More than the Torah was meant to be studied, it was meant to be implemented. One way to kill two birds with one stone, as it were, is to study Jewish Law (halacha). Indeed, the Talmud in Tractate Niddah [73a] teaches, “Anyone who studies halacha every day is guaranteed that he is destined for the World-to-Come”. Not one to stare a gift-horse in the mouth, I try to study halacha every day. Recently I have been studying the writings of Rabbi Asher Weiss on halachic inquiries pertaining to COVID-19. Rabbi Weiss (Rav Asher) is a halachic arbiter (possek) par excellence. His command of the halachic corpus is unparalleled, his logic is impeccable, and His writings are as rooted in science as they are in halacha. He is one of the few rabbis revered by both the Modern Orthodox and the Ultra-Orthodox.
One of the symptoms of COVID-19 is the temporary loss of taste and smell. Rabbi Weiss was asked a two-part question:
- On the first night of Passover, one is required to eat matzo and to recite a blessing: “Blessed are You… Who has commanded us to eat matzo”. What is the halacha regarding a person who has lost his sense of taste? Must he still eat matzo? Can he recite a blessing?
- Must a person who has lost his sense of taste recite a blessing over (any) food?
These two questions are not one and the same. In our quest to determine the normative halacha, we must be very careful when comparing two seemingly similar cases. Rabbi Weiss notes that food serves as a parameter in three halachic rules:
- Certain foods are forbidden to eat. For instance, it is forbidden to eat any kind of food on Yom Kippur and it is forbidden to eat cheeseburgers all year around.
- Certain foods must be eaten at certain times. Matzo on Pesach is just one example.
- The consumption of food must be preceded and followed by a blessing.
Each of these rules is has its own background. This can sometimes lead to unexpected variance in resulting laws. For example, the commandment to fast on Yom Kippur stems from the Torah’s requirement [Vayikra 16:29] “In the seventh month, on the tenth day… you shall afflict yourselves.” Fasting is a form of affliction. Would it be permissible on Yom Kippur to wrap a piece of bread in a tissue and eat it? A tissue is inedible and so perhaps nothing has been “eaten” per se. Should one eat a piece of matzo covered with tissue paper on the first night of Pesach, he would likely not be given credit for discharging his requirement. On the other hand, as the tissue-covered bread will eventually make it to the stomach and affect a feeling of satiation, it would be forbidden to eat on Yom Kippur.
In this lesson, we will address only the second question inasmuch as it is connected with our lesson of last week. Rabbi Weiss begins his analysis by quoting the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [35a] that rules that it is forbidden to derive any benefit (hana’a) from this world without first reciting a blessing and that a person who does derive even the most minute benefit without first reciting a blessing is considered to have misused (ma’al) sanctified goods. The crux of the matter, according to Rabbi Weiss, is the definition of the term “benefit” or “pleasure”. Does this refer to the pleasure attained by the pleasant flavour of food in the mouth or to the pleasure attained by the satisfying feeling of food in the belly? Or, perhaps, the “benefit” is found in the nutritional value of the food. Only according to the first definition is there any doubt as to whether a person who lacks the sense of taste should recite a blessing over food. According to the second and third definitions, it is clear that a blessing must be recited as the food will be digested and ingested into the body regardless of its taste.
While Rabbi Weiss does not adjudicate between the three definitions, he does reach a halachic conclusion: “It would be astonishing if there existed a person who was born without the sense of taste and would never have to recite a blessing over food. After all, this person is eating to his heart’s content – how can he not thank G-d for the food he consumes?” Rabbi Weiss cannot imagine such a situation and so he rules that a person who lacks the sense of taste must still recite a blessing over food.
Last week, we presented three different explanations as to why a blessing must be recited over food. The Vilna Gaon suggests that blessings are desire-driven such that a blessing should be recited at the point of greatest desire, before eating. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin posits that blessings are pleasure-driven such that a blessing should be recited at the point of greatest pleasure, after eating. The Ben Ish Chai suggests that the recitation of a blessing is a mechanism for recognizing G-d’s mastery over nature, inducing contemplation and compelling us to search below the surface and to actively seek out G-dliness. Now let us try to understand how these explanations could be used to address Rabbi Weiss’s question. We first turn our attention to the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Sorotzkin. Instead of framing their disagreement as a question of desire versus pleasure, as we did last week, let us try to reframe it as a question of short-term benefit as opposed to long-term benefit. The Vilna Gaon places the emphasis on short-term benefit, the savory-smoky taste associated with the burger. Rabbi Sorotzkin places the emphasis on the long-term benefit, the feeling of fullness, when one loosens his belt, pushes back his chair, and sighs in culinary fulfilment. A person lacking a sense of taste will derive only long-term benefit from the food, such that the Vilna Gaon would likely rule that this person need not recite a blessing while Rabbi Sorotzkin would likely rule that he must recite a blessing.
Things become more interesting when we look at the explanation of the Ben Ish Chai. The Ben Ish Chai is interested not in short-term benefit or even long-term benefit. He is concerned with ultra-long-term benefit. The Ben Ish Chai asks us to look not only at the food but at the earth upon which the food grows. When we recite a blessing over the food, we are recognizing the mastery of G-d over nature. We recognize that while only one minute was required to eat the apple and perhaps one day to digest it, many years were required for the apple tree to grow and millennia were required for the earth to reach a stage in which it could support apple trees. The Ben Ish Chai would likely rule that a whether or not a person can taste the apple, whether or not he can even digest it, he must still recite a blessing.
The explanation of the Ben Ish Chai can offer us some critical insight on the COVID-19 pandemic that refuses to go away. One of the most disconcerting aspects of the pandemic is the uncertainty. In Israel, infection numbers are rising even though we are world leaders in vaccinations. Who, then, are the people that are contracting the disease? How effective are the vaccines? Do we require a booster shot? What can we do stop the spread that we aren’t already doing? Or maybe we don’t need to stop the spread – maybe the vaccines prevent serious illness and death and that is sufficient. But will they protect us against the next variant? We just don’t know. All we see are the apples. The Ben Ish Chai would offer consolation, telling us that perspective is gained only over time and only through hard labour. Until then, we must make decisions based on our best knowledge and our best judgement. With G-d’s help, may they be good decisions. But we may never stop reciting blessings.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Eli bat Ilana.
 When I began studying this book in June 2021, Israel had just defeated COVID-19, courtesy of an efficient Pfizer vaccine rollout. The book was a relic of the past but it showed how to implement Jewish Law in new situations, thus remaining ever relevant. And then the delta variant exploded in our faces…
 He also rules that this person must recite a blessing over matzo but not over marror (bitter herbs).
 For biographies, see last week’s lesson.
 The Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Sorotzkin agree blessings must be recited before and after eating. They differ as to the identity of the primary blessing.