Mishneh Torah

Which comes first, the fruit or the bread?

The Mishnah begins its discussion of the Brachot on food with the Blessings before eating. Similarly, it starts by talking about different types of produce, with bread as a subtype of things which grow from the ground. The mishnah asks about blessings on produce, without even mentioning the category of “Birkot Hanaah”, blessings on pleasure/benefit. In contrast the Rambam begins Hilchot Brachot with Birkat Hamazon, and expands outward to the category of “Birkat Hanaah” leaving produce as a special case of the latter.

We can easily understand the Rambam’s order. The only Bracha which is a Mitzva from the Torah is Birkat Hamazon, therefore it is primary and everything else emerges from it. Categorically, one starts with the primary case and then moves to the secondary cases. As a systematic legal code, or “textbook”, this is the correct order.

However the Mishnah, (more akin to an order of business for the bet midrash) does not follow this system. But even so, why start with the Brachot on produce?

There is a more basic question on the Mishnah. Why is Brachot part of Seder Zeraim, the section dealing with agricultural law? As Meiri points out, the more natural place would be in Seder Moed. The Mitzvot in Masechet Brachot share with Moed the role of focusing our attention on fundamental ideas; with Brachot discussing the daily system and Moed about designating special times. But what is the connection to agriculture?

The Rambam, in his introduction to Mishnah, explains that Seder Zeraim comes first because it is about food, the most basic human need. The Torah follows the method of medicine and addresses the realm of food first. Masechet Brachot introduces the general topic of cycles of food production and distribution, by bringing a “Tikkun inyani”, a conceptual correction, to our eating.

From this standpoint it is appropriate to start with food as it exists in nature. In Parshat Bereshit (1:29) we learn that the seeds and fruits of the earth and trees, are man’s primary food.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּה֩ נָתַ֨תִּי לָכֶ֜ם אֶת־כׇּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב׀ זֹרֵ֣עַ זֶ֗רַע אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כׇל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־כׇּל־הָעֵ֛ץ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ פְרִי־עֵ֖ץ זֹרֵ֣עַ זָ֑רַע לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאׇכְלָֽה׃

Man exists as a part of nature and benefits from nature. Through the text of Brachot we focus on identifying food as part of God’s creation.

Sefer Devarim ch. 8 grounds the Mitzvah of Brachot in bread, since, from our standpoint, bread is primary. And therefore when praising God for a good land, we focus on the good as we perceive it. But that is because we view the world in conventional categories of “good and bad”. In Bereshit, bread only enters the picture after eating from the tree of knowing good and bad. The Bracha before bread reminds us that even bread is a product of the ground, albeit through multiple stages of human melacha, creative labor. From this standpoint, bread is a special case of “boreh pri Ha’adama”.

This is also seen in the treatment of the Bracha of shehakol. In the mishna, “shehakol” is introduced as a secondary blessing for produce, and only then as a blessing for everything else. Even though meat has a central role in our culinary habits, from the standpoint of Brachot it has no special status. This goes back to the story of Bereshit. From the perspective of Parshat Bereshit, meat is not the food of man, rather man and animal share the produce of the field. And only in Noach (9:3) is meat permitted, part of creating a new paradigm for human civilization (to work to correct the vast injustice characteristic of the antediluvian world) by emphasizing the difference between human and animal souls, and establishing the severity of spilling blood.

(as an aside: I don’t think the Midrash, which says that animals only ate plants until the flood, means that originally there were no carnivorous animals. Rather that as long as we were exclusively involved in knowing “true and false” we perceived them in terms of natural causality, as indirect plant-eaters (in modern scientific terms, all animals are heterotrophs). Later, due to our involvement in good and bad, we started anthropomorphizing them and projecting human categories of power and aggression onto the animal kingdom.)

(The correlate of meat lacking a special Bracha, since it comes from human desires rather than emanating from a scientific category in the story of Bereshit, is that the vast majority of the laws of forbidden foods are about meat. Eating meat outside of the Mikdash is a concession to “desiring to eat meat” (Devarim 12:20), and is therefore highly regulated; limiting the types of animals, the parts of animals, and the kinds of preparation which are allowed. )

Meat is conventional because it emanates from psychological desire and bread is conventional because it comes from craft (a kind of applied knowledge). Our Brachot remind us of the order of nature, bringing us to think about God, and to know and love Him. Produce has the most direct praise of God as creator. Bread has a special Blessing which reminds us that our craft is itself part of nature, and indirectly caused by God. And other foods are left generic, since they have no special place in the story of creation, but generically reflect divine causality.

(Note: this might also help us understand the metaphors of specific foods for different areas of knowledge, in Yesodei Hatorah 4:13.

 ואני אומר שאין ראוי להיטייל בפרדס, אלא מי שנתמלא כרסו לחם ובשר; ולחם ובשר זה, הוא לידע ביאור האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן משאר המצוות.  ואף על פי שדברים אלו, דבר קטן קראו אותם חכמים, שהרי אמרו חכמים דבר גדול מעשה מרכבה, ודבר קטן הוויה דאביי ורבא; אף על פי כן, ראויין הן להקדימן:  שהן מיישבין דעתו של אדם תחילה, ועוד שהן הטובה הגדולה שהשפיע הקדוש ברוך הוא ליישוב העולם הזה, כדי לנחול חיי העולם הבא.  ואפשר שיידעם הכול–גדול וקטן, איש ואישה, בעל לב רחב ובעל לב קצר.

The difference between “bread and meat” (the conventional foods of man) as a metaphor for the system of knowledge of “Devarim Ketanim”, the study of Halacha (which is the applied wisdom for living successfully. Both correcting our personal instinctual extremities, and reorganizing the political order towards human success). And “the orchard” (which contains “all of the trees of the field”, with abundant fruit), as a metaphor for the theoretical study of science and metaphysics.)

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