Ben Ish Hai responds to hassidic manna

While Jewish law does not have a doctrine of binding precedent, there is still a notion of persuasive precedent.

Ben Ish Hai responds to hassidic manna (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ben Ish Hai responds to hassidic manna
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynów (1783-1841) briefly recorded an exchange regarding the curious question of the blessing over manna, he could not have imagined how the discussion would reverberate.
The matter itself was of questionable significance, but R. Zvi Elimelekh treated it seriously. First he cited an earlier opinion that the blessing should replicate the bread blessing with a minor alteration: “Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the universe Who brings forth bread from the heavens.”
An alternative suggestion put forward by one of R. Zvi Elimelekh’s colleagues argued that since manna was Divine food it required no blessing at all! R. Zvi Elimelekh favoured this second approach.
The exchange appeared in R. Zvi Elimelekh’s posthumously published magnum opus, Benei Yisaskhar. Part of this work was first published in 1846, and the entire work appeared in 1850.
Though the suggestion that manna needed no blessing was innovative and popular, it was nonetheless legally problematic, as pointed out in a curious collection of responsa. The collection – She’elot Uteshuvot Torah Lishmah, “Responsa of Law for Its Own Sake” – is presented as being the collated responsa of an unknown scholar identified as “Rabbi Yehezkel Kahli,” who reportedly began writing in 1682.
The collection was first published in Jerusalem in 1973, and the publisher announced that the manuscript was autographed by the famous Baghdadi scholar Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1834-1909), known by the title of his most popular work Ben Ish Hai. The publisher was a grandson of Ben Ish Hai, and in his introduction he pointed out that the real author had left a hint of his identity in an alphanumeric code, or gematria, of the pseudo-author’s name: The gematria of “Yehezkel” (156) is identical to that of “Yosef” (156), and the gematria of the surname “Kahli” (68) is identical to that of “Hayim” (68). Thus – revealed the publisher – Rabbi Yehezkel Kahli is none other than Rabbi Yosef Hayim!
Three years after the initial release of the work, a second edition appeared with a note from the publisher claiming that the identification of the author was not based solely on this cipher. Since 1976, further proof has been adduced to buttress the claim that the responsa are indeed the work of Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad.
While Ben Ish Hai did not hold an official rabbinic position, he was a popular preacher and a recognized legal authority. In his sermons, Ben Ish Hai wove together law and aggadah (exegesis), and his voluminous writings reflect his integrated approach. In addition, Ben Ish Hai was well versed in the Jewish esoteric tradition, and his legal rulings reflect his mystical sensitivities.
IT REMAINS a mystery why the esteemed Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad penned a legal manuscript under a pseudonym: Is such literary skylarking justified? It is ethically disconcerting that Ben Ish Hai claimed that the responsa were from the 17th century? While Jewish law does not have a doctrine of binding precedent, there is still a notion of persuasive precedent and a 200-year-old responsum would presumably trump a contemporary ruling.
The questioner seemed to be familiar with R. Zvi Elimelekh’s account that had been published in 1850, though he could not refer to it without giving away that this was not 17th-century correspondence. The questioner opened by citing “a certain sage” who had suggested that the Israelites did not recite a blessing over manna since it was entirely Divine with no spiritual dross. The questioner noted that those present had argued with that sage. The questioner inquired: “Therefore we wanted to know – is the truth with those who say that they recited a blessing over it? Also, which blessing did they recite over it?”
The respondent opened by conceding some ground. From a mystical vantage, the role of blessings is indeed to separate the holy from the unholy. Spiritually pure manna did not require this process. However, blessings are not just for mystical reasons; the recital is also a form of thanks for abundant goodness bestowed by the Almighty. Moreover, the Talmud says that when the manna descended, Moses instituted the first paragraph of birkat hamazon, grace after meals. If grace after meals was said, surely a blessing before the meal was also recited! The Zohar had already acknowledged that a blessing was recited over manna (though it did not record the wording of the benediction). Given this position in the Zohar, any contrary opinion was virtually untenable.
The respondent referred to earlier authorities before offering his own formulation for the blessing: “Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the universe Who rains down bread from the heavens.”
Indeed, manna descended from the heavens, and in two biblical passages the verb for raining is used (Exodus 16:4; Psalms 78:24). The respondent concluded his answer with the words: “And blessed is the one who knows,” perhaps acknowledging that he had no way of proving his contention.
Were we to believe the Ben Ish Hai’s claim about the manuscript, it would seem that R. Zvi Elimelekh’s exchange was a replay of something that happened in the 17th century, with R. Yehezkel Kahli disputing the position that was to be favored by the hassidim in the 19th and 20th centuries.
This, however, is not the case. Rather, we have the renowned Ben Ish Hai, familiar with hassidic writings and disputing the hassidic position, albeit under a pseudonym.
It remains to be seen how many of the hundreds of responsa attributed to “R. Yehezkel Kahli” can be chalked up to polemics against the hassidic movement.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa.