Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kos shel bracha: should we adopt it today?

Note: Not intended halacha lemaaseh. And this is off-the-cuff, rather than as well-researched as I would like.

The Aruch Hashulchan writes that it is a machlokes whether bentching requires a kos, but that based on people's actions, we can see that we pasken that it is not required. But, even according to those who say that birchas hamazon does not require a kos, it still is mitzvah min hamuvchar. The reason the common practice is not to do it is that the common folk were poor. But if someone is able to afford it, it certainly is meritorious. On the basis of this, my father-in-law is considering doing just this, at least some of the time.

My gut feeling is that one should not. This is quite possibly due to my contrarian nature. But I believe that one can assemble a valid counterargument.

Let us turn to one of those who says it is not required. He makes no explicit mention of min hamuvchar. The Rif writes, on Pesachim:
{Bavli:} Ravina said to Rava {our Gemara: Rav Chanan said to Rava}: We may derive from this {requirement of the third cup over which birkat haMazon is said} that the blessing {of birkat haMazon} requires a cup {of wine}.
He said to him: The Sages instituted four cups symbolizing freedom. since it is so, let us perform a mitzvah with each one.
Click on the image to make it large enough to read. The implication of citing this gemara as far as this is that he rules like Rava, and birkat hamazon does not require a cup of wine.

The Ran, on the side, notes this. Click on the image to the right and start reading three lines down from the large dark word Gemara in the Ran. He points out that this is the implication of the Rif, but that it is still a mitzvah min hamuvchar, because elsewhere there are all sorts of maalot tovot are said regarding the kos shel beracha.

In fact, we can even cite the Rif himself, citing the gemara, in Berachot. Thus, we have:

Rabbi Zera cited Rabbi Abahu, and some say it was taught in a brayta: 10 things were said regarding a cup of blessing {of Birchat HaMazon}: It requires to be rinsed and washed, it must be undiluted and full, it requires crowning and wrapping, it must be taken up with both hands and placed in the right hand, it must be raised a handbreadth from the ground,

{Brachot 51a continued}
he must fix his eyes on it, and he must send it round to the members of his household.

Rabbi Yochanan said: We only have four: rinsing, washing, undiluted and full.
Rinsing - is done on the outside.
Washing - is done on the inside.
Undiluted - until the blessing on the land {HaAretz}, and in the blessing on the land he puts into it water, as we learn {tnan}: The Sages agree with Rabbi Eliezer etc. {that is requires water for Grace after meals}
Full - For Rabbi Yochanan said: Anyone who blesses on a full cup of blessing {over grace after meals} is given inheritance without bounds. As it states in Dvarim 33:23:

כג וּלְנַפְתָּלִי אָמַר--נַפְתָּלִי שְׂבַע רָצוֹן, וּמָלֵא בִּרְכַּת יְהוָה; יָם וְדָרוֹם, יְרָשָׁה.
23 And of Naphtali he said: O Naphtali, satisfied with favour, and full with the blessing of the LORD: possess thou the sea and the south. {S}
and Rabbi Yossi bar Rabbi Chanina said: he merits to inherit two worlds - both this world and the next - as it states יָם וְדָרוֹם, יְרָשָׁה.

Crowning - Rav Yehuda crowned it with students {he made them sit around him}.
Rav Chisda crowned it with cups.

(Rabbi Yochanan said: and undiluted. Rav Sheshet said: Only until HaAretz)

Wrapping - Rav Papa wrapped {himself in his robe} and sat and blessed.
Rav Ashi spread a kerchief over his head, and took it with both of his hands, for Rav Chanina bar Papa said: The verse states (in Tehillim 134:2):

ב שְׂאוּ-יְדֵכֶם קֹדֶשׁ; וּבָרְכוּ, אֶת-ה. 2 Lift up your hands to the sanctuary, and bless ye the LORD.
and he held it in his right hand.

Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba cited Rabbi Yochanan: The first ones {earlier students} asked: The left, may it support the right?
Rav Ashi said: Now that the first ones have not decided the question, we will conduct ourselves stringently.

