Sefat Emet teaches that those who were to enter the Land of Israel would be the beginning of the Oral Torah – the taking of the Divine word and interpreting it and applying it to the lived reality of their lives. This process begins already in Sefer Devarim, where they stand on the cusp of entering the land, and where Moshe retells, interprets and applies the stories and the mitzvot of the past. In Sefat Emet’s words: “Mishneh Torah is the passageway connecting the Written and Oral Torah.”
This dynamic of interpretation and application can be seen in a mitzvah that appears in this week’s parasha: birkat ha’mazon, the mitzvah to make a blessing after one has eaten bread. This is a mitzvah which has not existed until now. In the Wilderness, there was little need to recognize that one’s sustenance came from God – the otherworldly manna that fell every day was reminder enough. But once they entered the land, and had to toil to plant and harvest grain, to grind it into flour and to make it into bread, it was quite possible that they will lose sight of God’s invisible hand in their success. The Torah explicitly warns against this, immediately after it gives the mitzvah for birkat ha’mazon: “Guard yourself lest you forget the Lord your God… and you will say in your hearts, ‘It is my strength, and the power of my hands, that has made me all this wealth.” (8:11-17). These new circumstances required a new ritual, one that would heighten our awareness of, and appreciation for, God’s presence in our daily toil and material success.
The Rabbis, as we know, instituted more blessings – blessings before we eat our food, blessings over natural phenomena like thunder, lightening or a rainbow; blessings when we hear good tidings or bad tidings; and blessings to appreciate the daily wonders of creation. For being part of the Oral Torah means not just interpreting and applying, but also legislating. By taking their cue from the Torah, the Rabbis expanded the single blessing of the Torah into many blessings, making God that much more of the lived reality in our lives.
This expansion happens within the mitzvah of birakt ha’mazon as well. A close reading of the verse reveals that the mitzvah is not so much to bless God over the sustenance that God has given us, but to bless God for giving us the land: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land… A land of wheat and barley, and vine and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey… And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land that He has given you.” (8:7-10). This is about the gift of the land, not the gift of the food!
Now there is a blessing over the land in birkat ha’mazon. But it is the second, and not defining, blessing. It is the first blessing, “Blessed are you God, Who sustains all creatures.” that defines birkat ha’mazon. It is not birkat ha’aretz, a blessing on the land, but birkat ha’mazon, a blessing on our food.
By reading the verses more narrowly, to apply only to the gift of the food and not to the gift of the land which it represents and should evoke, the Rabbis applied its scope much more broadly. Had the halakhic meaning of the verse been limited to its literal meaning, there would only be a Biblical mitzvah to make a brakhah after eating when one was living in the Land of Israel, or at most when one was eating produce that came from Israel. The interpretation of the Oral Torah, however, is that this Biblical mitzvah applies to wherever we are. It is an interpretation that acknowledges certain realities, that Jews will not always be living just in the land of Israel, and reads the verse through that lens.
We see the Oral Torah’s expansion of the scope of this blessing also when it comes to the minimum amount that one must eat before he or she should recite birkat ha’mazon. The Gemara (Berakhot 20b) makes the point of the role and power of rabbinic interpretation in imagining a discussion between God and the ministering angels who asked God why God shows favor to the Jewish People:
He replied to them: Shall I not show special regard for Israel? For I wrote in the Torah, ” And you shall eat and be sated and bless the Lord thy God,” and they are particular [to say the grace] even if the quantity is but the size of an olive or an egg.
The human-Divine partnership that is the Oral Torah is one where we must take responsibility in expanding the scope of Torah and its values. If we do, we are living up to what this relationship expects of us, then we are doing right by God and hence God – according to this Midrash – reciprocates with doing right by us. And perhaps this “showing regard” happens naturally; for if we are striving to find God more in our lives, then God will indeed be more found and more present.
There is another aspect of birkat ha’mazon that also exemplifies this dynamic, and that is the question of what defines something to be bread. Although the verse mentions 7 types of produce, not only wheat and barley, but also wine, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and date honey, the Rabbis determined that the full birkat ha’mazon, constituting of 3, and later 4, blessings, was only required after one ate bread.
The Rabbis focused on bread because it is mentioned explicitly in the verse before birkat ha’mazon, “A land that you will not eat bread in privation… And you will eat and be sated…” (8:9-10). And bread is the staple of life, and for much of human history it was the foundation of every meal. So our most weighty brakha is reserved for our eating of bread.
But what about those who cannot eat bread? The mishnah (Menachot 70a) lists five species of grain which define what is bread according to halakhah. But what about people with Celiac disease who are gluten-intolerant? Does this mean that they cannot make hamotzi on Shabbat, that they can never say birkat ha’mazon, that they cannot fulfill the mitzvah of matzah on Pesach?
Let’s first see what grains we are talking about. The mishnah lists five: wheat, barley, kusmin, shibolet shual, and shifon. These last three are generally translated as spelt, oats, and rye. Now that’s good, because oats do not have gluten, so it provides the perfect solution – just make your bread or matzah out of oat flour! And according to halakha there is even a way you can make it out of a oat-rice flour mix.
But it is not clear that oats truly belongs on this list. The question is – what is the shibolet shual of the mishnah? The Gemara translates this directly into Aramaic, as “fox stalk,” which does not help in the identification. Rashi, however, identifies it as avina, which is Avena sativa, or oats. This identification is problematic, however, because all the evidence shows that oats were unknown in ancient Israel! And if oats do not have gluten, then it does not ferment, and if cannot ferment, then how can it be one of the 5 species of grain? It seems that from an academic perspective, shibolet shual cannot be oats. Indeed, Dr Yehudah Felix, author of “Flora and Fauna in the Talmud,” concludes that it refers to a type of two-row barley (Rambam also identifies it as barley).
Is our gluten-intolerant person in trouble? When science and halakhah collide, which do we follow? The traditional identification, or the one that scholars have concluded is the original and accurate identification?
A wonderful story illustrating this tension, exactly on our topic:
Professor Felix relates that on the basis of his identification, Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, ztz”l, used to make the brakha of shehakol on his morning breakfast of oatmeal. He did this for two years until Rav Shalom Elyashiv yelled at him with the critique that one cannot change what has been the Jewish custom for hundreds of years, going back to the time of the Rishonim, just because of one scholar[‘s findings].
So our gluten-intolerant person is safe. Phew.
This is the power of the Oral Law. It defines our halakhic reality based on how the Rabbis have and continue to interpret and apply the law, how precedent and the works and codes that we have codified define the parameters and limits of interpretation, and how people committed to the halakhah have lived it as a reality.
The Oral tradition is not overridden by the literal meaning of a verse and it is not overridden by certain scientific findings. New information can and is integrated and can often lead to reassessment, but ultimately it will be defined by the Rabbis, guided by tradition and text, operating in the proper parameters, living up to their responsibility to partner with God in interpreting and applying the Torah, in making it a lived reality in our lives.