What Bracha Should I Make on Treif?

A few weeks ago, as I walked into shiur, my talmidim were already embroiled in a halachic debate. The question: Should you make a bracha before eating non-kosher food?

Before they asked for my thoughts, they told me the parameters of the question: Firstly, this is not a life-and-death situation. You know that this not kosher, and you also know that eating non-kosher food is prohibited. You are not starving and there are other food options available. You simply want to eat the non-kosher item.

Before engaging in the discussion, I asked my students to for their own ideas as to what they thought the Halacha should be. We spend some time honing and developing them. By the end, overwhelmingly, they felt that one should still make a bracha.

Their arguments distilled into a single point: Making a bracha is a mitzvah. Mitzvos are good. Why should we hold a person back from doing a mitzvah just because they are doing an aveira as well?

This perspective has considerable merit, and is backed up by Chazal (ויקרא רבה כא): אִם עָשִׂיתָ חֲבִילוֹת שֶׁל עֲבֵרוֹת עֲשֵׂה כְּנֶגְדָן חֲבִילוֹת שֶׁל מִצְווֹת – If you have done heaps of aveiros, counter them with heaps of mitzvos.

From the perspective of the Halacha, each activity that we do is a discrete singular event, each act is judged accordingly. Some of the things that we do are positive, some are negative. But every act stands on its own

This understanding is fundamental to the basic tenet of Yiddishkeit that nothing is irreparable, no-one is beyond the capacity of Teshuva, and that even people who do terrible things have the capacity to do positive things. Likewise, even great tzadikim can fail in painful and tragic ways. This perspective is as empowering as it is humbling.

Our Parsha teaches that the first Avoda of the morning in the Beis HaMikdash was Terumas HaDeshem – removing the ashes of the korbanos of yesterday. The Shem Mishmuel explains that this Avoda illustrates that even those parts of ourselves that have been reduced to ashes are part of our Avodas Hashem.

Understanding these nuances, quirks and subtleties in people often requires a deep sense of empathy, and the maturity to know that life is complex. I am proud of my students for having this perspective; it is beautiful and profound.

Unfortunately, in this case, it is also wrong.

The Shulchan Aruch (או״ח קצ״ט), based on the Rambam, rules:

אכל דבר איסור אף על פי שאינו אלא מדרבנן אין מזמנין עליו ואין מברכין עליו לא בתחלה ולא בסוף: If one ate a forbidden item (even it is forbidden rabbinically), one cannot make a zimun on it or say a blessing on it, neither before or after.

Apparently, the Shulchan Aruch sees the world differently, and we need to understand why.

Until now we have considered the simple definition of our actions as good or bad. But there is another perspective; one that we tragically don't often talk about when we learn Halacha: What does this action mean in context of my relationship with Hashem?

It's might seem strange to think about our practical mitzvah observance as relationship building, but that is exactly what it is. The Shema tells us that all of our mitzvos are under the general category of “and you should love Hashem your God.”

Yiddishkeit is about more than pushing celestial buttons.

At every juncture, the Torah is inviting us to consider: Is this next activity bringing me closer to Hashem or taking me further away?

With this perspective, our sensitivities lie not with the technical value of the action, but in its meaning to our relationship with Hashem.

Imagine the scene. Your spouse has just finished cooking or baking a master-piece for Shabbos. The smell of it wafts through the air, tempting you to indulge. It's a good thing that your spouse has now left the house. But before you get within striking distance, your phone rings. You pick it up and hear the warning “Don't you dare touch that dish! It's for the our Shabbos guests!”

But you really want to try it. You decide to sneak a piece, just a little, even though you know that it will make your spouse upset. You know it's wrong, you know it'll be upsetting. But you can't hold back. Would anyone consider calling beforehand to say “guess what I'm about to do?” I hope not. The shame that prevents us from announcing our indiscretions effectively communicates “this is my weakness, it's not a problem in our relationship.” (Of course, repeating this same act might mean something different.)

Inherently, we all feel that forgiving weakness is much easier forgiving Chutzpah.

Let's consider our case: What are we trying to achieve by making a bracha before eating? Simply to check the 'bracha box' on list of chores? That's missing the point.

A bracha is a quick conversation with Hashem. It's real. It's a text, a tweet, a voice note. We make brachos in order to connect our act of eating with our appreciation of Hashem's generosity and greatness. But if the food that we eat immediately thereafter is something that He asked us not to eat, then the bracha is a slap in the face. It's picking up the phone to announce that we're about to do the wrong thing. It lacks shame, it lacks tact. The words feel almost almost sarcastic: “Hashem, I recognize that everything in the world comes from you, but I'm gonna do whatever I like.”

This is not the way that people act when they are in a relationship with someone that they love and care about (בבלי ב״ק צד:א).

Yes, it is true that every action is a singular act in the eyes of the Halacha; it can be contained, defined, and analyzed. But the coalescence of it, the point of it all, is to make Hashem relevant in our lives. This is essential to keep in mind when we do what Hashem asks of us, and perhaps even more important when we don't.

In the deepest way, this perspective was the greatest achievement of Purim.

The Megillah relates the joy that was felt by the Jewish people when they were saved:

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.

Chazal explain (Megillah 16b):

אורה – זו תורה, שמחה – זה יום טוב, ששון – זו מילה, ויקר – אלו תפילין. Light is a reference to Torah, Happiness is Yom Tov, Gladness is Bris Milah, Honor is Tefillin.

The Sfas Emes (Purim 5648) questions: Why does the Megillah make veiled references?! Just tell us that the Jews once again observed Torah, Yom Tov, Milah and Tefillin!

He explains: We didn't simply have the opportunity to learn Torah, celebrate Yom Tov, perform Milah and put on Tefillin. Instead, we were able to feel our relationship with Hashem in the mitzvah. We felt Light in Learning Torah, Joy on Yom Tov, Happiness in having a Bris Milah, and the Honor of wearing Tefillin.

This is how Chazal understood Brachos, and mitzvos, It's how we first celebrated Purim. We did it then, and we can do it again.

Hashem should help us to move on from rote and ritual, to depending our relationship.