World of the Sages: Garlic breath

The Mishna rules that if someone pronounces a vow prohibiting benefit "from those who eat garlic," the one who pronounced the vow may not derive benefit from a Jew.

Garlic is mentioned only once in the Bible. When the rabble tired of the manna and lusted for meat, they bemoaned their situation, recalling days of old before the exodus: We remember the fish we freely ate in Egypt, and the zucchini and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. Alas, now our soul has withered; there is nothing at all beside this manna before our eyes (Numbers 11:5-6). Despite this dubious start to the career of garlic in Jewish collective memory, later generations expounded on its medicinal properties. Thus in the Second Temple period, Ezra enacted that garlic should be eaten on Friday evening because of its potency as an aphrodisiac (J. Megilla 75a). Other sages noted five properties of garlic (B. Bava Kama 82a): It satiates, it warms the body, it brightens a person's countenance, it increases semen and it kills parasites in the intestines. Others noted that garlic also affects a person's mental health as it gladdens the heart and therefore eliminates jealousy. Following Ezra's rule that garlic should be eaten on Friday evening, the Talmud lists it as one of the foods that are recommended as part of oneg Shabbat, the delight of Shabbat: a dish of cooked beets, large fish and cloves of garlic (B. Shabbat 118a-b). While Halacha rules that any food specially prepared or set aside for Shabbat fulfills the obligation of oneg Shabbat, in the eyes of our sages, garlic was such a treat. Eating garlic was so part of Jewish identity that the Mishna rules that if someone pronounces a vow prohibiting benefit "from those who eat garlic," the one who pronounced the vow may not derive benefit from a Jew (M. Nedarim 3:10). This vow is recorded in the Mishna together with two other vows: If someone vowed not to benefit "from those who rest on Shabbat" or "from those who ascend to Jerusalem" - the vow prohibits benefit from any fellow Jew. Thus, just as our people were known to ascend to Jerusalem, and just as our people were known for refraining from work and resting on the seventh day, so too we were known as garlic munchers! Despite its medicinal value, despite its use as an aphrodisiac, despite it being considered a delicacy and even a "Jewish food," there is no denying its powerful odor. This pungent smell is referred to unfavorably in the Talmud. The Talmud recounts stories of people taking blame for actions they did not commit, with the goal of saving another from embarrassment (B. Sanhedrin 11a): Rabbi Yehuda the Prince - simply known as Rebbi because of his piety and his contribution to the canonization of the text of the Mishna - was once sitting and teaching his students. As he expounded the lesson, a garlic odor wafted towards his nostrils. The stench may have been strong or perhaps Rebbi did not like garlic, either way he could not continue the lesson: "Whoever ate garlic should leave," he instructed. One of his prime students, Rav Hiyya, stood up and walked out. Seeing this, all the other students rose and followed Rav Hiyya out, leaving Rebbi sitting there alone. Next morning Rebbi's son, Rabbi Shimon, met the ousted Rav Hiyya and turned to him in an accusatory tone: "Was it you who irritated my father with your bad breath?" "Heaven forbid," replied Rav Hiyya without hesitation, "I would never do such a thing; there should be no such thing in all of Israel. No one should eat garlic before coming to the beit midrash (study hall)!" Rav Hiyya had left only to save the guilty garlic eater from embarrassment as he knew that if he left all the students would follow out of deference to him and the culprit's identity would be hidden (Rashi, 11th century, France). In a different reference in our tractate it is reported that one sage was asked concerning one who ate and drank but did not recite a blessing before partaking of the food and beverage (B. Brachot 51a): After having begun eating is it too late to recite the blessing normally said beforehand, even though the meal has not been completed? The sage responded: "If one has eaten a garlic clove such that his breath smells, should he go and eat another garlic clove so that his breath will smell even more?" The smell of garlic is likened to the odor of sin. One iniquity should not encourage a further wrongdoing. Thus the person who mistakenly began to eat without reciting a benediction should recite a blessing before continuing to partake of the food. Elsewhere in the Talmud a similar reference to garlic appears (B. Shabbat 31b). Our sages discuss a cryptic biblical verse - Do not be excessively wicked (Ecclesiastes 7:17) - questioning whether the verse can really be suggesting that it is acceptable to be a little wicked. One sages explains the meaning of the verse by way of the garlic analogy: One who has eaten a garlic clove and therefore his breath smells, should he go back and eat another garlic clove so that his breath will smell even worse? It is a shame to commit a sin, but one wrongdoing should not lead a person to despondency, living with the stench of a sinner and bogging himself down in his own quagmire. This only serves to perpetuate the unfortunate situation and encourages further wrongdoing. Garlic has many uses. In our tradition - as well as in other cultures - its culinary and medicinal properties have been lauded. In the Talmud it serves an additional function that should not be overlooked: Garlic serves as a pedagogic device to olfactorily illustrate a point about the aftermath of a sin. Even if you are repulsed by the pungent odor of garlic, even if you avoid garlic breath, preferring other means of obtaining the therapeutic properties contained in this vegetable, this simple plant need not be tossed aside for it may serve as an educational tool that vividly and colorfully conveys a message. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.