Haftarah Parshat Shelach Lecha
June 17, 2017 / 23 Sivan 5777
Sometimes when studying the Tanakh (Bible), the story is not the only thing there is to see. You can go in expecting to learn one thing and learn something entirely different. Joshua sent two spies to inspect Jericho before its conquest. When they get to the city, they are in need of a hiding place and turn to Rahab the Harlot to save them. She, in turn, brings them up to the roof and hides them: “But she brought them up to the roof and hid them in the stalks of flax (ba’pistei ha’eitz) which she had spread out on the roof.” (2:6)
Now, flax, from which linen is made, grows in tall “wood like” stalks and though it is not a tree, this biblical verse literally calls it a “flax tree”. This peculiar description turns out to play an unusual role in a debate over which blessing to say over smelling the scent of certain fragrant plants.
Many people are familiar with the concept that there are different blessings for different types of food. A similar taxonomy exists for fragrances. In Havdalah, Askenazim (European Jews) say a generic blessing when they smell fragrant spices at the conclusion of Shabbat, but if one looks in a siddur, in the section for “blessings”, one will see that there are different blessings for fragrances depending on their origins and form.
The Talmud records a discussion over certain spices over which they had questions: “Rav Giddal said in the name of Rav: Over jasmine the blessing is ‘who creates fragrant woods’. Rav Hananel said in the name of Rav: Over sea-rush the blessing is ‘who creates fragrant woods’. Said Mar Zutra: What Scriptural verse confirms this? ‘She had brought them up to the roof and hid then, with the stalks of flax… Rav Zutra bar Tuviah said in the name of Rav: From where do we learn that a blessing should be said over sweet odors? Because it says: ‘Let every soul praise the Lord.’ (psalms 150:6) What is that which gives enjoyment to the soul and not to the body? You must say that this is fragrant smell.” (Berachot 43b)
The question raised in this paragraph is over fragrant plants which grow like stalks but are not trees. Using the verse from our haftarah as proof, the Talmud asserts the blessing should be “borei atzei bisamim – who creates spices of trees”. (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 316:2) Some later sages, however, were bothered by the fact that this contradicts the rules governing blessings over food, in which a tree is a tree and an annual growth is a plant. They assert that because of the uncertainty in such cases the blessing should be the generic one: “borei minei bisamim – who created the variety of spices”. (See Orah Hayim Beur Halacha 316:3 Atzei Eitz)
For some this whole discussion might seem a bit pedantic, but if we step back for a second and ask ourselves what message this attention to details asserts, it might give us access into the rabbinic Jewish mindset. This “mindfulness” about the details over blessings provides evidence of the Jewish appreciation for the blessings in life and thankfulness for them.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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