worthy to mention a fascinating law. A shohet (ritual slaughterer) who mistakenly declares meat to be kosher is sacked for misleading his customers and supplying them with non-kosher meat (Shulhan Aruch YD 1:2). What about a shohet who mistakenly pronounces kosher meat as unfit? This shohet, too, is removed from his post as his mistakes may one day go in the other direction with serious implications (Rivash, 14th century, Spain-Algiers). This ruling appears to be harsh, for the shohet has not made anyone eat prohibited food; he has merely been too fastidious in his work. In light of our discussion, we can add that an overly conscientious demeanor is clearly not always the preferred route. Thus our sages present two paradigms, each with its own merits. Seeking a normative course of action that satisfies more than one position is a valiant attempt at avoiding mistaken practice. Such a course indicates a sincere concern for the law and Divine will, as the compromiser seeks to guarantee proper fulfillment of obligations. The tendency to meticulously fulfill all opinions simultaneously may reveal fear of Heaven; it does not, however, bespeak greatness. Choosing between two valid and compelling alternatives requires a certain fortitude and strength of character. The Talmud acknowledges and endorses both models, recognizing the relative advantages of each mode of conduct: The compromiser stands out in his fear of Heaven, while the decisor displays normative courage. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.