World of the Sages: The halla thief

The Mishna discusses the 'zimun' - the invitation to recite Grace After Meals as a quorum - highlighting situations when the 'zimun' should not be recited.

The Mishna discusses the zimun - the invitation to recite Grace After Meals as a quorum - highlighting situations when the zimun should not be recited (M. Brachot 7:1). As a general rule, when three people eat bread together, they are required to join in a zimun. The Mishna states that if one eats prohibited food, he cannot be included in the zimun. Specifically, the Mishna lists a few examples: Consuming tevel, that is produce that has not been properly tithed; eating ma'aser sheni produce outside of Jerusalem; and eating hekdesh, food that had been consecrated for Temple use. The Mishna only addresses the post-meal zimun; medieval scholars discuss whether a blessing before eating and whether Grace After Meals albeit without a zimun should be recited. In his halachic magnum opus, Maimonides (11th century, Cairo) presents a clear ruling: Whoever consumes something that is forbidden, whether he did so intentionally or inadvertently, does not recite a blessing before eating nor after eating. How did Maimonides reach this conclusion? The talmudic passage only speaks of joining a zimun! Indeed it was exactly this question that irked Maimonides's older contemporary in Provence, Raavad (12th century, Posquières). In uncompromising language, Raavad annotated Maimonides's text, writing: "Here he made a big mistake," and explaining that the Mishna proscribed a zimun over prohibited food because we cannot say that a proper meal was eaten if the food should not have been consumed. Nevertheless, food was eaten and hence blessings should be recited. What then was Maimonides's source? How are we to understand his opinion? Maimonides is famous - or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say notorious - for not revealing his sources. It could very well be that Maimonides was drawing on another talmudic passage that is pertinent to our discussion (T. Sanhedrin 1:3; B. Bava Kama 94a; B. Sanhedrin 6b): If a thief stole wheat, ground it into flour, kneaded it and baked it and then separated the requisite halla that should be given to the kohen (see Numbers 15:17-21), how can he recite a blessing after such an act? This is not blessing the Almighty, this is blaspheming God! A proof text is offered: A thief who recites a blessing has blasphemed God (Psalms 10:3). If it is a blasphemy rather than a blessing, it is better if nothing was said. A further talmudic passage voices a similar position (J. Halla 58b): Concerning stolen matza - it is forbidden to make a blessing over it. Once again the aforementioned proof text is cited. These talmudic passages are a possible source for Maimonides's ruling that no blessings should be recited over forbidden foods. Maimonides is also famous for his masterful use of the Hebrew language, often alluding to his sources with his selection of words: In the continuation of his ruling, Maimonides cites examples of prohibited foods that preclude the recitation of blessings: tevel, ma'aser sheni outside Jerusalem and hekdesh. Maimonides' choice of examples appears to be echoing the Mishna, as if to say that his source is the Mishna about zimun. It would thus appear that Maimonides conflated the talmudic sources - the zimun Mishna with the halla and matza thief - to reach his ruling. Yet there is a salient difference between the ruling of Maimonides and the case of the halla thief: The ruling of Maimonides refers to reciting blessings before and after partaking of food, in cases when no particular mitzva is being performed; in the case of the halla thief the blessing is recited before performing the mitzva of separating halla for the kohen. Even in the case of the matza thief it would appear to be referring to the blessing over the mitzva of eating matza at the Pessah Seder; if the passage was not referring to the mitzva, why did it specify matza? Perhaps there is a difference between one who recites a blessing before eating as opposed to one who recites a blessing before performing a mitzva? This brings us to a third approach, a middle position: It may well be that when eating food because we are hungry, blessings should be said even though a zimun is inappropriate. This would be in line with the ruling of our Mishna that only refers to zimun. Reciting blessings over mitzvot, such as eating matza on Pessah or separating halla, however, is considered nothing less than blasphemy and therefore should not be done. What is the logic for such a distinction between blessings before eating food for enjoyment and blessings on mitzvot? One commentator suggests that the key difference is the wording of the two types of blessings (Korban Netanel, 18th century, Prague): Blessings before the performance of mitzvot include the words "...who has sanctified us with His precepts and commanded us..." - it is hardly appropriate to say such words after stealing wheat; the blessing could easily be misconstrued as a divine license for stealing. Blessings over food do not contain this formula, they merely acknowledge God's hand in creation and in the natural order of the world; for instance "...who creates the fruit of the tree" and "...who brings forth bread from the earth" and so on. The recitation of such a blessing says nothing about the prohibited status of the food. A further development of this idea could examine not just the wording of the blessing but also the substance (Rabbi Asher Weiss, 27 Sivan 5769): Mitzvot are actions done at the behest of the Almighty and as the text of the blessings indicate such deeds are considered holy. Alas, we are hardly able to sanctify our existence by using stolen goods. Thus there is no place for a blessing before the performance of mitzvot with stolen property. Blessings before eating for sustenance are different; they acknowledge the Almighty's ultimate ownership. Indeed one who eats food without offering a blessing is considered as having stolen from God (B. Brachot 35a). It is bad enough that a person is eating forbidden food, should that person also become a thief!? Though he is eating food that he should avoid, let him at least recite a blessing so that he is not also stealing from God. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.