Brachot 37a-b contains a series of detailed debates about the brachot to be recited on foods eaten during the Talmudic period.
According to some, the key question that we must consider when deciding what bracha to recite is ‘What is this food?’, and those who take this view argue that different foods should be blessed according to what they are with as much specificity as possible. For example, seeds should be blessed with a blessing for seeds, and herbage with a blessing for herbage.
Others take a slightly different view, and while claiming that brachot should reflect what the food is, they should also acknowledge what the food does and how filling it may be. Given this, much time is dedicated in our daf discussing the bracha on rice which is a very filling food.
However, not everything that we eat is made up of just one foodstuff, and when presented with a cooked food such as the ‘chavitza’ (which was a cooked dish eaten during the Talmudic period containing bits of bread), the Rabbis debated what bracha should be recited and specifically which part of the dish was the ‘Ikkar’ (main ingredient), and which part the ‘Tafel’ (minor ingredients).
Significantly, in life itself I believe that we often encounter these kinds of questions – especially when meeting someone for the first time.
For some the key question is: ‘What is this person?’ – Are they rich or poor? Are they tall or short? Are they Ashkenazi or Sefardi? Are they Modern Orthodox or Haredi? FFB or BT?
Others take a different view and when meeting someone for the first time they want to know: ‘What does this person do?’ which includes – What do they do for a profession? What learning do they do? What sports do they do? What leisure activities do they do?
Still, others realise that people are complex and that they are made up of different ingredients. Nevertheless, they often want to know what is the ‘Ikkar’ of a person, and what is the ‘Tafel’.
Of course when meeting people for the first time it is completely understandable that we want to understand whom we are talking to. Nevertheless, while the three approaches mentioned above work well for food, they often work far less well for people; and though some of the answers to some of the above-mentioned questions are often helpful, none of them provide us with a sufficiently well-rounded portrait of a person.
The simple lesson we can learn from all this is that while brachot force us to categorise and label foods in order to figure out what blessing to recite, the true blessing of the human experience is that we are not mere foods and therefore we should avoid – as best we can – quick and easy categorisations and labels because, ultimately, people deserve better.