World of the Sages: Spitting in your face

Rabbi Auerbach noted that we are encouraged to spit after drinking beer-brewed ispargus even if we stand before a king.

Many talmudic discussions refer to realities that are not part of our world. Nevertheless, the hallowed texts of our tradition contain timeless messages. As we read such seemingly irrelevant talmudic passages, the challenge before us is to plumb their depths as we explore how our sacred texts talk to us. The Talmud discusses the medicinal properties of ispargus (B. Brachot 51a). Not to be confused with asparagus, the vegetable that may adorn our table, ispargus was a cabbage marinated in undiluted wine or beer. Due to its therapeutic value, ispargus was drunk in the morning on an empty stomach. What is the medicinal value of ispargus? Ispargus is beneficial for the heart, valuable for the eyes and certainly good for the intestines. The whole body benefits from a daily regimen of ispargus, but beware, for getting drunk on this beverage is harmful to the entire body. The sages offered further ispargus counsel: Ispargus should only be prepared with undiluted wine, imbibed in a full dosage, received from the pourer in the right hand, but drunk with the left. Sipping the potion should not be interrupted by chatter, and even after it has been drunk speaking is not recommended as the cup is returned to the one who first proffered it. Ispargus made from wine differs from a similar beverage fermented in beer. As a chaser, bread should be eaten after wine ispargus, while after beer ispargus similar foods as the beer base should be ingested. Moreover, the therapeutic value of wine ispargus is hindered if we spit after drinking this elixir. Not so beer ispargus, which can be harmful if we don't spit after taking a swig. The damage can be so dangerous that we are enjoined to spit after beer ispargus even in the presence of a king. While we don't drink ispargus today, the discussion still has relevance. The respected halachic authority Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Jerusalem, 1910-1995) had recourse to this passage when exploring a spitting custom. Spitting after reading a Torah verse for whatever reason is considered an odious act. Thus one who recites a scriptural verse over an injury or for the benefit of a sick person and then spits has no portion in the world-to-come (Shulhan Aruch YD 179:8). One of the halachic commentators records the practice to spit in the middle of the Aleinu prayer after saying "for they prostrate themselves to vanity and emptiness" before saying "but we bow and prostrate ourselves and give thanks before the king, king of kings, the Holy One blessed be He." How can we spit before referring to the Almighty? The spitting, of course, is in response to the previous statement, thus everybody knows that we spit in disgust at the concept of idol worship. Indeed this very spitting is done in honor of God, to contrast our revulsion at the thought of bowing down to naught, as opposed to prostrating ourselves before the king of kings (Taz, 17th century, Poland). Seeking support for this spitting custom, Rabbi Auerbach noted that we are encouraged to spit after drinking beer-brewed ispargus even if we stand before a king. Rather than endanger our lives by leaving the ispargus saliva in our mouths, we are instructed to spit even before a monarch. Similarly, even as we stand in prayer before the king of kings we can justify the spitting custom, for we should feel sick to the stomach at the thought of bowing to nothingness. Thus the spitting is necessary, even as we stand before the Almighty. Moving away from the literal meaning of the discussion, for non-ispargus drinkers this passage could be read metaphorically. Torah is often compared to that rich, intoxicating beverage - wine, and since ispargus is prepared in wine, Rabbi Yosef Haim (Baghdad, 1840-1913) suggested that the passage could be read as referring to Torah study. Why is Torah referred to as ispargus? Rabbi Yosef Haim explains the etymology of the term: ei-sefer-gus, meaning "this lofty book." Thus in the morning we shouldn't be drinking alcoholic cabbage on an empty stomach, rather we should start our day by studying from "this lofty book," namely Torah. Before our hearts become heavy with the troubles of earning a living, before our minds become clouded with the day's challenges and before our stomachs churn as we grapple with the world, we should direct our faculties towards Torah study, which is good for our hearts, our eyes and our innards. Indeed, a daily regimen of morning Torah study is beneficial for our entire being. Rabbi Yosef Haim continues the analogy to the next line of the talmudic passage: Getting drunk from ispargus is detrimental for the entire body. He understands getting drunk as mixing Torah learning with the study of non-Torah disciplines. Rabbi Yosef Haim suggests that such a program of study reflects badly even on the Torah we study for it is appears that we are driven by a mere thirst for knowledge and not by the lofty goal of encountering the divine. Perhaps we can offer an alternative metaphor for getting drunk on ispargus. When we are drunk we are not in full command of our faculties, our vision is blurred and our deeds unchecked. Such an intoxicated state removes us from reality. Alas, reality requires us to care for the physical well-being of our families, which often necessitates reluctantly closing the tome of Talmud, leaving the intoxicating world of Torah study, and soberly accepting responsibility. If we are so inebriated with Torah study that we neglect our worldly tasks, this is hardly beneficial for our existence. While a morning shot of ispargus on an empty stomach is no longer part of our diet, commentators have found contemporary significance in the ispargus discussion, using it to better understand a prayer custom or offering a metaphoric reading. Thus those of us who are "on the wagon," teetotalers preferring a morning glass of milk to a stiff ispargus to wake us up, can still find relevance in the timeless texts of our tradition. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.