Brachot 11

Today’s daf (Brachot 11b) includes a short passage that led me, around 20 years ago, to spend over 100 hours trying to comprehend.

The passage itself considers which Torah texts require Birkat HaTorah to be recited before being studied, with Rav Huna stating that ‘For the study of Mikra (Bible) it is necessary to make Birchat HaTorah, however, for the study of Midrash, birchat HaTorah is not required’, Rav Elazar stating that ‘for the study of Mikra and Midrash it is necessary to make Birchat HaTorah, however for the study of Mishna birchat HaTorah is not required’, Rabbi Yochanan ruling that ‘even for Mishna it is necessary to make Birchat HaTorah [however for Talmud, birchat HaTorah is not required]’, while Rava ruled that ‘even for Talmud it is necessary to [make birchat HaTorah]’. The passage ends with Rav Hiya Bar Ashi stating: ‘many times I sat in front of Rav to learn our chapter of Sifra of Rav’s academy. He would get up, and wash his hands, and make a bracha, and teach us the chapter’.

On first glance this text seems to merely be a technical debate. However, the more I thought about this text, the more I realised that this was a debate about the value we place on different parts of Torah. But then I explored this Gemara further and I came to realise that this debate appears in many varied versions in different texts and manuscripts. Overall I enumerated 9 different versions of this debate, with each offering its own insight and its own commentary on the value we place on different parts of Torah.

Initially it was hard for me to compare all these different versions at once. And this is why I decided to display the sugya diagramatically. I used black to represent Mikra. Blue to represent Midrash. Red to represent Midrash. And green to represent Talmud. Where the statement was that Birkat HaTorah should be recited a simple box was presented. Where the statement was that Birkat HaTorah should not be recited, a box with a cross was featured. And where the statement was that ‘even for _____ Birkat HaTorah should be recited’, a box with a circle was used (see attached).

Not long after investing time in this process I delivered a series of talks on this Gemara where I also introduced those present to my diagrams, and it was so wonderful to see how visualising the sugya helped learners engage in their understanding of the sugya.

Clearly to understand this topic in full I also needed to look at sifrei halacha and to consider how these debates and texts influenced Jewish practice. Nonetheless, I believe that this short piece of Gemara communicates so much about the value we place on different parts of Torah, and it is a great example of Piet Hein’s observation that ‘a problem worthy of attack proves its worthy by fighting back’. I hope you enjoy the diagrams!