{Brachot 51b}
And he lifts it from the ground a handsbreadth - Rav Acha bar Chanina said: For the verse states (in Tehillim 116:13)

יג כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא; וּבְשֵׁם ה אֶקְרָא. 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
And he distributes to the people of his house as a gift - so that his wife may be blessed.

Rav Asi said: We may not speak over the cup of blessing {of Birchat HaMazon}. And Rav Asi said: We do not bless over the cup of punishment. What is the cup of punishment? Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: the second cup. And so said a brayta: One who drinks twice should not bless {upon it}, for it is stated in Amos 4:12:

יב לָכֵן, כֹּה אֶעֱשֶׂה-לְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל: עֵקֶב כִּי-זֹאת אֶעֱשֶׂה-לָּךְ, הִכּוֹן לִקְרַאת-אֱלֹקֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל. 12 Therefore thus will I do unto thee, O Israel; because I will do this unto thee, prepare to meet thy God, O Israel.
{as Rashi says: in pleasant and proper [nechonim] things, and not in matters of punishment.}

And he should fix his eyes on it - so that he does not divert his attention from it.
Why would the Rif cite all this lehalacha if it was not even mitzvah min hamuvchar? And why would the gemara lay all this out?

There are possible terutzim. For example, leaving aside what the Rif's particular position was, perhaps this was an old dispute. There was an practice of making birkat hamazon on a kos, and the dispute was whether this was required or not; and perhaps it went all the way back to Tannaim {if a brayta was being cited, rather than the amora from Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Abahu}, or maybe it went back only to Amoraim. And all these practices accrued with the cup associated with birkat hamazon. Perhaps according to those that maintain that it does not require wine, that other gemara is not lehalacha.

What about within the Rif, though?

Maybe Rif mentions it because, although it is not required, where it is done -- for example on the seder night, or where someone is doing it anyway because they want after-dinner drinks -- they should do it in accordance with the respectful ritual that was set up for it. Thus, terutzim can be offered. I think it is not a trivial matter, and there is the danger of reading this position into Rishonim who never intended it, and into Amoraim who never intended it.

But I am not going to argue practically against the Ran (and Beis Yosef, and Meiri...) about this. Let us accept that it is min hamuvchar. There should be no question, then, that for those that can afford it, it would be a meritorious thing for them to make birkat hamazon on wine, as per the Aruch Hashulchan. Why should we not adopt this? Are there any drawbacks?

Off the cuff, I can come up with several drawbacks. Perhaps you will find them persuasive, and perhaps not.
  1. Distraction: Shmuel bar Abba knew how to juggle eight cups without spilling a drop, and this was a neat trick. But most people are not so adept. If I asked you to bentch while standing on one foot, and not tilting to either side, would you be able to concentrate with full kavanah on the words you were saying? In shiur, I heard that a "full" cup does not mean to the brim precisely, but even a bit under, which normal people would be considered a full cup, is a full cup. But some people maintain, for whatever reason, that it needs to be precisely to the brim, such that the slightest jiggle will spill wine. And the Zohar maintains that it must be held in a fairly unnatural position, in the palm of the hand with the five fingers facing up. Holding that cup and making sure not to spill will surely detract from many people's concentration. (This was perhaps not such an issue for the Amoraim, who may well not have filled it to the brim, and who did not yet have the Zohar.) As such, it is now a trade-off, rather than only positive.

  2. Kedei lehotzi milibam shel mekubbalim: While practically, halacha has been decided in favor of those Rishonim who maintain that the kos shel beracha is not required, the Zohar maintains that it is. And it is actually a three-way machlokes, in which the Zohar and a rishon or two maintains that kos shel bracha is only required where there is a zimmun, but not for a yachid. Practically speaking, I would guess this would only be implemented where there was a mezuman, in which case we are effectively adopting the Zohar.

    And I like the separation that presently exists between halacha and kabbalah, and think that adopting this custom in practice will pragmatically blur the lines, even if we are doing it for another cause.

    On the other hand, are we going to implement it for yechidim as well? That is going to lead to a lot more occassions of people drinking wine. The Jewish bus-driver, after eating his sandwich: will he drink a cup of wine?

