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SIDIC Periodical XVIII - 1985/2
Our Daily Bread (Pages 08 - 11)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

From Berakhah to daily bread: In view of an anthropology of justice
Carmine Di Sante

 

One of the main key concepts found in biblical and rabbinic tradition is that of berakhah (blessing); a whole treatise in the Mishnah entitled Berakhoth (blessings) is devoted to it, comprising nine chapters or sub-divisions: the first three develop the theme of Shema Israel, the prayer par excellence of Jewish spirituality and the most ancient; the fourth and fifth speak about prayer in general; the sixth, seventh and eighth about the Birkat ha-Mazon, the blessing after meals which is the most important and most official of all the blessing prayers; the ninth and final chapter is concerned with other blessings.

These chapters, together with their Talmudic commentaries, make up a volume of encyclopaedic proportions and form an inexhaustible mine from which the significance of the berakhah can be reconstructed and understood as a key to the interpretation and transformation of reality. The intention of this article is not to venture into these pages, a rewarding task if not always an easy one, but to delve into the theological and anthropological significance of the key concept known as berakhah, in which the people of the Bible have expressed and summarized their own relationship with God and with the earth. Before embarking upon this explanation, however, there are two essential premises to be established, both related to the position of the treatise Berakhoth in respect to the whole Talmud as well as to the other treatises.

As already noted, the Talmud opens with Berakhoth, the first of thirty and more treatises (thirty-nine in the Palestinian Talmud and thirty-six and a half in the Babylonian one), which go to make up this detailed and voluminous work of the Jewish schools in the fifth and sixth centuries of the common era. Why did the Amoraim begin their collection with the treatise Berakhoth? By chance or by deliberate theological choice? Undoubtedly the latter comes nearer to the truth. In fact Berakhah is not just one treatise among the many which make up the Mishnah and the Talmud; it is the original one upon which all the others depend; not just one section or a particular instance, but the root and foundation of all. It is not question of a historical-chronological starting point but rather of a logical-theological one: the entire Torah finds its meaning in the berakhah; it expresses it and prompts it, evokes and discloses it.

There is also another special characteristic of the treatise Berakhoth, standing as it does at the beginning of the first order or division of the Mishnah, which is entitled Seeds (Zeraim) and devoted, therefore, to agriculture. Many people ask themselves why it has been put in this section rather than in the second one, which is concerned with the feasts? Why put the blessing with the cultivation of the soil? Is it again a question of chance or of wise and intelligent choice? For anyone who has succeeded in understanding the dynamic of berakhah and its unique significance for the biblical and Jewish world, there is only one answer: it is put at the beginning of the section on Seeds because it and only it holds the true secret of the fruitfulness of the earth which produces its fruits and rejoices the beast of man only if it is lived and worked according to the berakhah; otherwise it becomes a place of thorns and thistles (cf Gen. 3:18). In this relationship between the blessing and the earth lies the heart of the berakhah, that we must discover and understand through thought and reflection.

The Berakhah Breaks the Logic of Possessiveness
When the Jew, before eating bread or anything else, pronounces a blessing such as: Blessed are you, 0 Lord, who brings forth bread from the earth, he expresses in the immediacy of a brief, concise formula a deep and existential anthropological attitude which, at the level of reflective speech, can be articulated in this way. Firstly he renounces any proprietary rights over the object/thing he is about to use: if he eats bread he knows it does not belong to him; if he drinks wine he acknowledges that he does not own it; if he looks at a tree, the sun or the mountains, he recognizes that they do not belong to him. The first operation of the berakhah is to break the bonds of possession between man and the earth, between subject and object. These things exist but they do not belong to man; a vast number of things fill the universe but nobody has the right to appropriate any one of them and say: This is mine. Thus the berakhah constitutes a radical abolition of ius utendi et abutendi, the right to use things for one's own pleasure, which is, according both to Roman law and our own, the true definition of ownership. In so far as it questions the indiscriminate right of ownership, the berakhah forbids domination and manipulation, that is, the will to power. Our culture teaches, at least in word, respect for persons but not for things, leaving the latter a prey to the arbitrary will of individuals or groups. In fact, the blessing removes things from the power of arbitrary will and establishes a relationship of love in their regard. To approach them is like entering the house of a friend: it must be done with sensitivity and discretion, with attentiveness and love. By the blessing every thing becomes a house into which one enters, not as householder but as guest; we do not own it but we can enter it and be at rest there.

Defining God as Owner
In the second place the prayer of blessing defines the true owner of all things; it does not stop at taking ownership away from man but attributes it to God: Blessed are you, 0 Lord, who brings forth bread from the earth. The bread with which man feeds himself belongs to God; the tree which gives shade and produces fruit belongs to God; the wine which gives joy in moments of fatigue belongs to God; in a word, the earth which provides for man's needs belongs to God. The blessing wrests the earth out of the hands of man and restores it to divine ownership, according to the teaching of the entire Bible which never tires of repeating this refrain:
"The land shall not be sold in perpetuity,
for the land is mine;
for you are strangers and sojourners with me"
(Lev. 25:23).

"The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein;
for he has founded it upon the seas,and established it upon the rivers" (Ps. 24:1-2).
"The heavens are thine, the earth also is thine;
the world and all that is in it, thou hest founded
them"
(Ps. 89:11).

As the owner of the earth, the Lord cares for it and cultivates it with diligence and love, according to the sensitive, anthropomorphic language of the psalmist:
"Thou visitest the earth and waterest it, thou greatly enrichest it;
the river of God is full of water;
thou providest their grain,
for so thou hast prepared it.
Thou waterest its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
Thou crownest the year with thy bounty;
the tracks of thy chariot drip with fatness. The pastures of the wilderness drip,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy"
(Ps. 65:9-13).

Nevertheless, as owner of the earth the Lord draws up laws to govern it.

"For six years you shall sow your land and gather in
its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat;
and what they leave the wild beasts may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh
day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your bondmaid, and the alien,
may he refreshed. Take heed to all that I have said to you; and make no mention of the names
of other gods, nor let such be heard out of your mouth"

(Ex. 23:10-13).

The fact that God concerns himself with the produce of the earth, flocks, vines and olive trees, can appear very strange, and therein lies the temptation to interpret this language as mere metaphor. But to think along those lines would be to betray the biblical message and the logic of the blessing. By now it must be clear that declaring the earth to be divine property is not an ingenuous manner of speaking but rather a very demanding theological and ontological definition: that the earth belongs to God (of Lev. 25:23) means that it and all its good things find their destiny and their meaning in a perspective whereby they are withdrawn from man's desire to dominate and possess: the divine perspective in which the latter is not master but servant.

To Affirm Things as Gift
Thirdly, the blessing affirms the universal destiny of things as being for the benefit of man.. Everything belongs to God but everything is for man:
"The heavens are the Lord's heavens,
but the earth he has given to the sons of men"
(Ps. 115:16).

The first half of the verse (The heavens are the Lord's heavens) gives the objective dimension of things, the fact that they are witheld from man's will to dominate and possess; the second half (but the earth he has given to the sons of men) gives their fruitful dimension, their being for the needs and for the desires of humanity. Things are and remain in the truth, revealing the fulness of their being, only if they are supported by this double dynamic: their essential belonging to God and their essential being for man. These two levels need to be well understood: they are not in juxtaposition with each other but are mutually evident: the things belong to God in order that they can be for man; things can be for man only on condition that they belong to God. The fact that things belong to God does not take away from man's joy in them, but on the contrary renders it possible. The wonderful pages of Genesis that tell of Eden's splendor are a poetic description of a perfect world in which the fact that things belong to God is the guarantee that they are for man. The following pages which tell of the sin of Adam and Eve are a dramatic presentation of a disfigured world in which the being of things for man is severed from their being as of God.

"In Eden Adam can enjoy all things; the forbidden tree is not an object, a benefit which he cannot enjoy; it represents rather the logic of possession as the ultimate meaning of all fruition. All things are for Adam but they all belong to God; this is not out of jealousy but because only in God is the subjective genitive an oblation rather than a possession; only in God does it give rise
to existence rather than possessiveness! Nevertheless the feast of color in Eden faded completely before the greedy gaze of man; all the freshness of the waters, the fertility of the garden, the docility of the animals towards humans, the wonder of the discovery of sex, all the sweetness of the earthly paradise was lost with that single fruit. But that fruit had neither deceit nor sweetness in it other than that projected by a covetous and deluded eye. Its true reality emerged as soon as it was bitten into: the perversion of the earthly paradise into a hell of hostility and suffering. The sin of Adam was not to desire the earthly paradise; this was not other than the plan of God in his regard. The sin of Adam was to wish to imprison paradise in a strongroom, whereas it was put at his disposition as a dimension within which he could roam freely, in communion with nature
.(A. Rizzi Essere uomini spirituali oggi, in AA.VV., Problemi e prospettive di spiritualitel, Queriniana, Brescia 1983, p. 81.)

The Revelation of God as Agape
In a fourth instance the blessing affirms that things were given by God to man because he loved him and wished him to be happy; this is the theme-song of scripture from first to last:
"It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharoah king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and requites to their face those who hate him, by destroying them; he will not be slack with him who hates him, he will requite him to is face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which I command you this day.
And because you hearken to these ordinances, and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and steadfast love which he swore to your fathers to keep; he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will also bless the fruit of your body and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the young of your flock, in the land which he swore to your fathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples; there shall not be a male or female barren among you, or among your cattle x
(Deut 7:7-14).

The election of Israel, sign of the election reserved for all peoples, is the image of the radically free action of God who causes the fruit of the body and the fruit of the ground (cf. v. 13) of his people to increase, not because they have merited it or have a right to it you were the fewest of all peoples (v. 7) but because he loves them. Al/ the produce of the earth, from grain to wine, to oil, to the increase of cattle and the young of the flock the marriage of nature and cultivation all are shot through with this gratuitousness which makes them a free gift. The prayer of blessing gathers up and hymns this gratuitousness underlying everything in the world and gives a glimpse of the divine mystery which, not without reason, John has defined as agape (I In 4:16).

To Create Communion and Sharing
Fifthly and lastly, the blessing opens up the final and eschatological dimension of reality, into which man enters in order to be saved. If the whole purpose of the world is love freely bestowed, to be saved is to enter into this dimension, complying with and reproducing its logic and demands. Be holy, for I am holy (Lev 11:44); ...be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48); loved you Oh 15:12): ...love one another as I have : these short maxims contain all the biblical wisdom of both Testaments, according to which man attains salvation, in other words his own truth, in imitating God, that is to say in reproducing his attitude which is one of agape, gratuitous and disinterested love: to reproduce it is to die to the logic of possession and replace it by that of gift, rooting out egoism and entering the dimension the divine dimension of reconciliation and communion.

To pronounce a prayer of blessing therefore is not only an act of faith but also one of justice: by it one commits oneself to live on the earth and with the earth symbol of all good things in the spirit of poverty and sharing, in the spirit of having nothing and yet possessing everything (2 Cos 6:10). Certainly, this is not sufficient to create a just world, in which each one has his daily bread, hut it is the condition and safeguard of such a world. It is in this sense that the category of berakhab is essential for an anthropology of justice and peace in so far as it is both its root and its soul.



One of Jesus' disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
John 6:8-11

 

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