Talmud Tips

For the week ending 11 November 2017 / 22 Heshvan 5778

Sanhedrin 107 - 113

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

Sustenance: Bitter or Sweet?

Rabbi Elazar said that the dove (that returned to Noach’s ark) offered a request and a prayer: Master of the Universe, let my sustenance be bitter as an olive but be delivered from Your Hand, and let my sustenance not be as sweet as honey but be delivered from the hand of Man.

This statement on our daf is Rabbi Elazar’s manner of explaining the verse which describes the return of the dove from the ark that Noach sent out to see if the water had receded yet or not. The verse states, “And the dove returned to him in the evening, and it had a plucked olive leaf in its mouth, and Noach knew that the water had subsided from the earth. (Gen. 8:11)

The gemara explains that we understand the olive leaf in its mouth to be its food, and not merely a symbol of the receding water, based on comparing the word “teref” in this verse with a different verse which uses the same word, and clearly its meaning there is “food” — “provide me my allotted bread”. (Mishlei 30:8; the Maharsha explains in a beautiful manner why the gemara chooses this particular verse to prove that teref means food, instead of quoting other seemingly equally satisfactory verses that also show that teref means food.)

How do we know that the dove was “offering this prayer”, or as we would say, expressing a message, by its carrying an olive leaf in its mouth? Rashi seems to address this question by focusing on the word “piha” in the verse, which means “in its mouth”. Why does the verse need to point out where the leaf was? The phrase “in its mouth” teaches us that the dove was actually offering the above prayer with its mouth, so to speak, in order to express its desire to receive its food directly from G-d, and not from the hand of Man, even if the food is bitter and not sweet.

This is a lesson that is applicable not only to doves, of course, but is taught here as a lesson for all of Mankind.

The Maharsha explains that this is a lesson for every man — to be content with even the little he receives from Heaven and not seek the luxuries which will make him dependent on other humans. He also points out that the dove brought back a leaf from an olive tree, but not an olive from the tree. The leaf is bitter, whereas the fruit is not. Bringing back the leaf also hints at the above idea that it is by far preferable for a person to be satisfied with less and more basic sustenance from G-d than to desire larger amounts and luxurious provisions from a fellow human being. As our Sages teach, “Make your Shabbat meals similar to your weekday ones, rather than being dependent on others.” (Shabbat 118a)

For this reason we ask in birkat hamazon: “And please, let us not be dependent, L-rd our G-d, neither on a gift, nor on a loan from a human being, but rather on Your full, open, holy and generous hand, so that we should never feel embarrassed or ashamed.” “Embarrassment and shame” come as a direct result of being dependant and sustained by a fellow mortal.

Based on this central theme of our desire to receive our sustenance directly from G-d’s Hand, there is a halacha in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 167:18) that states regarding distributing the challah to guests after saying Hamotzi and cutting it up: “One who cuts the bread should place a slice in front of each person, and each person should pick up his slice, and the ‘cutter’ should not put it into the hand of the eater unless the eater is a mourner.” I have heard that this halacha, based on the “Talmud Tip” for this week from our sugya, is the reason why the host usually places the slices of challah on a plate or tray to be passed around the table to allow the guests to take from, instead of placing the slices directly into the guests’ hands.

  • Sanhedrin 108b

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