  3. Rewriting history: As long as only a select few engaged in this, it was clear, historically speaking, how this dispute was determined. We determine that it is not halachically mandated. But people have a habit of forgetting the origin of common practices, and a hundred years down the line, I can well imagine that people will assume that the bracha is teuna a kos, like the Rishonim who maintain this. And that can have ramifications on other halachos in turn.

  4. Feature creep: Even if this is not the intent and guiding principle in this instance, because it is a straightforward application of an Aruch HaShulchan, I get the impression in the general case of a sociological trend in which new and old practices accrue. Part of this is people ignoring their mimetic tradition and searching old sefarim for new chumras or new practices. Also for sociological reasons, this adoption of new positions are only towards chumras, and of worrying about all the possible shitot.

    As a fence around this trend, it might be good to oppose any innovation of this type, especially where it is not a matter of required behavior but of purported min hamuvchar.

  5. Alchoholism: More instances in which Jews drink wine. This might not be as bad as people make it out to be.

    Associated, for kiddush, the host often makes kiddush and is motzi others. But what of an alchoholic guest? Can he now not be offered the honor of leading bentching?

  6. Dilution: This may not be how it was initially intended, but kos shel beracha has developed into something out of the ordinary, non-tadir, and thus a way of celebrating the special significance of an event. For example, sheva berachot. Will this dilute the psychological significance it has?

  7. Kedei shelo levayesh et mi sheAin lo: In the time of the gemara, wine was relatively cheap and plentiful, and it was the standard drink. (Though still there is discussion of paupers not able to even afford wine.) In the days of the Aruch Hashulchan, it was more expensive, and so his suggestion and approval was for the actions of the rich people who were able to afford it and thus honored birkat hamazon in this way.

    Nowadays, it is possibly somewhere in between. It is not cheap, like water or soda. But the standard of living has improved such that most people would be able to afford it, especially if it was only on occasions of zimmun, which would likely be Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, or for large families, dinner. As such, if we are to adopt the Aruch Hashulchan's suggestion, it would not just be the individuals whom everyone considered rich, such that there was no shame in not being able to adopt it. Rather -- and especially if cast as a chumra and hiddur -- it could easily become expected behavior of a large portion of our community. And there are those upon whom living Jewishly is already expensive -- those for whom yeshiva tuition is a real problem, and who are affected already by the price of kosher food. Is it really a good idea to make the "frum" standard even more expensive. And so some people will buy wine they cannot really afford to keep up with the Kohens, and others will be embarrassed when they do not do so.
These were off the top of my head. I am sure other trade-offs can easily be produced.

Once again, this is not halacha lemaaseh. But people in cyberspace and meatspace were wondering what could be the possible "harm."


Jeremy said...

You're very good- I enjoy reading your contrarian-natured blog.

Do you know of any poskim who have discussed these issues that you raised, and have paskened based on them?

joshwaxman said...

i am fairly certain not in terms of this particular halacha. in terms of other halachos, i'd have to think about it. probably not precisely, but along similar lines. e.g. paskening on a meta-level, when realizing that it is not just cut-and-dried halacha, but public policy. women's tefillah groups comes to mind. in terms of the division between halacha and kabbalah, some igros moshes and shemesh tzedakas come to mind. mechzei keyuhara might fit in there somewhere. but i have to give it some thought... it would be interesting to see how modern poskim would react to these raised issues.

Jeremy said...

The women's tefillah groups/women's ordination are interesting points. I wonder if anyone actually spells out these points, or it's simply lefts as "we just don't do these things".

In addition, these issues can be viewed as "chumra". I wonder if they're used l'kula, the way you do (I don't see why not- other than the obvious- we go back to the sources for chumrot, but kulot can be dismissed by 'we don't do that'. I'm not saying this cynically at all by the way. I just think that's the way things are.)

Have a great chag.

joshwaxman said...

it might well be. in part, that is why i try to show how there is a give and take, and where you optimize for one, you do so at the expense of something else. "I am not being meikel on hilchos shabbos; I am being machmir on pikuach nefesh."

Here, there are restrictions on what you may hold (e.g. a baby) during davening, so by emphasizing the give-and-take nature of this and any other purported chumra.

happy shavuos,

joshwaxman said...

in terms of slippery slope arguments, and the direction in which judaism is moving, i think i would agree that in general this argument only surfaces when one is leaning towards chumra.



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